“Tending Cows”

I have learned a lot with our hobby farm. I learn the most from discussions I have with farmers – I mean guys who do it for a living every day. I ask a lot of questions because things that they do so naturally I have to think about and read up on.

Ann Althouse linked this piece by Meredith Small, who is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. In the piece is this bit:

That cultural expectation is now creeping earlier and earlier as 3-year-olds go to preschool and 4–year-olds start kindergarten. Everyone sits quietly at their desks, thinking and thinking, just when they’d rather be out tending cows or weeding the garden.

The article is the usual garbage, trying to talk everyone into the insane idea that Western culture is crappy, blah blah blah. Other cultures that are backward and not mechanized do amounts of labor that I simply cannot fathom like we did a hundred years ago in the US.

We got our usual thousand bales of hay in last week and I am still scratching my head as to how people raised livestock without the internal combustion engine. Horses and wagons brought hand cut hay in from the fields. I worked my a** off just stacking the hay that was brought in by a tractor on carts and that was backbreaking labor. But I digress a bit.

This part is what really caught my eye:

…just when they’d rather be out tending cows…

Well, I now have cows. I don’t know what is “tending”. Is she talking about throwing hay at them when it is zero degrees outside and making sure the water hasn’t frozen? Is she talking about feeding them if it is feedlot cattle? What on earth is “tending cows”? Milking them?

Of course if I actually sat down and asked Meredith Small what she was talking about I am pretty sure that she would have absolutely no idea what “tending cows” is. From that one line I can safely assume that she probably has no clue as to how the dairy or beef industry works.

26 thoughts on ““Tending Cows””

  1. I am still scratching my head as to how people raised livestock without the internal combustion engine.

    They had 12 kids like my great grandfather or ten like my grandfather and my aunt, farmers all.

  2. But it does ground. My husband has always argued (explicitly to me, implicitly to his colleagues) that he couldn’t accept post-modernism because he’d grown up on a farm. We see the quite different takes on farming from Victor Davis Hanson and Whittaker Chambers – but both take immense pride in their crops and see that life as more purposeful. Both want to hand this down to their sons. Adams’ biographers say one of his greatest prides (not an ironic one) after he left the presidency was the richness of his manure piles.

    It was back-breaking work and only by closing your mind to the level of work and starvation of subsistence farming in those long periods in our long history would it seem an ideal. Still, it has a powerful draw.

    And the irony that a rather large number of people are dying from north German organic sprouts takes me back to the late sixties – and not in a good way.

  3. I have two memories about farming at my father’s cousins farms near Vermontville, MI. Milking cows by hand takes a long time. Cow manure smells good in an earthy way. Pig, not so much.
    Humping bales onto a trailer pulled by a tractor will soon wear you out. Even just stacking the bales that someone else throws up to you is hard work. You sweat a lot, and the dust and dirt combined with the sweat form a certain ‘grinding mix’ that will irritate the heck out of your skin. If you have allergies, stay home.
    You slept REAL GOOD. And, when you awoke, you had an appetite like you never knew before.
    The trials and tribulations of thunderstorms or wind at just the wrong time killing or ruining the crop were real. Just before you were about to cut the hay, or harvest the sorghum, if it rained, you had to wait days to cut or harvest or worry about mold forming.
    The best thing I remember is the cream being skimmed from the fresh milk, and kept in the refrigerator until the weekend when we made home-made ice cream the old fashioned way. The crank turning also gets tiresome.

  4. “Even just stacking the bales that someone else throws up to you is hard work. You sweat a lot, and the dust and dirt combined with the sweat form a certain ‘grinding mix’ that will irritate the heck out of your skin. If you have allergies, stay home.”

    This was my job last Monday – in the 90 plus and humid weather. You have to wear jeans because you need to smash the bales as close as you can to each other with your knee so that adds to your sweat quotient. I lost about five pounds – I always like to try to weigh myself before and after.

  5. My father used to talk about how they picked field corn. There was a big wagon with a high center board sticking up. It was pulled through the corn field with hands on each side. The hands would pick each ear and throw it against the board so it would fall into the wagon. I wonder how many great pitchers were farm boys in those days?

  6. mk – the history of farming really is an interesting subject and I have been reading up on it – a lot of things in our barn such as doors at the top, railings, and pulleys that seem out of place today are explained by the techniques they used eons ago.

  7. Anthropological note from Donald Morris’s “Washing of the Spears”:

    “At six or seven, the [Bantu] boys took up herding duties, starting with sheep or goats in the immediate vicinity of the kraal.”

    After a ceremony at about the age of ten, “each boy was regarded as fit to help herd the kraal’s cattle on the open pasture land”.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen Amish who couldn’t have been much older than six or seven herding sheep.

    Ginny – Martin Mayer (in his book, “Today and Tomorrow in America”) makes a similar argument about the benefits of farming. I can look it up for you and your husband, if you are interested.

  8. I expect what Small meant was “tending sheep”, which unlike the term “tending cows” actually makes some sense.

    Add farming and herding to the long list of things that most journalists know absolutely nothing about, but will pontificate on anyway.

  9. Cow’s manure smells good? Gosh, maybe Michigan cows are made of some angelic material. Cows’ manure on a collective farm in Udmurtia smelled like…like…I ran out of metaphores. Nothing in the world smells like that. One day among those poor miserable creatures (yes, I was hand-milking them) – and you can throw away everything you were wearing that day, including underwear: you would never be able to wash away the stench, even with the coarsest brown soap.

    But the mils itself tasted absolutely divine…

  10. Corn Husking may have been one of more unique indigenous American sports.

    From about 1922 through 1941, ~15 states in the Midwest corn belt held state contests and sent 2 contestants to a national contest sponsored by the major farm magazines. At their peak in the late 30’s, these national contests drew crowds of over 100,000 (!!) and were broadcast live on national farm radio. My wife’s maternal grandfather competed for the state of Kansas through the last 1/2 of that period, finishing as high as second in 1937. He was in his 80’s by the time I first met him, but you could tell he’d been a large powerful man.

    See here (particularly the picture) and here for more detail on this forgotten American history.

  11. Tatyana – I have smelled my share of manure over the past few years – it isn’t puke inducing awful. It isn’t roses either. Pigsh*t – that is a different story.

    Soviet – your second link doesn’t work and I am interested in seeing what it was.

  12. My Grandmother Jessie Smedley is about as close as I come to farming – she grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. Not much mechanization, or electricty – although I believe their farmhouse did have running water. Imagine the labor involved in just keeping a family fed, how much pickling, canning, preserving … butchering out a pig in the fall, and smoking hams and ribs and sausage, making head-cheese. Making cheese, too — from the milk of cows which you had to milk yourself, daily.
    Growing up in a rural suburb, we did keep a horse – and even taking care of the horse involved some work; now, imagine harnessing a pair of horses to a wagon, or to a plow or cultivator. I might be far from Grannie Jessie’s farm, but I am close enough to know how much work it took to make a good living out of it.

  13. Sgt. Mom – exactly my point and thank you for that story. It was an absolutely enormous amount of work just to keep yourself alive back then, much less to farm for profit.

  14. The family of one of my grandmothers had a livestock business in Germany. Several of her siblings migrated to Israel and one them ended up running the cattle operation at a large kibbutz (I believe he brought over some of the family cattle as a contribution to the kibbutz’s capital). None of his sons followed him into the family business, perhaps because the kibbutz business model destroyed any incentive to.

    I once dated a woman in Chicago whose relatives were also German Jews in the cattle business. They had emigrated to the USA and were still raising cattle in Illinois in the early 1990s.

  15. When I was 8 or 9 my Dad took me with him to return something to an old local farmer. He was a large man in bib overalls and a straw hat. And he was always chewing tobacco. They were clamping steers that day and we stayed to watch for a while. Quite an eye opening experience! The basic reality of farm life is lost on those who haven’t seen it up close.

  16. Meredith Small wrote: “…3-year-olds go to preschool and 4–year-olds start kindergarten. Everyone sits quietly at their desks, thinking and thinking …”

    Not only is she apparently ignorant of farming, she has quite clearly never spent ANY time around normal, healthy 3 or 4 year olds.

  17. My grandmother’s farm, it was in a sense her dowry, had been her father’s original homestead. The pasture had never been plowed. The house, where she had been born about 1865, did not have internal plumbing except for a hand pump at the kitchen sink. My first memory of it was being chased by a rooster about the age of four. We spent a lot of time there although it was farmed by a family of tenants. The Tenant split the income with my grandparents, sharecropping, although they did quite well. The tenant’s father had previously farmed it and saved enough to buy his own nearby farm.

    One year, my grandfather decided to plow the pasture (Some Illinois preservationist society would probably be outraged) and the corn was 14 feet high, giving a sense of what those original farmers saw when they plowed the original prairie. When my grandmother died in the 50s, it was sold much to my youthful disappointment but, with 10 siblings, there was no way to keep it in the family.

    My father did decide to butcher a hog in the, then, upper class environs of South Shore and I got to singe the bristles off the sides of bacon and grind the sausage. I was about 10.

  18. I grew up on a farm with cows, pigs, chicken and sheep and I had a couple of pet ducks. As to “tending cows and sheep” it might make sense if there were no fences to contain them or dangerous animals lurking near. (I’m not sure that children would be good shields for the likes of mountain lions or equally dangerous predators.) However, cows tend themselves quite nicely until it is milking time and even stroll back into the barnyard single file after a day out in the pasture in good weather. Sheep really do an extraordinary job of tending themselves in a fenced environment for weeks and weeks. During the summer our hundreds of chickens would roam freely about the yard until sunset with absolutely no attention paid to them. There were always a half dozen or so chickens that needed to be herded back into the chicken house at night, but most understood that a night outside was dangerous and very few chickens stayed outside and lived until the next morning. Minks and foxes and a whole slew of other varmints found them easy prey. And a chicken house full of chicken droppings will give the pig stench a run for its money on the odoriferous scale. My husband quotes my father regularly when the smell of manure wafts the air, “It smells like money.” It makes me smile, but the new regulations requiring that animal waste be stored and applied as liquid in farms over a certain size has created a new and extremely unnatural cattle stench of epic unpleasantness.

  19. My parents’ families both left Quebec for the US around 1900, and came to the cities. To varying degrees, they cajoled their descendants to get an education, so they didn’t have to break their backs in the fields.

    Thank you, great grandparents for the move and the advice. Farming is best enjoyed as a hobby, or through an enjoyable post from Dan/Madison!

  20. Down on part of the old family farm, I have a lot of pics of the 8 kids my grandparents had, planting and plowing with the horses, and lifting those large hay stacks into the loft with a bunch of ropes and pulleys. Canning, laundry and other chores were harder too, and relief from the heat or cold was still another challenge. Hard work and long hours without many luxuries. I guess they were thankful not to be in Germany or Russia though …

    This year a lot of grain farmers will profit $700/acre putting in maybe 1% as many hours/acre as their grandparents. Livestock is more of a battle, but the big barn here will probably never see many bales again … round bales dropped in the field beat the heck out of bucking bales onto the wagon, off of the wagon, then again out of the barn. But with just a few cows, maybe that’s the way to go still.

    With farms and other production so mechanized, the rest of the population has to come up with something to do. Maybe become lawyers that can figure how to move commerce through their fingers, and politicians that can tax every exchange, and have 2000 page bills written to move money to their favored special interests? Others can unionize to be sure they aren’t downsized? Or maybe join the military … or Obama’s internal security force?

  21. Bill – for a tiny herd like ours the small square bales are definitely still the way to go – but my lord is sucks stacking them. But I am thinking any herd over ten you would want to seriously consider the large square bales that are held together with wire or the large rounds.

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