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Updates From the Polar Vortex

24 Feb

Pssssssssht. Breaker, breaker. This is MFW coming to you live from a snowdrift.

I’m going to start with this photo. Because it soothes me.

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I want to go to there. This lovely shot is from our honeymoon in Mexico a million years ago. It’s good to remember that there are places in the world free of this year’s #polarvortex.

Sigh.

Unfortunately Michigan is still firmly planted in winter. Despite wildly odd weather last week—thunder snow, 40 degrees, and pouring rain—temps are back in the low teens this week.

My psyche just can’t take it. I’m tired of wearing three layers at all times, getting my car stuck in the driveway, whiteouts on the roads, and worrying about our roof collapsing under three months of snow accumulation. I just want to be warm again. I’m still waiting for those awesome pregnancy hot flashes people keep talking about.

I’m getting close to my winter breaking point.

Dairy Man might be even more sick of winter than I am. His life the past few months has involved frozen pipes, broken machinery, stuck milk trucks, countless pairs of long underwear, and so, so much plowing.

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Dairying gets a lot harder when we’re dealing with six-foot piles of snow, icy roads, and sub-arctic temperatures.

Thankfully the ladies take it all in stride. They get fluffy winter coats, group together in the sand beds, and eat, eat, eat.

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We do our best to help them stay warm and toasty during the cold months. Cow-sized sweaters are out of the question—I was never much of a knitter—and the girls don’t love hot cocoa, but we close the barn curtains, change our feed ration to include higher fat, and turn on the heaters in the water troughs.

We’re all getting by. The only family member wholly unfazed by winter is Jersey the snow dog.

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He loves snow—for playing, walking or eating. The last one is most annoying. There are few things more demoralizing than being an adult human being standing outside in negative temps and 40 mph winds yelling, “GO POTTY!!!!” to a stubborn and impervious border collie chowing down on snow.

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It’s been a long, hard winter. Perhaps one I’ll creakily tell my children about someday.

But I must remember that this season won’t last forever. The days are getting longer, spring is getting nearer, and there are occasional moments of pure beauty. It’s all about the sunshine.

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From the safety of a warm car or house, the winter wonderland really is spectacular.

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And I’m sure we’ll get the tractors unburied … someday.

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The Calm Before the (Corn) Storm

12 Sep

The tall, swaying stalks out my bedroom window make it impossible to ignore: fall is here. More specifically, as the Dairy Man keeps reminding me, corn harvest is almost here.

DM is charged with nervous energy and dancing around the house humming “It’s the mooooost wonderful tiiiiiime of the yeeeeeear.”

I, on the other hand, start hearing the music from Jaws: “Daaaaa dum, daaaaa dum, daaaaaa dum da dum daaaa dum.” This week truly is the calm before the storm. Before the sharknado of farming activities, if you will.

People, a corn storm is brewing.

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It’s time to prepare, to brace myself. Call it mental calisthenics. As I stand on the precipice of a few weeks alone, it’s important to stretch my farm wife coping mechanisms (and stock up on dry cereal and wine).

This is my third corn harvest out in the boondocks (read about year one and two here). I’m not a rookie. But it will still be a shock to my system when DM slips into the delirium that can only be caused by corn harvest.

Over the next few weeks, we will harvest approximately 1,100 acres of corn babies. (Well, I suppose they’re corn adults at this point. *Sniff* They grow up so fast.) This will involve DM spending countless hours in the tractor building monstrous piles of corn covered with tires and plastic and seeing a whole lot of this:

Packingcorn

Unlike some farm wives, I don’t get very involved in the process. I work an 8-5 job wearing pencil skirts and stilettos and haven’t the foggiest idea how to operate farm machinery (for good reason). I’m currently planning EIGHT work events for this fall and stress-eating peanut M&Ms like it’s my job. My role on the dairy is to support, ensure DM is eating something every day, and keep myself entertained. Because, really. Can you see me driving a tractor?

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I do not have the farming wardrobe figured out.

For all of the craziness these next few weeks will bring, I don’t want to miss the excitement, the progress, or the beauty of this time of year.

Corn harvest may signify dinners alone, an inconceivably exhausted DM, and a depressed Jersey the pup, but it’s also the culmination of so much hard work.

Despite a weird, wet spring, our corn was planted with intention and care. Dairy Man spent half his life checking pivots and making sure the babies were getting enough water. The leafy green stuff has survived dry weeks, wet weeks, and gale-force winds.

It feels good to be this close to the finish line. Corn harvest represents time well spent. It promises that our bovine ladies will have plenty of food over the next year. It also gives me large hills to scurry around on like a mountain goat.

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It’s the little things when you’re a country bumpkin.

My biggest compliant is that I will lose the blossoming privacy screens surrounding our house. Things always feel a little forlorn when the corn comes down.

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But for now, I will savor these final days of summer. I’ll soak in quality time with DM. I’ll take quiet moments to sit in the grass and let the rustling whisper of the stalks speak to my soul.

Just a few more days, my pretties.

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The Shiny New Barn

8 Aug

After months of planning, building, and anxious mooing, our shiny new barn is finally complete. I’m sure the Dairy Man would love to take a moment to bask, but he’s already moved on to other projects.

Manure pit

Oof. Just a little manure pit. Things never slow down around here.

But, back to the beauteous barn. As you know, Dairy Man decided to expand one of our barns this spring in order to grow our herd and give the current bovines a little more room to spread out.

Here’s where we started: two pretty white barns on a grassy hill (our parlor is on the far left).

Barns before

In order to build an expansion, we had to first raise up the ground. This required sand. Lots and lots of sand.

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I quite enjoyed the sand. Unfortunately the Dairy Man shot down my idea to turn the area into a beach volleyball court complete with tiki torches and frozen daiquiri bar. Apparently making space for more cows trumps my desire for summer beach parties.

But Jersey agreed with me. He loved the sand. It was like an episode of doggy Baywatch.

After the sand was laid and the ground was even, the posts went up.

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These random sticks pointing in the air were like a dairy farm version of Stonehenge. Without the burial mounds and Druid undertones.

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Then it was time for rafters and a roof made out of steel.

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Once the outside structure was complete, it was time to trick out our barn. Or “pimp my barn.” We’re still waiting to hear from MTV about the TV rights.

A few notable elements inside the barn:

Grooved concrete floor.
A grooved floor helps give the ladies traction as they roam around the barn. Without grooves, the floor would be a skating rink of slippery cow poo. Delightful. DM told me to take a good look at the floor, because it will never, EVER be this clean again. (Also, these are the wrong shoes to check out barn construction. In case you were wondering.)

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Big fans and sprinklers.
Cows hate to be hot and bothered. In order to keep the ladies cool, the new barn has huge fans and a sprinkler system. Thanks to several weeks of 90-degree weather in July, the fans and sprinklers have been getting a serious workout.

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Water tanks.
The new barn has two large blue water troughs. In the summer, the cows spend a lot of around them, an area I’ve dubbed the “water cooler,” to catch up on the latest gossip.

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Freestalls to give the ladies their space.
All of our barns are freestall barns. This means that the cows are free to roam around and have access to comfy sand beds/stalls. The stalls are spaced four feet apart to give even the biggest-boned bovine plenty of personal space.

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So. Those are the thrilling aspects that make up a barn. DM is so proud that I can recognize the glory of grooved concrete.

I was lucky enough to be in the barn when DM released the girls into it for the first time. I’m not a cow whisperer, but I could tell the cows were excited. I suspect they had been conversing longingly about the cozy new sand beds and waterfront views of the pond.

This event also finally gave me the chance to test an age-old dairy theory: that cows are just as excited about going into a new barn as they are about going into pasture. I’ll admit I was skeptical. I’ve witnessed our dry cows (pregnant ladies) go into pasture for the first time in the spring multiple times. It’s one of my favorite parts about living on a dairy. Why? Because it’s like a very rotund and jubilant running of the bulls. For a few minutes, the ladies forget they are mature mother cows and leap, frolic, and roll in the pasture like calves.

Would cows really be as excited about freestalls as they are about fresh pasture grass?

My camera and I were ready to find out. DM opened the gate between the old barn and new barn and after a few tentative steps, we had a stampede on our hands!

Ok, maybe “stampede” is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was joyful.

I even caught one of the girls rolling in the new sand bed like a wet puppy at a beach. Not a typical look for a 1,500 lb. animal.

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In a matter of minutes, every single cow was packed into the new barn. Except for this loner. She was soaking in the sudden privacy in the old barn.

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The bovine ladies are loving it. And yes, new barns are just as exciting as green pastures.

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Confessions of a Former Agoraphobic

19 Jun

Believe it or not, I haven’t always found the country beautiful.

The wide open spaces of this place used to make me feel twinges of agoraphobia (the opposite of claustrophobic). I feared the wide open spaces.

Barn from afar

I still remember my first few drives out to Smalltown to visit the Dairy Man when we were dating. I would feel twinges of panic as sidewalks and Starbucks were replaced by cornfields and endless country roads. The openness crushed me. I felt unmoored and lost. While DM marveled at a beautiful starry sky, I couldn’t stop looking around for streetlights.

It was like being on an alien planet a million miles from earth. But instead of extraterrestrial life, I was surrounded by cows and F-150s.

I desperately missed the city. I felt most at home when surrounded by tall buildings, a crush of humanity, and the perpetual cacophony of traffic. I preferred my experiences with nature to be within walking distance of a tapas restaurant or the John Hancock Center.

Chicago

I’m still getting used to life out in the boonies. The difference three years makes, however, is that I’m starting to see the beauty.

We had a brief thunderstorm this week. After the noise (including the incessant whining of one very high-strung border collie) died down and the rain puttered out, I took a look out our front window and my breath caught in my throat.

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Let’s face it, people. Skies like this don’t happen very often between apartment buildings.

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I finally appreciate the beauty of this rural wilderness. Here, I can be quiet, deliberate, and still. With skies this big, it’s impossible not to feel closer to heaven.

I miss the bustle of the urban jungle, but this country is home.

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Building a Cow Barn

31 May

If you follow MFW on Facebook (hint, hint), you’ve probably noticed that we are currently in the process of expanding one of our barns.

As that pesky Dairy Man keeps saying: if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. He’s constantly trying to grow the dairy, create efficiencies, or find a new way to till a field. It’s all about forward motion.

So it makes sense that we’re building a barn. Over the next few months, our bovine ladies will gain a bunch of  new mooing friends thanks to the extra space.

We’ll talk about the intricacies of this shiny new facility soon, but for today I wanted to bring you up to speed.

When I get home from work each day, I drive up the hill to check out the barn progress. Over the weeks, I’ve amassed quite a collection of iPhone photos taken from the safety of my Jeep (I don’t want to get my shoes dirty, after all) or while wearing boots and walking Jersey the dog.

I’m sure you are dying to know about things like concrete flooring, water tanks, and big fans, but for now, enjoy this photo retrospective of a few weeks in barn building:

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I never could have predicted that I’d be so enamored with a barn, but this is my life now. I can’t wait to fill the new digs with cows and watch the dairy grow.

Jersey the dog, however, will be very sad to lose the beach…

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There’s More Than One Way to Milk a Cow: 4 Kinds of Milking Parlors

6 Mar

Believe it or not, there’s more than one way to milk a cow.

You can milk by hand … by sucky-thingy … by robot. Yes, I said robot. If the Jetsons had a dairy farm in space, they would have Rosie out there milking the cows.

(I am aware that I’m dating myself with that reference. We could also talk about Lisa Frank notebooks and how emotional it was to watch Littlefoot lose his mother. But we’re not here to talk about adorable longnecks, we’re here to talk about milking parlors. Let this tide you over until our next foray into the 90s.)

I’m slowly developing proficiency with dairy lingo. My vernacular has been stretched, twisted, and traumatized more times than I can count. Thankfully, one area that doesn’t cause too much emotional distress is milking parlors. Especially when you compare them to companies that sell bull juice.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the word “parlor” conjured up mental images of Victorian wingbacks, lace doilies, and Jane Austen novels. After over 2.5 years in this dairy world, my version of  a “parlor” always has cows, milking units, and stainless steel.

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I’ve only recently learned that there is more than one kind of milking parlor.

So how does a farmer decide which type is right for his or her dairy?

Several factors have to be weighed when picking out the perfect parlor, such as herd size, breed of cow, number of available employees, and existing space. Some dairies utilize robotic milking units and have only one fella running the show. Other dairies have 60 cows on each side of the parlor and six full-time milkers per shift.

For this post I tapped into my …ahem… notable artistic skill (just look at the scientific diagram in this post comparing blue whales to a silage pack) to explain the four main types of dairy milking parlors:

  1. Tandem
  2. Parallel
  3. Herringbone
  4. Rotary.

As you will quickly learn, I draw a very realistic aerial view of a cow.

1. Let’s start with a tandem (side opening) parlor.

Tandem

Our north dairy was purchased in 2010 with a tandem parlor. In a tandem parlor, the cows stand horizontal to the milkers. A gate at the entrance of the parlor holds the cow until an empty stall is ready. One benefit of a tandem parlor is that it releases cows individually (versus all at once like in a parallel), so a slow-milking Bessie doesn’t impede the group.

The facility had previously been used to milk water buffalo and we quickly found out that there are some major differences between buffalo and cows. The existing parlor was not working for our bovine beauts. So in February of 2011, Dairy Man undertook a weeklong process to gut and renovate our parlor.

2. We changed to a parallel parlor.

Parallel

During parlor-renovation week, my poor DM worked a total of 120 hours. No, that’s not a typo. 120 hours. Yes, that is out of a possible 168 hours IN an entire week. We’ll talk about that another time.

When all was said and done, we had a shiny new parallel parlor.

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In a parallel parlor, cows stand on an elevated platform at a 90-degree angle with their posteriors pointed at the person milking them. This is the area I refer to as the “kill zone” and I avoid it at all costs. Once I got caught in some horrifying brown spray while visiting DM at work. No, I don’t want to talk about it. PTSD.

Our parlor is a “double 12,” which means that we have 12 milking units on each side of the parlor, allowing us to milk 24 cows at a time.

3. Our home/south dairy has a herringbone parlor.

Herringbone

This is the most common type of parlor in the U.S. for “small” parlors (less than a double 12). Cows hang out on an elevated platform on an angled, or herringbone, fashion. Like the parallel parlor, the milker is staring at a lot of bovine bums.

4. A rotary parlor is the stuff of Dairy Man’s dreams.

Rotary

This drawing is not to scale. Most rotary parlors hold 60-80 cows at a time. But I didn’t want to draw that many cows. So you get 14.

In his dairy world, this type of parlor is the crème de la crème, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, an automated wonderland. In a rotary, or carousel, parlor, the ladies spin around slowly on what is essentially a fancy bovine merry-go-round. This type of parlor is expensive to build and is best-suited for herds of 1000+. Someday, DM, someday.

The fact that I even know what a milking parlor is, much less that I can identify more than one kind, is still shocking to me. DM is so proud.

Dying to know more about the process from MOO to YOU? Check out these posts:

My first explanation of a parlor
A look at milking shells
Milking 3x a day

Someday soon we’ll talk about what happens to the milk after it leaves the cow. Get ready for bulk tanks, milk trucks, and milk processing. Exciting stuff, people.

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Ps: Did you know you can follow the MFW escapades on Facebook? If you’re into cute pictures of border collies and posts about thrilling subjects like manure management, I’m your girl. Like me! I dare you.

12 Cows A-Carolin’

22 Dec

On the twelfth day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
Twelve cows a-carolin’

We all know that cows can’t sing. Well. They can sing, but their melodious mooing is rarely in tune. Regardless, in the interest of sending you off into the holiday weekend with visions of sugarplum dairies (see what I did there?) dancing in your head, I thought I would let our bovine ladies wrap up the twelve days of Christmas.

Thus, a herd of cows, steers, and even a calf or two are here to sing the twelve verses of my little dairy ditty. May you all have a Christmas full of blessings, family, eggnog, and twinkly lights!

“On the first day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to meeee,

Twelve cows a-carolin’
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Eleven (thousand) sliced tires”
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Ten mooing neighbors”
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Nine essential nutrients”
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Eight loads of sand”
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Seven bales of hay”
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Six stripping shanks”

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Fiiiiiiive commodity baaaaaays”

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Four milking shells”
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Three shifts of milking”
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Two orange tractors”
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“Aaaaand a twinkly-liiiight-laden faux treeeeeeeee!”
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A Dairy Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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Ps: Fun fact about December 22. Did you know that three years ago today a very nervous boy got down on one knee to ask me to be his wife? It’s been a wild adventure full of love, change, and cows ever since! Love ya, Dairy Man.