Strong Coffee

Viking, Minnesota

Rural Reflections Radio


This is "Strong Coffee" -a little something new.  It is a second weekly column that I now write for an agriculture newsletter called "Farmwatch" which is produced in  Manitoba, Canada.   The newsletter is produced by Harry Siemens from  This column is quite short and is just a few simple thoughts.  Thank-you for checking it out.

The Tired Out Ranch    (week of 02-20-06)


In the United States, farmers read the writing on the wall. Farm Service Agency wants to make farm payments a policy of the past. Farmers are going to continue farming based on their choice of crop, marketing, efficiency and low overhead. I recently read an article in the Grand Forks Herald newspaper about Tolna, North Dakota Cory Christofferson who uses management-intensive grazing to be efficient and semi-truck tires to keep his overhead low. All of that may soon change, however.

Rancher Christofferson uses truck tires to cross-fence two hundred acres into twenty acre paddocks. The tires cost him little or nothing and are quite indestructible. It takes about 8000 semi-truck tires piled five high to make a mile of fence. The tires also make nice snow fence and their color absorbs sunlight to create warm wind break. The tire fence is solid, works well with management-intensive grazing, costs little and to date has kept 350,000 tires out of our local landfills. North Dakota’s director for waste management in 1997 was Neil Knatterud. Mr. Knatterud sent Cory Christofferson a nice letter stating that the tire fence was an “orderly and beneficial” use for the tires. Christofferson was makin’ money and makin’ the environment better by keeping tires in use and out of the ground. Seems a truck tire can contain up to five gallons of oil as part of it’s chemical structure-an element which you don’t want next to your groundwater.

North Dakota’s Health Department has visited Christofferson’s “Tired Out Ranch” five to ten times in the last seven years. The department doesn’t like the tire fence anymore. They feel it could harbor mosquitoes, rats and create a fire hazard. Tires hold water but so do the many swamps at the ranch. The tires are orderly and open and not heaped which would make it more attractive to rats. Finally, the tires are surrounded by close-cropped pasture. The only way to start a prairie fire would be to bring your own unending supply of kerosene and plenty of matches to keep it lit. There’s only 15 people who live in Minco Township so the tire fence probably won’t cause zoning problems, stunt any new developments or ruin the view. In short Christofferson has turned a major pollutant into a useful product and only wishes to be left alone so his efforts can brighten his family’s future.

I can understand North Dakota’s point of view. They have rules to follow but there is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. I don’t think lawmakers made this law with Christofferson in mind. The logic of any law is not so much in it’s creation but in it’s sensible application. The application of this law doesn’t pass the sniff test. A smart old Sheriff once told me, “you can only give people as much law enforcement as they want.” What this means is that if people don’t like the way a law is applied they may decide to change the law. No one likes a heavy-handed bureaucrat.

Well-applied law has it’s place to keep our environment clean which will help improve the farm economy. I don’t want landfills full of burning tires either. I would rather see a neat tire fence stretching towards the horizon-somewhere near Tolna, North Dakota.

The Empty Nest                   (week of 01-30-06)

Things are pretty quiet since we sold our small herd of cows to my brother. I like the extra time but I get a little bored. I guess you could say I’m an empty-nester.

I now putter, like an old man would putter. I look forward to pushing snow and really make a day of it. The past fifteen years were painful when it snowed because I always had more to do than just move snow. Now any little job is pleasant because I can start the tractor and feel a little busy. I will probably look back longingly at this quiet winter in a few months.

This summer we’ll fill up our pastures with young cattle and rotate them from paddock to paddock. Between now and then, I need to improve fence and bury pipeline to provide quality water. Seems like lots of farmers forget how important water is to good weight gain in cattle. I guess cattle don’t like the urine cocktail from the local dug-out pond any more than a person might. Our pastures are decent but they will need patient improvement. I plan to add some alfalfa to old pasture to increase food value. That should keep me busy with little opportunity to putter. Then I can once again know the cold embrace of more work to do than for which I have time. Maybe this empty nest thing isn’t so bad.

Something Big       (week of 012306)

The cows are gone. I sold them all to my brother. It’s a strange move for a person who loves cattle and craves full-time rancher status. It’s a big step but the right step for more free time and a more efficient farm.

First off, my brother Steve bought most of the cows so they’re in good hands. I also sold about six heifers to a real nice couple for whom the time was right to purchase their first cattle. I did keep two very special cows; Short-Ears and Head-Butt. These two were born in 1992 and are my first cattle. They’re great producers and even today are each raising a calf. They love the individual attention and crave their full-time pet status. I like the free time and during the month since the sale my largest task was to move a little snow.

So why the sale? I want to eliminate the cost of baling hay and feeding it during the winter. I also want management-intensive grazing to make more pounds of pasture -fed beef from our land. This was our first year of pasture-fed beef. I was very nervous when our customers began picking up quarters and halves but they loved the taste and tenderness. Pasture-fed beef is more than just eating grass, the cattle have to eat the best quality grass all of the time. I move the cattle from lot to lot every few days and enjoyed the whole experience.

So now I am preparing the field of play for a much-expanded pasture operation. I will purchase calves back from my brother this Spring so I already have a supply of cattle. I have the pasture and alfalfa-based fields to feed the calves. Fencing won’t be difficult as the fields are square and without a lot of trees. The only thing left to consider is water. I recently installed a large water cistern for my old pump-jack to fill then connected it to a jet-pump and pressure tank. It was enjoyable to modernize my old pump and it made the change to a pasture-only operation seem real. I also have a nice base of customers who love beef that’s never seen grain so I‘ll be ready for the change.

I know the change from baling to rotating pastures may have pitfalls but I’m very excited. I do have several sheds of hay to fall back on if things go poorly. I’m not very good at falling back so I’ll just have to do a good job and work hard to make up for my Winter laziness. It could be the start of something big.

Straight Rows and Crooked Fence  (week of 010906)

My nephew, Jamie and I made a trip to Carrington, North Dakota this past Monday, The focus of our trip was to see my brother, David who is the service manager at the Case/IH dealership in town. It’s a Nelson tradition to never spend a night away from home so we left at five am and returned at 5 pm from this 320 mile round trip.

A second Nelson tradition is that if we tell each other we’ll arrive by five in the morning, then anything before six is “on time.” My nephew made it here by five and we made a quick trip to see Dave at the shop. We talked farm equipment mostly and then family talk. I’ll save our family news for a time when you can’t sleep but Dave told us an interesting fact. Case/IH sells the most auto -steer units in North Dakota and Western Minnesota. No, we’re not lazy around here but there is a reason for all of those sales. David said the auto-steers sold in North Dakota are the base models while western Minnesota prefers the more accurate model. It makes sense because North Dakota has vast stretches of land where an auto steer removes much of the fatigue from one mile stretches of land. Meanwhile, western Minnesota farms a lot of rows crops like sugar beets that really benefit from the increased accuracy of a system that spends all of those expensive inputs more efficiently. There’s also the matter of staying in between Minnesota’s rows of corn or beets versus reducing spray or air seeder overlap in North Dakota. My brother Dave would never tell you but he really helped introduce GPS mapping and auto steer in the region. He went from café to restaurant educating farmers about this space age technology when most considered the height of agriculture technology to be a laser trailer when ditching. He likes the technology and makes it easy to understand for those of us who still make straight fence with a hand-operated post hole digger.

Next week I want to tell you about a major move here on the farm. We’re changing again but the new efficiencies we hope to exploit won’t come with a the price tag of GPS or an auto steer. Just more pole-hole digger work, maybe some new gloves.

Putting the Season to Bed  (week of 121305)


Our fed cattle are gone, so the pressure is off for a bit. We bring our feeder cattle to finish on forage so it’s a constant battle to keep them growing. To provide a decent piece of grass-fed beef you need to keep each animal gaining at least a few pounds per day. It would be nice to just relax and watch them stroll to and from each blade of grass but that isn’t the case. I move fences every few days until the grass is gone and then move right into a stand of grazing corn after frost. It’s more work than a creep feeder full of corn but it seems more like the way cattle should eat. I’ve read about the other benefits of grass-fed beef but I just like seeing the cattle harvest their food instead of gathering around bale rings.

It hurts a little when the cattle leave each Fall. I get attached to the animals, especially this year. One of our little animals broke his leg on a bale ring so the veterinarian fixed it with a cast. We had to anesthetize him to place and later remove the cast so there was a lot of close work. I had to provide traction to the calf’s leg, smooth the plaster cast and keep him calm so we became closer than normal. It was nice to see him survive if only for a summer and part of the fall. I love our animals but realize that one day every one of them is headed for the plate. I just try to make their lives good while they’re here and remember them a little when it’s their time.

Anyway, the customers have been notified to call in their requests for roast size, steak thickness and a time to retrieve their beef. It should be a time to relax but I must decide what to plant and make plans for the spring. More rotational grazing? Italian ryegrass or maybe take a chance on grazing alfalfa? It’s too late to worry anymore so I should just go to bed? That’s any easy one, good night.

Winter Anxiety.  (week of 12-05-05)

I got ants in my pants tonight-lots of them. I just can’t relax and find myself constantly checking several different thermometers. I worry about the cold temperatures and heighten my anxiety with several wireless thermometers placed strategically about the farm.

The first thermometer is in our dog Muffin’s house. I have been tweaking the heater in her dog house so that she’s not too hot or cold. Next on my list is the outdoor wireless on top of the garage. I’m always concerned about my cattle but I can really whip myself into a frenzy when I know not only how cold it is but also the wind chill and wind direction.

Water’s a big deal on the farm and I used to have a thermometer at the cattle tank but the Highlandse put me out of my misery by destroying it. The water pump for the house stay pretty consistent through the Winter but that’s not good enough, gotta have a thermometer to check. I really should have a clip board and document the changing temps along with the affect they exact on my mood. Finally it’s my newest thermometer-the basement. Our basement is only used for two furnaces and a water heater but all of the water pipe originates here also. Years past, the basement stayed warm as a consequence of the furnace heating the house. We now have a corn burner in the main part of our home so neither furnace needs to run to keep us warm which means the basement gets cold. The thermometer registers from around forty-two degrees down to about thirty-six which causes me to pace lap after lap. Tomorrow I plan to place a space heater downstairs which means that I won’t have to worry about the cold but can now worry about fire instead. (note to self; purchase fire alarm for basement-preferably wireless)

Our First Storm   (week of 11-28-05)


I’m writing this column in the middle of the first blizzard of the Winter. The counter-clockwise rotation of this storm brought more freezing rain than snow to our farm which is located forty miles east of North Dakota and ninety miles south of Canada.

I’ve seen worse storms. Unfortunately, the one wrinkle in the personality of this storm was freezing rain. I never fully appreciate the miracle of rural electrification more than when I can’t use it. We were without power for about five hours on Monday morning but it was fairly warm outside and the cattle hadn’t even thought of water by the time the pump worked again. I fed the cattle right away that morning then joined my wife in the living room under the blankets until we were re-powered. It was kind of pleasant without any television and just the most faint hint of daylight. It must not have been that pleasant though as later that day we purchased a generator to provide emergency power.

The cattle are doing fine, they always let me know what they need. I had several stacks of hay fenced off in the pasture for emergency feed in the event it was too cold to run a tractor. I arrived home Sunday night to find my Highlands had used their horns to break the electrified poly wire and now were eating what they hadn’t ruined. I guess “emergency ” either isn’t in their vocabulary or else we have different definitions of the word. It didn’t really matter, it was actually pretty comforting to see the cows belly deep and the calves buried in the fluffy alfalfa/orchard grass mix. I think cows and humans are pretty similar-we both like plenty more than “just enough.”

Our first storm has come and at print time has yet to get gone. I guess the cold and snow are okay as long as I have my warm wife, the cattle are fed, our pets are warm and that new generator starts on the first pull.

The Highland Work-out  (week of 11-07-05)

Scottish Highland cattle can be a challenge, underachieving Scottish highland can be a royal pain. It’s the horns, you see-always in the way. I’ve had to modify the cattle chute, head gate and especially bale rings to accommodate their huge horns. Most of my Highland cattle get along fine but there are one or two exceptions. One of my cows consistently sticks her head through the small opening of a bale ring and then is firmly stuck. Removing her from the ring is great aerobic exercise and a real exercise in frustration.

I first walked up to the struggling cow and waited for her to calm down. She doesn’t like when I touch her horns so the first action is to grab on to a horn and convince her that I am too stubborn to easily be shook. The cow never really gives up trying to hook me with her horn as I attempt to release her. Once I engage her horns it becomes a rescue in which I have to constantly defend myself. I have the benefit of the torque I can generate with her long horns but she has massive neck strength. It’s like wrestling an anaconda in a phone booth. First I have to maneuver one horn straight up and back it through the hay ring. The next move would be to crank her neck opposite and slide the other horn out but by then the cows gets frightened and forces her head back into the ring. It’s an incredible work-out because I constantly strain with my arms, torso and legs to achieve the release. Horn rarely contacts my face but I often get poked in my thigh after the first horn is released and I’m grabbing for the remaining cattle anchor. I have never been seriously hurt and the worst injury occurred to a bale ring that I finally cut open with a hacksaw in desperation.

I eventually freed this stupid cow and stood in the lot huffing and puffing. I’m always amazed with the lack of trauma she exhibits. Fifteen minutes of life and death struggle and her response is to walk over to another bale and start eating while I’m about ready to drop. I noticed, however, that she spent the rest of the afternoon laying on her side, deeply asleep. I hope she liked her work-out.

Burning Corn       (week of 11-01-5)

I like new technology, I like to conserve resources and I love to stay warm in the Winter. I am the perfect candidate for a corn stove for home heating.

The truth is that corn burning technology is not that new as evidenced by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1976-1980) when he installed a corn stove in the white house. The current corn stove is more efficient and in some cases simpler which is a product of continued development. I think most people consider a conservationist some sandal wearing hippie chained to a tree. I think farmers are the original conservationist. Farmers love their land like a child and strive to keep it healthy which also helps create a healthy bottom line. It takes millions of years to create coal or heating fuel from fossils under constant pressure. It take farmers just one season to create enough corn to keep all of us warm when burned in a simple corn stove. Plus instead of releasing long buried carbon into the air, growing corn uses much of the carbon created during the corn burning process. Finally, I like to stay warm and my wife and I almost couldn’t sleep it got so hot in the house last night. The stature of our little stove disguises a unit the can really flex it’s BTU muscles. I also didn’t to hurt my back to cut wood for this stove, I just picked up the phone and ordered enough corn for the Winter for about five hundred dollars.

High energy prices force many consumers to consider different ways to keep warm or fuel their car. Progressive companies have discovered that earth-friendly products are now not just fashionable-they make sense. Somewhere along the way, we’ve discovered our greatest renewable resource and he wears a seed cap and always carries a pliers in his back pocket.

A New Direction  (week of 10-24-05)



My experience with cattle is a liquid-state experiment, it never stays the same.  I’ve wanted and researched many different ways of growing and marketing cattle and have always wanted to try rotational grazing.  This week I met with the grazing representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) who wants to help me learn rotational grazing.  The NRCS is a federal agency that exists to promote sustainable agriculture and sees more intensive grazing on former cropland as an antidote to farm payments for grain farmers.


The biggest obstacle for rotational grazing is making water available so that cattle don’t wear off their average daily gain getting water. I live on such flat land that we can pump water almost anywhere on the farm so the main problem is to finance the whole project.  I guess I won’t worry about any of it until we get a plan put together.  I like the idea of cattle harvesting their own food so I’m willing to burn a little cash to get it done.


The only difference of opinion we had during our visit was in what type of vegetation to plant.  Lately I’ve become more dependent on annuals like corn, soybeans and rye for forage.    NRCS will only sponsor enhanced water systems and new fence on plantings of perennials for cattle forage.  I guess once they establish a pasture they don’t want to see black dirt again anytime soon.  The good news is that we’d use strip grazing so if there’s excess forage it could be baled for later use.


My biggest personal obstacle is learning to be flexible.  I’d like to get my rotation set-up and set it in stone.  The truth is that I may need to fence more some seasons or bale more some seasons.  You need to constantly examine your situation and be prepared to make changes that mostly depend on weather.  


My brother, Steve, also met with the grazing specialist today and his reaction was pretty positive.    Steve is tired of combines, crop insurance and breakdowns so he’s ready for a change.  He’s a great cattle guy and has been replacing machinery with high-tensile wire and t-posts so I think this will be a good thing for him. The last thing Steve said before we ended our phone conversation last night was, “this might be the best thing I’ve ever done for the farm.”  Me too.

Canamaize   (week of 10-17-05)


First an update; the Red River Valley sugar beet harvest was 95 percent finished when I left the field on Monday near Warren, Minnesota. I spent the day dodging all the potholes I’d made this harvest with the semi but made it through the harvest with no accidents.

It always bothers me to put cattle on hay in the Fall. Summer pasture is so easy and I hate to start a tractor unless I absolutely must. This year I tried “grazing corn” from Canamaize Inc of Minot, MB, Canada. ( It’s fairly common to graze the leaves from open-pollinated corn in the late season when grass goes dormant but this corn is meant to be eaten completely. Canamaize is about four and a half feet tall, has small cobs and supports itself with a stalk about the size of your finger. Most cornstalks are high on fiber with less nutrition but this variety divides it’s nutrition evenly between stalk and cob.

My dad came over after our first hard frost and swathed my little patch of Canamaize. The windrows are huge but even 35 mile per hour winds have not caused any corn-based tumbleweeds. I use a fair amount of portable fence so I merely fence off a small portion of the field each day until the cattle clean it up. I did a little research and found that the University of Ohio found weight gains of nearly three pounds per day in feeder cattle on grazing corn. It’s simple to harvest, simple to feed and cattle seem to eat better off the ground that from a bunk. Reduced harvesting means less fuel and less effort on your part. Perhaps many of you have already tried this form of stockpiled grazing in which case I’m preaching to the choir. If you haven’t, consider it this winter-so ends the sermon.

The Beet Beat (week of 10-03-05)

Lately my life has revolved around the “beet beat” which is the fall sugar beet harvest in the Red River valley. I’d never use a phrase like “beet beat” except this phrase is the title of a bizarre night-time radio show scheduled during the harvest on KROX radio in Crookston, Minnesota. The radio show is a mixed up jumble of call-in interviews, requests, post-family hour jokes and songs that would normally cross the street to avoid each other. The actual sugar beet “beat” is made up of farms, country roads and the piler stations where sugar beets are collectively stored on concrete pads.

Harvest began October 1st so it’s too soon to report how many tons per acre are being harvested. I can tell you that no amount of ditching could save the harvest in much of the southern and northern most Red River valley-it’s pretty much a bust in many areas. I work for R and R farms which lies about twenty-two miles northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Despite above average rainfall, R and R farms is on track for another nice harvest. This season isn’t as happy as most because a young farmer recently died in an atv accident. American Crystal Sugar agreed to open two days early so friends and family could harvest his widow’s crop prior to the funeral which was held the first day of the regular harvest. It’s a reminder how dangerous machines can be but more importantly to enjoy every mundane moment in life.

I listened to the weather report tonight and have packed my snowcat (Canadian thesaurus=snow machine) suit for Wednesday and a t-shirt and jeans for Thursday. Minnesota is known as the theatre of seasons and you never know what feature is playing. I’ve hauled sugar beets since 1990 and have driven in blinding snow, blinding rain and sun that was, ah-you know. I always start harvest like a house a-fire and end it crying for home and mother but the memories seem sweet by the following season. I will hope for a productive season but settle for a safe harvest and warm coffee-gotta have realistic priorities.

Beat the Clock  (week of 09-05-2005)

It’s getting dark outside, much earlier. The sun doesn’t have as much strength and many plants are towards the end of their growth cycle. It’s Fall and it’s one time we can’t handle nor do we need extra moisture. What we do need is time and on that we are short.

Fall is a simple game of beat the clock. You’ve gotta harvest so you can cultivate so you can fertilize. It’s an exciting time and makes me wonder why there isn’t a reality show based on a farm, it’s high drama. I remember a Public Broadcasting documentary called “the Farmer’s Wife” that displayed more tension than any three reality shows combined.

I’m a little behind on hauling hay as the loader had some work done. It’s back in action so I’m hauling hay as fast as I can. I recently spoke to a farmer about fifty miles southwest of Fargo, North Dakota. He told me the sugar beets fields around his farm were about fifty percent successful and many fields of wheat and beans were dug up prior to harvest. My stress of not having enough time on the clock does not compare with this gentleman’s frustration of having nothing to harvest

This week I start working for my sugar beet friends, R and R Farms of Warren, Minnesota. American Crystal Sugar is the local cooperative and they’re hungry for sugar so the pre-pile quota of tons per acres is pretty high. This means that I have to work every pre-pile day as there will be a lot of hours to work which means money. In October, we’ll start the regular harvest which means I have to be at work by three in the morning. It is at that time that I will really have to learn how to “beat the clock,” my alarm clock.

Fencing for Dummies    (week of 08-29-05)


My key factor for raising cattle is good fence.  If my cattle break out from the fence it really demoralizes me.  It takes precious time and precious patience to round up the cattle. I am also surrounded by row-crop farmers who want their harvest in the hopper and not in the belly of a Nelson cow.   I keep pretty good fence, most times.


Saturday night I received a call at work from my wife.  The tone in Lisa’s voice made me ask one question, “What’s wrong?”  The cattle were out but our neighbor had been out mapping fields so he’d returned them to the pasture.  I rushed home anyway and fixed the fence.


Repairing the fence isn’t good enough, I fancy myself somewhat of a forensic fence investigator.  The cattle had pushed the fence wire hard enough that an old corner insulator had snapped so there couldn’t have been power in the fence.  I found the grounded wire in contact with some metal bracing. I repaired this with some supe-a-tube (hollow fencing insulation) and went back to work.



Two days later the cattle were out, again.  They were pretty used to this route now so the return trip to the pasture was quickly achieved.  A cattle fence should have a minimum of two thousand volts but I usually run about six thousand to be sure.  My tester revealed I was about two thousand short of the minimum.  I went through each corner and connection, which is where most fence problems occur and found all was well.  I ground my teeth in frustration.


I have been feeding our feeder cattle soybeans with portable fencing.  I fence off a little more each day and so I often have to unplug the fencer.  I had worked my way up the fence to the barn so I went inside to check the fuse box.  There on the floor was my problem.  An absent minded farmer (me) had forgotten to plug the fencer back in which was the first domino in this comedy of errors-problem solved.


 I’ve always told my wife after any forgetful episode that I am practicing so when I get Alzheimer’s Syndrome I’ll at least be good at it.  After this past week, I think I can quit practicing.

The Stacker (part II)   (week of 08-22-05)


Last week I wrote about my plans to use a Hesston model 30 hay stacker on my alfalfa. I gave my reasons, some justification and explained how these old stack makers are once again in production for baling cotton. This week I stacked hay.


It’s like most things, there’s never a silver bullet for any of life’s werewolves. My old round baler never baled tough (a little moist) hay very well. It turns out that the stakmaker (correct spelling) doesn’t bale tough hay very well either. The stacker plugs just like the round baler so I had to rake the hay first so it was perfectly dry. I didn’t have to stop to eject a bale near as often with the stacker as the baler plus I saved more alfalfa leaves with the stacker.

I started of my day with an exploding hydraulic hose. I needed an extension for the stacker’s hydraulic cylinder so had borrowed a hose from an old piece of equipment. This is never a good idea but I’m sure I will do it again in the future. About four dollars worth of gas later, I arrived home from my trip to town with my hydraulic hose. I knew my neighbor’s would gawk when they saw this prime example of seventies technology towed up and down the field. I didn’t even make it to the end of the first row before Lyle Swanson stopped to look. He said he’d seen hay in stacks in western North Dakota and was impressed with the quality of the hay. The positive feedback was a nice surprise and erupted into a twenty minute conversation which is indicative how much I like my neighbor.

I spent most of the afternoon up and down the tractor as I had to learn how to use the stacker. I spent a lot of time on the ground peaking inside the chamber and the ground blower. My education was anything but complete by days end but as I write this column I think I can now be a fairly competent hay stacker operator.

What I learned today was what I already knew-it’s the preparation that makes a great bale, not the baling. A timely cut, proper cure and raking in case of rain is essential. If you count on a good baler to make all the difference, you will be disappointed. The game is won before the whistle blows and in this case the game is stacking hay for dollars and winter survival.

The Stacker   (week of 08-15-05)

I’ve expressed frustration when I bale hay. My baler is the most complex piece of machinery I own (my hammer is a close second). I’ve always wanted to try a hay stacker but most people tell me that stackers are nice but the stacks are hard to feed. When I think about making baling hay simple, it always comes back to a stacker. I even bothered my brother, David, for brochures on Hesston and John Deere stackers about ten years ago. David is the service manager at Case/IH in Carrington, North Dakota and has a lot of patience with his younger brother.

Three weeks ago I saw my old neighbor, Gene Holthusen, at a local restaurant. Gene has always used a hay stacker so I asked his opinion on stacking instead of baling. Gene gives good advice, he offered some valuable words after my first marriage ended in divorce that proved valuable so I trust him. Gene told me he liked his stacker, that he could bale about five acres an hour and that he never started a tractor to feed his cattle in the winter. He also said I could borrow his Hesston 30A if I wanted…I wanted.

I brought the stacker home last week-end and it just felt right. I like old things and old ways so short of a hay buck and mule this is a great technique to bale hay old-style. I also live in Northwest Minnesota where most people refuse to try anything unless at least three of four neighbors are already doing it. I’ve never been afraid to try things and this should get the attention of my neighbors. I’d also like to try feeding hay with a fence wire instead of a tractor.

Now many people who read this will say that stackers are a thing of the past and there they should stay. Hay stackers have been reborn in the cotton field of America’s deep south. Kincaid, Inc has produced a header and cleaning unit that mounts on a bi-directional tractor which blows cotton directly into what once was your daddy’s hay stacker. The cotton stacker varies little from the old-fashioned hay unit however embracing history ends at the price. It’s around $82,000 for the whole unit but that’s something we need to keep quiet. You see Gene has two stackers and if I like what I see when I bale, this old girl may soon be mine. I wouldn’t want Gene to know what a valuable and modern piece of machinery he graciously allowed me to borrow.

Baling with Richard  (week of 08-08-05)
Baling hay is a marathon race that most farmers consider a sprint.  I constantly push when I bale alfalfa; I count how many bales I’ve made, figure the average amount of bales per row,  calculate in my mind long it takes to make a single bale then multiply it by the number of bales I’ve left to make.  It’s frustrating because every time I have to stop it throws off my calculations.  I’m always disappointed  and the same questions rings through my head from the time I start a field until the last roll, “are we there yet?”
We just finished baling Conservation Reserve Program acres this past Saturday.  I say “we” because two of us baled with two separate units although we were never in the field together.  The dry, slippery Crp hay refused to roll in my baler but my brother, Steve’s, baler did fine.  Steve’s baler was driven by his father in-law, Richard Anderson, from Viking, Minnesota.  Richard farmed in his early years, next managed an elevator in Lake Bronson, Minnesota then later operated a café with his now-departed wife Jean.  Richard has a lot of good sense but I think his best personality trait is that which I need the most-patience.
I found Richard at the end of the field last Friday.  He had just wrapped a bale, then swiftly shut the tractor down and had his coffee thermos upended and one hand in his lunch pale before I could lean against the tire.  Richard and I spoke for a bit,  I showed a little wisdom and asked his opinion about farming, life and baling that darn CRP hay.  It was nice, you see a long life has provided Richard enough knowledge to form an opinion on anything but he’s open to other’s  ideas as well.  Richard’s consistent, even pace creates a patience that allows him to accept the breakdowns both in the cab of a tractor and in life.  Richard also enjoys what he does-he remembers what I forget.  He remembers it’s a privilege in farming that you “get” to bale hay,  not that you “have” to bale hay.  If farming didn’t demand I perform farm work, I’d probably pay someone to let me perform farm work.  Richard has lived enough lives to know farm work and know what it’s like to be without farm work.  He savors the moment while I’m still out there focused on the horizon, counting bales, timing how long it takes to make a bale and how long it will take to finish.

A Little Break   (week of July 25th, 2005)


I took a break today. Ours is not a large farm but I am it’s only employee so summer is a little stressful. This was a rare opportunity in which failure to complete a task today would not cause stress tomorrow so I decided today was the day-I took a break.

First off, it wasn’t totally my idea. God sent enough rain to make outdoor activities counter-productive but not so much that it ruined my week. I can take a hint and it never pays to fight mother nature. I had some enjoyable indoor tasks (you’re reading one of them) so I decided to exchange work clothes for jogging shorts. I built some concrete pots for my wife and installed a weather station that will fuel my interest in weather forecasting. I also spent a good deal of time on the couch with Twitch and Magoo, who are a pair of rather charming cats that my wife, Lisa and I adopted a few years ago.

Everybody needs the occasional break but most farmers would rather be caught shoplifting Round-up than be caught enjoying an afternoon nap. Stress makes people sick and can cause depression so take a break before you get broken. I like to relieve stress by hiring occasional help. My nephew works cheap and will clean and arrange my shop with accountant-like attention to detail. We have the equipment to harvest alfalfa but lack the large tillage equipment to plant it so I usually hire the whole process. It’s a fair chunk of change but compared with the cost of equipment or the specter of cultivating eighteen feet at a time it’s a deal and a major stress relief. I also try to compartmentalize problems by placing them in a mental box. I then have clearly defined borders where the problem begins and ends plus I can forget about the problem until I’m ready to deal with it. The nap I mentioned earlier was a trick my dad used to relieve stress and many people have told me he was the hardest working man they’ve ever met.

You deserve a break today. Work and worry can erode health and your own will. Consider that if a stranger broke into your home you’d fight him with all your will. Stress can be a damaging intruder so fight it’s efforts to control your life. Spend time with your family and help your wife around the house. She’s under stress too and it will help you remember that without your family and home all that tractor and crop stuff means nothing. Choose your battles, choose not to worry and most importantly, choose a nice soft place for that nap.

Fruit Smoothie Mania   (week of 071105)

People throughout history have taken desperate measures when they couldn’t find food or water. Lately I have been unable to find the one thing I crave, comfort from the summer heat. Several days have peaked at ninety degrees and it’s driven me to desperate measures-the fruit smoothie.

I raise Highland cattle, I work hard, I eat meat and I am a beer drinker but the heat has driven me to forego

pale ale for yogurt, fruit and a little ice. Lisa and I recently toasted the finish of first-cutting alfalfa with a glass of slushy banana-strawberry manna. Our cats, Twitch and Magoo, were slow to accept the smoothie lifestyle due to our noisy blender but they’ve come around to the idea. Twitch usually checks out my empty glass although it’s not the berry residue that interests him so much as the dairy content of the yogurt. I guess you could say we’re a pretty smooth little family.

Though not as unsettling as the Donner Party Incident nor as desperate as the dust storms caused by drought in the thirties, my own experience with the smoothie has a down side. While meat abounds all around us born on cloven hooves, fruit is more expensive and exists naturally only at our supermarket. My wife, Lisa, stops more often to purchase the kiwi-fruit and vanilla yogurt I so crave. Although her purchases may be just as much for herself as her addicted husband. I recently prepared to blend a glass of happiness and queried my wife if she would perhaps like a glass too. She said that she didn’t want one but if I happened to make too much for myself she would grudgingly accept a glass. Better add another banana, maybe some more ice.

Mad Farmer Disease  (week of 06-27-05)


The media has reported mad cow disease and the effects of this affliction on the economy and the relationship between Canada and the United States. The fact that I can say bovine spongiform encephalopathy without reading it from a card bares testimony to how common this phrase has become. There’s a separate, less-reported disease quietly leading a parallel life, it’s mad farmer disease (MFD).

MFD’s cause is fairly common, it’s a matter of too much; too much work, too much stress and mostly too much rain. There once was a cycle to farm work-till, seed, spray, harvest and then till. In between each step of the season there was some time to pause before whatever was next. Wet weather however has pushed seeding and spraying into one continuous step plus the wheat around here is already flowering. It’s not unrealistic to start maintenance on the combine in between sessions of creating ruts with your spray rig.

There are symptoms of mad farmer disease (MFD) if you understand the cause. While they are not as dramatic as film of the single Holstein cow with BSE we all got to see over and over, the symptoms of MFD are both mental and physical. Groaning and huffing with any little effort are common among MFD sufferers. I find my own compromised mental state is a symptom of mad farmer disease. I can’t remember how many times I’ve passed through the shop door and been at a loss as to what I’m there to do. I usually “reverse-engineer” the situation by looking at the tool in my hand, consider it’s purpose and then reasonably deduct the reason for my visit to the shop.

The cure for Mad Farmer Disease is fairly simple as MFD cannot exist in bright sunshine. The disease does not recognize borders but fortunately neither does the cure. While BSE has been an issue where Canada looks south and the U.S. looks north for an answer, MFD’s cure will come from the east with the rising of the sun in a clear, blue sky.

In Between Raindrops  (week of 06-20-05)


There’s a phrase I like that goes “you’re really in it.” What this phrase means is that you’re really in the moment and working on a problem or task. Here in northwestern Minnesota what we’re in is alfalfa and we are “in it” up to our ears. It’s a good problem to have caused by plentiful rain which ironically has kept local farmers from harvesting an especially heavy crop.

I drag my feet when it comes to cutting as I’m more interested in volume than quality (although I’ll take both, if you please). Plus it breaks my heart to plant a fairly expensive alfalfa stand then create ruts in the soft ground before it develops sod. There’s nothing like the flex that a front axle displays before it cracks under the pressure of carrying a large round bale over a rut created the previous season. Surprisingly, most of the new cutting I’ve seen around here is fairly rut-free. My brother cut a field planted just last season and caused little or no damage, of course he lives right too.

While I won’t create ruts you do have to get the stuff on the ground before you can bale it. I will cut even if rain threatens because newly cut alfalfa really isn’t hurt by a little rain. Then you’ve got a downpour under your belt and you’re entitled to a few nice days to get your legume dry and bale it. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. If it doesn’t and we get continuous rain I may need to employ my tactic for holding onto my sanity and good humor. I will simply bale in between the raindrops.


Now it if will only stop   (week of 06-13-05)

Our farm is split by a normally calm strip of water called the Black River. Recent rains have irritated this river causing a pronounced change in it’s personality. The rain has also brought a change in my personality. More accurately, the events caused by excessive moisture have created a change in my demeanor.

I remember as a young man after a period of short-term drought, the rains finally came. I thought my Dad would be happy but he only said, “now if it will only stop.” The thing about drought is you can usually get the crops planted, the mosquito population dwindles and if you get even a little moisture you can get a crop-at least the first year. Too much rain causes immediate stress that shows itself in short tempers or even a little depression.

At our home, excess moisture caused our drain field to flow back to our septic tank which backed up the household plumbing. Despite causing deep ruts, the septic truck removed our tanks contents without incident. It was only after the truck left that I discovered that the trip began with a flush ended prior to it’s destination. I cursed, cried, grabbed a pipe wrench then headed for the basement. The phrase “explosive deluge” does not accurately describe what hit me after I opened the sewer clean-out drain. As a young man, I never included inserting my arm up to the bicep in a sewer drain on my list of aspirations but I regret that over site because as of Sunday I would have been able to cross the item from my list.

I have mixed feelings about the effect the rain has on our farm. The rain has created enough pasture grass to last three summers but we may well need it. Unless some smart person creates a barge-mounted baler, haying is a distant dream. Guided tours down our new white-water rapids experience may bring in a little extra money but I think I’d rather spend it fencing.

In the end, maybe the rain caused little or no change in my demeanor or personality. I still deal with life with a little sarcasm and an odd sense of humor. There is one change, however. Next time we have a little drought that ends with a thunderstorm, I won’t be relieved. Instead I will quietly say to myself, “now if it will only stop.”

Monday Morning Godsmack   (week of 06-06-05)


I didn’t know what to write about today but God who is generous and apparently has quite a sense of humor provided me with subject matter just this morning. I awoke to three phone calls in fast progression at about nine o clock. I work nights so I missed all three attempts but calls this tenacious mean one thing, the cows on the ridge have escaped their pasture. I pride myself on good fence but between the deer and moose things sometimes happen.

After fixing the ridge fence, I came home to find some of my young on the loose near the Black River which runs through our farm. We’ve received much rain as of late causing the river to rise which shorts out the fence at the river crossing. Just when I though all cattle had been accounted for I found some young feeders outside the home fence. This problem was also resolved.

I am now heading for town for supplies to fix the fence and repair our bug zapper. I drove to the intersection and pressed down on the brake pedal with the sort of confidence gained from performing this same act thousands of times with average to good success. My foot hit the pedal, the pedal hit the floor and I realized I had no brakes. I downshifted like the good truck driver I am and white-knuckled it over the crossing onto a field road.

I felt a little bad for myself. Then I considered how in each situation I had been spared with little injury. I got to see my neighbor when he helped me get the cows back into the pasture. I chased those couple of feeders back into their fence and my brakes went out on a country road instead of a busy street. I even felt more confident after passing my little trials and was able to make a few decisions with which I had been struggling. It seems God needed to speak to me with a little louder voice than normal to help me progress in life. Looking back, I can laugh at the day and even smile . Tonight before I go to bed I even know how I will pray, “Dear God, I got the point-you can stop laughing now.”

Fathers Day on Parade   (week of 053005)


Remember when six hours in the seat of a tractor was a long day? Of course you don’t, six hours is a morning on a tractor. That’s about how long it will take you to one way during our Father’s Day Tractorcade.

June 18th several “aged iron” lovers will join in front of the diner in Viking, Minnesota for a trip to the Heritage Village in East Grand Forks, Minnesota then return the next day. All tractors and their owners are welcome although I suspect my Belarus tractor would stick out like a Honda at a Harley Davidson convention.

This will be a memorable trip I live in an area that is just starting to realize it’s own history. Much of the trip follows the Pembina Trail which is how most people got from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Minneapolis, Minnesota by ox cart or on foot. The first day lunch will be at the Old Treaty Crossing state park and you can camp Saturday night at the Heritage Village which features many nice old buildings and machinery displays. (not just John Deere-Cockshutts and Massey’s too) I plan to drive my pick-up, take some pictures and do a few reports on our local radio station.

If you’re interested in a trip of a few hours and many decades, just check my website. Remember, there’s nothing like a farmer’s tan to start a conversation Monday morning when you’re back at the office.

Northern Minnesota Skyline   (week of 5-23-05)

I recently began working for my nephew reclaiming aggregate from our local gravel roads. At two miles per hour, it’s a slow process with lots of time to think and look around from the cab of Jamie’s tractor . I noticed that in Northern Minnesota, we have developed quite a skyline. It’s a sight unlike the Winnipeg or Minneapolis skyline but it’s even more unique.


In the last decade, many agriculture acres have been idled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In addition to driving up land rent, this program has provided a lot of hunting land. Recently the State of Minnesota relaxed the height limitations of deer stands. These two unrelated occurrences combined to create an environment perfect for skyscraper deer stands. The stands can be quite elaborate with heat, cooking facilities and television. My brother took the idea of an elaborate deer stand to frozen Lake of the Woods a few years ago. He and a friend used an old grain bin to create a fish house that includes satellite television, a loft and a nice kitchen. I have an old hopper bin that I could use for a fish house except I don’t ice fish. Perhaps that rusty old hopper bin could join the skyline of my local CRP field for the deer hunting season. It would be a great idea except that in addition to not being much of an angler, I’m not a hunter either.

The Sort (week of 5/16/05)

I feel accomplished when I corral the cattle all at once. There was a time when I stacked bales and old gates together to try organize the cattle for shots or de-horning. It was a real and awful rodeo that ended poorly. The last few years I‘ve built a pretty nice corral with a good chute. But no matter what happens, the success of any cattle system comes down to the sort. We recently had a really good sort so I want to talk a little about it. Of course, if the sort hadn’t gone so well I would probably try to salvage my ego by writing that sorting cows from calves wasn’t that big a deal. This one was a success so let me gloat and bask in my own limelight.

Three days prior to the sort I feed poor hay to the cattle. The day prior I feed good hay, not feed, inside the corral. I use hay instead of feed because forty cows will eat fifty pounds of feed in about a minute and that leaves no reason for the stragglers to enter the corral. My brother uses corn silage, which is the average cow’s drug of choice. I leave all the cattle inside the corral overnight and the next day they want out. The cows are used to me but the calves are more skittish so I just stand by the open gate and let the adult animals drain out while the calves hang back. I then let the calves “escape” into a separate pen and sort them a few at a time. I sort by myself so I must be patient. You have to look at sorting like a chess game. Use your smarts and not your heart because any human is many times smarter than a cow but only about an eighth of the athlete. There is nothing like success in the sorting pen, well “sort” of, get it?

Rainy Days and Mondays  (week of 05-09-05)


If sunshine and warmth beckon me to come outside and work then rain and clouds must warn me to stay inside and vegetate on the couch. I love to work in the sun and the wind but when thunderstorms hold sway I lose my vigor. I think this reaction to rain may be part physical but it’s also learned over time. I remember Saturday night’s baling hay as a teenager and wishing for rain so I could join my friends at the drive-in movie. It was an occasion where rain meant some recreation time. The strange thing is “pitching out” calf pens was a task most often left for a rainy day. A logical person could then assume I disliked thunderstorms and their connection to hard labor.

Perhaps the answer is I am no more logical than our cats who slept away this rainy day or our dog who has yet to leave her house. The “Carpenter’s” sang about how rainy days and Mondays always got them down so maybe I’m not alone. I’m writing this column on a Monday and it’s pouring outside. The problem is that the only local drive-in theatre has yet to open so I guess I’ll grab my pitch fork and get to it.

A Kinder, more Gentle Head gate  (week of 05-02-05)


My brother, Darrel, recently sold a cattle head gate to me. It was a home made unit built for his own use but now without cattle he decided I should own this family heirloom. The gate itself is built heavier than anyone who wanted to make a profit could manufacture. After I installed the gate I thought how I could make it more inviting for the cattle. I would make cattle guru, Temple Grandin, proud by padding the part that contacts the cows neck. A little pipe insulation and a roll of duct tape produced fairly decent results. Temple Grandin tests livestock equipment on herself so I thought I’d follow her example.

I placed my head through the gate knowing full well my wife would rescue me if I was unable to escape. Then I thought of how many crazy ideas and dirty floors I’ve created and how Lisa gracefully deals with my nonsense. My neck stuck in a head gate might be the justice my wife has deserved for so long. I decided I did not want this punishment and failed to adher to Temple Grandin’s example. Maybe I could just eat a little corn from the next feed bunk I build, that should be safe.

Visit Dr.Temple Grandin's website on humane treatment of cattle and for well thought-out corral plans.