Back In The Cattle Again? No Way!
January is the time of year, though, when things slow down just enough for us to catch our breaths. Except for a hardy plot of turnips and a few brave lettuce plants still clinging to life under a cold frame in the greenhouse, the rest of the garden is asleep (no, all the garlic didn't get planted). It isn't quite time to start the seeds for this year's garden, and there is still a week or two before the lambs begin to arrive. The bone-chilling temperatures and arctic winds keep us indoors more than usual; it is a period of mental rather than physical exertion.
And so when the thermometer clutches relentlessly to the single digits, and the dirty dishes sit unattended because all of the water pipes have frozen, we put the tea kettle on the burner, Mozart on the stereo, and curl up with the woodstove to reflect on our lives at Windridge. We take this time to gratefully acknowledge the things that we have: a pantry full of jars brimming with the bounty of last year's garden, a small mountain of firewood to keep us warm, so many healthy, wonderful animals. We also give thanks for the things we don't have: the chiggers and ticks, the incessant buzz of chainsaws as loggers deforest the state land adjacent to ours, the agonizing humidity--and the cows. The chiggers, ticks, chainsaws, and humidity will of course all return in the spring, but the cows are never coming back.
Many of the events that happen in our lives are so connected that we tend to see them as one long thread rather than a series of separate little knots. Because of this, it can be difficult to trace the specific steps that we took to get where we are now. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you're miles away from where you started. That is pretty much what happened to us when we moved to Windridge. One minute we were in California trying to sell a house and planning to move to New England, and the next minute we found ourselves residing in Missouri, proud new owners of a backwoods farmhouse, a grand oak barn full of animals, a well, a septic system (or two, we're still not quite certain) and rather questionable plumbing. So when I meet people and they say, "How exactly did you end up with a farm and pastures and sheep and all that other stuff?" I never have a very good answer because it all just sort of transpired in a whirlwind of new faces, new places, and several wads of money changing hands. I usually end up pathetically mumbling something along the lines of, "Actually, I'm not really sure."
But if someone happens to inquire about the cows, my response is clear, conscise, and immediate, because I know for an absolute fact that the cows were a direct result of auction fever.
It isn't as if we hadn't ever discussed the idea of getting into the cattle business. The is definite cow country (mainly because the poor, rocky soil here isn't good for much else besides pasture land), and raising beef cattle is an important part of the economy. Sometimes it seems that nearly everyone keeps a small herd on the side (keeping livestock is one thing; making a full-time living at it is quite another), and so it was only natural for the real estate agents to start drilling the cow scheme into our heads as they showed us properties that had way more open fields than any greenhorn city slicker should possess.
"Just look at this lovely pasture," they'd say, waving their arms in expansive, animated gestures toward a snow-covered patch of earth. "You could easily run 4, 10, 150 (they simply filled in the appropriate number according to the size of the property--like we would have known the difference) head of cattle here, no problem. Heck, there's so much good grass here, you could probably graze them straight through the winter."
Our eyes would again follow their arms in the direction of the snow drifts. Nothing even remotely edible was in sight. "Well, you might need a little hay."
One especially entrepreneurial agent suggested that instead of launching into a full-blown cow-calf operation, we get our feet wet by simply backgrounding some calves. We smiled, nodded our heads intelligently, and generally tried to look like we knew what he was talking about and thought that it did indeed sound like a profitable and stimulating idea.
The interesting thing was that none of these real estate agents actually had any cattle of their own. We never questioned this at the time, and when we began negotiating for a farm that was already being used as a cattle operation, acquiring a herd of our own and becoming cattle barons seemed like an immensely logical plan.
Ever the prudent (and ignorant) buyers, we refused to rush out and buy the first cows that came along. As tantalizing as the thought of instant gratification was, we were not in a rush, and there was no reason to take an unnecessary gamble with our new bovine business venture. Instead we treated this undertaking as we would any other investment opportunity; we started by doing some research.
We headed down to the local university extension office and were loaded up with free Agricultural Guides boasting such weighty titles as Value Of Beef Performance Records and Backgrounding Calves Part 1: Assessing The Opportunity. We eagerly attempted to assess our opportunity by reading such thoroughly mystifying facts as: Total TDN for a beef cow herd with an 85 percent crop of 450-lb calves (383 lbs/cow) is about 4,100 lbs per cow unit. So the cow unit requires 1.4 times the feed as a backgrounded steer. We enthusiastically tried to interpret tables of "Average monthly prices per cwt for medium frame, #1 muscled feeder steers at Kansas City from 1980 to 1987" and "Eight-year average buy-sell prices and value received per cwt for 200-lb gain produced in 180 days on 450-lb steer calves." We understood absolutely nothing.
Frustrated by facts and figures, we expanded our investigation and moved on to something more tangible: real life field research. We bumped down narrow gravel roads in search of cows in their native element. We pulled to the side of the highway and stared closely at the rows of brightly painted metal contraptions in front of the farm implements dealership. We hid among the aisles of fencing supplies and dewormer at the feed store and listened in on the conversations of anyone who looked like they might be a Big Time Cattle Dealer. And we still understood absolutely nothing.
It was time for something less discreet. We needed serious help. As so while we were in the midst of haggling over the details of buying Windridge, we declared ourselves unreachable for the day and drove three hours through a blizzard to attend The Cattle Congress.
Now this is what we needed, we said to ourselves as we walked through the doors and were greeted by a warm blast of the unmistakable smell of barnyard. Rows and rows of smiling cattle professionals were just waiting to share their knowledge with us. There were booths of feed specialists, booths of tractor dealers, and booths devoted to every breed of cow imaginable. There was even a sale ring where exquisitely groomed animals were paraded past the bleachers of spectators and sold to the highest bidder.
Everyone wanted to talk to us. Everyone was sure they could "steer" us in the right direction. And everyone told us emphatically that their breed of cow was far and above the best way to go. They even had the free literature to prove it.
The Simmental people pointed excitedly to charts showing that "Simmental-influenced dams will wean calves 41 pounds heavier than Limousin-sired females." They gave us copies of The Record Stockman, in which headlines like "Simmental Breeder Finds Color Irrelevant" ("When the hides come off, no one knows the color anyway. They just want green in their pocket and red meat on the rail"), "Packers Pay More For Simmental," and "Americal Simmental Emphasizes Beef Traits," trumpeted the superiority of one of the "oldest breeds."
The Angus people said that color did indeed matter, and the only color to buy was Angus black. They provided us with the latest issue of the Angus Beef Bulletin ("Ranch By-The-Numbers Program Uses Angus Bulls On Black Cows") and the Fall Beef Semen Price List in case we were interested in the fascinating world of artificial inseminatio. The Angus Sire Summary gave all the pertinent facts on such eager fathers-to-be as Triumph, Conveyor, Bonus, and Triple Threat. Nodding our heads intelligently (we had gotten quite good at this), we casually picked up two pamphlets that looked to be more our speed: Junior Activities: Learning To Judge Angus Cattle and For Boys and Girls: Buying, Caring For, And Showing Your Angus Heifer.
The woman at the Charolais booth was short on pamphlets but long on promising advice. "Everything goes in cycles," she explained. "Charolais may not be very popular right now, but they're good cows, and one of these years they'll be right back on top. Now is the ideal time to buy Charolais."
We even atteneded a two-hour seminar where cattle insiders told us how we could make better profits by forming strategic alliances with our friends and neighbors and retaining ownership of our imaginary herd through their stay at the feedlot.
As we drove back home through the blizzard, we reflected on all that we had learned. Over the next few weeks we reviewed the stacks of literature we had been given, slowly deciphering the professional jargon and secret buzzwords. We discussed the merits of the different breeds, and debated whether or not we should buy registered stock. We deliberated over starting with a cow-calf operation or simply backgrounding calves (now that we finally knew what these things were). We ate steak and argued over the finest cuts of beef. We priced head chutes, heated water tanks, and haying equipment. We filled our nonexistent chest freezer with 600 imaginary pounds of lean, natural beef, and fell asleep at night inventing new ways to make stroganoff and fajitas.
And then we bought a flock of sheep.
Like I said, one thing leads to another and suddenly you're miles away from where you started. So there we were at this farm auction, happy sheep owners, and not thinking in the least about cows. The crowd headed to a field below the house where there was a bunch of farm equipment to be sold, and we followed along. Nothing looked especially interesting, so I turned my thoughts toward lunch. Deeply involved with visions of homemade chili, I nearly missed the telltale sign: my husband's bidding hand began to twitch ever so slightly. An attack of auction fever was definitely setting in. Within seconds his whole arm was jerking, then his eyes glazed over and he lost control. The bidding card was stuck in the air, and we were just about to have our very own--
"What is that?"
"It's a disker."
"It's a pile of rust!"
"It's only 20. . .30. . .40 dollars!"
"We don't even have a tractor!"
"We will someday."
I jumped up and snatched the bidding card from his hand. His eyes went back to normal, and the disker went home with somebody else. It was a close call, though, and I vowed to keep a better eye on him.
To Be Continued. . .
(I'll make an announcement on Farmgirl Fare when the next installment is up.)
Copyright 1997 & 2006 FarmgirlFare.com