On getting cows, loosing cows, and embracing your vocation.
A month ago, while walking the property with Magnus I had a talk with God. If we are going to do this thing, I said, we will need livestock. For me it is not just any livestock. I am looking for local, hearty, heritage breeds that will thrive on our pasture. This quest is not impossible, it’s just not easy. And at the time I was chatting with God I was struggling to get animals. Any animals.
With a little internet research, I was able to track down a farm with heritage cattle and hogs. Located an hour away, this farm raising heritage breeds was an answer to prayer. The farmer is a woman who began her dream about 10 years ago. She let us visit her property. She answered my questions, nodded knowingly at my vision, and agreed to sell me some of her stock. She also said she had made every mistake you can make when starting her farm journey. This is a common theme when I reach out to farmers that start this journey later in life. Farmers will chuckle and say, “I have made every mistake you can think of.” I smile and think that, surely, I won’t make every mistake.
Before we received any animals, we need a secure place for them on the farm. Fencing, my friends, is essential and we are quickly learning that it is also expensive, time-consuming, and never-ending.
I left her farm with the task of making a paddock for the pigs. We would let her know when we were ready to get them. Over the next few days, I tackled the pig paddock. I made a trip to the feed store – purchased hog panels, t-posts, straw for bedding, and some hog food. With a little help from the youngest son, I was able to make a home for our large blacks. We went back to the farm the next week and got the pigs. Success!
Look at us. We are farmers.
I had such immediate success with the pigs that I just knew we could handle cows. After all, the description of their breed labels them as “docile” and their breeder says they “respect the fence.” Docile is a term bandied about to make breeds appealing to the new homesteader. Every animal that doesn’t charge you and eat you alive is “docile.” Electric fencing is used in pasture and livestock management. A zap or two from a hot electric wire convinces animals to stay in their paddock. A 700-pound cow that “respects the fence” will stay put. Or so they say.
We got electric netting and I convinced Mr. J that we were ready to take on cows. After all, you can only learn so much from watching videos on the internet. You must get animals so you can figure it all out. If we waited until everything was perfect, we would never get animals.
I called the farmer and told her we were ready for the cows. We had water, pasture, extra hay, and fencing. We were good to go.
A few days later the girls arrived. Two lovely year-old heifers. They were unloaded from the trailer to their fenced paddock with ease. We were now true homesteaders. We had actual cattle on our land. And they respected the fence – for two days.
Regenerative farming has a livestock grazing technique called “mob and mow.” It mimics the movement of wild herd animals across native savannahs. The herd huddles close together and grazes aggressively on the available grasses. Each day the herd seeks new land as they instinctively move to avoid predators and find fresh pasture. This mob and mow method regenerates the land and keeps the animals healthy. It is a method popularized by Joel Salatin and Greg Judy – icons in regenerative practices. We have been watching their videos. These guys make it look easy. This is our plan.
Then you get cows of your own. With minds of their own.
And chaos ensues.
After two days in the same paddock, we decided it was time to move the cows. Basically, we open the fencing to a new paddock, and they walk into it on their own because they are curious and want new grass. Our middle son, home for a few weeks, provides an extra set of hands. Dad and son set out to move the electric netted fence and set up a new paddock. But we didn’t have enough netting to both contain the cows in their current paddock and mark off a new one. To solve this, the guys string up some electric wire with plastic poles to keep the girls contained. After all, they are trained to respect the fence. Half of the netting is removed, and a thin wire is all that stands between the girls and open space. This works in the videos. Surely it will work for us.
Helen Reddy, the bolder of the two, tests the wire with her chest. Zap. She brushes it again. Zap. She brushes it a third time and walks right over it. The hot wire is now laying on the grass. Helen’s partner in crime, Panda, walks right over it to follow her buddy.
They do not respect the fence.
It is 9am. The cows are loose. Any plan for the day has been thrown out the window. For the next four hours four grown adults try to wrangle two “docile” cows. Unsuccessfully.
We run across pastures. We sprint up hills. We make loud noises and wave our arms to look big. Everything we can to get them moving in the direction we want them to go.
A few hours in, as I am trudging once again across a pasture to try to intercept the girls, I think how difficult this is. I think of the potential significant financial loss, our responsibility to the girls, and how we have absolutely no control over the situation. And then I think:
I don’t hate this.
This thing we are doing is hard. It requires patience, endurance, communication, observation, sacrifice, humility, and a deep and profound letting go of self. (I’m not just talking about looking for cows.)
But I don’t hate it. I embrace it. This life we have chosen is real and substantial. It is all-encompassing and like motherhood it is quickly becoming a vocation.
The moment of reflection is gone as we try once again to herd the cows. Our middle son takes the lead coordinating our efforts. We crash through trees, we run uphill, we crouch down to hide then get big to guide. Together we get some momentum, the girls are moving, just get them over this hill…NOOOOO! They turn around and trot right past us, down the hill, and out of sight. We lose them. Helen Reddy and Panda duck under the barbed wire of our property line and head into the thick woods behind us. They stop moving. We can’t hear them. We can’t see them. And four adults stomping through the woods for an hour can’t find them.
Heck, we couldn’t even find each other.
I haul myself back to the house to get water and food for the gang. It is past noon. We need to stop, eat something, and reassess. I return to the furthest pasture, near the trees the girls escaped into. I sit down and wait. Mr. J sees me and walks over. Youngest son pops out of the woods and heads our way. I hand out water and protein bars while we wait for the middle son to find us. We are sitting on a slope facing our furthest pond and the trees that hide our cows. The sun is shining, the weather is perfect, and the scene is beyond picturesque. Middle son comes out of the trees, and we watch complacently while he makes his way towards us. I hand him water and food as he sits down. Here we are. Together. Working through something big. Something real. Something hard. Together.
I’d like to think we all sat there quietly for a few moments just pondering the awesomeness of it all. But the boys were probably just too tired to talk.
However, I am pondering, and marveling and I think: real farmers don’t just have animals. Real farmers struggle. They drop everything to save their livestock. They work together.
Real farmers make mistakes. Every mistake.
And in the failure and struggle and challenge there is a deep, profound satisfaction.
++++++Don’t worry about Helen and Panda. They had their adventure and are currently safe. I will let you know how that goes in my next post.
++++++As I am finishing this story my youngest son asks what I am writing about and then comments that this life really gives meaning to the parable of the lost sheep. This livestock hunting is no easy task.