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Should We Care About "Happy Cows"?

A "happy" new calf, just a few days old

The most exciting news this week at Whippoorwill Creek Farms are the new calves. Thus far we have seven, five black/white faced and two red. They appear like magic, not there one day and wobbling on their skinny legs the next, the mothers taking care of the whole affair themselves out in the tree-filled pasture. John and I get up in the mornings and walk to make sure everyone is alright, that the birthing has proceeded without a hitch and no one is in need of human intervention. It is a wonderful spring ritual – the early morning walk-about in search of new life – and one I highly recommend you adopt too, no matter where you are.

One of many discarded bales of wire

Yet along with the admiring of new life this week also came the cleaning up of the old. John, his sister Andrea and I spent a full day pulling old metal roofing, tires and plastic bottles out of the creek bed. Hours of work aimed at undoing the effort John’s dad and grandfather spent when tidying up farm. In a time before landfills, the “ditch” was where you put your garbage (and still is in most places on the planet), and as the trash morphed from cotton clothing and food scraps to plastic bottles and dead engines, so too did the crap they heave-hoed onto the land.

But now we supposedly know better, and the garbage is ours to again collect and haul, to move to a different place where it can now be recycled (is any of it actually recycled??) or heaped together in a county-approved facility. It makes me wonder what the next generation will do with it, when a new concept in what to do with the thrown out will emerge. Hopefully they will have better options for it than we currently do. But it has also amazed me how much of our time in fact is spent unraveling (often literally) the work of other humans, how the “cleaning up” they did has now resulted in more work than three people can possibly accomplish in an entire year.

A tree growing through metal
A tree grows up through and into old machinery

I see now how we deal with the legacy of the past is really the central question in agriculture today. How do we handle with the problems past generations created for us? Do we cobble together a program here and there to attempt to address a single issue - by planting cover crops to help reduce erosion, for example - or do we spend most of our time trying to restore the entirety of it all, bit by bit, to completely undo the work of our ancestors?

“My grandfather, Pete Hogeland, he made a lot of money," Leroy (John's dad) told me recently. We were sitting at the kitchen table, me asking questions about how agriculture evolved, him spinning an enjoyable, albeit surprising, yarn. "Pete did that by raping the land. He raised a lot of corn, fed it to steers. But in order to get a lot of land under cultivation, he plowed up this land every year. This business of plowing up the land was disastrous for the country. A lot of this land out here was good land, before people came out and started plowing it up. When they plowed it up, the ground washed away. It was that simple.”

Curious cows gather to watch the clean up

Simple. But that “raping” of the land - by our white ancestors I may add, not by the people who were already here utilizing it - is something we all still must deal with today.

Most farmers in the Midwest attempt to remedy this past by adding nutrients to the soil. They spray RoundUp to combat the weeds that arise from having an unbalanced ecosystem that our grandparents created. They enroll in government programs to help pay for reseeding the prairie grasses Pete Hogeland and others destroyed.

John battles old net wrap near a trashed hog feeder

But John and I – and many farmers, even in Iowa - would like instead to actually undo this mess. To take a big “do over” and attempt to restore the landscape to the best of our ability. To move cows daily to make sure their impact is minimal. To restore the whole creek bed, even if it means not grazing cows there for years and spending a hell of a lot of time pulling old metal out of the muck.

This is not an easy choice for a farm to make. On most days there are only two of us, and I don’t have the ability to pull a buried engine out of the ground by myself. It also means a lot of money needs to be put into the farm for something for which there is little to no return on investment. According to the USDA, reseeding prairie can cost more than $200 an acre – meaning that seeding 100 acres is a $20,000 job for something that generates no income.

We still plan to farm – an “unnatural” act in and of itself, demanding a level of organization of the landscape Mother Nature does not herself impose. Animals and plants also grow slower when you don’t aid them along with calorie rich feeds and chemical fertilizers, which means you have less to sell overall. Making the choice to sell all our cattle as “grass-fed” has resulted in no income for the first two years (instead of one), an expensive decision many farmers cannot afford to make. And if we want agriculture to be sustainable, it does need to be a financially viable job, not just a hobby for the privileged.

'Clementine' prepared to pull metal from a tree

This then is the difference between the cheaper organic milk in the supermarket and the more expensive ones – and one I will call the "happy cow conundrum." To me the fact that we have turned the question of sustainability into a discussion about if the cows or chickens are "happy" is problematic. Ask your farmer instead what is going on in her "ditches" (and note if in fact if she refers to them as ditches), or how many trees they have planted in the past year. Don't ask about what the cows or chickens eat or where they sleep. Ask about a farmer's plans for the land 20 years from now.

Our calves are cute and wondrous to watch. But sadly they are not the heart of the matter. The unsavory days and weeks we spend removing metal - to ensure the safety and health of both the waterway and the cute calves - is far more important than the simple "happiness" of our cattle.

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