Thursday, August 23, 2007

Conversations I Never Thought I'd Have......Part I

One nice summer afternoon, we decided to take an easy stroll through a nearby forest preserve. Besides the pesky flies dive-bombing our heads, hence the head slapping above, it was a fine time. Armando got to ride on his papa's shoulders, the girls got to pick wild berries along the path, Marcel got to take a break from projects and more projects, and I got to enjoy a nice walk in a natural setting, which was a common practice of mine before I went out and multiplied.

Well, the hike didn't last long because someone was thirsty, and another one was tired, and Marcel's shoulders were starting to slump under Armando's weight, so we took the quickest way back, which ended up being along the road. It wasn't long before a neighbor farmer drove up, rolled down the window, and started chatting.

I love this about farmers. Farmers are always leaning out their window, talking to someone, usually smack dab in the middle of the road, without a second thought to any possible danger involved. This time was no exception. We were on 'big hill', the extremely inventive name that locals use to identify a particularly steep and curving hill on our road, and our neighbor had parked on the wrong side of the road to faciliate our little chat. It was very nice of him to accommodate us like that, and I don't understand why we kept getting dirty looks from the others passing by.

Soon enough the conversation turned to our four new Murray Grey's, and how we were going to breed them. Up until now, I had always wondered why some of the local farmers seemed to be uncomfortable dealing with me in my new farmer role. I mean, what's the big deal? Women do all sorts of jobs that used to fall squarely in the "man's work" category. But once the conversation turned to breeding, I saw the issue in a new light.

We need to artificially inseminate our Murray Grey cows, because we don't have enough to justify the cost of a bull. And our neighbor is being extremely generous in offering to take time out of his hectic schedule to help us. So all of a sudden I'm having a full blown conversation with my neighbor, who happens to be male, with whom I went to high school, and with whom I've never spent much time, about semen. Semen!

The conversation quickly deteriorates from how to order the semen, to how to know if the cow is ready. He started to explain that the vulva will be so, and you can palpate her this way, and stick your fingers in here, and deposit the semen in this manner, etc. etc. By the time he started to tell us that the heifers will be especially tight, I could feel a blush slowly creeping up my face. The horror.

So, I will kindly take back my ranting comments about how silly it is for farmers to be uncomfortable dealing with a woman. I get it, I really do.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Our Herd Mothers

Isn't she a beauty? She is one of our four new herd mothers, the future of Flynn's Irish Grove Acres.

We are in our first year of transitioning the farm from a conventional grain-fed beef operation to an organic grass-fed beef operation. The reasons for the change are wide and varied, but I'll briefly touch on a few of them here.

Today, to be a successful farmer following the rules of the game set out by Big Agriculture, you must "get big or get out". For those of you who don't own land and aren't familiar with farming, 260 acres may sound big. But for conventional agriculture, it is laughably small. We are WAY too insignificant to compete in conventional agriculture, and unfortunately, that's exactly how the big players want it. The only future I can see for a small, working family farm is to specialize in a rare, niche product, and/or go organic. There is no other viable alternative.

On a more personal level, I am a farmer, but I'm also an environmentalist. As a farmer, I see my farm as as a productive entity, as a partner, as a provider. As an environmentalist, I see my farm as an ecosystem, as a lifeline to flora and fauna, as a prairie waiting to emerge from beneath these strange and foreign plants called corn and soybean. Obviously it is pretty difficult to reconcile these two, real, live personas within me. Grass-fed beef offers me an almost perfect opportunity to work the land without damaging it, to take but to also give back.

Finally, I want to raise grass-fed beef because I am a mother, and because I want my children to love this farm. There are plenty of jobs around the farm that would make even the most seasoned farm kid want to thumb a ride to the Big Apple, but it is nothing but fun when we are working with the cattle. My kids love to help switch them from one pasture to another, and think it's hilarious to see them kick up their heels when they are allowed into a new section of the farm. We all love to go see the cows, to watch them eat or laze around. Oh, and I almost forgot: grass-fed beef poop, yep, you guessed it, in the field. Take that, Dad!

Here are my kids--happy as flies on manure--the day we brought our new cows home. You can tell they're real farm kids because they have no fear of those poop-smeared trailer panels.

And thanks to the cows, they are genuinely happy, even after being forced to ride 8 hours in the Big-Ass truck to go get our new mama's. Yeah, that's right. We drove all the way to Black River Falls, Wisconsin for these beauties.

But they are worth it. They're Murray Grey cows, and Murray Grey's are a specialty breed. There aren't too many people raising them around here, but those who do love them. The best thing about them, to me, is that they're an all-beef breed, meaning they've never been cross-bred with a milking breed. Their genetic make-up is focused on bulking up, not producing obnoxious quantities of milk, and, because of this, they fatten easily. This is key to a grass-fed operation, because we won't be supplementing their diet with grains. They will have to survive on pasture and dry hay only, and these ladies are good at producing calves that achieve a nicely marbled meat without grain.

Here's another look at our Murray's en route to their new home in good 'ole Irish Grove.

They were calm and collected the whole way home. Good girls. (Murray's are also known for their calm and gentle disposition, which is another big hit with this mama.)

Even though they are an Australian breed, a cross between a Scottish Aberdeen Angus and a Shorthorn, Murray Grey is appropriately Irish-sounding, don't you think? If not, no matter. They're Irish now, and, if you can't tell, we have high hopes for them.

You'll be seeing more of these ladies, I can guarantee it.