The Cow as a Life Coach

I grew up in a suburban planned community where the only interaction I had with cattle was passing them in the car. I can recall as a kid, I would take notice of them in these situations but it was a fleeting and superficial notice. “Look at the cows, kids” my mom might say. I would look and admire for a few seconds and then on with my day. I would not consider them again until the next similar situation would arise. It was not until moving to the farm, decades later, where we often see these animals for longer periods of time up close that I began to consider them in any real way.

We do not own any cattle, but our neighbors on both sides of us do. We have a fenced pasture within 50 feet or so of our home, where we allow one neighbor to pasture his cattle, so they are often in close proximity to us for relatively long periods of time. Initially this was a bit of a novelty and I was much like I was as a child. I would be giddy about them being there briefly and then move along through my day without much of a thought about them for a while. Over time though as I have been in proximity to these creatures I have begun to notice things about them that I never before noticed. Perhaps to the farm raised kids we now live around these revelations might seem obvious or even silly, or maybe when you grow up around it the details fade into the background, I do not know. What I do know is the herd has much to teach you but you must be paying attention. “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds.” ~Proverbs 27:23

The first thing I noticed over time is that these creatures almost never move with any kind of speed. They are deliberate and methodical in their gait, which can only be accurately described as a saunter. There are exceptions to this rule, notably the calves who are very playful, but in general there is no hurry in this animal. The contrast of that with the hustle and bustle lifestyle we lead is stark. All it takes is for me to get in my car and travel the couple miles to the highway before the slow and relaxed nature I am surrounded by at home melts away and I am immersed in an 80 mile per hour  world of unpredictability and loss of control which increases the body’s stress response as a defense mechanism. The physiological and psychological changes this induces are palpable. It is not something I noticed prior to moving to this rural area. I suspect that is because it was virtually impossible to escape. Before we moved, even at home I was surrounded by the ever present hum of traffic noise so the stress dial never really made it down as low as it does now. It seems to me that those constant levels of elevated stress can’t be healthy for our bodies and it would be good for me to try to follow the example of the cattle and slow down whenever possible.

Another thing I have noticed about the cattle that I had never detected previously is their build. As someone who lived largely separated from these animals I always thought of them as stout or chubby. I think that impression maybe originally came from the depictions in children’s books I’ve read. I was never close enough to them in real life to consider that it might not be a correct representation. In fact, I have observed that most of these animals are extremely muscular. Some of the more impressive specimens could only really be described as equivalent to human bodybuilders. When you watch them move for a while you begin to see that just under that skin is an enormous amount of highly developed muscle tissue. They are completely covered in enormous muscles; they are extremely strong creatures. This fact becomes even more amazing when you watch the animals eat. They consume nothing but grasses and leaves and yet their strength and musculature would amaze you. They do not eat everything though. When they are let loose on a new pasture they go for the best, presumably most nutritious, matter first. If they are left there for long enough you will notice tall plants that either are not nutritious or possibly even toxic to them are left standing, while everything around them is eaten down. They will only begin to eat the less choice and dangerous plants if you leave them in that pasture too long and they have no choice. They are eating what they are meant to eat and their physiology is finely tuned to turn those inputs into the energy and tissue needed for them to not simply survive but to thrive. We too can feed our bodies in the proper manner in order to help us more easily realize our potential. In order to do so, we must make wise decisions. Given the choice between healthy and unhealthy food cattle will choose the healthy food most of the time. We would do well to learn this lesson. In a world where we are surrounded by foods that are not very good for us, it can be difficult to make the proper choices but if we look to the cattle for guidance, we see the way.

Next, I notice that cattle do everything in a group. We all know that cattle are herd animals so this behavior might be expected, but it is still a useful lesson for us to learn. If they are eating or resting or drinking it does not matter, they are doing it together. In the morning we might see them all slowly come over the hill and into our pasture and in the evening they all wander back over together to get water or sleep for the night. There is always that one who is first to venture off but inevitably the rest follow. Similarly there is always a straggler who is a bit behind the rest, stopping to eat a snack along the way, but it does not generally stray too far from the rest. The lesson for us here is not to follow the crowd, that is not something I would recommend. Rather, the lesson for us is that there is comfort and safety in community. We, unlike the cattle, have some freedom to choose our community and we should do so wisely but having a community is far preferable to not. Proverbs 13:20 tells us “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” Having a community of the right kind of people around us can protect us from harm when things don’t go as expected. Like the cattle we should try to maintain proximity to the community we build even if they are geographically separated from us. We should maintain contact and never stray too far. We can be the leader or the straggler but we don’t want to be either too far out in front or too far to the rear or we risk getting caught on our own without the help and support of our herd when a problem arises.

Finally, I have noticed that cattle rest often. When I was younger I remember seeing cattle in the field eating. They might be walking along a fenceline grazing or gathered around a water trough drinking but I don’t recall often seeing them resting. What I have seen now that I watch them up close is they spend much of their day laying down. They will eat for a period of time, moving around the pasture, and then almost simultaneously they will all lie down. They lay there and chew their cud taking in the world and digesting their food. They will sometimes lay there for a couple hours just resting and digesting, never sleeping, but relaxing. This is a tough lesson for me especially with all the work that always needs to be done around the farm. The list of projects never ends which for me can cause a constant sense of urgency that is not good long term. I am working on trying to realize that the list will always be there no matter what I do, so it is alright for me to take a rest from time to time and in fact that rest will make me better when I get back to work.

As excited as I was to have cattle so close to us when we first moved here, the fact that they would be teaching me life lessons never even occurred to me. I hope that perhaps growing up in this setting will just maybe allow my kids to learn some of these lessons a little earlier in life than I did. Unfortunately, I suspect we all have to figure the most important lessons out for ourselves and in our own time.

Lesson Learned #4 & #5

Saturday evening we were going through our daily bedtime routine, when suddenly, it was interrupted. The lights began to flicker; they went on and off maybe five times in a row and then… nothing but darkness.

Well, it was not really darkness. A few months ago I had decided to purchase some motion sensing emergency lights, at the recommendation of a podcast I listen to regularly; thanks Jack, you’re a jerk (listen to the podcast and you will get it). I purchased two pairs of these; we put one in the basement and the other three are spread around the main floor. They took a little while to get used to because as you walk into a room containing one, if it is dark, they sense your motion and turn on. They stay on for about 15 seconds after the movement stops and then turn off again just waiting for the next time someone walks by. Once you get used to the fact that the dog walking through the hall in the middle of the night causes a brief bit of light they turn out to be very useful. I have not tripped or stubbed my toe on anything getting up for work so early in the morning, since we put these in.

These lights also have other features. When they detect the power has gone out they illuminate automatically. As soon as the power went off we found ourselves not in the dark, but in a fairly well lit situation thanks to these lights.  A quick look outside revealed a completely dark landscape. It is not very bright out here to begin with, but the level of darkness was stark. The power outage was more widespread than just us, good to know. We were able to remove one of the emergency lights from its wall socket and use the flashlight feature to locate the phone. A quick text to the next door neighbor confirmed that the power outage was more widespread than just our little house on the hill. We located the phone number for the power company.and reported the outage. They indicated we could expect the power to be back on by around 1:00 am, a little over 4 hours away.

Since we now expected this to be more than simply an hour without power we gathered up some blankets and wrapped them around our basement freezers to help hold the cold in as long as possible. If the power stayed off for too long this would only delay the inevitable but the longer we can keep the freezers cold the better. I already was beginning to think about what I would do with all the meat in the freezers if this went on longer than anticipated. I was grateful I had made another recent purchase, a wireless freezer alarm, which would alert me if it was time to really get concerned about the freezer contents. I purchased this as protection against the possible failure of a freezer but as it turns out it is completely battery powered so it can help with monitoring the freezers during a power outage as well. Lucky!

Since we still had to get ready for bed we pulled out some small LED lanterns we recently purchased specifically for use in the event of a power outage. These allowed us to have both hands free rather than holding a flashlight. The lanterns were another recommendation from Jack at The Survival Podcast and they worked out great. I don’t think you could beat these things for the price.

Now that the excitement of the event had died down, we began to talk about what had just happened and how useful some of the simple things we had put in place had been in this unexpected situation. Soon the discussion turned to what we would do if the power remained out for more than the predicted four hours. Sean had some useful thoughts on things we might need to keep ourselves living relatively comfortably, although he might put Wifi on the top of his list of needs as opposed to food and water. I already had plans in mind for further preparations like a backup power solution for the freezers but had not put them all in place yet. Life sometimes happens and plans get put off. This was a good chance to see that the simple things we purchased paid off. We decided this was a good opportunity to make a list of items that we would want to have ready for the next power outage.

We learned a couple things from this event. Lesson Learned #4: It is good to be prepared for the unexpected. There is no need to worry excessively about unforeseen events, but putting some simple tools and procedures in place  can really make things less disruptive in the event of the unexpected. Don’t worry about being prepared for everything, having some things in place is better than none. You don’t have to be perfect and you can learn as you go, which brings me to  Lesson Learned #5: Practicing the use of your tools and procedures can make the unexpected less stressful and help you identify areas where you can improve. We have some work to do to improve but overall it was actually a good experience and even a little fun. The power was only out until around 3:00 am and we were not very inconvenienced by this event but we could have been more familiar with our gear. For example, I was unaware how to use the flashlight mode on the emergency lights and fumbled a bit until Sean set me straight. We also were able to identify a number of improvements in both gear and procedures that would help us to be better prepared in the event of a longer outage. What would we do if it was very cold and we needed to remain warm during an outage? We need to implement a backup power solution for the freezers so we don’t lose all our meat. These are just a few of the things we came up with and none of them are difficult but until something like this happens they are easy to put on the back burner. Time to move them to the front burner.

Lesson Learned #3

As we discussed in another post, we raised meat chickens for the first time this year. We started out with 15 chicks and ended up with only 8 by the time we butchered. What happened? We lost two within the first week, they simply died and we have no clue why. Based on the research we did, I don’t think this is something out of the ordinary. Some level of loss in the first week or so is not unusual. The other five is a different story.

We put the remaining 13 birds out on grass at about 2.5 weeks old. They were contained within our premier 1 electric poultry netting to protect them from predators and had access to the semi-repaired chickshaw we had originally used for the egg layers. About two weeks later when I counted the chicks, there were only 11 birds. OH NO!! A quick look around revealed no indication of any struggle of any sort. There were no chicken parts, feathers, blood, etc. I was unsure what had happened but made the assumption that the chicks had simply slipped through the fence and disappeared. The next morning when we counted them there were only 8 birds left! They clearly were not just leaving on their own, we had a predator problem.

I left work a little early that evening and worked furiously to attach a new door to the chickshaw, so we could lock the birds up that night. I should have done this originally, and I knew it, but we have not been locking up our egg layers for so long and we have had no predator problems that I assumed we would be fine with these birds as well. I didn’t take into consideration how much smaller the chicks were when they were put outside. From that night on the birds were locked in every night and we never lost another.

Lesson learned #3 is making a mistake with livestock is costly. I don’t mean that in a monetary sense although it did cost us some money to lose those 5 birds. Part of my reason for wanting to raise some of my own meat is because I don’t care for the treatment of animals in the general commercial meat production model. I am willing to pay more for my meat because I see no reason we can’t treat animals with respect while still relying on them for our food. My goal is to provide any livestock we raise with as reasonable a life as I can and hopefully they only have that one bad day at the end. Part of that means that when I bring an animal onto our property I am taking on the responsibility of caring for that animal to the best of my ability and protecting that animal from natural threats it might otherwise have problems with, things like disease and predators. I failed miserably at this goal for the 5 birds we lost to a predator. While butchering day is not fun and brings with it some uncomfortable emotions; this is much worse. I am comfortable raising animals and butchering them for food because I feel I am honoring that animal when I raise and butcher them humanely and consume them with respect and the knowledge that it cost a life for me to eat that meal. The feeling of losing these birds is completely different. I could have prevented the loss of these animals and I did not. I do at least take some solace in the fact that they were lost to a predator so they did not just go to waste; it was a part of the circle of life. This is a mistake that I will not forget or make again.

Winter Garden Lessons

We talked a bit about how we came to do gardening in our About page but what is not mentioned there is how much I have come to enjoy gardening and how much I feel it has been teaching me. As I have been spending time this past Fall and Winter getting the garden beds ready for next year and ordering seeds I have thought more about what it is that I like and the things I have learned and am still learning from it.

Gardening has made me better at making decisions and committing to them. A weakness of mine in making decisions is that I tend to over analyze. I am pretty good about gathering information and making an initial decision but I sometime get nervous about it and want to delay until I can minimize as much risk in the decision as possible. Last year when we moved into the house we had no garden beds and no idea where we would put them or what they would be like. After staring at the place for a while and looking online at what others were doing I thought that raised beds were a good idea, you can see the beds in an earlier post here. My idea was based on something I had seen online but I really had no idea if it would work here and I was pretty nervous about starting it. Rather than get caught in my typical trap of analysis I decided to go with this approach and see what happens. I have learned from gardening that mistakes are not the end of the world. Some things will grow in these beds very well and others won’t but what I need to do is observe and adjust rather than over analyze up front. Even if I make what people consider to be very bad gardening mistakes I will have plants that grow. They may not be as productive but they will grow. Nature finds a way to move ahead those genes.

Gardening has forced me to be more patient and focus on hope for the future. As I was putting these beds together in the late Summer-early Fall of last year I was excited to see the result and I was pretty confident that the approach would be at least somewhat successful. I completed constructing them and then the excitement fell away as I realized I was going to have to wait until the following Spring or later to see the real results. This has forced me to temper the excitement and instead focus on something else, hope. Gardening is largely about hope for the future. When I am putting garlic bulbs in the ground in Fall that will not be ready until the following summer I have to have hope. I hope my plans are good, I hope I chose appropriate plant varieties, I hope the weather will cooperate, I hope I can protect the plants from pests over all that time, and the list goes on. Some of the hope rests on me and my actions like the variety selection and I have an ability to affect the result. Much of the hope I must have though is on things completely outside of my control like the weather or predators and pests. This forces me to realize that I am not in control of much of the world around me. This realization, for me, refocuses my hope to a higher power. Romans 15:13 is a prayer for hope.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

I have found that gardening, and many other efforts around the farm for that matter, allow me to “abound in hope.” That seems to be a very healthy way to live and changes the way I think about myself and my relationship with the world around me for the better.

Lesson Learned #2

Yesterday morning I noticed a very small bit of ice just uphill from the wood chipped area we are planning for a food forest on the South side of the house. I thought it was a little odd but ignored it and moved on with my day. This morning I looked out at the same area and noticed a much larger area of ice. I decided I better investigate. I realized before I ever went outside this was downhill from our septic and figured there must be something wrong with that system. This is the first home we have ever had that did not have a municipal sewer system so septic is something new to us and I was not at all sure what I was going to find out there. I bundled up for the temperature being in the teens  and headed out to take a look.

Sure enough there was a soggy smelly mess to the downhill side of the septic. I thought I would head uphill to look at the leach field to see if that was a problem as well. I walked up through the field and everything up there was dry. I knew we had a pump tank on the output side of the septic tank to pump the sludge uphill to the leach field so I figured that pump must be broken but I also knew we had an alarm in the basement that was supposed to sound if the pump stopped working and the water level in that tank got too high. A check of the alarm showed it was reporting all was well. I figured I was in over my head here so I better call our septic guy.

I rang up Brian Pile who had performed the inspection of the system last winter when we were purchasing the property and told him what was going on. He explained that he would guess the problem was a clogged outflow filter on the 1500 gallon tank and as soon as he said it the memory of the inspection came flooding back to me. Having never had a septic system before I made a point of being on site when Brian did the inspection so he could explain the system to me. I now recalled his careful explanation of the 1500 gallon septic tank followed by a 400 gallon pump tank to pump uphill to the leach field. I recalled him carefully removing the filter in the 1500 gallon tank outflow pipe and explaining to me how to hose it off every 6 months and that if I did not do so it would eventually clog and the system would back up. I also recalled the conversation with Sarah that we should put this on the calendar so we did not forget. I did not, however, actually do this and here I was with my oversight as the likely culprit in this mess. I thanked Brian and hung up to try to fix the problem.

Once I got the covers off the tank it became clear this was the problem. The pump tank was fine but the septic tank was full all the way to the top and overflowing.  I had to get creative and dirty to remove enough of the content to get to the filter and allow the water to begin flowing again. This involved a 5 gallon bucket, a drain snake, a crow bar, and a tine cultivator; it was not a pretty sight. It took a long time to drain back to where it was supposed to be but at the end of it all there was little damage other than the need to do some laundry and a small bit of overflow in the yard. Things could have been much worse. At least the tank is low enough that the overflow occurred at the top of the tank and did not cause everything to back up into the house.

In hindsight there were some signs the last 2 days. We had some slow draining sinks that should have tipped me off but I ignored them, maybe that is another lesson learned but not what I intended here. Lesson learned #2 is always maintain a property maintenance schedule and stick to it. What I mean by that is write it down and constantly consult it. Know when common tasks like heating system filter changes or tractor oil changes need to be done and do them as needed.This seems like a simple thing and we meant to do it but somehow in all the things we had to do with the move this one got lost in the mix. I feel pretty dumb for having missed it but as I said there is no real damage and I have learned my lesson.


Lesson Learned #1

I went out yesterday to move the chickens as I do every couple of weeks. There was a difference this time though, I was moving them farther from the five wire fence than the netting had been before and we draw power for the netting from that fence. This meant I was going to have to extend the line that carries the power from the fence to the netting. Luckily I am smart and had foreseen this need and wrapped a bunch of extra polywire around the post where I connect to the fence. The idea was that all I would need to do to extend the distance is unwrap the polywire a little as needed. That was the idea anyway, turns out I am not as smart as I had thought I was. When I went to  unroll the polywire I discovered I had wrapped it in the wrong direction so I had to unwrap all of it to extend the line instead of just what I needed. Because I had about 150′ of extra line on there it took me maybe 10 minutes longer to do than it otherwise would have.

This was a pretty simple and not very costly mistake for me to make and when I wrapped the polywire this time I did so in the opposite direction so I don’t have to unwrap it all to extend the line next time. No big deal and all is good now but the important thing here is I can use this as a broader lesson. I had enough sense to see that this was something I would need to do and planned ahead for it but did not really take the time to think through what that would mean. So lesson learned #1 is always think all the way through a problem before deciding on a solution and proceeding. This will not always result in the right answer because you are planning for the future based on present day incomplete information, but that is alright. A good example of this is my first chicken coop, I could not know my mistake ahead of time because I had no experience to base my assessment on. Now I do, so I won’t make the same mistake again. More often than not though if you put in the thought up front you will make a better decision than if you do not. So step back and look at the big picture before you move forward no matter how small the decision seems because a lot of 10 minute mistakes will add up after a while.


Knowing Your Place

Something odd has happened since we moved into the new house; most things just no longer seem as pressing or as important as they used to. This was not exactly an overnight change when we moved here, it had started prior to that, but the reason for this has certainly come into focus for me since living here. The more expansive and devoid of people the space around you is, the less ability you have to place too much importance on yourself. In the grand scheme of things most stresses are just not that big of a deal.

When I was living and working completely surrounded by people, houses, buildings, technology, etc. it was all too easy to think to myself that we have it all figured out. Since moving here I see we don’t really have it figured out, we just do a pretty good job of faking it. We are living in an amazing time full of every medical miracle imaginable and creature comforts beyond the wildest imagination of people living even just a couple of generations ago. What we fool ourselves into thinking is that we can control this world. It is the mythology of knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a scientist with an advanced degree and I get the knowledge part. What we seem to have a hard time realizing these days though is the fact that all the safety, security, stability, and prosperity we are experiencing is like an illusion. We are lucky to be alive at the time we are. We are lottery winners in the game of life. If we had been born at pretty much any other time we would be living a pretty abysmal life compared to what we enjoy today. Not that people were miserable, they were actually really happy considering, but that is the point, we have it easy, take it for granted, and tend to be unappreciative, or at least I was. The really scary part is that not only are the comfortable circumstances we enjoy new but none of this is a stable state.

We see this all the time around us, ask a Puerto Rican how stable even their simple life was when the storm hit. Ask a Syrian what they think of the stability and relative prosperity they had for a time in their country. The list of these examples goes on and on and we as Americans are really no different although we like to think we are.

Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

What I have learned over time is that I am not in control. It does not matter how much prep work or research I do, I will always have to let go and trust that things will be alright. I can put myself in the best position possible but at the end of it I am not in control. This is true of all of us even if you don’t believe in God or spirituality or any of it. You can’t escape the fact that Mother Nature or just the evil that exists in the world can reach out and take away what you thought was the way things are.

It is alright though. It is not hopeless. What the passage from Isaiah tells us is that we can’t hope, with our tiny minds, to understand the grand scheme of things but it goes on to tell us that things will work out as intended. That might not always mean the best outcome for me or a script for my life as I would have written it but I am not the only player in this game and I have to play my part even if I don’t understand it fully. The bottom line is the view shown at the top of this post. This is the view from my front porch at sunset. If you can look out over that landscape and think you are important enough that everything should work out for you exactly as you wish you are missing the big picture. I know I was missing it for a long time and when I look back on myself at that time it makes me sad to think of how lost I was. I have changed my home but more importantly I have changed my perspective. That new perspective is making all the difference.