I am coming up on the first month of being a farmer and I am surprised just how stressful it has been. I have loved every minute of it, but yes, it has been stressful.
I arrived in Iowa on February 19th, hoping that I would be able to frost seed the oats, alfalfa, rye grass, fescue and orchard grass mix that I had bought in January. Instead, it rained, snowed, thawed and froze for over 3 weeks, making it impossible to get anything done. My anxiety levels ramped up and I wasn’t sleeping well.
The only thing that kept me sane is the fact that I have an order for 40 improbably large Osage Orange posts from an ad I place on craigslist. Osage Orange, often called simply ‘hedge’ in our part of Iowa, are trees that grow fast, are incredibly hard and grow back from the stump and roots. It also won’t rot, meaning that a sizeable post placed in the ground will easily last two generations, if not three. Every day that I can’t plant, I try to spend part of a day cutting trees to make the posts. It gives me a sense that I am doing something that is going to last.
In the meantime, the cows were due to begin calving on March 1st. I checked them 2-3 times a day, starting the day I arrived.
On March 9th, our first calf was born in the mud, during a rainstorm when the temperature was between 34-36 degrees Fahrenheit all day long. That night, the temperature dropped into the low 20’s, and the calf didn’t make it. My first responsibility with my new herd and I couldn’t save the calf. I laid him to rest the next day, away from the herd under an Osage Orange tree and promised him I would do better.
On March 11th, I woke up at 4:30 am and headed out onto frozen, mostly snow free ground and fed the cattle in the dark. Enough of the snow and ice had melted so that we could start seeding our first small field. My brother-in-law, Jeff ran the tractor and I fed the grain mix into the broadcast seeder. By 10 am, we finished our first four acre field and were on to the next, larger field. By 2 pm, the temperature was in the 40’s and the field was becoming too muddy to continue, but we finished just in time.
As soon as we left the field, I loaded the wagon with seed for the next day: 25 bags of oats, 1 bag of fescue, 1 bag of alfalfa, 1 bag of clover, ½ bag of rye and ½ bag of orchard grass. Everything in 50 lb. bags. I lifted over a ton of grain between the time I started the morning seeding and finished with the loading of the wagon for the next day.
From there I went out to the pasture to check the cows. Low and behold, cow number 29 had just had a calf, a sprightly Hereford calf who immediately left her mother and came to visit me. I call her Redemption.
I lost a lot of sleep that week, worrying each day whether I would be able plant the next morning, whether anything would actually come up and if I would be able to finish all 110 acres.
I am learning in real time that farming is all about watching, waiting and finding those opportunities, however imperfect, that will let me succeed. I have always known this in my core, it is in my genes. But a lifetime of living in the modern world has chivvied me away from living this way, it has made me anxious to accomplish everything now, not when the weather or the season allows.
By March 19th, with the help of Jeff, Lucas, Andrea and my Dad, I had planted 70 of the 110 acres, but the weather was too warm, the ground too muddy to continue with frost seeding. I made the decision to put the last 40 acres in when I get back in April by using a disc to disturb the soil, spreading the seed and then using a harrow to smooth the ground and cover the seed. It is a much more labor intensive process with the added danger of soil loss if there is a lot of rain, but it guarantees the seed is covered. I will use this as an opportunity to see which process is more successful.
To date, we have had 8 calves and only the first didn’t make it. Our cows look healthy, most of the seeding is done and I have a plan for the rest. The guy who ordered the posts came on the 23rd for his first pickup and I have planned with my family about caring for the cattle while I am back in San Francisco for the next month. I have a lot to do there as well, but already I am planning for my next trip home to Iowa - the season is upon us.