A Farewell to Bovines

Farewell to BovinesAs some of you know, my family and I have tried to make a go of it out here on this muddy, mostly wooded portion of Marilyn’s family Century farm. Our 40-acres consist of a valley on top of what has been called “the Highlands” since the earliest maps of our county—thus, “Highlands Valley Cottage Farm”. We added the quaint term, “cottage”, because we daren’t imply for even a second that our efforts have had any semblance to a farm! 

To take a step back further, as some of you know, I came to this with no experience whatsoever in farming or even gardening! I spent forty-five years land-locked in cities before we escaped to this isolated valley in the Appalachian foothills. Just as I disclaimed in my book, this website will NOT consist of blogs or videos on “how to farm”. I might share how we happened to try something, or more often how I worked myself out of a hole I had dug for myself! But I wouldn’t presume for a second to have the wisdom or knowledge to tell anyone about how to do anything on a farm! Rather, we’re mostly just sharing with friends—fellow “cottage farmers”—what we’ve been up to, and maybe asking advice on how to manage the latest crisis.

In trying to learn how to farm, we’ve accumulated quite a library of books and weblinks about traditional, organic, sustainable, subsistence, small, or cottage farming—even some books claiming one can actually make a profit from farming! Overflowing with great ideas, these books have successfully inspired many young couples, with growing families and manure-spreader loads of energy and enthusiasm, to consider giving life on a small farm a shot! Some of these pilgrims land running, maybe not certain what they’ll need to do in the months and years ahead, but ready to take on whatever comes! All power to ‘em! And now, whenever I pick up one of those books, I sometimes find my own latent enthusiasm being rekindled, thinking, “Gal dern’it, I think I can still do that!”—forgetting that I’m not 45 anymore, but a few weeks shy of 70.

The problem is that, with the plethora of these enthusiastic go-getter books, there’s a corresponding absence of books about what to do with a small farm once the kids have all moved away, leaving you alone to do all the outside “farming” chores, while you’re reaching retirement age, with the strength and stamina of an old coot. 

This is a little of what this weblog is about: What do my wife and I do with these 40-acres, as we consider “retirement” with no particular need to make money from this land? It’s certainly not that we’re wealthy, but rather I’ve never been able to make enough money from this farm anyway to make the effort worth it. Oh, sure, there’s all the idealisms about how beautiful, enriching, and invigorating it all is just to be outside, out in nature, out with the critters, doing farm work! Well, that’s all well and good, except when it’s 6 degrees below zero, as it was this morning, with 8-inches of drifting snow, the cattle are up in the hills far away in the back pasture, their water trough is frozen, and they’ve eaten the last of the hay, so that, even though my joints are killing me, I’ve got to walk through the snow down and up a hill to the barn to get the tractor to haul another round bale, but the tractor’s frozen, so I have to plug it in for an hour, and, oh, I’m out of round bales, so I have to first thaw out and then drive my frozen truck and trailer 10 miles on icy back roads to the nearest farmer who can sell me a round bale, and then haul it back, unload it, and then once the tractor’s thawed, use the 3-point-spike to precariously lift and haul the round bale up the snowy slope to the cattle, and quickly drop the bale, jump off the tractor, and unravel the bale-mesh before the bull decides, as he normally does, to attack the round bale to show it who’s boss! All of this by myself, and long before my morning coffee has even had a chance to awaken some sense of hopefulness to this new day!

herfordsWhich is why it finally became obvious that it was time to bid A Farewell to Bovines. I truly love cows (regardless of what the environmentalist wackos claim their flatulence does to the ozone layer). Off and on for 20+ years, I’ve rotationally grazed dairy and beef cattle, always just a few at a time. Our hilly, mostly clay and partially wooded property lends itself to pretty much nothing else. Periodically surrendering to the guilt of needing to do something useful and productive with this land, I’ve adopted a system of semi-mob grazing, using polytape and step-in posts, that is supposedly good for improving the land as well as keeping the cattle on grass almost year round. Problem is, this is almost as labor intensive as keeping a dairy cow, since semi-mob rotational grazing requires moving the cattle into a new polytape contained paddock every 12-hours, 24/7/365. 

But without additional help, especially with no one to fill in for me when we’re gone, it became increasing apparent that it was time to “retire” from cattle farming.

We presently had a poled Hereford family: a gentle, 1500+ pound 5-year-old bull named Curley, a 3-year-old “freshened” heifer, and a 11-month old bull calf. After considering many options over many months, we narrowed all the options down to one: butcher the bull ourselves on the property, and then give the heifer and calf away to our oldest son, who, in partnership with a young farm family, could raise beef for their two growing families.

You might be wondering, “Wait, did you say butcher the bull yourself? On your own property? Why, in God’s Name, would you do that?!!” Well, for lots of reasons, but mostly because, due to the way our culture has responded to the Covid pandemic, all the butcher shops within driving distance are booked into next year! So, I took a butchering class, and with some friends with butchering experience, we butchered Curly right where we dropped him.

I won’t go through all the details of our day-long endeavor—which included my able friends doing most of the work, and my chasing, for over a mile across snowy hills, the escaped heifer—but in the end, mostly because of the mercy of God and the skills of everyone else except me, Curley the bull is now hanging in two coolers aging for two weeks, and the heifer and calf have a new home.

barn in winter 2This morning I woke up as usual at 4 AM; Marilyn was back asleep after a restless night. It was -6 degrees outside and mostly cloudy. I made coffee, which is hard when you really need coffee before you can make coffee! I fed our herd of cats, brought an armload of wood upstairs, rekindled the fire in our Hearthstone stove, and then quickly checked my eNews app to make sure our country was still here! With coffee in hand, before going up to do Morning Prayer, I paused by the fire, glancing out the window, across the snow covered valley, over to our now empty 100-year-old barn, and, with a toast of my cup, said to our generous Creator: “Lord, I’m grateful that those 1000 cattle You own are now safely on someone else’s hills.”

34 thoughts on “A Farewell to Bovines

  1. This sounds like my father’s experience. He had a 38 acre farm in West Virginia, a little south of yours.
    He had a full-time job so the farm was more of a hobby. My mother’s view was that keeping cows was a money-losing proposition and was too much trouble. My father’s argument was that he needed some way to keep the pastures from becoming overgrown. Plus, it gave him something to do. When we were kids, we butchered several steers over the years, and they all had names. When we’d have some of the product, we’d conjecture which steer it came from: “Tastes like Shorty.” “No, I think it’s Junior.” Mom hated us doing that.

    1. Growing up in northern Maine living next to a farm, I can appreciate the work you did. We helped out sometimes, mostly picking potatoes for 12 hours a day and feeding the chickens on the off day. We loved swinging our legs over the cattle heads as they pasted under the small bridge of US Route 1 hoping to pet them with our feet. Your story brings back such nice memories but being a couple years younger than you and now retired, we knew when to retire. Mine was a near death from a virus that went through my brain 4 years ago (doctors still look in amazement at my scans). But I worked for the Vicar General, God had an important reason to let me come back. He has a plan and honoring Him is how to do it. Went past your farm once and thought of you. Thanks for all you do.

      1. Jill, thank you for your kind words! And, wow, we all are grateful to hear of God’s mercy in your life! I always try to remember that grateful memories are a gift God gives us to help us be grateful in the moment.

    2. Yes, there are many parallels! Your mother was right! And your father’s arguments are the exact ones that have keep pulling me back to getting more livestock (I’ve said “Farewell to Bovines” several times before). And yes, in a week or so, I’ll be cutting up the meat, and then we’ll see if it tastes like Curley.

    1. Well, I don’t know if I deserve it or not, but I’ll just say that I’m grateful for the energy and health that God has given me all these years to tackle something I, too, never dreamed of doing.

  2. I have been very vested in watching The Yorkshire Vet and All Creatures Great and Small these past two years. I’ve never thought about farming and how difficult a life it is. I’m reading for the second time The Real James Herriot: A memoir of my father by Jim Wight. What a wonderful, hard, giving life he led My goal is to read all the James Herriot books. Maybe with the extra time on your hands, a certain loved program on Monday evening could be increased to 1 1/2 hours? Or maybe it’s best to leave them wanting more.

    1. When I faced livestock problems over the years, I remembered reading those James Herriot books! Like when I “helped” deliver our first calf, or when I thought I was going to need to stick my arm up the hindquarters of a screaming goat! But I, too, enjoy those programs. All we can say is that God provides what we need to do what He’s called us to do, if we’re willing to listen and follow.

  3. Love your honesty. Actually you are a gifted writer. We are both well past your age and still have our enormous house and 6 1/2 acres plus the rental house I grew up in. Looking to downsize but need to get rid of our parents snd aunt s snd uncles stuff do trying to sell on Fb eBay etc. we love our 22 year old home but realize we need to downsize. ❤️❤️❤️❤️🙏🙏🙏🙏

    1. Thank you, Carol, for your very kind words! It is so difficult to “downsize” when this requires letting go of things and places that carry such tangible memories. Never easy, especially with all the stuff!!! Oh, I understand! Got an attic full of my mother’s collectables! But God can give the grace of letting go if we ask. God bless!

  4. Your story was so well written, Your reality gave me a few minutes of enjoyable escape. I guess the discerning process never ends. Thank you

    1. And thank you, Ken, for your kind words! And you’re so right, it really doesn’t–which a bit of what I’m trying to address in my Red Zone Thinking blog. There are decisions I’m facing now, a few weeks shy of 70, that never crossed my mind 25 years ago when we moved out to these 40-acres!

  5. Hello Marcus, we met at the Dr Ray taping in Cleveland, this past November! You were telling me about your retirement job with a slight hesitant smile:) You and your wife deserve an A for effort and an A+ for making the decision to realize it was too much! God bless you both…enjoy your newly revised retirement…

  6. I so enjoyed this story, so well written. I smiled all the way through. When I was a child back in the early 60’s my parents rented a big ol farm house on a dairy farm. I had 10 siblings. We had so many adventures…. Those 5 years, were the best years of my life. Thank you for awaking those memories. Prayers for Gods choices blessing upon you and your family, in this new chapter of your lives.

    1. I’m glad you liked the story and that it brought back fond memories. Our hope in moving out here, when our 3 sons were 11, 7, & 3, was precisely so they could have these kinds of good experiences and memories. I pray they remember more then just me yelling at them. 😉

      1. I remember the bull breaking down the fence to visit the neighbor’s cows. It always seemed to happen on Saturday mornings when we wanted to sleep in. We’d have to find the bull in the neighbor’s field and drive him to the hole in the fence where he got out. He’d then blanch at going back through the fence, turn around, and run past me back out into the neighbor’s field. My dad would yell, “Why didn’t you stop him? He’s more afraid of you than you are of him!” I’d think, but didn’t dare to say, “I’ll bet he isn’t!”

  7. Love blog, I can see how some of these chores would take a toll especially when you are doing it alone. I just want to say how much I love your program. I think just doing that is a full-time job. Blessings to you and your wife.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I need to apologize for if I’ve come across as complaining! My wife and I are eternally grateful that God has allowed us to live out here on this farm! And to have the great privilege of raising livestock and gardening and enjoying the wild critters who allow us to homestead on their land.

  8. We also have a farm that my husband strip grazes. It is a lot of work and ties us down to the farm. I can only imagine how hard this would be up north. Our farm is in the south. God Bless you and your family.

    1. We’ve recently experienced very cold frigid mornings, and when my wife and I are huddled early with our coffee before our blazing wood stove, I really don’t regret that I don’t have a family of freezing Herefords out somewhere in the back forty. But God bless you two for your commitment to the farm!

  9. Maybe those pastures could accommodate some native plants to support pollinators and birds? It is work -mostly to remove invasive species the first few years, but there’s a lot of expertise & sometimes state support available to do that. It’s a very rewarding commitment. And you don’t have to do anything in the winter!

  10. The wife and I are so very blessed to have you and Marilyn in our lives. You are a true joy to call friends. :0)

  11. Marcus, Have enjoyed your show over 20 years..(being a convert myself since 1952). Not much of a ‘techi ‘ today is the first have come across your blog ! Delighted and laughed re your Bovines ; brought back memories from farm childhood days in Wisconsin.
    Yes , it was cold, and fun….my being just a kid . I will share your story with ranch friends here in Texas ! and finally read your Life from our Land from my bookshelf. With this retirement perhaps you can make some more of your beautiful music. Best Wishes to Marilyn and your fine young men.

  12. My farmer partner and I decided to shut the farm down for the winters. We got rid of our cow- calf operation, about 125 head including last year’s calves (feeder size) and 3 bulls. Also 2 pigs, 2 donkeys, 36 chickens. Now we can leave for the winter to fish in florida, and come back in the spring and buy a passle of feeders to put on pasture. Come the fall, they get sold to a feed lot. No need to grow hay or corn. We sold all the harvesting equipment. This spring, the planting season equipment goes.

    Now we are putting the money into rental cabins for country getaways and hunting cabins. Looking for cash flow.

    1. Sound like a wise decision–maybe fits within Red Zone Thinking, as in my other blog posts. Your operation was / is far larger than mine (!), much more like a “farm”, but actually I might consider doing something like you’re doing next Spring, but on a much smaller scale. How do you manage such a large herd? Do you have lots of acreage to allow you to rotational graze, or do you supplement their pasture with grain?

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