This weeks blog post is about cow shit, which I have gotten into lately – both literally and figuratively. I have been purposely stepping in it, shit squishing around my rubber boots, my brain astonished that I – once a prima donna – now walk around in pastures looking for cow crap to step in.
Let me explain. It is actually not about the shit, but about the flies, God's questionable byproduct of manure. If you read this blog post of ours last summer, you learned that flies are a huge ranching problem. As the summer arrives so too do the flies, seemingly out of now where, like a Michael Jackson dance flash mob. Horn flies hang out during the day on the cows' legs and underbelly biting them there, only to move in the cooler late afternoon to snack on the cow’s backs. There are face flies too, that swarm around their eyes as the cows look at you in disgust, ashamed of your terrible ranching skills.
The flies are problematic, not just because they are gross. Flies make the cattle squirmy and unsettled – it is easy to tell if your cows have a ton of flies on them from afar because they are all swatting their tails and flipping their heads trying to get at their backs. They also walk all together in a tight pack, rubbing against each other in a desperate attempt to squish or chase away the flies. They scratch on anything they can get near, and ultimately - and most detrimentally for a rancher - they don’t eat very much because they are miserable, and their high stress levels makes them less tasty.
So flies make ranchers question their career choice. I am a total failure, you think to yourself when out in the field; my one job in the world is take care of these animals and I am failing at even that. Some ranchers spend huge money buying sprays to kill flies. Our neighbor told John he spent over 700 dollars for a bottle of insecticide. “It will keep them fly-free for two weeks," he told John. "But it really pisses me off when I am spraying them and they move. It's like I just squirted 27 dollars into the ground.”
John and I are not interested in spraying animals with chemicals, and certainly not in the face. We are hoping to solidify our organic certification sooner than later and so toxic sprays are out of the question. Plus, the neighbor pointed out that the flies become resistant to the chemical within a couple of years "but they've always got the next magic bottle that is even more expensive," he added.
Instead, John and I have been looking for other ways to manage the flies, which brings me back to the shit. If you ruin the fly habitat, you will get rid of flies, I thought. So I started spraying the fresh manure with a mix of neem oil extract and water. Neem is an oil I learned about when doing reporting in India, an organic product used for a whole host of issues including as an insecticide. I spray the poop every few days and I also step in the shit to break it up too - the flies prefer to lay eggs in the big ol' patties (more food for the babies??), so I make sure there are none of those left when I am done. We were told by another innovative farmer to also spray the cows' backs with simple vegetable oil using a portable electric paint sprayer, which we also do every few days as well - apparently flies covered in oil can't fly.
The results are remarkable. The number of flies is so low, the cattle have truly found relief. They are not walking in a tight pack anymore, not swishing and squirming around like a three year old kid at an amusement park. They are just walking around with their heads down, eating.
And me? The experience has released my inner scientist - I now regularly stand at a smooshed cow patty inspecting the contents, taking pictures. Somehow to me it is "fun," even if I am now officially full of shit.