No ‘snow days’ on the farm

cows6781By Sherry Bunting, columnist, Register-Star, Feb. 21, 2015

There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm. “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work,” notes Cody Williams of Wil-Roc Dairy, Kinderhook, where some of the 1500 Holstein dairy cows are housed in new and modern barns, while others are exposed a bit more to the elements in older facilities.

“We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin,” Cody explains. “We also adjust the cow diets to keep our cows in a positive energy balance as they burn more energy to maintain themselves during weather extremes.”

Operating a dairy or livestock farm in the extreme cold is not for the faint of heart. Veteran beef producer Phil Trowbridge of Ghent observes: “We know how to take care of ourselves. We dress in layers and give each other breaks.”

Frozen pipes, pumps, waterers, and manure — as well as difficulty in starting equipment — are commonly reported concerns when the snow piles up and the temperatures plummet, and, of course, concerns about keeping rooftops clear of a too-heavy burden.

Last week the mercury hit -14 at Trowbridge Angus Farm, where it is calving season January through March. The family, and their over 300 beef breeding cows, are navigating two to three feet of snow cover.

Twenty miles away near Schodack Landing, temps of -11 went virtually unnoticed by the over 700 Jersey dairy cows at Dutch Hollow Farm. They are tucked away in their barns with retractable sidewall curtains that stay open more often than not for natural light and ventilation but remain closed when the wind chills get this low.

Cattle are cold weather animals, but they do not like wind or drafts. The difference between beef and dairy breeds is the way their centuries-old partnership with man has adapted through specialized breeding and care.

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Beef breed cattle are kept outside pretty much year-round, coming into the barn only at calving time. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, are typically housed in barns year-round. While beef breed cattle spend more time foraging for their food and seeking the natural and provided windbreaks to lay down, dairy cattle in freestall barns will amble short distances inside from feedbunks and waterers to the deep-bedded stalls that are groomed for them two or three times a day while they are milking.

Dairy cows are accustomed to constant human handling from the time they are calves. 10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_oThey have a different temperament about the whole calving deal.They aren’t worried about predators and trust the humans they work beside day in and day out to care for them and their offspring.

Beef breeding cows, on the other hand, are more self-sufficient and protective of their young. They raise their offspring for the more hands-off life as a non-milking breeding animal or to spend 80% of their life foraging on pasture with the last 20% of their life in the beef fattening phase.

One thing in common: Both beef and dairy producers focus on the newborns immediately at birth to make sure each calf gets a warm start and enough colostrum for the passive transfer of immunity from its dam.

“When we get real cold weather like we have seen this winter, we spend more time in the calving barn at night. We pretty much sleep here with them when it’s this cold,” says beef producer Phil Trowbridge, who has had 50 calves born since January 1. “The main thing is to get those calves dried off and warmed up as soon as they are born, and to make sure they get enough colostrum. In two or three days, they’re old enough and strong enough to go outside.”

Not only are they prepared for cold weather, they frolic in it. “I took a video with my cell phone of the calves the other day when it was minus-11. We were putting out bedding for the cows, and saw those calves were feeling so good, they were just running through the snow,” Phil relates. “I like seeing that.”

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Stockpiled pasture grasses make a nice winter forage as cattle can push off a few inches or a foot of snow to graze it, and they do well getting around in the snow outdoors. But with over two feet of snow cover this winter, the Trowbridge family cuts trails to help the cattle conserve energy. They also put down extra bedding, more often, in the areas with windbreaks and feed more outdoor hay and supplement.

Meanwhile, on a dairy farm, the cows calve year-round. Calving pens are watched through video monitoring or by walk-throughs. The immediate newborn calf care continues

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

through the first few weeks of life in the calf nursery or individual hutches. Newborns often get time in a heat box or wear calf jackets and sometimes earmuffs when it’s this cold, and they are fed more often for increased energy to maintain their temperature and to grow.

“Taking care of the animals is pretty much routine. The feeding is very consistent day to day, and the freestalls are bedded twice a week,” says Paul Chittenden of Dutch Hollow
Farm. “Clean and dry and plenty to eat are what we focus on — regardless of the weather. Cows always have dry sawdust with extra sawdust stored in the front of the stalls. This allows for plenty of dry bedding to stir around each time we groom the stalls when the cows go to the parlor for milking.”

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Water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” explains bovine veterinarian and dairy farmer Dr. Tom Troxel. “Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lay down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot.”

“No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do here,” notes Cody of Wil-Roc Dairy. “That is itself the reward. Getting our everyday tasks done and looking to see how the stressors of weather and other events can affect our system… That is how we keep improving how we do things all year long.”

Sherry Bunting is a member of North American Agriculture Journalists and has been covering beef and dairy production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net

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Dairy and beef cattle are adapted differently, but they all depend on their people for great care during the weather extremes we have seen here this winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart. Everyday tasks take longer to complete but it sure is rewarding to see cows thrive and calves frolic after a good start – regardless of the weather! Photos by Sherry Bunting, Beth Chittenden and Evelyn Troutman.

‘Work hard. Save money. Be careful. Love the job.’

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Hector Jimenez (right) and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez have been working together since the late 1970s. Two decades of saving as they worked on dairies in California led to them starting their own dairy near Dublin, Texas in 2004. In an interview last May at their R&J Dairy, they reflected on a decade of dairying on their own in Central Texas. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine and Texas Dairy & Ag Review during the summer of 2014

DUBLIN, Tex – The decade of 2004 to 2014 has been a volatile one for anyone starting out in the dairy business. For these two producers it took more than two decades of
work on other dairies in California to pave the way to be living their dream today in Central Texas. Hard work, disciplined saving, and hands-on management are the three keys Hector Jimenez and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez say brought them through 20-plus years of working for others and 10 years dairying on their own – including the 2009-13 era of tight to negative margins.webR&J-536

“We worked together since 1979 and always talked about one day having our own dairy,” Hector recalls. That day came in 2004 when Hector and Arturo bought a dairy near Dublin that had been vacant for a number of years after its previous owner moved west to where the dairy industry was expanding in the Panhandle.

They moved here from California with nothing, bought 110 cows and milked three months on a rented dairy, then partnered in their own R&J Dairy. They bought another 150 cows and took their time raising their own replacements to expand steadily through internal herd growth.

“WwebR&J-165e started with No. 1 and this calf, here, is No. 2869,” Hector smiles, pointing out a newborn heifer. Today their herd of 850 milking cows is 95% homebred. They produce an average of 75 pounds/cow/day and have achieve somatic cell counts at or below 200,000.

They are satisfied with the current size of their dairy as they build back their numbers after a few years of heavier culling rates while milk margins and feed costs were tight to negative. The recent memory of 2009-13 brings daily reminders of the importance of saving, working, and being cautious.

“We culled heavily because we needed that money to pay bills,” Hector relates. Today, the herd is 30% first-calf 2-year-olds.

Asked how they made it through those tough years, Hector’s wife Fabiola said: “We prayed.”

“And worked hard,” added Hector.

He and Arturo are hands-on managers. “My uncle is out here feeding cows at 4 a.m. and I start at 5 a.m.,” says Hector, who does all of the breeding. His day starts with cleaning the milk tank and the parlor, checking fresh cows, and starting the day’s breeding lineup.

“My husband is in love with what he does. He never complains. He and Arturo are always here – rain or shine, good or bad — that’s how we made it this far,” Fabiola adds.

She and Arturo’s wife Sylvia — and more recently Arturo’s daughter Christian — take care of all the calves at R&J Dairy.

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Hector and Fabiola Jimenez (left) and Arturo Rodriguez (right) with his daughter Christian. Missing from photo are Hector and Fabiola’s grown children Clemente, Abel and Joann and Arturo’s wife Sylvia and son Arturo Stephen. Photo by Sherry Bunting

They employ 10 people, mainly milkers. They feel a sense of satisfaction in coming to the U.S. from Mexico in the mid-to-late 1970s, working hard, starting a new life here, including their own dairy business, raising children who are either interested in the dairy or working good jobs in the community, and now providing jobs for others in the community.

Halfway through their first decade in business together, Hector and Arturo hit the 2009 milk market train wreck followed by years of drought and surging feed prices. Cutting expenses was a big part of that picture from 2009-12, and the partners aren’t so fast to spend money now that dairy margins are good.

They have 220 acres and rent some additional property for growing coastal hay. That, and working with their nutritionist in feeding commodities like corn gluten, canola and cottonseed along with purchased corn silage — helps them manage feed costs.

They feed a dry cow ration and move the close-up cows and first calvewebR&J-125xxrs close to the house for observation. They also use Udder Comfort after each milking for a few days post-calving to reduce edema and improve recovery time.

The breeding program involves synchronization, but only for those cattle that are not showing heats. Hector and Arturo pick the bulls. “We look for high components – fat and protein – as well as calving ease,” Hector explains.

High components and high milk quality are two keys to making the most of their milk check in both high and low market times.

“The dairy business can be a tough business,” Arturo observes. “You have to enjoy it. I enjoy everything about it, getting up early, being out here. It’s all I’ve known since 1975.”

For the next generation of dairy producers dreaming of having their own dairies, Arturo has this advice: “Work hard, and sooner or later you will be rewarded,” he says. “Save money and invest in cows, but above all work hard. If it is work that you love, that won’t be hard.”

Those two-plus decades of hard work for other dairies have rewarded Hector and Arturo with more of the work they love, but now they do the work for their own dairy investment.

As these two partners have experienced over the past 10 years dairying on their own – “Even when you have your own business, the work doesn’t stop and in some ways you work even harder. You have to be here, work here, live here,” Arturo explains.

Hector agrees. “Even when I’m at the house, I’m thinking about the cows and wanting to see that they are okay. You have to like this job to do it well, and you have to like it even when you are losing money.”webR&J-151

It can be done, they say, “but you have to be careful. We had to spend money carefully,” Arturo noted. “We started this dairy during the good times in 2004. We’re still here, I think, because we were careful in the good times and the bad times. We watch every day how we feed, and when the times are tough, we cut out what is too expensive. When the going gets really tough, we shift our focus into survival mode, not to how much milk we can make.”

Cost of production at R&J Dairy runs almost $20.00/cwt at the moment (spring 2014), which includes all costs — everything. “It gets scary when milk prices fall to $16,” Arturo relates. “In 2009, the price fell below $12, and our cost of production at that time was $18. At one point we were losing $2000 per day here and borrowing to pay bills.”

He explains that they were fortunate to have built up some equity they could borrow on, and he estimates that another three months of milk prices as high as April’s may finally pay back what they lost in 2009.

“We try to stay ready for the next downturn,” the two men agree.

Arturo sees the new Margin Protection Program in the Farm Bill as something that will help dairy producers during future downturns. “It’s better insurance, better than the MILC program. When it gets tough in the dairy business, any help is nice to have.”

As for forward contracting, Hector and Arturo prefer to take on the risk. They believe that while the new insurance program will help and some folks have benefitted with forward contracting… nothing substitutes for hard work, saving during the good times, and close management and caution all the time.

The two partners worked day and night through the worst of 2009-10, and believe that is webR&J-572what got them through it. “We looked for those small daily victories,” Arturo reflects. “That’s what kept us going. We just kept thinking we would be okay — that if we worked hard, we would be rewarded for the years of suffering, and I guess we are seeing that right now.”

Moving forward… ‘We take care of their families and they take care of ours’

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, November 21, 2014

NEW LONDON, Wis. — November is a many-faced month for agriculture. It’s the month we recognize women in agriculture. It’s the month we bring the sewebTank7962ason’s harvest to a close. It’s the month we are reminded to be thankful for God’s blessings.

In September, I met a truly inspirational dairywoman who is quietly and methodically moving forward in the face of difficult odds. She and her two daughters exemplify a thankful heart as they care for their cows, which in turn care for them.

It was a downright cold, rainy central Wisconsin day as I was visiting farms ahead of the World Dairy Expo at the end of September. My lastwebTank8066 stop of the day was Milk-Flo Holsteins, New London, where Cathy Tank still does the 3 a.m. milking of her 150-cow dairy herd, and then works off the farm until supper time; so the appointed time to meet was toward evening. Her daughters were home from school and the hired man was busy pushing up feed for the cows.

What started as a typical family farm interview, soon turned into much more. By the time I left a few hours later, it was dark and one of the two ladies employed to milk the other two of the 3x milkings had arrived as Cathy’s daughters fed the chickens befowebTank8046re heading inside to do homework.

A former dairy queen of Wayne County, Wisconsin, Cathy Tank is a woman who not only works hard, she believes in working smart and using the right tool for a job.

She and her daughters Elizabeth, 15, and Rebecca, 11, love the dairy farm they are keeping going — and progressing — after losing husband and father Bob Tank to melanoma in 2009. It has been a journey, to say the least, and Cathy is quick to point out the way communities and extended family work together during harvest and in times of need.

“That’s what makes farm folk different,” she says. “A farmer can be having the worst day, ever, and would still stop and help pull another out of the ditch.”

“I am fortunate to have good help,” she adds. Working smart, means picking the jobs she can and can’t do. While she harvests her own haylage and works the ground to get it ready for planting, Cathy uses custom manure hauling and custom choppers for the corn silage harvest.

“They can do in a few hours what would take me weeks,” she says, adding that her brother helps her do most of the planting. That is something her father, Keith Knapp, helped her with over the past few years, but this spring she lost her Dad, too, in an accident.

Getting on the tractor is therapeutic, she says matter-of-factly. “It is refreshing work, and it reminds me to be thankful. I think about all of the things my Dad taught me how to do.”

While fieldwork is refreshing, what Cathy really loves is the cows. The dairy herd was her domain until six years ago. One year before Bob’s illness, they decided she would take a job off the farm. Today, she continues onward with both the job and the farm, and she’s set some pretty high goals for her cows with the focus on paying down debt. She would like to see her cows get over that 90 lbs/cow/day mark into 100-lb territory. “That’s a hard goal,” she says. But she’s already reached a few toughies.

She started 3x milking in February, and over the past two years, she made a focused effort to reduce somatic cell counts. Today, the herd averages 87 pounds/cow/day with 3.5 fat and 3.9 protein and SCC ranging 100 to 150,000.

The herd cleared $1 million in milk sales last year, which was a goal, reached, and Cathy says she has been able to reduce the farm’s debt by almost half. The milk from Milk-Flo goes to a cheese plant, and so the premiums for reducing SCC have really helped the bottom line.

While shifting the farm from pasture-based to more conventional in order to increase production and pay down debt, Cathy muses that maybe one day in the future, it webTank8077could return to more of a pasture-based system. She has already diversified a bit, adding pastured poultry and home-raised pork, beef and chicken. She and the girls sell their eggs at a local farmers’ market. The few steers on the farm are fed refusals from the milking herd and the chickens help keep some of the lawn areas mowed.

“We do what we can to not waste anything here. We are learning how to be more self-sufficient. You learn to be resourceful when you are on your own,” she says.

“We also try to do as much as we can without antibiotics,” explains Cathy, who grew up milking cows and has an Ag Education degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “We don’t sell the milk at the farmers’ market, but people who buy our eggs know we have cows, and we get those questions. We are trying to pay attention and be more preventive in how we manage the cows, so we don’t have as much need for treatments during lactation. This approach has helped us qualify for quality premiums and have a healthier herd.”

Cows are milked in a step-up parlor and housed in an open-front barn in freestalls. The farm includes 310 acres of forages for the 150-cow milking herd and young stock. Dry cows and older heifers are on pasture.

“I like color and variety,” says Cathy about the composition of the herd today, which is mainly Holstein but includes Brown Swiss crosses, Red & Whites, Linebacks,webTank8013 and Ayrshire crosses. She has hired a breeder but picks the bulls. The two biggest things she looks at are feet-and-legs and protein.

After two years in a row of poor forage in parts of the Upper Midwest, Cathy is thankful for this year’s good hay crop and the “jumbo corn” crop yielding over 23 tons of corn silage per acre, much of which was still ‘ripening’ in the field as the calendar headed into October.

She has put some thought into positioning the farm for alternate plans should the need arise. A few years ago, she installed a scrape alley and simple manure storage for the parlor holding area. This and the open-faced barn make the property suited to substantial heifer-raising if milking cows would ever get to be too much.

Elizabeth and Rebecca are the fourth generation on the farm. Cathy explained that Bob’s family has farmed here 100 years as of 2008, which was the year before he died.

“I’m just a steward,” she said. “I’m pretty interested in staying in this industry. I can’t imagine the farm without the cows.”

While she focuses on the areas of the farm where her efforts are most productive, she still enjoys the 3 a.m. milking. “I like getting up when it’s calm and you can see the stars,” she says as she looks around at the herd, noting her oldest cow is 15 years old. “It’s a good feeling to have dams, grand-dams and daughters in the barn here. We take care of their families and they take care of ours.”webTank8005

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They prayed for direction… and found each other

By Sherry BuntingMeck-Hershey4576, Farmshine,     Oct. 31, 2014 – farmshine.net

 WOMELSDORF, Pa. — Some stories just have to be told, and this is one of them.

For Jeremy Meck and Kacie Hershey, engaged to be married November 7th, 2014, their chance meeting happened at a time of loss and uncertainty in the midst of one of the harshest winters southeast Pennsylvania has ever endured.

For Jeremy, it was a season of profound loss. Not only had he lost his brother to cancer in February, in Zach he had lost his best friend and business partner. Meck Brothers Dairy here in Berks County was the dream they had built up from scratch — a dream they had worked on together ever since grade school in Lancaster County when their late father Ronald, a poultry farmer, bought them a heifer calf for 4-H, igniting a passion for cattle that morphed from raising calves to milking cows, to buying and renovating their own dairy farm.

“It was a rough winter at the farm, with one thing after another, and it was hard to stay focused as Zach became more ill,” Jeremy related during a summer visit to the farm.

What he described was like a dark fog that threatened to settle-in around him. “I was praying for God’s guidance, for direction, for clarity… and I found myself praying for joy,” he recalls.

Goosebumps come with the next words from Kacie, as she confirmed her middle name is, you guessed it: Joy.

“God had a big part in us meeting,” she said about the chance meeting that was not so much by chance after all.

Kacie was facing her own need for clarity. She graduated with a teaching degree and was substituting here and there while working for her parents, Duane and Marilyn Hershey, at their Ar-Joy Farms near Cochranville, Chester County.

With Marilyn on the DMI board and Duane on the Land O’Lakes board, Kacie’s parents travel a lot. “I started picking up more responsibility at the farm and I needed to make some decisions,” she recalls. Seeking a teaching job, and feeling conflicted about the future, she, too, was praying for direction. What Kacie didn’t know was that her grandmother Anna Stoltzfus had started that week praying for God to bring someone into her granddaughter’s life.

Meanwhile, Kacie’s father, Duane, was one of several dairy farmers who kept intermittent contact with Jeremy during Zach’s illness and after his passing. Farmers in the community of Berks and Lebanon counties were especially helpful, reaching out in so many ways to mentor the brothers and to pitch in with fieldwork, and fundraisers, when the need arose.

From two neighboring counties in the same Land O’Lakes region, Duane and Zach had run against each other for the Land O’Lakes board seat a year earlier. The 3-way race had come down to a tie, and the differences could not have been more stark: Duane, a seasoned third generation dairyman whose father served as a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly versus Zach, the young, energetic, first-generation upstart dairyman always running full-tilt, wanting his generation to have a say.

The special tie-breaker election had occurred the previous January, with Duane winning the seat. The two continued their chiding camaraderie after the election, and Duane checked in from time to time to see how things were going on the farm after Zach’s cancer diagnosis the following September.

Newlywed to Suzanne Perdue, Zach’s illness came at a time when he was just settling into the future he thought lay before him. Being connected to a loss like this will test the strongest faith. Looking back on it, Jeremy says he learned a lot about commitment watching how Suzanne traveled that journey with Zach.

He recalls Zach’s advice to him: “Find a girl with quality values and a farming background, who understands what you are passionate about.”

But mostly, he recalls the example of how Suzanne was there for Zach every step of the way.

“I didn’t fully realize how bad it was until he passed away,” Jeremy reflects. “During his illness, I dug down deep and just kept focusing on doing everything around the farm, doing for two, wanting to keep it going for him, wanting to see our plans through, wanting to keep our dream alive, and hoping he could come back to the farm.”

With Zach gone, it was difficult for Jeremy to make that dream — their dream — his own.

The winter wore-on the way it does daily on a dairy farm. Sub-zero temperatures brought daily challenges from power outages and frozen pipes to difficulty starting equipment and the sheer effort of getting through the growing mountain of snow to tend cattle and feed calves and make a path for the milk truck to get up the hill.

Then the unexpected: The day-after-day snows and frigid temperatures took their toll at the Hershey family’s Ar-Joy Farms with the midnight collapse of the roof on their main barn housing over 500 milk cows. Thankfully, the milking employees were all at the parlor, not in the barn. Cattle were lost, but the majority of the herd survived.

The next 72 hours brought a whirlwind of moving cattle, cleaning up, and a community effort to come in with the builder to put up a new roof. A work day was organized by fellow farmers in that community and the word of it spread.

“I had so much happening here, I wasn’t going out or going anywhere,” Jeremy recalls. It was just two weeks after losing Zach when he heard from a neighbor about the Hersheys’ roof collapse. Duane had called to check in a few days before and so Jeremy returned the favor. He called to see if they needed help or equipment, but he never reached Duane by phone, so he headed to Cochranville figuring to lend a hand in the cleanup.

Had he reached Duane by phone, Duane would have emphatically told him to stay put, knowing Jeremy had enough on his plate at his own farm. But with no word from the wise to deter him Jeremy showed up and spent the day working on someone else’s problem instead of dwelling on his own.

“It felt good to be busy somewhere else,” he recalls. “Never did I imagine that day I’d meet the woman I’m going to marry.”

Jeremy and Kacie met as she brought water to her Dad and the crew. Kacie recalls thinking to herself: “Who is this guy, and why have I never seen him before?” Followed, of course, by making sure to procure another round of water for that crew.

Both were intrigued and struck up a friendship, after first looking each other up on Facebook (of course) and realizing they had friends in common. Jeremy’s best man is herd vet Nathan Kapp of Gap Vets, whose wife works with a friend of Kacie’s at Pioneer. A first date led to a second, and things took off from there.

“When I told my Dad we were dating, I just got this big smile and some comment about tractors,” Kacie laughs.

Spring came, and Kacie continued working at the home farm, then driving to Jeremy’s to help with whatever needed doing — from the cattle to the corn planting.

“What I fell in love with first is Jeremy’s faith,” Kacie recalls.

Windows of light open doors, through faith. Both Jeremy and Kacie were individually going through difficulties and seeking direction for their lives. They both had questions about their own futures, and God’s answer was an unexpected ‘chance’ meeting. “We would not have met any other way,” they agree.

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Fly away…

While most of my posts are more ag-related, here is something I wrote in January for a Writing the Land class with author and professor Dawn Wink. Her book “Meadowlark” made a lasting impression. Folks who know me, know I love birds. These photos, and the experiences attached to them, inspired this writing in the midst of the coldest winter in memory. I offer it today on National Wildlife Day.

So put yourself into this moment… and fly away!

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Dozens of plover playfully turned and twisted in the breeze as she looked toward the horizon of sea marsh teaming with life. A cacophony of birdsong drifted over the sound of the current caressing the shoreline as the sun kissed the glassy azure sky — staining it with a steamy haze.

She breathed deeply. The moist and salted air blanketed her in tranquility.

The sand — besmirched by scattered strands of blackened green and gold, cold and clammy against her skin — slid shimmering and sprightly between her toes as she plunged her feet into its silky solitude. Dawn’s glow seeped through her skin into her muscles as though to reach her very bones, wrestling away the stiff and weary chill that had settled there.

She saw the long-fallen army of weathered wood — mere skeletons of their former selves — scattered about the island’s one giant sentinel. As the brush of morning painted away the night, she saw the solitary tree rising above the crowd of scrubs below. Its full head of foliage offered a kingly perch to the bird who would land there, watchful of the morn.

The silence gave way to the whir of a thousand wings trumpeting the night gone. Taking flight as one, their presence echoed as they vanished to distant particles of windswept sand. She would take wing in the silence of their wake, if not for the flutter of ten thousand wings at her core. Every nerve within her said “fly away.”

She could hear nothing but the beat of her own heart — deafening it was to her in that moment as the sand covered her feet.

—S.Bunting (c) January 2014

The deeply rooted tree

Like the deeply rooted tree unleashing new blossoms of spring, Dad loved life. In his later years before the illness, he was an avid runner, taking in everything from 5k’s to marathons—even running 5 miles to work and home each day… He called running his “natural high.”

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When we were growing up, Dad was the worrier, so it was surprising the way he let go of his worry and accepted my work with large animals. First it was the Vet-Science project at my 4-H leader’s farm. Then it was the work caring for camp horses and keeping them fresh with regular riding through the winter. Then it was the day I came home to tell him I took a job feeding and milking cows on a local dairy farm.

Dad didn’t understand these things that interested me, but he trusted me to do them just the same. After all, he had fostered my love for the written word and all those books were my windows to different worlds.

As a child, I devoured books about horses, cattle, the open sky. I would spend hours—whole afternoons—reading in makeshift grass forts between the greenhouses on the neighboring farm to the background buzz of grasshoppers until the evening chirp of katydid and cricket signaled it was time to walk home.

As I grew into my high school years, Dad never could understand why I would want to work on a farm milking cows or why I took so much of the money I earned through that hard work to buy and board and feed and shoe a horse.

He worked as a job foreman in the printing industry for RR Donnelly, where he started at age 16. It was his hope that we would all go to college and become ‘something more’ as he would say it.

But to me, my Dad was the king of adventures. He was the purveyor of the written word. He ran the presses, then planned the work that went onto them. He brought home magazines and books. He drove us to the library often. He would take us to work sometimes in the evening where we could look through the press over-runs for pictures and posters and covers. Indelible were the smell of the ink and the crisp feel of freshly printed pages. I always looked for the animals. My brother was thrilled with the baseball programs. RR Donnelley printed for the New York Yankees and that, of course, was my Dad’s favorite team.

Dad wanted us to be independent thinkers, and yet, my level of independence flustered him at times.

“You should be saving for college not that horse,” he would say as I worked 2 jobs—milking morning and afternoon and then selling shoes at a nearby department store in the evenings. Every free moment was spent at the farm where I boarded my horse, so I was rarely home.

But there came a point in time when his ways won out because I worked so much I had no time for the horse. Little did I know that what I learned through those early choices would shape my future.

I began to write more. I had whole journals of landscape poetry. I took my camera with me everywhere.

Before I had my license, it was my Dad who drove me most places. He didn’t understand my choices, but he enabled and facilitated them just the same. He always asked to read what I had written. Often I showed him… but not always.

And so, my work on the farm and love of writing converged. I think back on how Dad had ideals of what he wanted me to pursue, but supported my choices and allowed me to grow the path of my choosing.

He was the full tree of knowledge. The gnarled branches reached out an invitation to climb, and when I was weary, a sheltering refuge.

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Years later, when my own children were small and I was between newspaper jobs, I worked as a temp in my father’s department at RR Donnelley. It was extra money we needed, and I could work my own hours—even nights—to save paying a sitter. I would see him from time to time in his work-a-day world, and I grew to know him differently. I felt a kind of sadness as digital technologies made parts of his work obsolete. But he was happy about the progress, excited to see change. He embraced it nonetheless.

Until the illness began—nearly imperceptible at first— like a late summer tree whose leaves begin to turn and before they can crumble and fall away, are blanketed by an unexpected autumn snow, falling before its time.

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Even after the brain illness claimed his ability to walk and talk, he was interested in the world around him and how we had grown to find our place in it. Dad always believed he would get better, but he didn’t.

In those last few years, I was back at the newspaper and we had added a new monthly livestock edition to the weekly market report. It was printed in color. How his face would beam when I’d bring him a copy. Dementia was setting in, but he fought with all he had to hold it back. I asked him to help with the mailing at that time, and from his wheel chair, Dad would help me apply the address labels—a rote activity that he accepted as a blessing—a feeling of worth in his final days. We worked quietly.

This father’s day I thought back to how different my life might be if my Dad had not let me go; and I remember how hard it was that day before Christmas when we made the tough choice to honor his wishes to stop the machines and let him go.

That day was sunless, until evening, when light broke through the feathering clouds to reveal cold, bare branches—awaiting new life.

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Gratitude

“For our country, for us all,” read the Marines billboard as I drove through the nation’s heartland this week. I turned the phrase over in my mind, thinking just what kind of courage, heart, and love of country it takes to serve iImagen our nation’s military.

A rush of thankfulness flooded over me as the tires of my Jeep Patriot (yes, I’ll admit, part of the reason I bought it was the name) ate the miles to the next destination, and farmland stretched endlessly on either side of the highway.

I whispered ‘thank you.’

On Monday, May 26, our nation commemorates Memorial Day, which began when the grave decorating custom became more prevalent during and after the Civil War to honor soldiers who died — both Union and Confederate. Since then, the final Monday in May has become a special time to honor all of the men and women who have died in military service, paying the ultimate price for our freedom and our country.

ImageAs I have been traveling quite a bit this month for various projects in my ag writing and photography business, I am struck by the diverse beauty of both the land and the people in our United States of America.

In the long rural stretches of the prairies from the Midwest through the Great Plains — where you can drive for almost an hour or more and not see another vehicle — you get a feel for the bigness of this land and its call of freedom.

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In contrast to the East — where the patchwork of small farms live at the fringes of suburbia with subdivisions sometimes sprinkled between them — agriculture, both land and livestock, is pervasive in the land where the farm report comes on the radio several times a day and consumes the hours of 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the local cable channel as I write this.

American soldiers come from all walks of life and all regions of the country, but one thing we often overlook is the high percentage coming from farms and ranches and rural living.

In our hometown in eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, my favorite part of our sons’ involvement in the Boy Scouts as they were growing up was the Memorial Day procession honoring the fallen in the cemeteries east of New Holland. It was a long morning that started very early, and often stretched until noon, but such a good reminder of why we celebrate this day that has come to also represent the beginning of summer.

As I drove past that billboard this week — on a highway near Lubbock, Texas — I also whispered a ‘thank you’ for the fathers and the mothers, the families and the communities, who have raised, and then lost, those men and women who have paid the ultimate price so that we all may be free.

** President Reagan said it best here: 

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