Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Ag Dictionary: "Steer Stuffer"

I will never forget the time or place when I decided to marry a farmer. I was a junior in high school and working part-time at Sears in the mens and childrens department. Thanks to  other Sears associates, I went on a group blind date (my first date ever) with a boy who worked in "Tool Territory". (Just an FYI, my brother went along on this group blind date...awkward!) Anyhoo, after that first uncomfortable evening, my "date" and I continued to talk at work until I guess I pestered him enough to ask me out again. This time all by ourselves! Finally, I was going on an actual date!

I remember we went out on a Friday night after I had worked until closing time. He picked me up at work and we drove to a Mexican restaurant (where I was too nervous to eat anything!) As we were driving in the car, making small talk, he asked me how my day had gone:

Me: "Oh, pretty good. I had to pass a combine coming home from school today. It kinda freaked me out because other cars were coming in the other lane."

Date: "What's a combine?"

I looked over at him and realized he honestly didn't know what a combine was. I think this was my first experience talking about a piece of farming equipment with someone who didn't have any ties at all to farming.

How odd, I thought.  Am I going to have to explain everything to this guy, or others, about every aspect of October and the farm? (The farm being grandma and grandpa's...Shaw Farms.)

I knew then and there that something like this just wasn't going to work. I wanted to have conversations with someone who knew what I was talking about and didn't need any kind of explanation... combines, corn cribs, the difference between hay and straw, the gratification of growing my own green beans versus buying them in a can at the store, knowing that sweet corn straight from the field and frozen for the winter was so much better than store bought corn (which was and still is considered a sin to my family), even going as far as using common knowledge that you don't wear flip flops and sandals around the horses... I simply couldn't do it.

My quest of dating only "country boys" took me to some pretty interesting places, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way... in fact, it really only got "good" when I met Dan. I also want to point out that I got criticized for it by more than one person. So sorry that I knew early on what I wanted out of life, and gee, my persistence has paid off more than what I ever dreamed.

So, now for the reason of my post; I know I have mentioned a contraption several times on my blog and I would like to highlight it since I realize not everyone has a picture in their minds when I mention the "stuffer". I didn't know what one was until I met Dan and he had the steers here at the house.

Every year we raise up 6 or 7 steers for meat purposes. They are all Holstein bulls who have been neutered and their sole purpose in life is to eat and get fat so we can butcher them and eat them. We use the Holstein breed since that is the breed of milking cow that the Shawhan family milks and we keep back half a dozen bull calves a year to become steers. They are neutered at a young age and move down here to our place (the Shawhan farm) when they are about 4 to 6 months of age. They go to market at around 14 months of age. During that time, the steers, or Beefy Boys as they appear on this blog from time to time, run around in what we call the steer lot, which they share with the chickens. It's an empty lot that has access to the back of the barn, so they get inside from inclimate weather. It has an automatic waterer and of course, the stuffer.

The stuffer is a big wooden bin that holds the corn the steers eat. Our stuffer here is made of wood...Dan says it's older than he is (about 30 years), whereas newer ones are made from fiberglass to help with rodents chewing through. As one can imagine, a free-choice buffet of corn is an all out casting call for rats!

Our rat tunnels in the yard that border the steer lot rival those of the Viet Cong.

The stuffer can hold about 6,000 pounds of corn, but Dan usually puts in about 4,000 pounds when he fills it up.

The stuffer has to be filled about once a month or every 6 weeks. Dan usually drives the tractor with the feed grinder on it down the road from the dairy, even in cold nasty winter months, and back... about a 20 minute ride one way.

The corn is mixed with dairy beef grower, which is basically protein. Some farms use silage, chopped up and fermented corn, which is a cheaper route in feeding steers. They eat silage until 6 weeks prior to going to market, then they are switched to corn. As of right now, we don't have a system set up to feed silage, but you never know what the future holds.  The steers also get 1 to 2 pounds of hay per day, each. The hay provides the roughage their digestive tract needs to keep functioning properly.  

I know a lot of people want grass fed beef, for many different reasons; some think that it's more natural for the cow. We prefer grain fed beef because we feel it tastes better.

People ask me if it bothers me that I see the animal that I'm going to eat. I tell them no because I know what they taste like, and the time it takes from the steers going to market until we get the packages of beef back is about 2 weeks. I know how well the steers were treated in life, which is pretty darn good, and what they were fed, versus going to the store and guessing.

I do enjoy the presence of the steers; I would miss having them if they weren't here. Currently, we have 7 steers: Ben, Jerry, Buzz, Woody, Peanut, Achmed and Jose. I like to pick the steer names since my mother-in-law gets to name all the dairy cows...this is a group that I can name! My sister-in-law asks not to be told the name of the steer that their beef comes from.

I hope I've given a good description of a steer stuffer. I realize that I've probably mentioned things that some would like to know more about or at least be able to visualize something when it gets mentioned!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Thursday Eve

Last night I was nearing my wits end.  Solitary days and the demands of being a 24/7 milk bar were beginning to unravel the last shreds of my nerves. Unable to escape to the underwater bliss of the pool at the Y, I told Dan not to worry about taking care of the animals out in the barn when he got home. Last night, I wanted to get outside, see my animals for myself and do some physical work.
I totally threw the horses for a loop. I made Jimmy and Charlie wait for their dinner as I cleaned out Jimmy stall first. Then I brought them in their stalls and fed them their grain only. While I had the opportunity of an open pasture gate, I dumped my first wheel barrow creating room for the mess that was to come from Charlie’s stall…I cleaned that one out after the horses were back in the pasture for the night.
The boys were still eating and licking out every last bit of rolled oats and corn from every hidden crevice of their feed buckets, so I picked up a brush and stepped inside with my boy Charlie. I love both my horses equally, but there is something special about Charlie. I can’t tell you exactly what it is over Jimmy, but there is just something there. I’m not sure if this is going to make sense, but I feel like Charlie will try to please you, even if what you are asking him to do is scary for him. He is more of a gentleman, whereas Jimmy is definitely the class clown of the team. Jimmy is more apt to kick a stall door with impatience, whereas Charlie will stand back and wait without ever moving a foot. I should have stopped myself a long time ago, but I have entered the danger zone with both of them and one day my heart will be broken double-time when they are no longer with me. 

So I stood there and brushed away the mud and dust, new shreds of my sanity slowing sewing themselves back together again with each sweep of my hand. Occasionally Charlie would look back at me with his kind brown eyes that said, “It’s going to be OK” and “AHHHH that feels good!” A ten minute little massage on an 1,800 pound horse is a wondrous ten minute massage on the soul.
After that I divided up some hay and took it outside to feed them the rest of their dinner out there. Which threw them off because normally they come inside at night to eat grain and hay, then we go back outside to let them back out into the pasture. This way, each horse gets his fair share of food and not one hogging it all. I decided to give the hay outside last night so we didn’t have to venture back out later.
Jimmy, Charlie and I played ring-around-the –rosie for a few minutes after letting them back out, since the routine was all thrown off balance. After successfully shutting the pasture gate they just stood there looking at me like I had forgotten something important: the rest of dinner! So I climbed over the gate and led Jimmy outside to the stacks of hay. As I stepped out into the darkness, the wind caught my breath and stole it away with swirling snowflakes. It wasn’t snowing just a few minutes before that! Jack Frost had made an impromptu appearance and he seemed angry at something or someone. Now I was out in a beautiful and haunting scene with wind and snow and two big black horses in the black of night with their manes flying about wildly.  I thought it was really cool!
After gathering the eggs and locking in the chickens, I shut off the all the lights and stepped out of the barn into the snow globe that I seemed to be in. Still needing some time to myself,  I sat on the cold ground with my back to barn and drank in the winter silence (except for the chitter chatter of the chickens…I swear their lives are nothing but drama!) and enjoyed being covered with a dusting of snow.
I am thankful for the life that I have and my wonderful boys. I am thankful that Dan will come home and take over on the days that I am about to snap and not rush outside after ten minutes saying I’m needed in the house. He can take care of it all. I am thankful for a place to go, just down the driveway, and escape for a few minutes. I am thankful for my animals and all the therapy and creativity they give me.
But last night, I was most thankful for something else.  I was so thankful that we have a sloping driveway and that any cars or buggies going by were unable to see the bundled up and frazzled housewife sitting on the ground with an egg carton on her lap being covered in a dusting of beautiful, sparkling snow.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Battening Down the Hatches!

I don’t need to state the obvious here…its flippin’ cold! Today and tomorrow, Ohio is experiencing the coldest temperatures in like, 15 years. Right this minute its negative 4 degrees outside, with a wind chill of negative 15. (Secretly I think it’s cool. Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up with winters like these all the time and she turned out OK in the end. Her hubby Almanzo grew up 11 miles from the Canadian border. I don’t think they closed his school due to cold temperatures.)
Anyhoo, I want to backtrack to New Year’s Day.  What a tease the first day of the New Year was! Almost 50 degrees, which would feel like summer right about now! Like a sauna! The wind was coming up from the South and felt more like April than (obviously) January.  I took advantage of the warmer weather and stole out to the barn for a bit. Snow was in the forecast even before this arctic blast, so I wanted to make sure everything outside was prepared for it.
I cleaned stalls and cleaned out the chicken coop. I also emptied out the old trough-roost in the kennel area. It was full of poo and other debris. I put in fresh hay incase the ladies wanted to snuggle inside once the colder air came.
I also laid out their tower of crates and put hay in all the boxes with the same idea as the trough-roost.
Looking back I’m really glad I did this, since while I was out in the barn at noon today there were some chickies taking advantage of these cozy areas. I scrubbed out the waterer and added oyster shells to the free choice oyster shell bin. I called out Dan and he put up the plexi-glass in the windows and doors of the chicken coop with the hope of keeping in as much warmth as possible.
Now the arrival of the frigid air today, I did go out a couple of times to check on the automatic waterer the horses and steers share. There was a skiff of ice that I broke a couple of times, though a push with a large nose could have broken it too. The chicken water heater was doing its job because theirs was not frozen at all.
The barn on the Shawhan farm is as closed tight as an old drafty barn can get. Throughout the day the barnyard looked pretty empty; no chickens or steers running around in the lot and the horses stayed behind the barn, or inside of it, as the wind blew most of the day. A couple of times the Beefy Boys braved the winter wonderland and ventured over to the stuffer, but for the most part my view of the barnyard was an oddly empty one.
It’s so funny to look out from the frozen pasture to back yard and imagine sweltering heat, green grass and the hum of the lawn mower. Or to look out across the driveway to barren garden buried under our very own tundra and think that only a few months ago it was green and plentiful with corn, beans and tomatoes.
After Christmas I am always ready to skip the winter months and go straight into spring. New Year’s Day, with its spring-like warmth made me want to dig my fingers in the dirt and plant something. But, I suppose if we must drudge through winter, at least it is feeling like winter and actually being one. All the snow and the freezing of the ground is ideal for gardens and farmers’ fields. Plus, Laura Ingalls braved harsh winters and blizzards her whole life. She knew how to put on her big girl panties and deal with it. Now it is our turn to batten down the hatches and pick out the cute pink Victoria Secret undies with the hearts and stars on them, pull them up to our belly buttons and solider on.