Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Boarding Horses - Introduction

(First in a series of posts) Until I graduated college, I really didn't give horses or horse people a whole lot of thought or attention. In my part of Ontario, especially in my youth, horses existed on the periphery of agriculture; NOBODY used horse in the same sentence as farmer. Horses were what people from the city (who by inference didn't know any better) got when they bought their ten-acre-and-independence mini-farmettes. About the only good that came from horses is that some of us got to sell some of in horse folks.... a little bit of hay (at what we considered ridiculously inflated prices). The farmers in my world viewed riding horses as a rich man's indulgence; since we weren't rich we didn't indulge and we pretty much ignored those that did. In hindsight, given that Northern Dancer was bred on E.P. Taylor's beautiful Windfield Farms in Oshawa, only a few miles down the road, equating horse keeping with "idle" money could maybe be forgiven.

I didn't realize until I left just how good a place southern Ontario is to be a farmer. In addition to being located in the warmest part of Canada and in a place blessed with deep, fertile soil, there is a huge and monied population base to sell things to; nearly 8 million residents (or one in four Canadians) call the Golden Horseshoe (from Niagara Falls to Oshawa) home. And at some time between my childhood and now, an awful lot of them decided they needed to own a horse. Since it's pretty hard to stable a horse in the backyard of one's townhouse, in the last ten or twenty years a LOT of farmers have turned to boarding horses as a way to diversify their farm income stream. Some have been more successful than others while some have failed entirely, but the point is that fair bit of the acreage that used to be devoted to cows....especially beef but also some dairies, is now devoted to horses.

Horses began to get on my radar screen when I started working for one of our local farmers co-ops in a nutrition role and they really got on my radar screen when I started working for a Purina affiliate some years later. Horse feed has become a BIG deal and a big money business !

The largest horse stable in Bowmanville is owned by a very good friend of mine who's family remains an agricultural powerhouse in that country. At about the same time I moved down here, he added horses to the mix on their huge family farm and he's expanded his operation every year since then, as have we. We joke that since he and I are both boarding horses for a living there is a lot more thumping down at the cemetery as ALL our respective kin are getting a lot of exercise rolling in their graves ! But mine are still getting more exercise than his because in addition to boarding horses for a living, I moved to the States ! :)

There is much truth to the statement that a good dairy farmer will also often make a good horseman; the two professions have much in common when they are practiced well. Anyone who is open to learning and who truly likes working with animals, grass and people, as I do, will find the transition from cows to horses pretty easy to make. And unlike the sort of farming I grew up with, boarding horses, even the way we do it, is NOT a lonely occupation. We interact with a host of people in person and on the phone, from clients to sales people to vets, farriers, neighbours and university folk as well as our employees each and every day.

Next post Topics - Thoughts on Pasture and Grazing Management for Equines - (FYI, this may appear in the Paradigm Farms Blog); Thoughts on Sizing the Operation/Getting Started with One !

Monday, March 28, 2011

And today....

Farming has a way of bringing one back to earth pretty quickly when one's head begins to swell, as evidenced by my day today. I spent two long, tedious, and frustrating hours working with small screwdrivers and other tiny tools tearing apart and completely rewiring a dead sprayer pump before I realized that the main know, the one that says ON/OFF......was in the OFF position. Sigh. I guess the good news is that in spite of my repairs, the motor works perfectly....

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Another topic that has been flitting through my head during the hours I've spent on a tractor lately is the role of spousal influence on making decisions. Anyone who knows me IRL would say that I have a very fixed personality and that the decisions I make today would be very similar to the decisions I'd have made 20 years ago, or, the Good Lord willing, to the decisions I will make 20 years from now. And mostly, they'd be pretty right about that. Or at least I thought so !

Although we share similar thoughts on some key issues, it'd be fair to say that when we met Melissa was my polar opposite in a lot of respects. We certainly didn't have to work very hard to come up with topics to debate about, that is for sure. And we both have strong feelings about what we believe in combined with relatively strong personalities to lend credence to our feelings. But when I review my thoughts on certain key topics today and compare them to my thoughts of a few years ago on the same topics, either she's moved or I've moved because we aren't nearly as opposite as we used to be ! I've even managed to find grey areas where at one time I'd have seen nothing but black and white.

This got me to thinking about the role ALL the influencers in our lives currently play, from friends to parents, siblings, neighbours, church leaders, etc., and how as we mature, we begin to recognize that some of our thoughts on things we were once passionate about are no longer serving our interests, especially if one of those interests is continued marital harmony.

How big an influence has your spouse or significant other had on your decision making process ? It's certainly something to think about !

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Except in this case I wonder if I asked for a little too much in the way of age and looks from my new lawnmower !

It's sure not very pretty but little Kubota diesels are notoriously hard to kill and it seems to run like a top. As an additional perk it was less money than the crappy new finds at HD and Lowes so I guess we'll see ! It's either a diamond in the rough or it's just rough but either way there's a lot of potential for future blog post material I'd say. Barring incident or injury it'll be coming home with me in the next couple of days and the very first thing on my agenda is a full service. I'm pretty sure Melissa is embarrassed to be married to me right now....not the first time on that front, either ! :)

The Lawnmower Conundrum

If the title of this post sounds a little like a Robert Ludlum thriller filled with spying and international intrigue, well, that's exactly how the never ending saga of buying an appropriate lawnmower for the new place feels to me right now ! How, you may ask, is it possible to ramp up a mundane event this much ? Well children, if you'll follow me I'll show you.

Dateline: Early March

Place: Home Depot, Spring Hill, TN

Time: 7 pm

Enroute home from the new farm one night, I stopped at Home Depot to browse their riding lawnmower selection so I could get a feel for how much a new (cheap) lawn tractor might cost (WAY, WAY too much for the cheap, shoddy pieces of crap on display !!). I perused everything in stock, made notes, and then went to Lowes to do the same thing. Later that night, I began scouring the internet and local buy-sell papers for lawn tractors, comparing the sales prices with those I'd racked up while at HD and Lowes. What I'm hoping to do is find an older but gently used heavy duty mower for roughly the same price as the new POS mowers at HD and Lowes. There's no's at least two weeks until grass cutting time.

Dateline: Mid March

Place: Home at my computer on Craigslist

Time: 10 pm.

Despite a thorough nightly perusal of all relevant Craigslist listings and local buy sell papers, I have gotten exactly nowhere with my lawnmower search. Apparently nobody in greater Nashville is selling anything at a price that I'm willing to pay. The grass is now 4-6 inches tall and the lawn service has already been out to cut our grass at home. Still, I decide to give it another week.

Dateline: March 20

Place: Home at my computer

Time: 7:45 am

It's been hot the past few days...80 or more degrees with lots of soil moisture available and the grass is now 10 inches tall. I *have* to do something pretty soon or else hook up the bush hog, one or the other.

Shazam ! An old F910 commercial John Deere mower for sale locally at a *very* attractive price, listed on Craigslist late last night. Despite the fact that it's early on Sunday morning, I call anyway. The fellow is enroute to church (good sign) with his family at the time but he humours me re: the mower and says the price is negotiable. I tell him I won't quibble over the price if he'll hold it for me until tomorrow morning so I can come look at it ( I was fully booked on Sunday). I also promise if it runs and cuts I will take it ! I was *dancing* around the kitchen table I was so excited about this ! About 5 pm, I see that there is a message on my phone. With deep foreboding, I look at the's my lawnmower man and he's SOLD the F910 to someone else about an hour ago. Instant deep despair. Melissa patted me on the head and said that all things happen for a reason. This didn't make me feel any better.

Dateline: Monday, March 21

Place: Home at my computer

Time: 7 am

There is an F910 John Deere with the same ad and the same phone number listed on Craigslist this morning. The only thing that's different is that the price has gone up. A lot. I call and the same fellow I talked to yesterday pretends he's never heard of me and says I must have the wrong number. I hang up the phone and come in the house, dejected yet again.

I've found two more mowers I'm going to call about forthwith, otherwise I'm off to Home Depot to buy a piece of crap ! Wish me luck !

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gaining Trust

You know, as Melissa and I work with every new horse that we get on this farm (including Miracle), my mind has mostly stuck on what it really means to gain someone's (or something's) trust. I've come to the conclusion that the steps to gain or breach trust are essentially the same no matter whether it's an animal or human in question. Regardless of the species, acting openly, predictably and with a high degree of consistency help to build trust...even sometimes when the actions themselves are negative. Asking before doing always builds trust too ! Similarly, acting deceitfully, coercively or inconsistently almost always works to destroy trust.

Of course acting trustworthy is only half the story because animals and people have to be receptive to building trust in order for trust building activities to be effective. Just as some people are mistrustful (even when they have never had reason to be), so are some animals. It takes a tremendous amount of patience to work with a mistrustful animal or person, because the slightest miscue can destroy months of progress. On most cattle farms, mistrustful cows are culled pretty quickly because they really aren't safe to work around. Because horses are viewed more as pets than as livestock, and because we tend to be more emotionally and financially invested in them, mistrustful horses are often kept around. Folks work through the issues surrounding mistrust with varying degrees of success. We have a few mistrustful horses here and I can attest that they are extremely challenging to work with, especially at the beginning.

Fortunately, inherently mistrustful people have been fairly rare in my world which is a good thing. I'll come right out and say that I have great difficulty working for very long with inherently mistrustful people ! I usually lose my patience long before I manage to gain a modicum of their trust !

In her short life, Miracle has had almost no positive reinforcement. In the same way that some people maintain a high degree of trust in spite of circumstances that suggest they shouldn't, Miracle is still a trustful animal. We've just begun to build on her innately trustful nature and teach Miracle a little bit more about what it means to trust and that it's safe to trust us. Right now we're focusing on being able to halter her and handle her at will. In order to do this, we need to teach her that good things happen when (a) we come into the paddock or stall and (b) when we put her halter on. As you can imagine, these steps require a good deal of patience on our part (as well as lots of treats) but they are so worth it in the end.

For those who are interested (and on a completely different topic) I saw the first corn planters rolling down by our other farm this morning. With sunny and 80 (or more) degrees forecast tomorrow, I'd say it's time to get those seeds in the ground !

Monday, March 14, 2011

Miracle Comes Home

As some of Melissa's readers already know, today was the day that we went down to Sunkissed Acres in North Georgia and trailered Miracle home !

I'm not going to steal Melissa's thunder on this topic....Miracle is her new pet horse and today is Miracle's (and Melissa's) day, but I will say that if it's possible for a horse to smile, Miracle was doing so (and in that respect she was doing an excellent job of matching Melissa) ! But I do have some observations from our trip that I'd like to share with you.

Having met her for the first time earlier this morning, I can't say enough good things about Lori. In addition to rehabbing abused animals at Sunkissed Acres, Lori rehabs abused children as well. She fosters several boys and has adopted two of her former foster children. She is a beacon of hope in a place that desperately needs her and I'm unashamed to admit that several of her stories brought me close to tears when she told them to me today. I couldn't do what she does, even temporarily. I'd quickly wind up hating the world.

The area that Lori lives in is located about an hour straight south of Chattanooga, TN on the GA side of the AL/GA state line, which makes it about a three hour truck ride from either of our farms. We now understand (we didn't before) why Lori stays as busy as she does. The whole area...Lori's place excepted..... seems to be a backwards sort of rural hellhole....emaciated animals of various types living with their human companions in a county sized mountainous, overgrown, weedy junkyard. It wasn't always clear to us whether the unpainted plywood shacks and rusted out trailer houses were dwellings for animals or for human residents. I'm not kidding when I say that many of them would be condemned if they were located in a place where there was some authority figure to do the condemning.

Given her terrible start in life, our new horse Miracle is amazingly quiet and trustful. Really by size she's no more than a foal...I'd guess her at around a year old but nobody really knows. She was playful and fun at Lori's this morning and she followed me willingly onto the trailer when it was time to leave. She rode home with us....a three hour ride with strange people in a strange trailer....with nary a fuss. After a short turnout this afternoon, we put her in a stall in the barn where she is currently resting quietly and comfortably. Soon enough, her new a big green pasture with lots of exercise and lots of new friends....will begin. Thinking about it puts a smile on even my (hard hearted) face !! :)

Hope ya'll are having half as good a Monday as we are !

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Have you ever wondered what's going on in a farmer's head as you drive by on the highway and watch a tractor at work in a big field in the springtime ? I can tell you from experience that he might be thinking about lots of mundane things....anything from reviewing various sorts of performances from the previous night (hopefully he was SMILING about this) to what he was going to eat for dinner when he got home. But in addition to the mundane, it's possible he might be thinking about deeper things. Come with me as I share with you what I was thinking as I worked my way across a big field on a warm, sunshine-y spring day last week......

As part of the process of renewing our small business revolving line of credit at the bank, I recently got asked to provide our banker with an updated balance sheet as a measure of our net worth. As I'm sure you all know, a balance sheet is basically a simple tally; add up all your assets, add up all your debts and subtract the debts from the assets and worth !

While I was riding around spreading and incorporating fertilizer and seed, my mind got stuck for awhile on statements of net worth. While debt numbers are more or less irrefutable, asset numbers are not. Assets are worth whatever somebody will pay for them and that is almost always heavily influenced by the amount of time you have to dispose of your assets. Anyone who's had to sell something quickly knows exactly what I'm talking about. Because of this, valuing assets can be a pretty tricky business. I spent a little time thinking through various examples of this, just to prove myself right. It's hard to change when you can't measure your current performance, so generally speaking, I like financial benchmarking....let's me see everything I need to know about my business...good and bad.... all in one place.

[Finally, half done ! Right about here I stopped to empty my bladder, check the oil, fill the drill and top up the diesel tank. As I remounted the tractor, I took a quick look at the position of the sun relative to the amount of field I had left to cover. Just enough time ! I quickly got rolling again.]

Right about here is where the thinking got a whole bunch deeper and I stopped paying very much attention to what I was doing on the tractor. I wondered why (other than for my business) I don't seem to spend any time doing some benchmarking in my life. I wondered what my world would look like and how my own life might differ if I took just a little time on a regular basis to create a non-financial balance sheet...actually maybe several of them....that would help me measure and quantify various facets of my life. Let's face it, we ALL have areas where we ought to aspire to do better than we're currently doing and I am the king of the self congratulatory pat on the back. But as good as it is....and my life IS good, it sure isn't all roses. I thought about this for a good long while.....twenty acres worth of harrowing at least....before I identified what some of my most pressing challenges were as well as how I might begin to work at improving them.

When I next looked up I couldn't believe (a) the sun had all but set and (b) how COLD it got when this event happened ! I also couldn't believe that I was about done with the field. It takes me a few minutes to re-engage my brain and make a positive transition from long, solitary hours spent on a tractor back to dealing with the needs of real live people, phones and animals. I've always used the time between finishing a field and returning to the barn to get this done and today was no different. As I was taught to do many years ago, I methodically cleaned, greased and oiled each piece of equipment as I unhitched it. When I was through, I parked the tractor and fully switched tasks....from world philosopher to Williamson County farm hand in about two minutes. I called Melissa to find out where she was at regarding afternoon chores, did up my dungarees and went out to lend a hand !

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hitting High Gear

Although the date varies, at some point every year the weather and soil conditions get right in a hurry and spring's work hits high gear. I've learned over the years that it's best to have the equipment greased and ready to go well ahead of time because this window can slam closed at any time. If you miss it, it's likely you'll wind up spending twice as much for half the job. On this farm, our "turning point" happened late last week and I've been busy taking advantage of it. Although it's still a few weeks too early to plant warm season crops like corn and beans, anyone who has grass or spring grain to sow (or winter wheat to spray and fertilize) had better have it done and/or in the ground. I've been over every acre of both places several times and they are ready to go in all senses of the word. Our new place slopes gently to the south and it warms up (and greens up) quickly in the spring, at least relative to our other farm which is mostly north facing slopes. The photo below was taken yesterday morning as I was clipping part of a pasture that I let grow up last fall to check erosion before it got out of control. Our newest pasture is now fully fenced...we're just waiting on a run in shed (and me to run some water) to move our next group of horses. All things being equal, this ought to happen in the next couple of weeks.

Hope everyone is having a great week !