If I Ran the Farm: Training Day

Family farms and family vacations are a challenge, and Southern Ridge Farm and the Cannon family have yet to figure out how to do it. Someone always has to stay behind. It has never been me, until now. So I am farm sitting for the next ten days with one daughter, while the farmer husband takes the rest of the kids for family visits 12 hours away.

The run of the farm has only been left to me once since we acquired cattle, and that was in summer. Pigs I can handle, if they stay in their assigned pastures. Chickens, no problem. Sheep, same thing as the pigs. Cattle in the winter, however, are a different story. They need hay. They need to stay in their assigned pasture, and if they have enough hay and water, they are mostly happy to do that.

I’ve never speared and hauled round bales on a tractor before. I’ve never even driven our current tractor. So here goes. Ten days, just keep the cows happy. And, I’m journaling it in response to our customers who always say we should write about what goes on around the farm. We will learn this together.

Training Day

It was a busy December, what with a holiday social calendar, and I couldn’t spare Keith any time, so training took place the day before the family left. Christmas Day, at dusk, in the misty rain. There were extenuating circumstances.

First, learn how to start the tractor, which involved a clutch, gears in neutral, no problem there. Next, put the tractor in motion without giving Keith whiplash—he was standing beside my tractor seat giving me instructions and hanging on for dear life. He’s never been much of a cusser, but I kept hearing him say things under his breath each time I stopped and started.

Next, approach a round bale at the perfect speed, position the front spear implement to make contact perfectly in the center, simultaneously keep moving forward and impale the bale while lifting the bale off the ground and tilting it at an upward slant. Then, reposition the tractor and repeat the whole process, only this time in reverse to load a bale on the spear in the back. Just one question here: are you kidding me?

I instantly gained a new respect for my son Jonathan, who learned to do this at 15 and never made one comment about it. And I attribute my shaky success to Keith’s helpful and steady stream of comments: “Not that lever, the other lever!” There’s like, five, to choose from. “Keep moving, why are you stopping?” Whiplash. “Ok, now, stop, STOP!” Whiplash again. “Lift it up, not down!” …and so on.

I’ll just fast forward through the stress of driving the tractor through the pastures, crossing two streams,  opening and closing gates, all the while hauling roughly 1200 lbs on each end. The most frightful part of the whole thing was negotiating the relatively small space around the watering tank: enter the outer gate, make a quarter circle between the watering tank and the fence, and out the inner gate into the desired pasture. When Keith opened the gate into the pasture the cows noticed, and well, the reaction was about the same as if I were offering Ghirardelli tiramisu to 40 deprived chocoholics. My fight or flight instinct was kicking in, but I had to swallow it and keep rolling forward because both gates were now open and the cows were sure to notice that, too. Not to mention Keith was wildly flailing his arms and encouraging me through, and, while he was not cussing, he was not speaking under his breath either.

The watering tank. Cows can access this waterer from three different pastures. This is my entrance and exit point for their pasture.

The watering tank. Cows can access this waterer from three different pastures. This is my entrance and exit point.

I vowed right then and there that no matter what else happened in the next ten days, I would do anything I could to avoid that onslaught again. I’d keep them so stocked in hay that they wouldn’t care if I was coming or going with a fresh supply.

The hay rings can hold two large round bales.

The hay rings can hold two round bales.

Before the bales can go into the hay rings, the twine that holds it together has to be cut. It’s just one long piece that encircles the bale maybe ten times. So I have to hop off the tractor, cut each line of twine on one side of the bale, then go to the other side and scrape my fingers along the bale to pull each one away so that I’ve got a mass of grassy, muddy, manure-y twine in my hand when it’s done. All this while the cows are nosing around trying to nibble at the fresh bale.

Keith said nothing, just studied the two ringless bales for a minute, then finally, “Well, I’ve just never seen that done before.” Turns out you can use that front spear implement thingy to right a wronged hay bale ring, and in short order Keith had it standing correctly with both bales inside it.

Two more trips like that and I felt somewhat confident that I could handle the feeding chores. Off on vacation, everyone, and have a good time!

Tomorrow: Day One on my own

Jerlene CannonIf I Ran the Farm: Training Day