It’s Rodeo Time: the dearth of farm vets

No sooner had the young vet climbed out of the cattle chute than our two farm dogs, Becky and Teddy, darted from the barn, each with a bull testicle dangling from its mouth. It’s a macabre sight, but one all too familiar to anyone spending time on a farm.

Home Vet Supplies

Home Vet Supplies

As I wrote out a check, Doc Beason stretched his shoulder to work out a kink where a 700-pound bull calf had kicked him. All in a day’s work, I thought. The rain was pouring down on the last day of winter, the barnyard was ankle deep in muck, yet the farm vet emerged with a grin on his face. No doubt he had chosen the right profession. I thought back to last year, when on a snowy January day he cheerfully came out one Sunday morning and put a prolapsed uterus back in a favored ewe.

Beason’s predecessor, Doc McCampbell, sported the same demeanor: cheerful, whether working in rain or sun. A similar day had the elder vet castrating a long line of weanling bull calves. He jumped into the chute, exclaiming, “Let the rodeo begin!” and was promptly stomped and kicked for his enthusiasm.

These are unusual days in the large-animal vet field. Nationally, 80% of all graduates from vet school are women. Now, women can certainly do large-animal work, but most choose not to. The few who do, choose the more lucrative equine field. Being a farm vet isn’t as well paid as small-animal or equine. As poet-vet Baxter Black points out, “there is no anthropomorphological attachment as exists in the pet world.” In other words, why spend $100 on a ewe that may only bring $110 at the stockyard?

Traditionally, most large-animal vets were men who came from a farming background. As the number of family farms and farm families plummeted, so too did the number of young men who valued that life. Valuing the farm life seems an essential to anyone, man or woman, who contemplates such a robust career as a large-animal vet. And combining a love for the physical demands of the farm vet with the educational drive to get through vet school reduces the number of prospective farm vets even further.

The dearth of farm vets, coupled with economics, means that those of us who farm livestock learn to do much of the doctoring ourselves. And Cindy and I do most of the castrating, worming, vaccinating, assisting with births, and other nonsurgical doctoring. Still, not having trained professionals available for that prolapsed uterus, cow that eats a nail, or any of the other seemingly endless ways in which an animal’s health can be imperiled is worrisome.

Watching our youthful vet jump back in his truck, wave, and drive off to his next round, I’m relieved that in spite of the shortage of farm vets across rural America, our needs appear to be met for some time to come.

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Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea

Basic Farm Lessons

The Lessons:

  1. Hogs: After you have been face down in the muck with pigs thundering over your body, check for broken bones first, launch temper tantrum second.
  2. To-do lists: Whatever I did with my time in the city, my farm to-do list makes that former “active” life seem downright sedentary.
  3. Phone calls: “Are you missing any cattle?” This question usually translates into, “You are missing cattle. And they are on the highway (or in my front yard or garden).”
  4. Fencing: First, it is never done. Second, even a secure fence means nothing to a hungry steer or a horny bull. I’ve watched steers clear a five-foot-high fence flat-footed and bulls uproot a 10-foot-wide gate from its hinges to enjoy the company of a cow in heat.
  5. Deer hunters: They routinely cut fencing, nail slats up trees for steps, leave behind deer stands, screw peanut butter jars onto trees, disturb the quiet and take a one-time permission to hunt as license to spend the winter in your woods. That said, if the sheer number of deer in the landscape is any indication … they are mostly lousy shots.
  6. Closing gates: The injunction to close the gate behind you means it should also be latched. Just pulling it closed doesn’t count. Trust me.
  7. Number of muscles: Most folks have no idea how many muscles are contained in the body. But I know, because over the past 16 years each has hurt at one time or another.
  8. Bad weather: When the temperature is in the 20s and the wind is blowing with gale force and you’re facing the elements as snow and sleet slants sideways, you tuck your head and keep working. Because the sow that needs shelter for farrowing can’t build it herself.
  9. Life and death: Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer” says: “Listen to carrion—put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs to come.” The cycles of life, just barely understood when I lived in the city, are an intimate presence of each day on the farm.
  10. Watch the skies: A circle of vultures over the back pasture is the signal that there is a newborn calf or a dead yearling steer.
  11. Farm life: No one ever reminisces about summers spent with Grandma in her suburban rancher. Our race memories are of the land, and the land is where we return.

Mercy and Democracy: a mid-week musing

An interaction and an incident yesterday, one that I will not elaborate on in these pages, had me thinking about both mercy and democracy. Mercy is certainly not the sole providence of small farms. But Victor Hanson, in his excellent history, The Other Greeks, makes a persuasive case that Greek democracy developed out of the small farm culture of ancient Greece. That the nature of agrarian interactions, of modest finances and the need to accomplish the work with few hands led to an independence of culture and the martial willingness to defend it. Which led me back to wondering if mercy has some roots in an agrarian past? Whether mercy, in the end, is the ability to act decisively and also with compassion, all informed by the daily practice of intimate familiarity? And whether democracy without an informed exercise of mercy can thrive?

From my Winged Elm Farm Alphabet:

M is for Mercy

Mr. Blake says that “mercy has a human heart.” As a quality based on compassion for those in one’s care, mercy on a farm gets a lot of experience. It is frequently exercised in dispatching an animal when butchering, mercifully killing an injured duck whose leg has been pulled off by a turtle or any of the other seemingly endless ways of dying or being injured on a farm. Farming expands with a clear-eyed view the means and ways of compassion, strips the sentiment and leaves you with choices that cannot be put off on anyone else.

Making Headcheese

No Cheese Needed: I spent a pleasant warm day yesterday making headcheese. Here is a post from the archives about the same.

Fromage de tete, coppa di testa, brawn, presskopf or souse, we are speaking here, of course, of headcheese, a frighteningly disgusting term for what turns out to be a delicious dish. The old saying that with a pig you eat everything but the “squeal” is true.

All porky goodness.

All porky goodness.

“If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed. Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib?” M.F. K. Fisher

Our new processor asked last year when I delivered four hogs if I wanted the heads. Immediately I knew that headcheese was in my future. But, time and energy interfered. The heads lay bundled up at the bottom of the freezer, forgotten, and eventually pitched at the dump. A year later, last week, another hog delivered and the same question. And, yes, was my answer.

So Saturday morning I hauled out the head, ears and trotters and placed them in the sink. Using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for headcheese from the River Cottage Cookbook I gathered up onions from our garden, and clove, coriander, nutmeg, peppercorns, 1/2 cup of red pepper flakes from the larder. Added a big bundle of thyme, rosemary and parsley from the herb garden and got to work. Using my butcher saw I quartered the heads (I no longer do this step) so that it would fit into the pot easily. Adding the head, ears, trotters, onions, seasoning and herbs to a biggish pot of water and brought that to a boil. Once at a boil it smelled a bit like a crab boil.

Next step is to skim of the scum that floats to the top for about 30 minutes then reduce to a simmer for four hours. After four hours the meat and bones are removed. The liquid is reduced by 2/3 to a gelatinous soup. Next I pulled the meat from the head and jaw and finally chopped into a hash, peeled the skin of the tongue and did the same. Then mixed in a good sized clump of fresh parsley (chopped) and juice of a lemon (many use apple vinegar) and put the mixture in the fridge.

When the liquid was reduced it was strained into another pot. The onions and bundle of herbs were tossed. The meat mixture was then pressed into a terrine and the liquid was ladled over the top. Placed back into the fridge until the jelly set.

What a nice way to create a delicious dish from some very inelegant ingredients. I do recommend using the head next time for those of you who raise or buy a side of pork from time to time. Talk about nose to tail eating!

I’d close by recommending three other books, a holy trinity of sorts, dedicated to the concept that nothing gets wasted. They are all by Jennifer McLagan. Bones, Fat, and Odd Bits. Each is beautifully produced and full of wonderful recipes: Ex.  a hearty dish of ravioli made of brains and morels.

Now, where did I put my brains?

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Reading this weekend: Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: essays from a farmer philosopher by Frederick L. Kirschenman

Don’t Come Back In Until Dinner

I grew up in a household with strict rules. Foremost among them: Get out of the house. When not in school we were expected to be outside. We spent our days doing chores and fishing, looking for pirate treasure along Contraband Bayou or building forts, swimming in ponds or going to the library. Whether on bikes or on the bayou, that landscape was full of kids. On days spent inside because of rain we would play board games or read, watching TV was off limits.

Today, where our farm is located, in East Tennessee, the countryside is mostly empty. You see the occasional activity outdoors, usually men on tractors. But only once in sixteen years have I seen a kid cross the seventy acres of our farm. Never have I had to yell at a kid for building a fort on our land. No kid has ever darkened the door to ask permission to hunt rabbit or squirrel, or fish in our ponds.

Our companions in this landscape

Our companions in this landscape

There are homes nearby where I have never observed a person outside. Cars appear and disappear in the driveways. But the owners are not once glimpsed. I’ve cut a hay field; long hours, three days in a row and never spotted a person outside a neighbor’s house. A house, I add, that often had four cars in the drive.

While baling that hay on the final day, I saw one of the cars start up and move down the driveway. It drove the 150 feet to the mailbox. A youthful arm extended out of the driver’s window and collected the mail. The car reversed back up to the house.

It would be tempting to ridicule the generation of kids who spend their lives in darkened rooms, zombied in screen-time with their gadgets. But their parents, who by example, are equally to blame. With all of the challenges we face to our civilization and planet, it seems somehow dishonorable to while away one’s life in such an unproductive manner.

That the rural landscape is empty in the very place where hands and eyes are needed is troubling. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson refer to the benefit of “eyes to acres”. They mean that the understanding and the correction of problems in our landscape begin by an intimate daily familiarity.

In a way, it seems like a modern day Highland clearance; where blame rests partly with forces that have devalued the local in favor of the global, removing those eyes-to-acres. But it is a blame shared by us for our willing collusion in that withdrawal, as passive consumers of this life.

Understanding our land begins with engagement, even if it is just a kid rambling along on an idle afternoon across a pasture and a wooded hill.

Maybe our inner mom needs to say, “Get out of the house! Don’t come back in until dinner.”

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Postscript: Hopefully the weather is finally breaking towards spring. Our final crop of lambs are being born, we have piglets to castrate and potatoes to plant. So the navel gazing tone to this blog should return to more mundane topics of the farm in the coming weeks…or not.

The Master Comes Home

The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees. Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall. Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.

Ice Storm 4 014

A walk back to the house and barns.

Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate. The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding. Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.

Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm. The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees. Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.

Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.

Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.

Ice Storm 3 008

Muscadines coated in a half inch of ice.

Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.

Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand. Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.

Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.

Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish. While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.

The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption. Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery. Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.

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Reading this weekend: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley

At least our farm isn’t in Boston

“Winter is beginning to lose its grip.” What clueless chump wrote that bit of wisdom last Sunday? After penning those wishful words, I’ve watched our world here in East Tennessee fall into the deep freeze.

Our average high at this time of year is 53 degrees, with a low of 31. That comfortable range is one of the reasons living in Tennessee is such a joy. Each of the four seasons has a clear character, none too extreme, and about the time we tire of one, the next arrives. There are, of course, on occasional years, the extremely cold winter or the miserably hot summer. This is clearly one of the former.

Last Saturday we had a teaser of above average temps, which prompted the above bit of optimism. That was followed by a very cold week here on the farm. Yesterday, we had a brief respite, as the mercury climbed into the middle 40s. We spent Valentine’s Day thawing hoses and refilling stock tanks; we set posts in concrete and drove T-posts and stretched woven wire on the new horse paddock.

While we worked to complete this project, Bonnie, our newest work horse, eyed us from a neighboring corral. Pregnant ewes stuck their noses through the gate to conduct their smell test on her. Roosters chased hens under her feet, and Delores moseyed about her paddock next to the corral with piglets in tow—new experiences all for a horse that had spent her days working on a dairy in Minnesota.Bonnie 003

We completed the back fence on the new paddock around noon. Cindy began setting up the propane burner and chicken-plucker for our friend Sara. She had called earlier in the morning with a surfeit of male birds vying to be cock o’ the roost. Sumptuous dishes like coq au vin and dumplings lay ahead, but first the killing, plucking, and cleaning of eight bloodied and bruised roosters.

While Cindy helped with the butchering, I sneaked off to buy a late Valentine’s card to present during our evening dinner (Cindy having done the same earlier in the morning). By mid-afternoon we had settled down in the house, she for a nap and I to finish a mystery by Martin Walker. Coffee at four and then we headed out for a couple of hours of chores.

We fixed together a dinner of roast leg of lamb, mashed potatoes and “squishy greens,” and cheesecake for dessert and turned in early for a well-deserved rest.

This morning the low registered 13, with a projected high later of 29. Four to seven inches of snow are in the forecast for this evening and tomorrow and a low of minus 3 for Wednesday night. The cattle need to be moved to a late winter pasture, ice will be broken on troughs, and there is a bit of fencing I need to repair in the back forty. The sheep are bawling for hay—three ewes were due to lamb last night. I hear Delores snorting for feed. It is time to call the dogs and do the chores.

With the week ahead calling for another significantly cold week, I wonder if my ancestors had some ritual, besides sipping whisky, to bring on the warmth of an early spring. God knows I’m ready for it. At least our farm isn’t in Boston.

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Reading this weekend: The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker, Our Only World by Wendell Berry and A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy by William Irvine.