Wednesday, December 8, 2010


In this, my blog post for the semester (though far from my last post ever), I’d like to talk about transitions. We spend much of our lives in a state of flux; so much so that few of us even notice. Nothing is stagnant and everything around and within us is constantly changing. We’re often too busy to notice these changes, measured in minutes, days, and seasons, transitions we make moving from work to home, relationship to relationship, age to age, semester to semester.

Webster defines transition a “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another : change”; “a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another”; or “an abrupt change in energy state or level (as of an atomic nucleus or a molecule) usually accompanied by loss or gain of a single quantum of energy.”

With this in mind, remember that transitions are not just physical, going from place to place, life experience to life experience; nor are they merely within, our changing thoughts, actions, and personalities; nor is it just the seasons, fall passing to winter, the cycle of holidays coming around again and again, marked with the same mind-numbingly annoying Christmas tunes. It’s all of these, and they’re happening all the time. And things that happen again and again are things we should pay attention to. Whether you believe in serendipity or not, repeated events may help nudge us toward larger transitions and who knows where we’ll end up?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Lesson in Home Butchering

Last week my second to last cow finally calved. Ironically, she’s also the mother to the cow (10U) who has had a special needs calf, both of whom have been living in the barn for the past two months. 10U has a nice set of horns on her, rare in my herd, and has been high-headed since birth. She had her first calf this year and he came down with navel ill almost immediately and we’ve been messing with him ever since. (Jason and I were in bed one night going, “I’ve never seen that much puss.” So yeah, calvie was pretty gross.)

So the day Pammy calved, Dad and I decided little Shrek (10U’s calf) needed to be put down. We’d sold all our beef for the year and didn’t have any for our freezer, and since the cow kept charging Dad after he hand fed her ear corn for over sixty days, we decided a first-calve heifer would make a decent addition to the freezer for the winter. We didn’t have the extra money to have her butchered, since Christmas is coming, so, since it was deer season and the guys have honed their skills with butchering, we decided to butcher the cow ourselves. (Well Tom Bemrose and I decided, but that’s another story.)

Dad shot the cow and she bled out. Then we chained her back legs to the tractor bucket and drug her around to the west side of the barn. By this time, Jeff and Tom showed up after hunting all morning and not seeing a damn thing, and stayed to help. They’d done plenty of deer, so the thickness of the cowhide surprised them, but once we got the hide peeled back over her ass end, the weight of it drug it down her sides and we got to the head. Once there, we cut to the joint in her neck closest to the skull and kept paring until the joint showed. I was holding the cow’s head by the horns, rocking it back and forth so Jeff could sever the joint and when it went, it all went, hide, head and all, right to the ground.

We stopped to have a beer and study the situation.

Dad lowered the cow down and Tom carefully slit the belly, being careful not to puncture the intestines and drown us all in cow-gut stench. The intestines came out good, but Jeff and I had to hang Tom by his ankles so he could cut the esophagus out, dipping far down into her rib cage.

By then, all that was left to do was hanging the cow in the barn rafters and let her cure. A beef has to hang for fourteen days before cutting. We got her up without a hitch.

Last night on the way home I was listening to Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, another book that’s been on my reading list for some time. He talks about the feelings involved with killing the living thing that is to be your supper. I get asked about that a lot actually, doesn’t it bother you to eat the thing you’ve raised? The answer: no. I give my animals the best life I can. Many of my cows have been with me 8-12 years (which is longer than most of my romantic relationships all put together, which is neither here nor there). We expect the steers to end up on our plates and a cow is given every chance to have a successful place in the herd. If a cow is sour, like 10U, she only gets so many strikes, then it’s off to the stockyards or the freezer. I feel bad that we have to cull cows at all. If it was up to me, I’d keep every one of them. But that’s not the relationship people have developed with domestic livestock over the last millennia. It’s easier, I think, in a lot of ways to know the animal you eat. You’re there from day one, from inception, you see the quality of life they’ve had and give them as good and clean a death as possible. You’re able to treat the carcass with respect.

Butchering 10U could not have gone any better and I feel no moral pangs about it because I know the kind of life, and death, she had. When people are removed from the day to day life of animals, it’s easier to feel bad for them, to turn to vegetarian lifestyles, and condemn people who raise livestock for meat. I don’t agree with industrial style feedlots and the cows at work, in a confinement dairy, just about make me weep, but when animals are raised on grass and are allowed to have a strong herd unit, as nature intended, there’s nothing to feel sorry for. In fact, there’s a reverence that comes with harvesting your own food, allowing one to feel that much more connected to the food going into one’s mouth. There’s also the fact that butchering is such a big project that it takes several people to do it, so the social connection is there as well. In a digital, consumer, industrial world, connectivity, in person, is becoming the most important thing of all. And how much more basic can you get than getting together to butcher, swap stories, and remember the basics of being human?


I didn’t want to post the pics here in case there’s some squeamish readers, but pics are on my Facebook.

Pastured Poultry

Here's a template for making the farm make money, the age old debate between my dad and I on how to do it.

If you haven't found it yet, is a great place for bibliophiles to hang out. Be sure to add me as a friend! :-p

Saddle Broncs and Bulls

We visited some rodeo friends while up north picking up the bull for the girls. When I got home, I found some pics on facebook of some bronc riding friends and remembered to devote at least one post to rodeo.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nostalgia and Requiem

This time of year makes me nostalgic. As the cold and Christmas set in, as the last of the turkey and stuffing get consumed or thrown out, a countdown, of sorts, starts.

My grandpa and I were very close. He made no bones about me being his favorite. After he died, I used to dream about him being at family events, Christmas and such, but I was the only one who could see him, who knew he was there. He died December 10, 1999 and even though I do my best to ignore the date, celebrating his birthday, August 10, instead, there’s still something ticking like a time bomb in my head, ticking down the days. He was the best of all of us and death is roughest on those left behind. Our family is not particularly good at letting go and far from the best about acknowledging our loss and moving on from it. I still compare every guy I date to my grandpa and it’s unfair because who can live up to the angelic memory imposed on the dead? In truth, my grandpa was active, vibrant, with a temper to match and beer or whiskey for anyone who came to visit at the house. He worked hard, he had to. His father kicked him out of the house when he was fourteen and he finished high school, something few did in the 1930s and 40s, while he lived and worked the farm for his aunt, in the house I currently live in. It’s hard to imagine that my kids won’t know him, that they won’t share those memories of him with me. It’s still hard to fathom that I’ll never see him again, that I’ll never be able to drive him around the way he joked about, or that I never got to have a beer with him. He’ll never comment on my cows; and he would have loved having them around. And he would have listened and sympathized with any problem I came to him with.

It’s harder sometimes I think to be one left behind, to feel the vacuum of those empty shoes, and see that while the space may be filled it, the puzzle piece is not the original, but instead one cut to fit. And you feel the weight from the family, leaning toward the center, most unaware that there’s a space left at all.

And the countdown ticks on.

Winter Milking

Milking cattle in winter is a unique experience. All the metal and steel suck the cold in until its almost colder in the barns than out, even with the canvases rolled down on the outside of the barns to keep the wind inside to a minimum. I usually milk nights, so with the darkness outside, the barn is a shining beacon in a white, or black, winter landscape.

The sand steams when you go out to bring cows into the catch pen and subsequently into the parlor. When it’s very cold, when you look back towards the parlor from the far side of the barn, all the group of cows between you and the parlor, a fog settles in from all the steam off the sand, warmed from the cows’ bodies, and their breath converges so it’s almost impossible to see the milk house. Scraping gets challenging when the ground finally freezes hard, but until then the manure is sloppy, like pushing a half-melted chocolate milkshake, or rolling chocolate chunk ice cream if its colder. When the muck hits the white snow, it slops all over and the white is spoiled.

The milk lines inside are like blood vessels. They carry white life-giving fluid through metal veins. It heats the hoses enough to keep them pliable, but barely enough to warm your hands. We wear two pairs of rubber gloves and stick our hands in the flanks of the cows to warm them, much to the cows’ chagrin. Maybe it’s our course jokes about feelin’ up udders that makes them cranky.

It’s cold enough to make your teeth and knees ache. Or maybe it’s how all the metal and cement draw the cold, suck it in, and breathe out with it. When we wash down at the end of the shift, all the heat vanishes from the milk lines. Fingers are stiff and fumble on the milkers, chilled by the metal and rubber. The cold is like an entity, burning through wet clothes and heavy boots, stealing presence of mind and hope for dawn. Teeth chattering, you walk to your car.

Book Review: The Favored Child by Philippa Gregory

Picking up where Wideare left off, The Favored Child loses no momentum as is as amazing as the first installment of Philippa Gregory’s Lacey saga.

Julia Lacey, joint heir to the Wideacre estate, tells the story of her family, her aunt Beatrice who ruined Wideacre, and her and her cousin’s, Richard, attempts to revitalize the estate again. But things go horribly wrong with the tragic death of a horse and a hawk, which see what the adults should have seen all along.

Love, cruelty, unexpected family legacies, and the unique magic of Wideacre permeate the pages as the specter of the Lacey’s incest emerges from an idyllic past. Don’t miss this second installment, or the third and final book (review coming soon!), Meridon, which concludes the Wideacre series.