A Farmer’s Hands

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by Farmer Tim

A farmer’s hands have felt the first heart beats of a new born calf as it was carried to the safety of a warm barn. 

A farmer’s hands have been cracked and calloused by long days of dedication to a job that requires a work ethic second to none. 

A farmer’s hands have shielded eyes as they longingly searched the horizon for the rains to come quench the partched soil. 

A shake of a farmer’s hand will close a deal in a world where a person’s word means more than any binding legal agreement ever will. 

A farmer’s hands have sown seed and harvested the rewards from long days of patiently nurturing the land. 

A farmer’s hands have hugged children at the death of a pet and comforted them as it was buried in the back 40. 

A farmer’s hands have wiped away  tears at the loss of livestock after knowing that they did their best, but still wished that they could have done more. 

A farmer’s hands have bled from skinned knuckles during the hurried repairs of a rushed harvest season. 

A farmer’s hands have wiped away the sweat from a brow as bales of hay are piled on the hottest day of the year so that livestock can have feed for the long, cold winter. 

A farmer’s hands have been frostbitten by the cruel winter winds as they broke the ice on a frozen water trough so that their livestock could drink.  

A farmer’s hands have been folded in prayer to give thanks for a bountiful crop. 

The unforgiving sun has turned a farmer’s hands into leather from long days of picking stones and digging post holes. 

Caked in grease, a farmer’s hands ache from tightly gripping the steering wheel of an old tractor while making countless trips up and down a field. 

A farmer’s hands may not be soft and manicured, but they tell a story. It’s a story of pride, hard work and dedication. Their hands  can be strong when challenged yet gentle when needed. They are something to be proud of. You can tell a lot about a person from their hands. What story do yours tell? 

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Only a Farm Boy


It’s amazing how the people that you meet growing up help shape you into who you are today.
I was going through a box of old books last week and I came across my copy of Only a Farm Boy by Frank V Webster. It’s the novel about a boy who grew up, moved away from the farm and became very successful. He was no longer “just a farm boy.” It was given to me by one of my favourite public school teachers with the hopes that I would aspire to become someone more – not “just a farm boy”. She meant no wrong by it because as a teacher it was her job to challenge me and I was one of her star pupils. Throughout life I’ve struggled with who I am. I’m an academic at heart with a thirst for knowledge and a desire to teach, but I also have a very close relationship with the land. The blood of generations of farmers before me pulses through my veins.

To make a long story short I’ll always be a farm boy, but I’ve learned that farming can take you farther than you can ever imagine. Agriculture is changing rapidly with technology and innovation so there is no end to learning new things. I’ve fulfilled my desire to teach not only through my blog, but with school tours of our farm and with student volunteers. Farming is a job to be proud of. It’s a big responsibility to be one of the few who feed the many. I’m thankful to my public school teacher for pushing me to be more and helping me realize that you don’t have to leave the farm to be successful. It isn’t so bad being “only a farm boy”. 😉 Always be proud of who you are.

 

You might be farming in the winter when….

It’s so cold that the cows are producing ice-cream! 

The farmers are making snow angels. 

Livestock farmers leave colourful bootprints in the snow. 💩👞

Jack Frost leaves his mark on your barn windows. 

The cows are sporting frosty “moo-staches”. 

The Belted Galloway are the only ones not complaining about the cold. 

The cows are wearing toques (a Canadian term for a winter hat). 

Snow plowing has a different meaning. 

The cows wonder what happened to the grass. 

Hay bales turn into snowmen. 

A shovel becomes  your most important tool on the farm. 

Milk truck drivers become heros!

Farmers and cows are both longing for spring. 

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Last photo credit to Karen Dallimore

The Mathematics of Agriculture 

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[(family + pride) x hard work] – cruelty = farming 

The mathematics of agriculture isn’t always as simple as I make it out to be in this equation. It’s not as easy as cows using cowculators and farmers using protractors. There is a lot of other things that could go into the equation. Things like weather and the economy can really mess up the calculations. So let’s keep things simple and break this equation into parts. 

Family 

Family is the heart and soul of the farm with 98% of farms being family owned and operated. Many of these families have passed their passion for the land and livestock down for many generations. That brings me to the next factor in the equation. The addition of….

Pride 

Unless you are a farmer there is no way to explain the pride that we feel to be among the few that feed the many. Whether it is bringing new life into the world or growing fields of crops from just a few seeds it’s a privilege to do what we do. Knowing that our hard work nourishes not only our families but also the people of the world is one of the main reasons why we farm. Let’s talk a little bit more how that hard work factors into the equation.

Hard Work

There is a reason why there aren’t many farmers left in the world. Not everyone is cut out for the long hours of physical labour. With cows to milk and animals to care for every day, down time is a luxury. If you happen to be lucky enough to get away for a break from the farm there is always the weather and the crops to work around. Farming is a 365 day a year job so you better enjoy what you do! That leaves us to the only subtraction in the equation…

Cruelty 

Unfortunately there is always a fraction of cruelty in every equation but it’s not the norm. We’ve all seen the twisted videos that extremists use to try to convince consumers that farmers are all animal abusers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Livestock farmers enjoy caring for animals. That’s why they dedicate their lives to farming. People abuse pets and even other people but that doesn’t make all people abusers. The same goes for farmers. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush. The actions of a few bad apples don’t represent the true picture of farming. Not only are happy animals productive animals, taking care of them is the right thing to do.  

Farming

It’s time to solve the equation. When we add the pride of farm families, factor in their hard work and remove any notion of cruelty we are left with farming

[(family + pride) x hard work] – cruelty = farming 

Love is at the heart of every farm and compassion is in the heart of every farmer.                                                                         ~Farmer Tim

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THE BIRDS, THE BEES AND THE BOVINES 🦅🐝🐮

Okay we are all grown ups here so it’s time for “the talk”. Reproduction is one of the basics of life and livestock farmers count on it to improve the health of their animals, acquire replacements and increase the size of their herds.

BREEDING 101

Cattle have been domesticated for hundreds of years. There are no wild dairy cows to be found. Modern day cows have an estrus cycle of 21 days and a gestation period of 9 months. A cow isn’t shy about letting a farmer know that she is in estrus (heat). She will bellow, “ride” (jump on) other cows’ rumps and let other cows jump on her up to 55 times during this period. She is wanting to get bred.

*Vegas in a “standing heat”

A bovine is born either a male (bull) or a heifer (female). Heifers start cycling and are typically bred for the first time at 13-16 months of age if they have met the target size. Add a 9 month gestation on to that and they will have their first calf at around 2 years of age when they are full grown. When a heifer has a calf she becomes a cow and produces milk for the first time. Veterinarians continually monitor a cow’s reproductive health and a farmer plays close attention to a cow’s diet and body condition before any attempt to breed a cow is made. When the decision is made to breed a cow the farmer has the choice of using a bull or artificial insemination (A.I.). Our farm uses A.I. but it comes down to the individual farmer’s breeding goals and management style. Both methods have their benefits. In fact some farmers use both. I will outline some of the reasons why we use A.I. on our farm:

Straw of semen*a straw of semen

SAFETY

A full grown mature Holstein bull is not a pet. In fact I had a family member killed by his “pet” bull. Sure they start out as cute little calves, but in a couple of years Holstein bulls become massive beasts standing up to 65″ at the shoulder and weighing in at 1,600 lbs. Proper housing facilities, handler training and experience are needed when working with bulls. Proper footing is also an important consideration when you are using bulls to breed cows. You really need to brace yourself when 1,600 lbs mounts your back!  That being said, some farmers routinely use bulls to breed their dairy cattle without major issues.  They just need to be very careful.

STDs

Sexual transmitted diseases are not just a human problem. STDs are alive and well in the animal world too. STDs can be shared between bulls and cows during breeding and they can cause reproductive mayhem in a herd.  Artificial insemination avoids this problem. In fact, bull semen is stored in liquid nitrogen at down to -300 degrees Fahrenheit and not many diseases can survive temperatures that cold. Semen is also screened before it is used for breeding.

IMPROVING THE NEXT GENERATION

The goal on livestock farms is to make the next generation of cows stronger, healthier and superior to the current cows in the herd. With artificial insemination a farmer can play match maker and pick a specific bull to breed each cow or they can use a computer program to do it for them. It is amazing what kinds of traits you can use to improve your herd .  For example, you can choose a bull that will give the next generation a better set of feet and legs or a stronger immune system . The resulting offspring will potentially have a longer and healthier life. You can even used sexed semen to greatly increase the chances of having heifer calves.

CONVENIENCE

With A.I. there is no need to house and feed your own bull for breeding. A.I. bulls are housed at their own quarantined barn where they are pampered beyond belief. I simply make a phone call and a skilled technician will come breed my cow with the bull of my choice. Alternately, a farmers can store bull semen in a tank and breed their own cattle at their convenience.

Reproduction is an important part of every dairy farm. Just remember that a healthy cow is a fertile cow and THATS NO BULL. 🐃

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A Silent Oath

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I miss my family.  Just 24 hours ago I was busy helping my wife and my two kids prepare for a rare family vacation.  It was only going to be three days long, but to a dairy farmer it was a big deal.  My kids and I were joking with each other about who was going to catch the biggest fish and we even made a special trip to town to pick out some fishing lures that we though would land ‘the big one’.  My wife is a veterinarian and I still remember the conversation that we had weeks ago when we were trying to decide on a date to get away.  With her job she must book holiday time weeks in advance.  A dairy farmer on the other hand never knows what he or she will be doing days, let alone weeks from now.  Will there be cows calving, will crops be ready to harvest, will I be able to find help to cover my work load?  Things don’t always go according to plan, especially when you are a farmer.

I spend the last few days preparing to go.  Thankfully, a cow that was due during our trip calved early so that was one less concern.  I even had a window of opportunity to take off some hay the day before our holiday so that my thoughts would be on spending time with my family and not on the crops quickly maturing in my fields.  I made sure that my bookwork was up to date and my equipment was in good working condition to help lessen the chance of things going wrong while I was away.  Extra feed was prepared, pens were cleaned and the cattle were well bedded to take some of the work load off my relief help.  There were no storms in the forecast so I didn’t need to worry about the implications of a power failure.  A sick cow was on the mend so that brought me some peace of mind knowing that she shouldn’t be an issue.  I left pages of notes with instructions of what to do and who to call if things went wrong.  We managed to find someone to house sit and look after our four cats, two dogs and a coop full of chickens.  I updated the list of cow names and numbers and left strict instructions on how my calves should be fed .  I know each and every cow like the freckles on the back of my hand, but to my relief help the cows are strangers.  On my farm, each cow has her own milking stall.  They are pretty good at coming into their stalls at milking time from the pasture field, but it helps to know their personalities and little nuances.  All I could do is hope that they behaved and that my help wouldn’t get frustrated finding their correct stalls. No matter how well you prepare it is still stressful to leave.  Some people can hardly handle leaving a pet home with a sitter or in a kennel.  Unless you are a dairy farmer you have no idea what its like leaving an entire herd of cows.  You are leaving the animals that you care for and your livelihood in the hands of someone else.

The day before we were about to leave I got a text from my relief milker. He wasn’t able to come, but he had a good excuse.  My heart sank.  How would I tell my kids and my wife?  They were so looking forward to taking me off the farm because it is such a rare event to get away as a family.  Finally I got up the courage to tell them and my efforts earned me a sad face from my daughter and a cold shoulder from my son.  The bleak reality that daddy had to stay home to look after the farm had sunken in. There was no other choice and I hid my tears until I saw my wife drive the kids down the lane with our canoe in tow.

Farmer Tim taking a moment to fish in his farm pond while missing his family.

Dairy farming is lifestyle.  Everything you do involves working around the weather and making sure that your cows are milked twice a day, every day, 365 days of the year.  When you become a dairy farmer you take a silent oath to care for your animals and love your family at all cost.  The problem comes in balancing family and farm.  Larger farms may be able to justify having a full time employee who can manage things when the farmer needs to be somewhere.  For a small family dairy farm like mine it is almost impossible to be able to pay for full time help.  Part time help is great, but it is increasingly difficult to find.  If you are lucky enough to find help they are often lacking in the work ethic and skill to stick with the job. My kids are old enough to take care of things if I need to miss a milking, but its not a family vacation if one of the family members needs to stay at home. 

I am not looking for sympathy.  When I became a dairy farmer I knew what I was getting into and so did my wife when she married me.  Its a choice that I have made and everyone makes sacrifices for things that they are passionate about.  Thankfully my wife is incredibly understanding and my kids are forgiving.  They understand when I need to miss a soccer game because it falls at milking time.  They know that a cow calving or a sick calf is a good excuse to miss a school event and that an upcoming rain storm means a late night of bringing in hay.  They also know that the farm has given them a life unequalled to any other.  It has brought us close as a family because we work along side each other each day and it has taught us valuable lessons on nurturing life that no vacation could ever teach us.  I will try again in the fall or winter to get away with my family because even farmers need a holiday and I will actively seek some part-time help for when my kids are back at school.  I need to remember that the definition of a family farm is a farm run by a family.  Hopefully a well deserved vacation will someday take my family from the farm, but I know that it will never take the farm from my family.

Me, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my two kids and my wife on a rare canoe trip a few years ago.

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Ashes to ashes…….

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There is an empty calf bottle sitting in my milk house. It is not because I forgot to fill it. It is because I lost a calf this morning. You’d think that I’d be used to it by now because every livestock farmer has had it happen from time to time. Like my dad always told me, “when you raise livestock, you also will have deadstock”.  The truth is that you never really get used to it. Bringing new life into the world is a privilege that isn’t taken lightly by farmers. This morning’s early calving was no exception.  

I knew that it was Dorito’s first calf and my instincts knew that she needed assistance. The calf was very much alive while I gently checked to see if it was in the proper position. However, my hope for a healthy calf faded as I carefully help deliver Dorito’s calf into the world. All the signs of life that I had just seen moments ago were gone. I used all the tricks that any farmer would do to try and revive it.  I even gave it CPR by blowing in its nose and pushing on its chest. To my surprise it did take a few short breaths before passing on, but it was too late to save it. The milk truck was arriving in an hour so I had to carry on with the morning milking even though I was still shaking with adrenalin from the calving and the loss of the calf. As I milked, I looked back to the calving pen and watched the mother instinctivly lick her dead calf. I was half hoping to see the calf miraculously spring back to life from those loving licks, but it was not to be.

The calf was not sired by a fancy bull and her mother was just an average cow, but she would have been cared for just the same as any other animal on our farm. PETA would like you to think that farmers don’t care about their animals and all that we care about it profit. I assure you that on most farms this is not the case. Yes my cows provide me with a livelihood, but they are more than just milking cows. I can trace every cow back to my grandfather’s original herd of cows that he got from his parents. There are mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers from the same family milking in our herd.  I know each cow’s unique personality and I promise you that they are all respected and loved. 

Perhaps I am too sensitive to be a farmer and I shouldn’t have taken this tragedy so hard. I feel like I want to quit my job and do something different. However, the more that I think about it, compassion and sensitivity are probably good traits for a farmer to have. It’s probably time to quit farming when you stop feeling sad at the loss of an animal. My calf’s death does not compare to the death of a person or even a pet, but as a farmer I took a quiet oath to nurture life on my farm at all times. I feel like I let this little calf down even though there was nothing that I could have done differently to change the outcome. After milking, I will bury my calf in the corn field and say a little prayer.  I am sorry that I couldn’t save you little calf. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…… 

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    Bovine Beauty Queens 

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    My cows were beauty contestants today! Every few months a classifier from Holstein Canada compares each of my cows to the “perfect” cow. 

     

    The perfect Holstein cow.


     
    They use a hand held computer that has all my cow information on it such as her age, her calving date, how many lactations (time between calves) she’s had and previous scores. Every inch of the cows is graded. They look at everything from the length of her teats and the texture of her udder to the strength of her back and legs.  

    Dorothy’s score card

       We use this information to breed our cows to a bull that will hopefully improve any traits that are weak. A computer analysis will help us choose the best mate for our cows, or we can pick one from a bull proof chart (also in my photo section). Bulls are also chosen to improve health traits as well as milk, fat and protein production. You can even choose sexed semen to help guarantee a heifer (female) calf. It’s all pretty complex, but it is an important part of our farm. 

     

    Bull proof sheet.

     

    The winner on this round was Dorothy at 92 points out of 100! Her points may go up as she gets older.  Dorothy is a pretty nice looking cow, but we treat every cow like a beauty queen on our farm. Each one is as important as the next!

    Edward the Classifier

     

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    What is an AGGIE?

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    Even though I have been out of school for just over 20 years, I still get the back to school jitters just as we are finishing up the grain and hay harvest in late August.  If you don’t frequent farming circles then you may not be familiar with the term Aggie.  Simply put, an Aggie is a nickname for a student of agriculture.  I remember attending an open house at the University of Guelph when I was about 7 years old.  I saw a number of students wearing shiny leather jackets with the name Aggie in big bold letters across the back.  I remember my dad telling me that I might be an Aggie someday if I work hard in school.  Low and behold it happened.  I graduated in 1994 with an honours degree in Animal Science at the OAC (Ontario Agricultural College) at University of Guelph. 

     

    Yes, it still fits !

     
    Aggies are a diverse crowd.  Many have farming backgrounds.  In my class I remember students that came from every kind of farm imaginable. There were crop farms, cattle farms, horse farms, pig farms, sheep farms, fish farms and even a winery.  However, being a farm kid isn’t a prerequisite to becoming an Aggie.  In fact, a number of my classmates came from non-farm backgrounds, but we still shared a love for all things agriculture.  Some students even used the agriculture program as a stepping stone to get into veterinary school since many of our courses overlapped. 

    You may be wondering what an Aggie might learn at school.  Well, you may be surprised by the vast array of topics that an Aggie can take.  For me in the animal science program, my courses were very science based.  We took many of the same courses a regular science student would have taken in our first couple of years like microbiology,  biochemistry, organic chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, botany etc.  In our final couple of years our courses became more specific and were related more to animals and agriculture.  For example, we took quantitative genetics, animal nutrition, animal physiology, animal behaviour and animal ethics courses.

    What can you do with an Aggie degree or diploma? Almost anything! Did you know that 1 in 8 of all jobs are in agriculture and 2.1 million Canadians are employed in agricuture?   In 2013 there were 56,000 career opportunities for people with an education in agriculture, but sadly from 2011-2020 it is estimated that 38% of jobs in Canadian agriculture won’t be filled.  (source http://www.agmorethanever.ca).  I have friends that went back to their family farms or into research, government, sales, marketing, teaching and a vast array of other jobs. 

     

    This is our class crest. The stallion was our mascot.

     
    There are many stereotypes when it comes to Aggies.  It’s true that many of us know how to two-step, or square dance. Heck, some of us even drive pick up trucks and listen to country music. However, the next time that you see an agriculture student wearing one of those distinctive Aggie jackets, I challenge you to say hello. You will find that Aggies are generally some of the most polite and well rounded people that you will ever meet. They are the future of agriculture and you can rest assure that your food is in good hands. 

    Me and the canon at the UofG open house in 2013. I’ve painted that canon more than a few times, but that’s a story for another day.

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    The Dark Side of Social Media and Agriculture

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    Perhaps you know me personally, or perhaps reading this article is the only introduction that we’ve ever had.  To bring you up to speed, I am a third generation dairy farmer. I am not a lobbyist nor a politician. I buy my groceries at the store like everyone else because yes, I am a consumer too. My family has a small dairy farm in Southern Ontario. I am proud of our farm and it is a privilege to be able to work with dairy cattle. 

    I started a public Facebook blog early in 2015 to help educate the public, counteract misinformation, and to share my own personal story about dairy farming. I recently branched out by using Twitter to help reach even more people. Overall my efforts have been extremely rewarding; I’ve had great feedback from farmers and non-farmers all over the world.  However, I’ve also had some feedback that I never expected. 

    I am very proud of the high standards of animal welfare that we practice on our farm and it is often the core of my posts and tweets. You’d wonder how something so positive could be twisted into something so negative. Yet some extreme animal rights activists have taken it upon themselves to reshare my posts, altering the context to serve their own agendas, all the while hiding conveniently behind false identities. Initially I kept screenshots of these hijackings with the intention of using them in my blog.  However I was given the advice not to repost their tweets as it only gives these cowards the attention they crave.  So, as a compromise and to give context to this blog, rather than publish the screenshots, I will simply provide quotes. 

    Here is my original posting of a nice letter that was left in our mailbox by an anonymous person.  I am so proud of that little note. I keep it displayed to remind me that what I do is noticed and appreciated by others. 
     
    When I sent out this tweet I was happy with all the positive vibes that resonated through the Twitter community. However, I must say that I was shocked to see how an extremist twisted my tweet into something to snuff out my enthusiasm and further their own cause: “It’s not about animal welfare, that person who wrote the note should watch when they r mutilated & killed.”

    Next, there is this photo that I shared to show how we walk our calves between our two farms to allow them to enjoy an extended length of time on pasture. They truly have an amazing life here and I was trying to share with the general public our dedication to providing our animals as nice a lifestyle as possible.  
     
    I couldn’t imagine how an extremist could turn such a wonderful moment into something so evil: “Poor innocent non-human slaves, born into exploitation and when no longer profitable, sent to slaughter.” 

    There are many other examples that I could share with you, but it only saddens me to go further. I almost feel like I am stooping to their low standards by writing this blog in the first place. 

    This experience was a real eye opener for me. I feel violated.  I have friends and family that are vegan or vegetarian. I respect them and love them even though we have differing opinions. To be honest, you can learn a lot by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and by trying to understand their viewpoints. I am all for open discussion and dialogue, but only if it’s polite and backed with educated facts. Feel free to express your personal views, but please educate yourself first and don’t attack me to try to gain a following.

    There is no reasoning with extremists of any type so it’s not worth my time to engage with them.  If nothing else, my experience has actually encouraged me to be more aggressive posting positive things about agriculture.  I encourage farmers across the world to stand together and do the same.  My grandmother always told me to do unto other people as you would have them to do unto you. The world would be a better place if more people followed that advice. 

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