How can I be a farmer? What does it take to be a farmer? I have heard these and other questions before so I decided to jot down how my on-farm experiences have grown me to be the farmer I am today.
When my dad started our dairy years ago, the day-to-day jobs on the farm almost all involved something with the cows. Now, decades later, my day-to-day role on my family’s dairy farm has evolved over the years from milking cows, to now where I spend more time meeting regulations than in the barn or in the field. That job is as important as it ever was caring for our cows and ensuring the safety and health of the milk we provide, but a lot more has to happen on the farm now too and my job has changed a lot over the years.
As a young child I started working on the farm by feeding hay to the cows. This was before we fed a Total Mixed Ration (TMR). Before and after elementary school my brother and I would go out and either feed hay off the trailer into the hay mangers or climb the haystack several stories tall and throw it down to the feed bunk. I remember my first concussion when I took a misstep and fell off the hay to the concrete below. My brother had a few accidents as well, I remember he pierced his eye rolling up the wire securing the hay bales and to this day has deteriorating vision in that eye and needs glasses.
When I was old enough and tall enough to properly operate the equipment in our milk barn I was promoted to those duties before and after school. I would milk before and after school while my father worked off the farm because the economics of the dairy industry at the time mean that he had to end up taking an off-farm job. The dedication to getting the job done was instilled in me at a young age. One day I even watched the smoke from our house burning while I had to finish milking. Taking responsibility, I even tried calling my absence in to the school and they would not believe me.
By the time I was 16, I had spent more hours driving farm equipment than can be calculated. I also got on the job training so I could be entrusted with treating cows for ailments. I could handle a calving as long as there were no complications and also administer an IV. We also transitioned to mixing more feed on site and that became my new duty as younger brothers took on the milking.
Between my sophomore and junior years in high school we moved the dairy 80 miles. Having my driver’s license I was sent ahead to be the one to get things running on the new facility. As my dad loaded cows on the old farm I was unloading them and making sure they were okay on the new dairy. It was my responsibility to be the last line of defense for problems and make sure everything went as close to the plan as possible. Nearly 12 hours later we had finished the move and were all exhausted.
Through the rest of high school and college my jobs were everything from milker to feeder and mechanic to irrigator. As time went by my skills increased and so did the responsibilities. I was diagnosing and treating cattle. If we called the Vet for a calving he knew not to waste time because I was able to handle everything short of surgery.
After leaving college I spent some time off the farm working for other dairies and businesses. I gained even more knowledge and upon returning to our dairy again worked directly with the cows. Over the course of several years, we built more facilities of our design and expanded the dairy to support more of our family. As our herd expanded so did the workload, to the point where it was time to better utilize my skills elsewhere in our business.
Even though I had been handling everything as it related to the cows, I was also the maintainer for the milking equipment thus relying less on outside companies. I also started taking on more of our regulatory compliance work. And as we added land to our farming operation over the years, and regulations grew in complexity, a lot more paperwork and record keeping have been required.
Today I am still in touch with the cows everyday by analyzing data and records I make decisions about how we can manage the cows health better. I fill in were extra help is needed however the majority of my time is spent riding a desk chair, staring at a laptop or stretching the capabilities of my smartphone. I also work with our herdsman to stay on top of any problems that might be arising that need to be corrected. Even though I am personally not doing ALL the work with our cows I am still heavily involved with their health, care and our productivity as a business. Through all this I also work closely with my father so he can make sure we are on the same page. I also handle all of our regulatory compliance with agencies such as the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, CA Department of Fish and Game just to name a few. There is also work to be done to remain in compliance with many health regulations and inspections as described by Brenda Souza Hastings in her Blog titled “The Milk Inspector is coming”. There are also financial and crop records to be maintained and evaluated. There are also a lot of off farm things to be done so I can help my children have the opportunity to farm if they so choose, a great friend of mine and the cowboy version of this dairyman explains it best here.
I may not be the picture of a “farmer” my dad imagined as he started our dairy, but in today’s world, I’m a fairly common model. Sure I still get a handful of hay for a cow now and then… I just also know a lot more about the balanced diet required by our animals and how best to deliver it. I have no idea what a farmer’s job will include for the next generation, but I’m hopeful I’ll see my kids rise to the occasion. They certainly seem to love where we are and what we do.
One night last week we had a Breech calving here at the dairy, a Breech birth is when the calf is coming backwards or rear legs first. These calvings are extremely difficult because the last part of the calf to be exposed is the head. A normal birth is front feet and head first presentation because it is naturally somewhat more aerodynamic and the calf can start breathing sooner. This situation has to be dealt with as an emergency and immediate attention and assistance is given so the calf does not suffocate.
As I was finishing the calving it hit me that the situation mimicked life a bit, in that if we are backwards in our thinking sometimes we can’t see the light and will suffocate. Sadly I see this thinking more and more everyday. For example overburdening regulations that actually makes doing the right thing more expensive than neccessary it threatens the sustainability of an industry. Here in the California Central Valley we have regulations from the Central Valley Water Resources Control Board that can actually make doing the right thing downright unsustainable for business survival. As time has gone by and common sense been added to the water environmental regulations they have been much easier to work with. Farmers are all about doing the right thing we just want a common sense economically feasible way to do it.
Backwards thinking can also be seen in knee jerk reaction to one high profile incident just to create that warm fuzzy feeling that something was done, only to end up making the problem many times worse. Another example of thinking backwards is the thought that something should always be done one way because that is how it has always been done, and refusing to see the opportunity for innovation by looking for more options.
By thinking backwards we can almost guarantee ourselves that we will never move forward and stretch our boundaries to see what lies beyond them.
If you are wondering how the calving ended up through teamwork my father and I were able to help a calf be born alive.
One of the things I am extremely passionate about is telling my story on my own terms because no one knows it better than I do. It is this passion that drives me to find common ground with others outside of farming and have discussions about farming when the time is right. Speaking up for farmers and farming is as simple as talking to an old friend who moved to the city or asking a person what motivates them to buy certain things in the grocery store.
I have taken the opportunity on many an airplane to reach out to others, however one time stands out. I was on a flight from St. Louis to Salt Lake City and was seated next to two young boys travelling with their families for a ski vacation to Utah. Throughout the flight I kept to myself because the boys were having their own conversation and as an adult I did not want to create a weir situation. As the flight was nearing its end the show friends was being shown as the in flight entertainment. The episode was one where Ross dumps a whole gallon of milk down the front of himself. One of the boys then said something to the effect of “that’s a lot of milk”. I then proceed to say no I have 4000 times as much at home. Then conversation then moved to me explain that my family operates a dairy farm. One of the boys then proceeds to ask me “Are your cows free range?” After I picked my jaw up off the ground I answered that some do and some are housed in open air barns and in nice weather have access to outdoor exercise pens. I also explained the stalls in the barn are groomed and kept clean. The cows also have free access to fresh food and clean water. The concrete the cows walk on is cleaned frequently and there is soft rubber where the cows walk. The young boy then said “Wow it sounds like you take great care of your cows.”
Another time I was engaged in a local community on twitter and through several meet and greets created several longtime friends. One of those friends asked if he could bring his boys out to the dairy and being one to not miss an agvocacy moment I agreed. His boys loved the tour and to this day nearly a year later he continues to remind me his young sons remember what they saw and did on the dairy thus creating a lifetime impression. In addition to his sons the gentleman also came to realize that many who try to paint farmers and ranchers in a negative light are not always being the completely truthful.
Here are some videos from their visit:
It is so easy to build bridges between communities in our lives, they can be virtual, social, religious, or hobby based communities however they have all started with common ground outside agriculture.
If we farmers and ranchers think about it enough becoming an Agvocate and letting others know why and how we do what we farmers and ranchers do to feed, fuel and clothe them becomes second nature. We are given opportunities to Agvocate daily it is up to us as Agriculturalists to take advantage of them and not let the opportunity forever slip away.