When Cows Get Hot and Bothered

Last week was a scorcher. The pavement sizzled, the sun blazed, and the air lay thick, heavy, and suffocating. I had to resist the urge to melodramatically bellow “I’m meeeeelting! I’m meeeeeeeelting!” each time I stepped out the door. Well, I resisted the urge to do it more than that first time.

Thursday and Friday were the worst of it. Highs of over 100 degrees and smothering humidity? Far too hot for this Michigan gal.

Much to the Dairy Man’s chagrin, this week hasn’t been much better. 80 degrees felt like a cold snap and the 90s will be back today. The corn is dry and the dog days of summer are upon us.

Everyone around the farm has their own method of coping with the heat.

Jersey the dog hangs out in the air-conditioned house or truck.

The corn gets irrigated.

The cows drink a lot of water and do a lot of lounging.

It’s vitally important to keep our herd cool. Cows do not like the heat. They’re most comfortable when the temperature is around 50 degrees. When the thermometer tips above 55/60 degrees, the ladies start getting hot and bothered. The more scientific term for this hot flash phenom is “heat stress.” When dairy cows experience heat stress, they begin to reduce feed intake and lose body weight. Milk production, reproductive performance, and health are also affected.

We contemplated fanning the bovine ladies with palm fronds and feeding them cold grapes. But that seemed too extravagant. And Grecian. Plus, cows much prefer bananas.

So when the hot, airless days roll in, we kick on the fans.

These huge fans keep air moving in the barns and make the cows feel like they’re in an airport hanger. It’s glamorous. But once temps climb up past 75, the fans aren’t enough. At that point, it’s time to get wet and wild. Well, as wild as a cow lounging in the sand and chewing her cud can be.

The dairy cow version of Girls Gone Wild involves sprinklers. Our sprinkler system travels the length of each barn (on both sides) and runs on a timer based on the temperature. The hotter it gets outside, the more frequently the system kicks on. The spray wets the cow to the hide and then turns off, allowing the moisture to evaporate and pull heat from her body like sweating.

During the hottest summer days, the barn sprinkler system kicks on every seven minutes.

There are also sprinklers in the holding pen where the ladies wait to enter the milking parlor. All of these nozzles are sure to get a workout this weekend as Michigan temps again tip into the 90s.

You know the old saying: “If the cows ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Or something like that. I was never very good with old sayings. I’m still grasping the whole bird in the bush concept. But really, if our cows aren’t happy and comfortable, we can’t be either. The Dairy Man invests enormous amounts of time and energy keeping the herd cool this time of year.

There’s talk of a slip n’ slide, but we’re still shopping for a plastic that can withstand a wet, sliding, 1500-pound cow.

Green Pants, Center Pivots, and Happy Corn

Ok, quiz time. What do the following three things have in common?

  1. The Sahara Desert
  2. Our corn fields
  3. My mouth when I watch a Ryan Gosling movie

That’s right, my friends, all of these items are very dry.

Much to the Dairy Man’s relief, this post will not be about Ry-guy-McHotpants. Perhaps another time. For today, we’re going to focus on the corn.

With the exception of a brief, violent thunderstorm that sent our terrified puppy under the coffee table, the past few weeks in Michigan have been bone dry and oppressively hot. Our grass is brown and our corn is thirsty.

But fortunately for this year, a few of our newly-acquired fields came with some new toys: center pivot irrigators.

Up until this point, my only experience with these spindly metallic creatures was through a car window. They are both idyllically American and inexplicably alien. If  a spider and a caterpillar had a baby, it would look like this. Center pivots also give  free car washes if placed too close to the road.

This is the first year we’ve used center pivots to water our leafy green stuff. We’re using them because they came with the fields, but they also provide the extra water that the sandy soil needs to spawn healthy corn.

Naturally I had to experience the man-made phenoms for myself. So, one night the family (furry members included) took a drive.

The Dairy Man even found time to conduct some business while I took pictures of the machinery. Modern farming, I tell ya.

A center pivot irrigation system uses overhead sprinklers to water the crops. The machinery is made up of several segments of pipe joined together and supported by trusses mounted on wheeled towers.

In addition to their function, the towers also make excellent climbing trees.

The whole business is fed water from the central pivot point.

Water flows through the segments of pipes to the drop hoses (aka sprinklers) and the apparatus rotates in a circular pattern through the field around the pivot point.

There’s even an “end gun” sprinkler firing off at the very end of the center pivot, just to get  that last 75 feet of corn.

It’s all very complicated.

Conceptually, a center pivot isn’t that different from a lawn sprinkler. Not that I would know from personal experience. I kill plants. I hate yard work and fear dirt and bugs. I’m what the Dairy Man kindly refers to as an “indoor kid.” Last summer, he and I spent an entire day landscaping around our house and most of the plants have since died. Whoops. A certain farm wife forgot to water … and weed.

But if you are the kind of person who actually remembers to turn the sprinkler on for your poor baby plants, you’ll understand our irrigator.

The Dairy Man runs the center pivots at dusk to avoid any unnecessary evaporation during the hot parts of the day. If all goes well, the irrigation system will provide a half inch of water every 24 hours. This is accomplished over the course of 1-2 days per pivot.

Michigan corn can typically survive on rain alone, but the center pivots give our sandy fields an extra boost.

And even a green-pants-wearing farm wife can get excited about new toys.

Shoo, fly, don’t bother me.

There are certain things in this life as a modern farm wife that I’ve simply come to accept. Dirt driveways; phone calls in the middle of the night; two TV channels; dinnertime=moving target; the smell of manure; bellowing moos from up the hill; painfully slow internet; an old farmhouse; living in a town without a Starbucks or a Target; an 80 minute commute to work.

But the things I cannot get used to are the flies.

It’s a fact of life: when you live on a dairy farm in the summer, you share your outdoor space with hundreds of buzzing black flies. There’s something about warm manure pits bubbling in the sun that really gets flies all hot and bothered. Yuck. But the flies do not stay outside. At every opportunity, they sneak into our home to meet their demise at the hand of a flyswatter, lighting fixture, or by drowning in the dog’s bowl.

It seems like every time I open the kitchen slider, at least three flies zoom in. I spend half my life stealthily sneaking up on these pests with a flyswatter in hand. I derive an exorbitant amount of pleasure each time I squash one of the buggers into oblivion. I channel Rambo on a daily basis.

I live amongst the flies. And I do not like it. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. No, really.

This week I was picking up Jersey the dog from the corn field on my way home from work. During corn harvest he gets to hang out in the field with the Dairy Man all day.

I opened my car door to put Jersey in the backseat and cracked the windows to give him a breeze. In so doing, approximately 15 flies made a beeline into my car. I spent the drive home swatting flies away from my face and trying to coax them out the open windows while the pup barked and tried to eat them. By the time I got home, I was convinced we had succeeded.

But I was wrong.

Unbeknownst to me, my car was still buzzing with activity (I crack myself up) when I climbed in the next morning. I was only on the road for a few minutes before they launched an aerial attack: dive-bombing my face, landing on the bare foot pushing the accelerator, and burrowing in my hair. Needless to say, mild panic ensued. My multitasking skills were put to the test as I tried to drive the car, keep my legs in constant motion to prevent flies from landing on them, and open all the windows to create a wind current that would suck out the pests. It was chaos. The car swerved back and forth and I tried to keep it together while squealing “ew, ew, ew!” (in a very dignified fashion).

Eventually the flies exited, but the the emotional trauma remained. Well, not quite trauma. But I was flustered and itchy. Long story short, our dairy will always have flies, but from now on, my windows will always remain up and I will carry a flyswatter in my car.

Bring it on, buggers.

(Enjoy this lovely and threatening picture of me from 2008. Somehow, it just seemed appropriate.)

Knee high to a grasshopper

What a silly unit of measurement.

I often picture a weathered old farmer using this adage while wagging his finger at me: “Well, when I was knee high to a grasshopper, we had to walk uphill to school both ways in blinding snowstorms.”

The longer I’m around farmers and farming, the more I realize that many of our great adages can be tied back to farming. For example:

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Don’t cast your pearls before swine
Make hay while the sun shines
Don’t let the foxes guard the henhouse
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Trying to find a needle in a haystack

And of course, my personal favorite: let’s party till the cows come home.

Seriously. Farmers must be the smartest people in the world to be responsible for all of that wisdom! At least that’s what the Dairy Man tells me.

A few weeks ago, I added another adage to my holster.

This spring was less than ideal for planting corn. It rained and rained and rained. The fields were wet and muddy. But despite a rain-soaked spring, my Dairy Man managed to get his corn seed into the ground before it was too late. Corn harvest will take place sometime in September, but until then, we have a handy little saying to tell us if the yellow stuff is doing ok.

I give you: knee high by the fourth of July.

Sure, this post is just a teensy bit past the fourth of July, but this saying is worth talking about. A few weeks ago it was flying around the farming community with reckless abandon. If your corn is “knee high by the fourth of July,” all is well and you’ll be able to harvest on time.

Naturally, my knees and I had to see things for ourselves.

So the Dairy Man and I took an evening stroll to check on our corn.

From my vantage point, things were looking good. Leafy. Green. You know, Cornish.

But then it was time for the test. Was our corn tall enough? I should mention that, at 5’4’’, I’m probably not the ideal person to be testing your corn. My knees are just a little low to the ground. Nonetheless, I surveyed the situation.

The verdict? We are right on track. Though, the green stuff actually surpassed the needed knee high. You could say it was “thigh high by the fourth of July.” It’s got a nice ring to it, though I’d rather talk about my knees.

Research completed, the Dairy Man and I started our trek home back through the fields. The fireflies were just starting to appear as the sun slowly sank into the horizon (or, in our case, into the orchard across the street). Beautiful, quiet moments like this make the craziness of farming seem just a little more bearable.

Plus, the corn is doing great.

Summer on the farm.

I’m back.

No, I haven’t been trampled by a cow.  I haven’t moved to a foreign country, joined the circus, or lost both of my thumbs in a tragic accident.

It’s been a little bit of procrastination, a little bit of family tragedy, and a little bit of summer, but I’m back.

Procrastination and summer fever can happen to anyone, but the family tragedy portion of my recent life deserves mentioning. Since mid-April, two of my Dairy Man’s grandparents have passed away. We acutely feel the loss. I’ve wanted to write about our wonderful Grandma F or vivacious Grandpa Z, but I can’t seem to find enough words to describe their love and faith. They were amazing people. I was a lucky girl to even get to know them. We rejoice to know that both are celebrating in glory, but our family parties this summer will be missing some important people. While the loss of our precious grandparents clouds my psyche a bit, the summer soldiers on.

This week has been a “slow” week for my Dairy Man—in a world where 50 hours is slow—and I’ve taken full advantage of the chance to spend time with him before 10 p.m. But, as always in farming, this is the calm before the storm. In a few days, second cutting of hay begins, and it is CRAZINESS. I’m talking tractors and trucks out in fields at 2 a.m. craziness; no showers for a week craziness; meals that consist entirely of things the Dairy Man can eat in one minute or less craziness. I’m not looking forward to it. All I ask, dear hay, is that you wait until after the fourth of July.

So. While I’m still feeling tranquil and full of good humor, I thought this would be a good time to show you what summer looks like on the farm. As someone who gets all tingly about tall buildings and taxi cabs, I never thought I would find the claustrophobic openness of the country to be beautiful. But I stand corrected. I am a human being full of wisdom and growth.

But on to the prettiness.

This is the view from our back deck. Beautiful, right? Even the most fervent city slicker has to admire that big blue sky. I love sitting out here with a glass of Cab and a husband. Even the cat likes it.

Here are the cow dormitories, er, I mean barns. Dor-moo-tories? Anyone? Oh boy, I need to get more sleep. And better jokes.

But not all of our cows live in the barns. The Dairy Man has moved our dry cows (a.k.a. the pregnant cows) out into the pasture.  Surprisingly, they don’t suffer from mood swings or crave chocolate ice cream with pickles, but they do love to sunbathe. And eat. Oh my, do they eat.

As temperatures rise in west Michigan, the Dairy Man spends a lot of time making sure the ladies stay cool and comfortable. Since a beach day is out of the question (we just can’t afford that many flip flops and scuba masks), it’s all about the sand. Each barn has several rows of “free stalls,” which give the cows a cool place to lounge in the sand. So, life as a cow really IS like a day at the beach.

The beautiful weather makes a tramp around the farm on a warm evening nearly irresistible. I even managed to coax a feline companion to join me!

Until he spotted a baby woodchuck to meow at…

…And, after chasing it into a hole in the ground, decided that he would not be joining me for the rest of the stroll. Heaven knows he had an exhausting day at the office, sleeping, eating, chasing bumblebees, and sleeping. A cat needs his rest.

After a long day at work and the proceeding 80 minute drive home, there is something profoundly peaceful about my place in nestled in the hills of dairy country. I still think that skyscrapers and asphalt are sexy, but I’m beginning to love green pastures and blue skies. Besides, we have our own skyscrapers.