Saturday, January 31, 2009

Counting Cows:

Bobby calculates by cattle. We were talking this evening about the effect of the national financial downturn on the local stockyard. I asked him if he was seeing an effect at the stockyard. (He’s there every Saturday.) He said yes, mainly on the small farmers. So I asked him what the minimum size of herd a farmer would need to keep his head above the water as conditions are now. He looked me in the eyes and said that an unmarried man with no kids would need at least 50 cows to survive – that would be him. And right on the line, at that. Lucky he is, I suppose, that his dog Baby is his only dependent - he said you’d need to add 20 cows per child, until they’re teenagers, then it would take 50.

Just keeping the cows takes cows ~ for instance, the past couple of years have been drought here in Kentucky, which means that the cattle are drinking “city water” – Bobby, his in-head cattle calculator running an instant output, said it would take a calf a year to pay the water bill for the herd. When you add fuel for trucks, tractors, and machinery, feed and hay to supplement what can be grown on the farm, vaccines necessary to battle the illnesses that thrive and spread outward from the huge feedlots in the west, it adds up to a lot of cows just to keep one man and his stock dog going. No frills, no vacations, just the basics - "If I get a sandwich, Baby gets one too." So when he says, “Cattle are my life.” He means it in more than one way. He’s here on the farm early, and seldom leaves before dark. Sometimes it’s past midnight. My admiration for him is boundless.

A lot of small farmers are going to lose their way of life this year. Bobby won’t be one of them, (my fingers are crossed) because he’s sharp as a tack and willing to work harder than most people in our society can imagine. The super giant producers and mega factory farms will downsize, fire a bunch of workers and barely feel the pain. I really wish that our culture would value what small farmers do enough to take care of them.


Cathy said...

I really wish that our culture would value what small farmers do enough to take care of them.

Amen to that. Between the weather and the economy, a lot of small farms will fall under the relentless march of Big Ag mediocrity.

William said...

Oh, this is one of the more unnerving economic reports I've heard. You have to wonder if the future of small livestock producers might lie in something less in demand like llamas or goats or fresh water shrimp.

As for counting cows, when I was a kid and traveling on a long car trip with my family, we would play cowboy poker. My sister and I would take each side window and count cows. If we passed a graveyard on our side, we lost our cows. If we passed a white horse, we doubled our cows.

My dad could look at a huge herd as we passed and instantly say how many cows were there. I once asked him how he could count them so fast and he said "I count their legs and divide by four."

Dan Dutton said...

He! THAT game sounds like the one that Dr. Polly & I used to play. We called it the "Necrophiliac's Road Game." It worked like this ~ when you spotted road kill, the first to name the species (exactly - "canada goose" for instance.) got 5 points - 1 point for the genus or family - ("goose" or "bird") Misidentifications - minus points. If you correctly guessed the next corpse before seeing it ("possum" was a good gamble)
you got 10 points. We played this a lot. I used goose because Dr. P. once scored an incredible prescient point load by guessing "goose" before the sighting. HMMM. I wonder if she'd been on that road the day before???

The problem for small livestock producers, locally, is that there's no local stockyard or slaughterhouses to handle alternate crops. I think what few goats are raised locally go to Chicago. And a lot of small farmers are just set in their ways too - they are able to work with cattle because they grew up with it. And then there's the deal of having to buy entirely new equipment, build or adapt different barns, and the learning curve of how to care for unfamiliar animals, etc. Most of the really small producers are pretty close to the wire and have little, if anything, to invest.

Cathy said...

Small livestock producers have the same problem(s) everywhere, I suspect. My favorite local shepherdess had a hard time finding a slaughterhouse that met her standards; same for the pig farmers.

Dan Dutton said...

It would be great if some rational thought and planning were applied to this problem. The institutions and profiteers are so entrenched in a self-destructive status quo that I have my doubts that will happen though. There's a lot to change - the ideal of the factory as food source allowed almost everyone the luxury of not thinking about how our existence is dependent on the (messy) deaths of plants and animals, and that made the total abdication of responsibility easy and appealing.

I think that the single best improvement of our educational system would be make sure that EVERYONE has the knowledge and experience of where their food comes from, and what it takes to go from soil to table. One year of farming, or gardening at least, would do more to truly educate about life and reality than any four years of college ever will. Alas, I think we've committed more to specialization than to wisdom.

Apifera Farm said...

There's a lot of talk and discussion on the small farm being smarter by downsizing their land and crops and herds. One vegetable farmer I read came from a huge farm as a child. Her father [retired now] scoffed and told her she could not make a living on a 2 acre vegetable farm. And heaven forbid, organic? She proved him wrong. Cattle take more land, and unfortunately if you aren't rotating pastures and animals you are also doing a diservice to that land- but I wonder how a cattle farmer could downsize , and be for the better? I think they say 4 acres per cow {I could be wrong on this, I know sheep guide rule is 1 acre for 4 sheep]. Just a thought. We've thought of going to 20-50 sheep, but I like my small flock of 20-25. We don't make money per se, but we broke even on sheep last year, and raise our meat.

I see a lot of really ornery farmers out here that don't want to try new things, or be told how to farm. It's the Oregon renogade way. But a lot of them appear to be pretty crappy farmers, and even worse land stewards.

I'm only tired of seeing the wealthy farmers with pesticides on their fingernails getting more money when education should be put into the small farms, the really small farms.

Apifera Farm said...

Oops, sorry I posted that last comment twice and deleted it...