What is the “Right” Size?

What is the perfect size for a farm?

I wonder what you think, especially if you aren’t a farmer. Are specific characteristics important, or is it just a matter of stats like number of acres or animals?

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There was a time when society definitely equated progress with expansion, and that usually meant growing a business (such as a farm) by adding on and increasing production. Now, the tide has shifted. People are more curious about where and how their food is produced, and along with that has come distrust by some of the growth of farms. Smaller equals better, right? Or does it?

For my part, I’m happy to see increasing interest in food. We should have knowledge about what we eat, and people should be able to choose what fits their budget, taste, and values. I do, however, take issue with calling any size of farm better, simply because I don’t know what it means.

On today’s farms, a huge variety of sizes can flourish and produce quality food. That’s true no matter how you measure size. Certain geographies lend themselves well to small field plots or a few cattle ranging over hundreds of acres. Other highly fertile soils may support enormous fields and be a needed bread basket for less productive areas.

Our modern world is also set up differently than ever before. Farms were smaller on average in the past because of practicality, and more people also raised their own food. Today not everyone can have their own cow, flock of chickens, or vegetable patch in the backyard. I suspect many wouldn’t even want to if they could! And so farmers must fill the void for growing urban and suburban populations. That means we need the farmer with thousands of fruit trees or thousands of chickens just as much as we need the community vegetable garden and the farmer with twenty beef cows.

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I’ll go back to dairy, because that’s what I know best. I love dairy foods. I believe in their nutritional value, and I think raising domestic livestock is a good thing. I think many others would agree with that statement.

It’s my hope that more people can also come to agree that many farm sizes can be the “right size.” Big does not equal bad any more than small equals good or bad. This is why:

On any farm the strength comes from the people behind it, the beliefs held and carried out, and the way land and animals are cared for. Much the same as a school, a town, or a family can function well at various sizes, so can a farm. The reality might be different than the small red barn you picture, but the basics of feeding and caring well for animals remain constant.

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Cold Is

Cold is…

- When the engine on your utility vehicle is constantly revving up because the accelerator keeps freezing down.

- When your vision is impaired, not because of blowing wind and snow, but because of the icicles formed on your eyelashes.

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- When the temperature reading, even if it’s just the windchill factor, gets to -40 F or worse. This isn’t the Arctic.

- When you dump water out from calf buckets, and it really does freeze before hitting the ground.

- More face icicles. The bovine variety.

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- When the dogs see a squirrel in perfect pouncing territory, and they still don’t even want to go outside.

- When your face is so chapped from cold that you look like you’ve got a fresh sunburn.

- When you start questioning why you live here, in spite of your love and loyalty toward Minnesota.

- When you pull your fingers out from warm gloves into numbing air because the sunrise is so beautiful you need to take a picture.

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- When the high temperature for the day never gets above zero. Good grief.

This post brought to you by a particularly cold Saturday night and Sunday morning. In late February no less!

What does cold mean to you?

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An Update on Pepé Le Pew, The Cow

The air is dark and velvety thick with steam. As you look closer through the haze you can see the contended swish of a tail and consistent cud chewing of numerous cows.

The temperature hovers around -15 F outside, and in the cow barn it’s still not much warmer than zero. (The milking parlor area does need to stay above freezing though.)

The cows do quite well in this weather as long as they’ve got walls to block the wind and plenty of feed. On cold nights like this, where the steam rises off each animal, you can fully appreciate just how big and warm each cow is. Suddenly a large black nose bumps behind me, and I look back to see a familiar white stripe.

Pepé Le Pew – aka Pepé – is standing quietly behind me, and she’d like some attention.

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Mid-December on a similarly cold night

Cows definitely have varying personalities, and most are happy to co-exist with people without too much extra interaction. They are creatures of habit. As long as you calmly walk behind them and keep to a steady routine for milking and feeding they will be more than content. An occasional animal is naturally more friendly, and if they are handled often as calves they usually become tamer. Cattle can also be taught to lead on a halter – attending anything from a county fair to an international breed show.

Our cows mostly stay home, but that doesn’t stop some from being quite affectionate! Pepé is one of these; you may remember me writing about her several months back.

As a milk cow she is settling in very well. She is definitely a “boss cow” and her herd mates will easily follow her lead. She is milking well too, above average in fact, especially for a first lactation cow. A lactation just means a milking timeframe. A cow is in her first lactation after she has her first calf, her second lactation after her second calf, and so on.

Right now Pepé is producing about 120 pounds of milk per day. (I still don’t know why farmers measure milk in pounds, but it is always the norm.) In gallons that’s around fourteen. She’s probably about at her peak, and that amount will taper off slowly until she dries up before having another calf. Her mother was also a good milk cow, and milk production traits have a strong genetic component. Cows must also eat, drink, and rest well to produce well, and Pepé is a champ in that department.

Pepé actually had her calf back on January 5th, but I didn’t announce the news here because I was too blue. She had a little black bull calf who didn’t make it. She delivered in the wee hours and the calf was either stillborn or alive for only a very short time. I’ll never know exactly what was wrong, and that is tough. It seriously feels awful.

Unfortunately death is something you are forced to deal with on a farm. Life and death. They are both part of reality. It’s true we are a larger farm with hundreds of milk cows, but that would never stop us from caring about each one. Just because we can accept the reality doesn’t mean we don’t feel the hurt. I would say that’s true on farms of all sizes.

Even though it’s hard every time we lose a calf, in some ways it does force me to focus on what’s real. Our culture overall is so afraid of death. I know people are very different from animals, but the process of learning to grieve, give thanks, and eventually move on is universal.

I hope Pepé will have a healthy calf next time, but in the meantime I will remember to be thankful she is doing well and that the vast majority of our calves are born trouble-free and healthy.

I think Pepé personifies the term “gentle giant!”

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In the milking parlor

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One Quick Trip

This afternoon I looked out over a partly sunny fifteen degree day. I had a hard time reconciling the fact that this was supposed to be the warmest day of the week. I won’t complain though because this has still been a more mild winter than the last few. I’ll just put on more layers and drink more coffee!

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This winter also features a travel record of sorts. Last month you already heard we were in Mexico, and this month we landed in Florida for two and a half days. Normally we stay home in the deep freeze all winter, so this was a welcome blessing. JR had the opportunity to do some training for a new machine (more on that later) with John Deere, and we decided we should try to make it work.

Conveniently enough, the trip also fell just a few days after our wedding anniversary. We flew into Orlando on Wednesday about noon and made it back home on Friday before the sun set.

Wouldn’t you know I didn’t get a single picture of JR and me in Florida? (I do have some nice scenery coming up though!) We had a great time, and we got to meet and visit with many other farmers from across the Midwest. While the training group was in the field on Thursday I had a rare day all to myself. The weather was cooler than I expected, and I took advantage of the beautiful 45 degree weather to run for several hours. At first I was frustrated by all the turns, stop lights, and dead ends, but eventually I stumbled into a city park where I could enjoy the views and run uninterrupted loops.
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You’d better believe I soaked my feet in the pool and savored some milk when I finished.

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In the afternoon I rented a tiny blue car and followed the Florida Turnpike west to see my friend Jena. She’s a fellow runner and blogger and mom to beautiful little girl. We ate southern BBQ, rode to the top of the Citrus Tower, and took in the scenery driving around Central Florida. It’s always fun to be able to get together with faraway friends, and spending the day with Jena was especially awesome. Florida girls are the sweetest.

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It was a busy and cold weekend when we returned, but getting away was worth all the catching up. I’ve definitely become guilty of staying home or not making plans because it’s just easier. Certainly we need to care for the farm and balance the times we are gone, but this winter has showed me that balance is possible.

Now it’s only two weeks until March, and hopefully March will bring sunshine instead of snow!

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Sunny and Cloudy Moods

Like a true Minnesotan, I’ve come to realize I write and talk a lot about the weather.

If it’s too hot or cold you will probably hear about it, and if it’s excessively rainy or snowy you will definitely hear about it! I discuss good weather too, and when it’s crisp and beautiful I usually mention how pleased the animals seem and how much I like running in it.

But WHY does the weather matter so much to me? I’m not some sort of aspiring meteorologist, but I am a farmer. I suppose I think about it because the weather effects my family and me more than average. Extreme cold makes outdoor work challenging, especially when engines don’t want to start and water turns to ice. Extreme heat isn’t fun for people or animals either, and it can be life threatening in heavy doses.

Too much rain can drown out crops and make calf yards a muddy mess. Too little rain can dry up our crops and our hopes for the season.

I know plenty of other jobs require outside work too. I sympathized wholeheartedly last week when I saw lineman working on power lines with the wind blowing and temps about zero. I don’t think I could do that.

When you work in the elements weather is just a lot different than when you observe it from an office window. Sure, maybe you wanted sunshine instead of rain so you could do yard work that evening, but it’s not your livelihood.

I do know anyone who has to drive, walk, or otherwise travel through treacherous snow, ice, or fog to get to work deals with challenges too. I’m not minimizing that. It can be downright scary when you need to be somewhere and a storm is raging.

With that, I have a few pictures of beautiful winter days I want to share. My mood the last few days was soaring as we had sun and warmth in February. As much as I try to maintain a positive attitude, it’s just easier when the day is lovely. Lovely doesn’t always mean sun though. Even a pleasant rainy day or softly falling snow can brighten my mood if we need it.

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Doesn’t she look like she should be called Storm?

Calvin helped me out with a few pictures too.

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Groundhog Day shadow

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