Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jolly The Christmas Cat

A few weeks before Christmas Melissa and I took Carter to see "Santa's reindeer" at Cheekwood, a Nashville botanical gardens that runs some excellent programs for children throughout the year. Carter was enthralled with the reindeer....they were named Jingle and Jolly.....and for days afterward all we heard about was how neat it was to see them and to sit in Santa's sleigh. When you are three years old doing these sorts of things with mom and dad is a VERY big deal. :)

Fast forward to the week before Christmas. Melissa and I had been talking about introducing some pets into our home for some time. We decided that Carter wasn't yet mature enough to handle a dog but for various reasons we thought a cat might be appropriate. One of Melissa's friends heads up a well run cat rescue in Nashville and she mentioned that there were two kittens being fostered at a rural home not far from the farm that were available for adoption immediately. Melissa latched onto this arrangement full on from the start. She set up an appointment to view the cats and within minutes  of seeing them they were on their way home with us. Interestingly one of the cats was already named Jingle; when we asked Carter for suggestions regarding the other one's name it should come as no surprise that he immediately suggested the name Jolly.

If one considers life from the viewpoint of an abandoned pet coming home with us would be the animal equivalent of winning the Powerball lottery. You're going to get top notch healthcare, every bit of preventative medicine we can throw at you, excellent feed, companionship when you want it or need it and as much environmental stimulation as it's humanly possible to provide. Jingle and Jolly took to this arrangement immediately. Within hours of their arrival they were running and playing through the house as though they'd lived here forever.

Jolly took to his new home particularly well. Jingle was justifiably nervous of Carter...every three year old on earth is loud and makes sudden quick movements.....and he tended to make himself scarce whenever Carter was around. Not Jolly.  Every day he was waiting by the door for Carter and I when we came home from his pre-school and he spent the entirety of his waking hours loudly purring while playing and interacting with Carter and with me. His purr never shut off. If Jolly was awake and not running full tilt he was purring. I'm not at all a cat person but it only took a couple of days for Jolly to win me over. Playing with Carter or sitting in my lap was the highlight of his life. I have never in my life seen a happier or more aptly named cat than Jolly.

About a week ago we noticed that Jolly was off his feed and appeared to be losing a bit of weight. We called the vet immediately and set up an appointment the following day for him and his brother Jingle. The vet diagnosed a heavy load of roundworms in Jolly....not an uncommon occurance in feral cats and kittens. This diagnosis made us all feel better. We started a three day course of wormer and brought the cats home.

In the days following Jolly acted exactly as you suspect a cat with a heavy worm load might act. He was normal most of the time but there were periods of decreasing length where he clearly didn't feel good. We figured it was a combination of the wormer and the internal worm die off and we were pleased that he seemed to be feeling markedly better as time went on. Yesterday was a good day.  His energy level appeared to be high and he was full of himself from morning through mid afternoon. He curled up on my lap with his brother and we all had a short nap in the early afternoon. When I got up to feed horses he and his brother changed laps and continued alternately resting and playing on and around Melissa.

Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call from my crying wife just as I was finishing up chores at around four pm. She said that Jolly had been lying in her lap when he had a massive convulsion and fell to the floor so quickly that she had no time to react and stop him. By the time I got to the house....no more than thirty seconds after I hung up the phone.....Jolly was lying rigid on the floor and gasping for breath. I told Melissa that he was dying in front of us and that I would go get a gun to hasten his passing if she thought I should. She made the valid point that he may well be having a seizure and that seizures were treatable so we gently loaded him in the car and she rushed to the vet. Sadly I was right in my diagnosis and he died while enroute to the vet.

I've farmed all my adult life and I've been in the meat business for a good portion of it. I've seen....and frankly caused and/or participated in....enough death to have long ago realized that life isn't often fair. But it's always bothered me, and still does bother me, when well cared for young animals of any sort die for seemingly no reason. As such we asked the vet to do a necropsy. She called back this morning with the probable diagnosis of Feline Infectious Peritonitis. If that's correct, and I suspect it may be, we can take some comfort in the fact that there was literally nothing to be done for Jolly. Simply put, he was unlucky.

I'm sad for Carter and I'm sad for Melissa and for me but mostly I'm sad for Jolly. He should've had better than he got and he never got a chance at it. Most of his short life quite frankly sucked...abandoned, fostered, finally adopted into a loving home and then died in pain, though thankfully fairly quickly, a few weeks later.  In spite of his circumstances he was.....Jolly.....all the time and right up to the very end. His contented purring filled our house right up to the second he had the seizure that killed him. This is his story. He touched this tough old farmer in ways few animals ever have, and the least I can do is share it and never forget him. RIP Jolly.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hiring Travails and Human Nature

One of the things I've been doing with my spare time is working through a pile of candidates to fill an open part time position on our farm. Most farm jobs are not high paying positions, especially in this part of the world, and the type of candidate low paying farm work tends to attact is not the sort of person we are going to feel comfortable employing to work with our horses. For that reason, as well as our personal conviction that those who work with us ought to be able to hold their heads high when somebody asks them what they make, our starting rate of pay is far above the local average and when someone has proved themselves their wages and hours worked can go up considerably from there.

This strategy has yielded excellent results. Most farms measure employee turnover in weeks or months and we measure ours in years. Still, when we have a position to fill, as we do right now, we seem to sift through a pile of resumes and conduct a pile of interviews. In spite of our best efforts at weeding out the chaff several times we've managed to start candidates that seemed very promising on the front end only to have them fizzle out a few weeks, a few days, or even sometimes a few HOURS into the job!

Between candidates, employees and customers I thought I had seen quite a cross section of human nature and behaviour and I have but I recently ran across TWO situations that are still bothering me and that I'm still working through in my head. In essence it's the same story repeated twice so I will repeat it here as a single instance. We had two candidates who seemed like excellent fits for the position right up until I started talking about wages and hours. Both already held part time jobs. Both told me they were looking for more income and more work.  Most people have been very pleasantly surprised when we got to this part of the conversation so imagine my surprise when I saw deep frowns develop on both candidates face. I was so disconcerted that BOTH TIMES this happened I stopped talking and asked if everything was all right. The answer I got...the same answer twice....stunned me. The candidate's both told me that this job could never work out unless we paid cash under the table. If they took the position at the starting wage we offered and worked the hours we wanted and actually reported the income...as we have to if we're going to deduct it as an expense.... their benefits....I assume government benefits but I don't know that for sure....would be clawed back or cancelled.

I've tried to work my way through this and I'm still struggling to relate. I've been taught since I was a child that it was up to me to provide for me and my family AND ALSO to be a good citizen who reports all his income and pays his share....I wish I thought it was fair.....of taxes to the government. If it required working eighty hours a week to get this done then that was my burden to bear. I've done it for extended periods and I can attest that it's not much fun. In my working life I've always contributed far more to the government in taxes than I've ever received back as services. I'm blessed that I've been able to do so but it's also never occurred to me that there was any other way to live one's life.

It's easy to say that these people are lazy degenerates that just don't want to work. That may well be true in some cases but since both were already working I don't think it applies in either of these cases. In fact the underlying emotion I sensed in both these cases was fear tempered by perhaps some shrewdness.....not laziness. I don't know enough about either person's personal story to be able to make further comment without becoming incredibly judgemental so I'm not going to do so. There are certainly plenty of situations out there where I can understand why someone wouldn't want their benefits trimmed back.  Equally there are others that I'm sure would leave me asking some very hard questions. I don't have answers, only questions.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch I've still got a position to fill. Hope everyone is having a great day today.

Monday, November 24, 2014

An Encouraging Message about Farming

There is a popular post on social media right now and the gist of the post's message is that farming is a great way to live but unfortunately there isn't enough money in it to make a living at it. One can almost hear the heaving sigh that inevitably accompanies such a statement. Every time I see this post I leave a sensitive and politically correct message so that everyone who reads it after me will know how I feel about the message. The gist of my politically correct and sensitive message can be summed up in one word.


I hate mealy mouthed excuses. Why not call it what it actually is by saying something along the lines of, "With my current mindset making a living farming is beyond what I'm capable of doing or thinking about at this point in my life." That's probably not bullshit. Neither is, " I make a good living doing what I'm doing and I'm not willing to change but at times there are things I miss or think I'd love about making a living farming."

If, like me, you really, really do want to make a living farming then the very first thing that needs to change is the message, verbalized or not, that's floating around in your head. I believe there is plenty of money to be made in agricultural activities and I believe it's my job to find some part of this huge industry that excites my passions AND that is potentially lucrative enough to make me a very, very good living. Somebody asked me recently whether or not I envisioned boarding horses and raising cattle for freezer beef for my living as a young man. The truth is that I envisioned neither but the greater truth is that I would farm millipedes just as happily as horses, cows or crops if it allowed me to live the sort of live I want to live AND make a reasonable living doing so. And if the market drops out of cows, horses and crops you probably shoudn't rule out Paradigm Farms millipedes!

It ought to be the job of every single agricultural college in this country to find and bring in local speakers who have started successful agricultural businesses from scratch and let them share with each and every student that making a living farming is viable and entirely possible. I promise this was NOT the message that got preached to us back when I was in school and dinosaurs roamed the earth. A big part of the problem is that the majority of my professors didn't believe it was possible to start from scratch and make a living farming so they actively discouraged us from doing so too. But I'd encourage everyone who reads this to think about what would happen if we encouraged our young people to try. That would be an agricultural revolution worth participating in!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Accumulated Heat

One of the first things successful farmers learn with regards to plant growth is that it's a lot more necessary to think about and compensate for what you're environment *doesn't* provide than it is to worry about the stuff that it does. In most years in most of the US I've come to the conclusion that the largest limiting factors for plant growth might be lack of soil fertility, lack of soil depth to bedrock, lack of water availability or lack of timely water. I've come to this conclusion mostly based on the availability of maps and data that explore every one of these items in detail. Locally I can access more data than I care to think about on every one of those topics for free either through our local UT extension office or through our local NOAA weather forecast office.

We worried about all of the aforementioned things in Ontario when I was farming there too, and our local OMAF office also had reams of data available on soil fertility, average precipitation and soil moisture, etc. But none of the things I mentioned even came close to our biggest worry. In spite of being in the southernmost part of Canada most of Ontario has a marginal climate for maturing grain corn and other heat sensitive warm season crops. There is also a significant yield drag on early maturing grain corn varieties....not as big as there used to be but still very real. Thus the safest crop varieties to grow from a maturity perspective are also the ones with the lowest potential yield which is far from ideal from a farm income perspective. In order to mitigate risk, every Ontario farmer (me included) selected corn hybrids and other crops based on the amount of accumulated heat (corn heat units) we could expect on our farm as per the map below (map courtesy Ontario Ministry Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs).

igure 1-1. Crop Heat Units (CH-M1) Available for Corn Production

Every corn hybrid in Ontario was classified by days to maturity (normal measure in the US) AND corn heat units. Thus when I bought a hybrid suitable for my farm SW of Peterborough I felt comfortable selecting hybrids up to roughly 2850 CHU. If I planted it before the fifteenth of May and if we didn't get an unusually cool summer or an unusually early frost it would reach physiological maturity, or close enough to it, most years. We kept on farm weather records and recorded our own corn heat unit accumulations for many, many years. 

Using corn as an example it's widely known and widely disseminated through print media exactly how much accumulated heat it will take to get any given hybrid of corn with a known heat unit rating to waist high, tasseling, silking, dough stage, and black layer, etc. Farm newspapers track this information every week throughout the growing season and compare it to long term averages and  information from the previous year. The same information can be and is applied to alfalfa maturity, grass maturity, small grain maturity and to a lesser extent soybean maturity. 

There are several measures of accumulated heat used in the US but as far as I know there aren't any which are systematically used to select crops across most of the country. Perhaps growing degree days (GDD) base 50F might be the most widely utilized for corn but most grain corn gets sold on days relative maturity which is no more than a rough guide as to when a crop might mature. This makes some sense because in most years most of the US corn belt is warm enough that accumulating enough heat to mature any temperate season crop isn't a big concern.

Strangely enough, accumulated heat does become a concern here in this part of the south, toward the northern end of both the cotton belt and the C4 warm season grass belt. While there is some general information on which cotton or hybridized warm season grass varieties might do best under normal local summer conditons as far as I know there is no systematic yearly tracking of GDD base 60F temperatures as applied to the relative maturities and yields of appropriate local warm season grass varieties. If there is I would sure like to see it. Any UT extension personnel reading this blog is welcome to correct my information.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Dark SIde

For all the joy and light that come with farming there is a dark side too and it is no joke. I just learned a few minutes ago of yet another friend who succumbed to injuries after being crushed between two pieces of large farm equipment on his Ontario farm. He was forty seven years old with a wife and kids and now he's dead a week before Christmas.

Over the years I've been to way, way, way too many funerals that were directly attributable to farm accidents. Virtually all of the deaths were incredibly gory and with only a couple exceptions they were also almost all preventable. One of our neighbours was crushed to death when his tractor fell off a wobbly jack as he worked underneath in his shop. Two more friends have succumbed to silo gas. A couple more died when they were electrocuted. Another died in a tractor rollover. Yet another died when he fell off a roof. Another middle aged friend was riding on the three point hitch as his dad planted grain. He died after getting run over by a planter and cultipacker combination ten feet behind where his dad sat.

These aren't second hand stories or statistics. These are people that I've known all my life. Young people, or middle aged, mostly college educated, most with families. And that's not all the deaths either, just some that I remembered as I worked my way through writing this piece. I won't even start down the list of injuries; too many to name or even remember.

It ought to be sad that it's noteworthy that my whole family has managed to keep all their eyes and limbs despite a lifetime on the farm. To a degree  it's prudence on our part, but there's a lot of luck involved too.  My friends an neighbours didn't secretly harbour a death wish. They just got complacent and momentarily careless at a time when their luck ran out. It's easy to get complacent around big animals and big equipment. When you work up close with both every day you forget that one wrong move or a spook at the wrong time can put you in a lot of danger. It seems like overkill to switch off the tractor every time you dismount when you've left it running a thousand times and never had a problem. But the truth is that it only takes one mistake to kill you, as all of the people mentioned in this blog found out. Literally, there but for the grace of God go I.  I've made most of the same mistakes that got these folks killed at one time or another. I've either recognized that the situation was dangerous and caught myself in time or I've been lucky or both. For Melissa and for Carter I hope this continues. I'm trying a lot harder than I used to. But so were most of the ones I mentioned above.

They always say at the funerals that these people died doing what they loved and I guess as far as it goes that is true. But dying in a gruesome farm accident decades too early seems like a hell of a price to pay for doing what you love. Not much of a post this close to Christmas....sorry.....but it's what's on my mind and I have to get it off.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Digging Deeper

For those of you who didn't know already, Melissa, Carter and I moved to a home we built on our Lynnville farm a few weeks ago. Moving always seems to come with and create it's own uproar and this moved proved the rule in spades. That said, we are beginning to settle from frantic and frenetic into a more comfortable rhythm as our routines begin to stabilize.

Although we've owned and worked this property for nearly four years my knowledge of it remains superficial in most respects. I can't tell you yet where the first spring flowers rise, nor can I describe how sunlight and shadow move across each part of our land as the days and seasons progress. I don't know what most of it looks like, at least away from the driveway, on a bright midwinters night. I can't yet tell you how the different soil types on this farm and the plants that grow on them respond to light, heat, drought or cold. I don't know where the frost comes first. And that's only the beginning of a lifelong list of stuff I can't tell you. I say lifelong because that's how long it takes to really get to know a farm, and only then if you spend most of your working days upon it. When I'm a used up old man I will, if I'm lucky, be able to tell you this stuff.

That said, the process of becoming intimate with this piece of land has begun. I can now tell you where the sun rises and sets on an October morning, or I could if I were blessed with aptly descriptive terminology. For now it's enough to know that the process has begun. I'm smiling as I begin the process of learning about this land and creating my own memories on it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Contemplative Weekend

I spent much of this past weekend in a contemplative mood. Partly this was due to the weather, which quite frankly sucked. Early May in the mid-South is supposed to be glorious; it's supposed to feature lots of sunshine, warm days, brief showers, green grass and blessedly cool nights. This May has featured non-stop rain which is why I have time to type out a blog in the middle of the afternoon but really that's another topic for another day.

In between the showers I spent most of my time either fixing on farm equipment or sorting through the large collection of junky equipment that my father-in-law accumulated over his twenty year tenure on this farm. The stuff that I'll use on a regular basis is slowly making it's way to our other farm and the rest is either at the commission sales place down the road or has gone to the scrapyard. It hit me just how empty the equipment shed and yard had become yesterday morning when I went back to take a picture of the newish 8 foot Bush Hog I bought to complement our big one and the small one. This is going to sound like an odd statement, but until about a week ago if my father-in-law had magically re-appeared the place would have looked much as it did when he passed last year. Now it really doesn't. I had the same thought when I sorted through the machinery and other assorted things many years ago when my dad died, and again when I was sorting through his stuff after my ex-wife's father died. Tom and I went to our local equipment dealer many times, mostly to haul stuff home, and part of the ritual was that we stopped at a crappy Mexican food joint to have something to eat each time. I stopped at the same place on my way home from delivering the last load of his stuff and I wish I could say this too brought back fond memories but I had forgotten about the inevitable indigestion and gas that accompanied any trip to that particular Mexican restaurant. It's one tradition I won't miss at all !

Yesterday I had a Facebook message from the neighbour that rent's my old farm in Ontario. He was planting  corn and he worked at it all day and well into the night, taking full advantage of the sunshine and fine weather they are currently having. It's been long enough ago since I've planted that farm that it was almost like hearing a story about a past life as opposed to something that was occurring in real time. One thing I don't miss from farming at the northern edge of the corn belt is the mad rush to get warm season crops into the ground at the first available opportunity in order that they'll have time to mature before it freezes in the early fall.

And so passed my contemplative weekend. Carter hit the terrible two's in full stride a few weeks ago. Full stride is how he takes on most things so I had better take advantage of the few remaining minutes of quiet in my Monday to do something about the tasks on my desk ! Hope all is well with my blogger friends out there.