Dependable Farm Labor Hard To Find

Since Shaggy’s passing the guys have been shopping for farm help or farm workers to fill in the gaps. It is not so much that they are getting burned out from the “new normal” but of what is coming in the very near future. Even though there is plenty of snow, we all know that once it is gone for the season, field work will soon be looming on our horizon. That means that there will be one tractor with a person missing to drive it to plow and plant. Last year there was one tractor too with a person missing to drive it. Fortunately, we were able to find some volunteers or casual help to fill that seat. It was not easy though to find that casual help for just one tractor. This year with Shaggy gone that means there will be two tractors missing a person each to drive them.

We placed ads in local community shopper guides, talked to people who may know other people looking for work and posted ads online. The only response we got so far were from people eager to work but with very questionable backgrounds. Perhaps it is wrong to discriminate against people with criminal records when considering them for employment, but right now with all of the losses and challenges we have encountered since the fall of 2013 and a harsh winter due to a polar vortex, we just cannot risk any more than we have to. Farming is risky enough without knowingly adding risk.

That is how we all felt after an interview we had with a candidate recently. He was young and eager and not afraid of hard work. He wanted to work on a farm, but he had a buddy he wanted to drag into the deal who had some criminal records that made us afraid. As it is, we can only afford to hire one person right now. Were we to choose the young man without the record and provide him housing as a benefit, we could possibly encounter another problem. His buddy could come to visit and do some things in retaliation for not hiring him. Some of those things to retaliate could include activities that took place in that buddy’s past that got him into trouble in the first place.

I do know that some people do when given a second chance turn their lives around, but right now with what this farm has gone through in recent months it is too risky to give a second chance that could make matters worse. Perhaps we are not in a position to be so picky, but we are dealing with a lot of lives here. Not just our lives, but the animals that we are dependent on for our livelihood.

Then on the other side of the coin, we find people who want to work and promise you the sun and more if you would hire them. Months after the so-called honeymoon period, you find that those people are not who they said they are. It’s almost like being catfished. You get to know them, and they appear to be the person you have been looking for. Then, after time has passed so that you trust them, all of a sudden you find you invested time and money into someone who really doesn’t have what it takes.

We learned a lot about that situation recently too. We found a candidate who had “experience” working at distinguished farms and businesses working in various roles that would have been applicable to our business. He appeared to be “the one” until we began talking to employers we knew that the candidate listed. We found out that the reason why this person had so much “experience” and worked at so many places was because he would work out great at the start but then slacked off. We discovered too that the amount of time he was employed at certain places was not accurate either. It turns out the months listed after each job entry were more like days.

Having said all of this, we are back to where we started. We knew at the start dependable farm labor is hard to find. And, we are not the only ones to have this kind of experience. We hear this from other farmers too. Like us, they don’t have applicants lining up wanting the work offered either. It is hard work with long hours, and a lot of people don’t want that. Even people who are unemployed. We found that out when we offered a job to someone we knew who could use the work.

Meanwhile, we will be grateful for the dependable farm labor we do have and just pray and hope someone dependable turns up sooner or later while we continue our search.

December Without Shaggy

December came. The new normal was becoming a routine sprinkled with more delays on the house project. The contractor got sick for a week from the flu. Since Lucky and Big C were the crew, they could not move forward without the contractor to lead the project. They were kept busy with other issues that sprung up on the farm though. The cold winter weather brought up a host of new problems to be dealt with, and Sunny learned the hard way that a manure spreader’s paddles need to be warmed up before using the spreader in the cold. Things that cold froze up and when turned on busted.

By the time Christmas arrived, no one felt like being in a holiday mood. I didn’t even decorate the house. There was no room to put up a Christmas tree because of the renovation. Instead I put out a Scentsy tree warmer. That was the only decoration I put out besides putting camouflage Santa hats on the dead heads in the living room.

I did some holiday baking, but I found it difficult with the lack of space. Regardless, I felt I had to bake something even though Big C despite his sweet tooth said he didn’t care if we had nothing. With Shaggy gone, the house torn apart and the guys being tired out from the extra work, they didn’t feel like celebrating anything let alone Christmas.

Still, after finding some gift certificates that Shaggy had tucked away somewhere for a local restaurant, Lucky thought we should use them toward a holiday buffet on Christmas Day. Big C wasn’t too keen on going but went with Lucky, Sunny and me after Lucky convinced him we had to do something as a family.

It was a long ride that Christmas Day to the restaurant, not in the sense of distance but the ride, itself. One could have heard a pin drop in the Jeep, this after I decided to not engage in conversation with the guys. I would have had better luck with Budster or Cook to get some reaction out of the guys for 10 miles. I chose to keep my thoughts to myself and decided to enjoy the scenery because it was a treat for me to get away from the farm.

When we arrived at the restaurant, the mood changed. Lucky and Sunny interacted like they normally do around a buffet of food while Big C, still not happy being there, became a critic about where we were seated and the food offered. As for me, when the waitress asked what we wanted to drink, I followed Big C’s lead of having a Captain root beer. I needed something to help me get through that meal after the ride which seemed like an eternity.

After the meal, the rest of the day was tolerable. It seems like a full stomach does wonders for a guy. The guys were more animated on the ride back home, finding places that had tractors sitting out in a lot for sale and other things guys take an interest in.

Later that day I quietly enjoyed a gift cousins from Colorado surprised me with that came by USPS. Our hired man and his wife who help with the milking surprised us later that night with food from their native country of Mexico. They were having a family party and wanted us to be part of it in some way. I felt thankful for them. They were real good about not taking Sundays off any more since Shaggy’s death as it was. Mexican food at the end of a day that started out rather sad was like icing on a cake.

A New Normal

It’s been a long haul since Shaggy’s demise. We have what we call a new normal here on the farm. Looking back, I wonder how we did it. Though we were in shock, there was not time for us to really grasp what had happened. There were cows that had to be fed, heifers and steers to be fed, calves to be fed, cows to be milked and other tasks common on a dairy farm. Although Shaggy was dead and there was nothing we could do more for him, there were others we had to keep alive besides ourselves. Our animals.

Already as soon as Shaggy was off the farm, Lucky, Sunny and Big C got their heads together as to how to get the things done that Shaggy did. Between them, it was decided that Sunny would feed the mothers of his calves besides the heifers at the barn where Shaggy lived. Lucky would assist him by making sure feed like protein and corn got dumped into the TMR with the use of a skidsteer. Big C would fill in the gaps making sure a steady flow of cows were making their way to the barn to get milked, scraping pens with a skidsteer as each group got milked and then heading down to the heifer barn to make sure things were right there. It didn’t take long to realize that Shaggy did a lot.

In between work on the house continued. That process has been slow. Multiple delays took place. After time off from Shaggy’s funeral and dealing with a new normal for getting farm work done, another week slid by during the annual deer hunt. Even though none of the guys felt like hunting, I urged them to do it still, especially Lucky. He had to do something to take a break.

Sometimes Fear Can Be Your Worst Enemy

Sometimes fear can be your worst enemy.  This was the case with Shaggy.  He must have known something was going wrong with his health.  After seeing his oldest sister go through the ordeal she did in her fight against breast cancer, he did his best to avoid going to see a doctor.  It was also in his farmer’s DNA not to go to see a doctor unless he really had to.  The only medical professional he chose to seek help from was always a chiropractor to help with his aches and pains.

Shaggy didn’t even believe in going to a dentist.  He practiced self-dentistry, yanking out teeth in the shop with a pair of pliers.  We would not have known that had Sunny and Big C not seen the act with their own eyes.  Needless to say, witnessing it made them realize that they were better off to go to the dentist to maintain their teeth.

Fear was Shaggy’s biggest enemy.  He probably knew he was in serious trouble with his health.  Still, he did not want to be exposed to multiple doctor visits and treatments like his sister did.  Rather than find out exactly what the issue was with his health, he chose to keep it to himself.  He didn’t even share this with us here on the farm. One would think he would have said something to Lucky, his brother.  He did not.

It was not until September or October his body began to give his secret about his health away.  People who did business with us on the farm were asking about Shaggy.  They were amazed at the weight he lost.  We knew he was losing weight, but not all over.  He had quite an ample middle yet. I figured it was from middle age and all of the soda pop he drank.

After a bit, Big C noticed Shaggy’s neck was rather thin and that his bones were starting to stick out.  Lucky asked Shaggy from time to time in private if there was something wrong with his health.  Each time Shaggy only responded that he was okay and would quickly switch gears by talking about something else.

In October Shaggy’s state of health declined further.  He complained of being cold a lot, even though he had complained about that for the last 2 months.  He took longer getting his chores done.  Lucky kept asking him if he needed to see a doctor or if there was something he needed to share.  Each time, Shaggy would say he was okay but just that he was tired.

He got weaker and weaker.  One morning Shaggy said he needed extra help feeding the cows.  When asked why, all he would admit to was that his legs didn’t work.  When Lucky tried to get more detail out of him than that, Shaggy got mad.

It was more than his legs not working.  As the weeks passed on, Shaggy had a hard time doing simple things like closing the door on a tractor cab, climbing up the steps of a tractor and more.  Soon Shaggy was requesting daily to be lifted up to a tractor cab with a skid steer bucket.  He was too weak.  Still, he was saying he was fine but just tired.

The last week of October Lucky vowed he would take Shaggy to get medical help after the corn chopping was done.   Surprisingly, he didn’t put up a fight when Tuesday morning rolled around and Lucky told him he was going to the doctor no matter what.   Shaggy’s condition was serious and to the point where Urgent Care would not be enough.  Lucky took him to the ER.

Shaggy was admitted to the hospital immediately.  We learned that he did indeed have cancer, and it was too late.  He was aware he was in serious trouble.  I thought that once he got stabilized, he would be enrolled in hospice care.

I was wrong.  Three days after his admission on Tuesday, he passed away.

Lucky was in shock as were Sunny and Big C.  I was shocked and at the same time angry.  I was angry that Shaggy didn’t let us in on how he was really feeling.  His fear robbed us of our opportunity to help him cope and get through his ordeal.

But, on the other hand, I had to respect his way of dealing with his fear and the situation.  Regardless, had he faced his situation right on, he would have learned that he had a form of cancer that had a 98% cure rate.  Rather, fear convinced him he would be better off living as normal a life he could without treatment.  Fear did him in. Widgets

Enjoy The Journey?

It’s been a while since my last post here because of a rather overwhelming and challenging fall 2013.  It was at the tail end of one of the worst summers on the farm for Lucky that overwhelming and challenging began to dominate more than any other time.  I suppose we should be used to overwhelming and challenging by now–after all, those two words describe farming, 24/7, every single day of the year.  Still, as one gets older, tolerance for overwhelming and challenging wears a person out.   That is what Lucky and I have discovered.

Getting back to the tail end of summer, the overwhelming and challenging became frustrating beginning in September.  The weather was not the most ideal for growing crops to harvest to keep the cows, steers and heifers alive for another winter.  Fortunately, Lucky had some food left over when he figured in planting some extra the year before just in case.  I suppose these days with the weather as strange as it has become year after year, one has to plan for “just in case.”  If that was not enough, though, during the course of the summer or just a little before then, Lucky and I decided it was time to get something done about our farm-house.  Usually a farm-house is not a priority to pour money into.  To a farmer, the money is better spent on those things deemed as necessary to keep the farm operation going.  In this case, Wanda the cow’s living quarters were of more importance than the house Lucky, Big C, Sunny and I live in.  That is, until this year.

It was getting to the point where some modifications had to be made on the farm-house.  We wanted to take this house that originally was a granary building converted into a house a better house for Big C or Sunny when Lucky decided he would “retire.”  That meant improvising on windows that were rotted out and making the top floor of the house into a full story.  It was definitely time, especially when I had out of desperation found another use for duct tape–patching up the window in my home office to keep bees out.  There was a hive of them living in the wall below that window.  The frame of the window rotted out such that it was easy for bees to get into the wall.  With not much insulation in that wall to begin with, it was not hard for me to know the bees were there.  I could hear them while I was in the office.

We had scheduled the renovation to begin the week of Labor Day.  A contractor friend of ours was going to do the job with Lucky, Big C and Sunny helping.  Apparently the crew that was supposed to help decided to go back to school, college, almost the last minute.  What ensued in the weeks ahead was a journey that proved to be unlike any other we have taken.  I would get impatient and frustrated at times, but someone had told me to not think about the end point of the journey so much but to focus on enjoying what the stops made.  Once you start, there is no turning back.

To say the least, it had been quite a ride and still is.  After successfully locating a semi trailer to put the contents of the upstairs in for storage, tearing down the half story of the house was put on hold.  Lucky’s oldest sister who struggled with cancer for a period of time took a turn for the worst and passed away.  After we picked ourselves up from the shock and loss, we proceeded with tearing down the half story or second floor.  It was during that time the joy Big C experienced with destruction became obvious.  He also surprised everyone with his quickly learning how to operate a telehandler to remove pieces of the second floor, navigating between tightly spaced trees in the front yard of the house.

Strangely, for weeks on end before the complete removal of the second floor, rain was hard to come by.  That changed quickly though after the last piece of the second floor was taken away.  The next step naturally would have been making the floors even on the second floor before constructing the new outer walls.   That didn’t happen for days.  Rain was in the forecast not to mention wind.  Sunny and I headed to the local Menards for tarp.  No sooner than the tarp was laid down and secured, it began to rain.  It rained and rained and rained.

I wondered if what was left of the house would float away like Noah’s Ark.  The wind that came long with the rain storms whipped the tarp in such a way that the tarp began to wear down.  The damage to the tarp was not isolated to just one area but many in a hit and miss fashion.  This we discovered when rain was coming through the ceilings downstairs, not just in the kitchen like it had happened when the original roof needed repair, but in other rooms as well.  Multiple buckets to collect the rain under the areas of worn tarp were not enough.  What we ended up doing was using a huge fan under the tarp to blow it up, almost like one of those blown up fun houses for children at parties.  This then forced the rain to roll off the tarp from the house down to the ground directly.  At this point there were no eaves to catch the rain so it would have an orderly channel to reach the ground.  That meant that rain would either run off the tarp and be blown away from the house by the wind or end up going through the rotted window frames and start dropping on the window sills inside.  I don’t know which was worse–the rain dropping on the window sills inside or through the ceilings.  Regardless, every time it rained, the fan had to be plugged in immediately and kept running until the rain stopped.

Now that I look back on those early days of the renovation, the process reminds me of a board game like Sorry.  As long as we could coast ahead without delays, it was easy to move forward.  Still, when we were dealt the card that forced us to move backward, it seemed like we would never make it to “home” or the “safety zone.”   We still are not even close to “home.”  The journey taken on this renovation project has not come to an end yet.   More about this on my next post.

Knee High By Fourth of July

Here on the farm we were all hoping for what you call a “normal” summer. While during the summer of 2012 there was not enough rain to shake a stick at, the summer of 2013 has shown us what can happen at the other end of the precipitation spectrum—too much rain. I recall someone saying that too much of a good thing is not healthy for a person. Well, it turns out the same holds true here on the farm. The formula of too much rain plus too little action in the fields equals an unhealthy yield of agitation for the guys here on the farm. That I say after weeks of yours truly putting up with the stress of seeing a bunch of men go on a rollercoaster ride of emotions just because they can’t get out there and plant something.

Shaggy is a shaggy mess. Lucky feels very unlucky. Sunny has a disposition that is not at all what I would call sunny. Big C is getting bored and restless. As for me, I am trying to hold down the fort so to speak, taking on various roles as one moment a psychiatrist when I see them head into depression mode, a cheerleader on days lately when they manage to get out and get one field planted (go, John Deere, go!), a motivational speaker to keep them going and a preacher, reminding them that at this time faith is the key to survival.   I pray and pray and pray for the Good Lord to give me the strength to keep these guys focused and to not lose it.  After all, Wanda the cow needs some reassurance that she is going to have enough to eat this coming winter.

I have this feeling that the way things are playing out this summer, the weather has been demonstrating late season tendencies so far.  If this is true, then the planting that normally got started around here toward the end of May/first part of June is happening a month later. So far, that seems to be what is happening.

What Lucky and the crew managed to sneak in the ground the last week or so is normal timing for the last week of May or around Memorial Day, which is when most of the time it rains around here. Still, it took quite a bit of convincing these guys that this is what is happening and that the normal planting protocol for May in past years just does not apply this time around. I told the guys that as farmers who face challenges all the time in one form or another, they should not allow the weather to make them feel they have no control. Rather, they should focus on the creativity and intelligence that has gotten them to where they are after decades of farming to get them through this challenge. Of course, farming is not for those with little faith and little courage.

Once Lucky got past the panic, then the helpless mode of thinking, he really started to put his thinking cap on. After all, I told him, he was not born yesterday and being the seasoned farmer he is, I was confident he would come up with a strategy. The first step though would require really thinking outside the box, what is not considered “normal.” It is almost like something I learned in chemistry in college.  If you want to remove something, you have to remove it with something comparable—like with like. In this case, to remove this unpleasant situation Lucky is facing with not being able to plant, he needs to apply the abnormal (outside the box thinking) with the abnormal (unusually wet weather). So Lucky did just that. He came up with other ways to get the crops in. He switched out the corn meant to use for a long growing season for corn meant to use for a shorter growing season. He decided to use different equipment to break open the fields. He analyzed with Sunny and Big C which fields would be suitable to be planted first. He also got aggressive with making sure the tractor wheels got turning when the weather did allow field work to commence, even though the window of time was very short.  Sunny, Lucky and Big C adapted to the fields quickly, knowing when to speed up to avoid getting stuck.  As for Shaggy, he carried with him his usual Shaggy bad karma and would often get stuck—this happening after he clearly was told in the first place to not go in the field he got stuck in because it was too wet.

Now that we are into July, I do admit we are a little bit further ahead than a month ago. At least there is a silo’s worth of corn planted and even some soybeans as of this past week. Lucky at least didn’t give up like other farmers who decided to go in on some kind of program to bail them out with money, but money is not part of a cow’s diet. Wanda and her companions still need to eat, for heaven’s sake!

We are supposed to be getting a stretch of days without rain, one of them maybe being on the Fourth of July. Like other years on that day we will have some corn poked up out of the ground, but this year it won’t be as the saying goes of it being “knee high on the Fourth of July.” We’ll just be expecting the corn to be as high as it would be on the fourth of June and count our blessings that it has come out of the ground, not drowned out or rotted out. Or, we could still hold to the “knee high on Fourth of July” saying when put the way Lucky recalls his father Chief had a way of thinking about it during those challenging years of planting.  If you put your knee to the ground on the Fourth of July, the corn definitely will be knee high.

What Does Rut Have To Do With It?

I never realized how the rut or breeding season for whitetail deer could affect our cows here on the farm until one morning after the time changed earlier this month.  We began milking at the “old time” that first morning after the clocks were turned an hour back, so I saw no reason to see how that would affect the cows as I pushed them from the holding pen to the milking parlor. That is, until Wanda, one of our top producers, came whipping by me like she was on some kind of energy drink. Wanda, as I know her, does not hold a speed record for anything.  In fact, Wanda operates on Wanda speed and no one else’s. I knew something was not right when I saw Wanda go faster than Wanda speed. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Wanda just appeared to be going by quicker than usual because I was not up to speed yet.
It turns out Wanda was not the only one who broke a speed record. I soon noticed that other cows who were set at slow speeds under their versions of cruise control were showing signs of being quicker and more active than usual.  It did not take much to coax them into the milking parlor.  I began to wonder if I should have had more coffee before I came down to the barn to keep up with them.  In fact, all of the cows were acting like they were on some kind of energy supplement. While it made it a lot easier for me to get them from Point A, the holding pen, to Point B, the milking parlor, I wondered what was making them act that way. Did Shaggy add some kind of nutritional supplement to their feed or what?
Later I mentioned it to Big C who was passing through the barn on the walk beside the holding pen. I told him how Wanda was acting and wondered if he noticed this strange behavior within the herd. He thought it not strange at all, given the time of year. He told me that the cows were reacting to the rut taking place in the woods not far away from the cow barn.  All I could say was, “What?! What does the rut have to do with Wanda and the other cows?”
It was then that I learned that cows can smell doe urine from quite a distance and can tell when there are does in heat (the time when they feel they need to be bred).  Big C informed me that when a doe is in heat, her urine smells similar to a cow’s urine when a cow is in heat.  Since the doe urine throws off the smell of estrus, cows, once they smell it, realize it is the smell of being in heat and then react like they are in heat. When a cow goes into heat, she is definitely not herself. A calm cow becomes an excited cow. She jumps on other cows like they are bulls and has a glassy-eyed expression on her face. Slow cows become fast cows in the holding pen when they are in heat.  And, if I do not pay attention to what goes on in the holding pen and one of those cows slips through to the milking parlor, she can take out a light tube from the ceiling by attempting to jump cows while they are getting milked.
Cows are not the only bovines affected by the smell coming from the rut of deer.  Big C told me that the bulls become a bit agitated and can get downright ornery, if they happen to get a whiff of the strong smell a buck gives off during rut.  Big C said to the human nose when a buck is in rut, the buck gives off a strong smell, a sour stink, as Big C puts it.
I did some research on the Internet and based on the A to Z Guide To White-tailed Deer And Deer Hunting by Dr Randall Gilbert, page 120:  “Sexual scents composed of female pheromones collected from the urinary tract of a doe in sexual heat (estrus) are sold commercially.  These lures are used to attract bucks to a hunter’s area during the rut.  The buck is focusing upon finding the source of those pheromones quickly.  Some scent manufacturers substitute or mix bovine (cow) or sheep pheromones in their lures, claiming them to be chemically the same.”  Based on this, Big C knew what he was talking about.  Furthermore, Big C was right about how cows can detect what is going on with the whitetail deer from a distance because on page 145 of the A to Z Guide I found this nugget of information:  “The doe’s sexual pheromones carried on the air currents communicate her readiness to breed.”
Now, you wonder, how is it that cows can detect those pheromones carried in the air?  If you do a search on Google typing in the words “dairy cattle sense of smell,” you will find a number of sources that indicate that cows have very good noses.  The average result I got from such a search is that cows can smell odors from 5 to 6 miles away.  They have a special technique, so to speak, particularly of being able to detect airborne pheromones.  This technique is what is termed as the Flehman expression.  According to this website, a cow will stand still and look like she is studying something.  She holds her head up and her mouth a little bit open so she can get a whiff of smell in the air, sometimes with her lips curled back.  Per other research on the Internet, I learned that deer also use the same facial expression as a cow does to detect smells in the air, particularly sexual smells.  So the next time you happen to see a cow doing funny things with her nose and lips, it’s not because she needs something to do to entertain herself because she is bored.  It’s a way of finding out what’s going on in the neighborhood.  Cows like even my canines have this thing for smell as a means of giving them information.  This I see often when cows enter a stall in the milking parlor.  They often stop a moment to sniff out who was in that stall before them, which annoys the guys doing the milking.  The guys think the cows are dawdling around while in reality the cows are checking things out.   Kind of like smell before you take a step, the bovine version of the human saying, “Look before you leap.”
Knowing this, now I will know that while goofy things are happening in the woods in the fall, things can get just as goofy all the way from the cow barn to the holding pen. The question then comes to my mind is this–can whitetail deer get goofy when they are not in rut just from smelling certain smells from the cow barn?  Indeed, that is something to think about.

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