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From calving to fat cattle

By Staff | Apr 6, 2012

DOUG CLOUGH is trusted by cattleman Harold Post to feed his cattle. “In my job as a customer service manager and teacher beforehand, I always felt like a pretty good multi-tasker,” Clough said. “The task of driving the tractor, following just the right path to hit the bunks, and holding a speed that allowed me to evenly distribute the feed was more than I could handle my only day on the job. Lucky for me, I knew how to somewhat work a clutch.”

By DOUG CLOUGH

Farm News staff writer

(Editor’s note: This the third in a series of monthly articles in which staff writer Doug Clough, a city boy, visits area farms and works for part of a day and writes about his experiences.)

HOLSTEIN – My wife and I have five kids total, begging the time necessary for both of us to plan, buy for and execute meal time. Until I visited a cattle operation, one owned and operated by Curt Phillips and Harold Post, I never realized how much of a person’s day, other than my own, revolved around planning meals and feeding time, not-to-mention the general care of youngsters.

Phillips took me on a tour of the farm starting in the field to the west of his homestead.

CURT PHILLIPS, of rural Holstein, gives one of his calves a vaccination days after its birth as its mother looks on. “We’re concerned, of course, that the calves start to milk right away,” Phillips said of the early care for his calves. “It’s also important that, just like humans, we vaccinate to prevent disease as early as possible.”

“We’ve had a couple calves born this morning. Take the ATV out to get a look at them,” he said. “I’ll be grinding up feed while you do that.”

Prior to leaving, he familiarized me with a liquid syrup that he had purchased from an ethanol plant, an edible byproduct of corn – sort of the sugar on corn flakes. He mixed some of the liquid with the hay prior to hooking it up to the tractor, mixing it together for cows’ as feed.

When Phillips lowered the electrical wire to allow me to pass, I noticed a theme among sheep and cattle – they think your only purpose is to feed them.

Per Phillips’ direction, I followed the fence-line west until I came to an opening of a south pasture and found the cow/calf pair. I headed toward them at a pretty good clip until I noticed the cow was giving me a look – but not the hungry look. It was more like “I’ll beat you into submission look if you come close to my baby” look.

I’m not one to back off when challenged, which is a good quality except when the challenger comes in at about 10 times my weight. I began to serpentine toward the pair, hoping to ease my presence into their bubble. The calf hid behind its mother. The cow glared at me, reminding me of my mom who once fired a baby-sitter for threatening to put me in the oven as a disciplinary tactic.

DOUG CLOUGH tries his hand at moving hay and stalk bales with Phillips’ Bobcat. Clough observed that much of the time of a cattleman is spent planning and preparing hay, stalks, corn and other inputs for feeding cows at their different stages of pregnancy and after calving.

There is something eerie about a cow’s stare. At times, I looked away, trying not to engage. Every time I looked up, the cow was still locked on me.

I retreated to follow the fence-line north and ventured to the other side of two terraces. There I found two more cows with their calves, one so fresh the after-birth was still intact. I was amazed at how fast a cow can run shortly after giving birth.

When I returned to the feeding area, Phillips was dispensing feed into the bunks.

Phillips asked me to replace the bales of straw and hay that are staged by his barn and used to make the cattle feed. “Have you ever run a Bobcat?” he asked. Before I could answer, he rightly guessed that I had not and gave me instructions on how to operate the small piece of equipment safely.

Using the forks to pick up the thousand-pound bales from behind an equipment shed, I placed them in front of the barn. “Don’t worry if you topple over the top bales; we can get them from behind the stacks,” he stated quite matter-of-factly.

CURT PHILLIPS, amongst all his March to June calving duties, stops to admire the face of one of his calves. "We're pretty busy," Phillips said, “but there are busier cattlemen." Phillips admitted that during calving time, he rarely gets a full night's sleep, but takes catnaps throughout the day to stay rested.”

Immediately, his harmless comment seemed more like a challenge than assurance, which I’m sure said a thing or two about my character. I upped the throttle a bit to aid in my bale-picking prowess. I learned quickly that stalk bales do not impale near as easily as hay bales.

My three-pronged forks barely broke the surface. No matter how often I prodded, poked, and repositioned, the bale would not do anything more than push backward nearly toppling over. Like a boy turned down one too many times by a girl of his affection, I decided to change my approach.

After easily moving three hay bales to the stalk bale’s left, I drove around the backside of the leaning bale and used its weight against itself, piercing it easily.

Success.

Nearly 30 minutes after I began, my quest to not be defeated went clearly unnoticed by Phillips, who was ready to show me the calf nursery. This is the area where the newest of the newborns are taken with their mothers for vaccinations and observations.

PHILLIPS FARM cattle approach feed bunks as Curt Phillips pulls the feeder along with a tractor. In this particular field, Phillips keeps 130 head of cattle; while his 120 heifers are separated from the cows to protect them from the more mature, aggressive animals that rule the pasture, preventing the younger animals from feeding.

Phillips, once again, with a watchful mother nearby, vaccinated an uncooperative calf by leveraging her carefully against fencing. The shot given, Phillips cusped the calf’s chin, “I think what I like about them the most is their face and big eyes.”

It impressed me that this veteran cattleman took the time to observe such an important, aesthetic point; angus calves are handsome creatures with longer hair, finer features, and longer tails than I ever had imagined when I would only observe them as I moved down our Iowa highways.

In fact, when Phillips took the time to show me his appreciation of the calves, I was thinking how strikingly one looked somewhat like my labradoodle Abby Jo – shaggy and long-tailed. I mused about which, my dog or the calf, would be more offended by the comparison.

On our way to the pasture, where heifers and their calves were kept, it was easy to notice how an effective cattle operation requires a jack-of-many-trades-and-master-of-all kind of person.

“During the winter, we work on gates quite a bit,’ said Phillips. “We maintain all of our own fences, bunks and other property. It’s important that we do as much as we can ourselves.”

Phillips and his nephew climbed over the gate into the heifer pasture. “We keep the heifers separate because the cows beat them to the food and keep them away from eating,” Phillips said. “The heifers are just too nice at first and learn later on how to get their share of food.”

Prior to entering the pasture, I noticed that Eric had a large white pill and an injector of some sort. “We’re going to treat one of the new calves for scours,” Phillips said. “It’s diarrhea that comes along sometimes for lots of reasons, and we have to treat it.”

Phillips confirmed my fears that the calf could be lost to scours due to dehydration.

“We’ve got to get on it as soon as possible with medication,” said Phillips, accompanied by Eric,who would control the calf. The calf found a good round of energy when Eric tried to hold it for the shot. I stumbled for some words as Phillips backside was being approached by the calf’s heifer who obviously hadn’t gotten the memo that she was supposed to be “nice.”

Phillips stood up and waved his arms at the heifer who took the hint and backed away. Phillips placed a pill on the end of a plastic rod and forced it into the mouth of the calf. The calf stumbled off and the pair of cattlemen were left to wonder if it would recover due to their efforts.

Returning to the barn, I found that time had passed quickly that Saturday morning, and I needed to leave for my son’s high school track meet. “Things are pretty busy around here from mid-March through June,” said Phillips. “You might have a chance to see one be born yet.”

On the way to my car, he showed me the stall where cows are placed, holding them in place and unable to kick, while Phillips helps the cow get through a breach or other troubled birth. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t be able to see a calf born on this visit.

When I returned the Friday after my initial visit, Phillips met me at the drive with directions to his partner’s farmstead. “Harold’s got some feeding for you to do and some toys to play with,” he said with a smile. Curt was off in a different direction and I piled back into my Subaru, headed down the lane, and was soon at the Post abode. Harold and his wife Everly were both outside when I arrived. It was already 6 PM on that Friday night, so Post took me on an a tour of his operation, so we could get to the hands-on experience as soon as possible.

In a storage shed, artifacts point out that Post was a hog farmer at one time. “Here’s where the manure scraper came across the floor,” showed Post. “The drainage system gravity fed this way.” If the building didn’t exist for storage, no one would know that his farrow to finish operation even existed. The yard is filled with tractors, including an old M tractor that Phillips repainted red for Post – still used today for grinding corn. The pasture is filled with fat cattle. Post and his wife Everly also crop farm corn, beans, rye, and alfalfa.

“Before we get to feeding the cattle,” declared Post, “I need to give you a chance to drive a tractor before it gets dark.” I was sold, having never drove a tractor. We climbed up Post’s 305 New Holland; I felt a bit like Captain Kirk at the helm with all the gadgets surrounding me. All I needed was Checkov or Scotty to make it go as I gave orders. Post, as it turned out, is a pretty patient teacher – being a former educator himself – and showed me how to use the clutch, accelerate, and change gears. It was nothing like Phillips’ Bobcat, and I found myself struggling to learn despite how patient my teacher was being.

A trusting soul, Post allowed me to exit the homestead’s lane, head west to Highway 59, make a U-turn and come back to the lane. I had a hard time figuring out most everything Post was trying to show me as I was preoccupied with this little activity called steering, so I wouldn’t end up in the ditch and becoming the topic of conversation at feed store coffee time. It was a pretty good rush, however, and I have a better idea now how Kenny Chesney found such success with She Thinks my Tractor’s Sexy.

When I used to go by farm fields in the fall, I always admired the fields dotted with bales of hay, never knowing exactly how each was made into bite-sized chunks for livestock. I imagined someone pulling it apart with a pitchfork, in some Norman Rockwell fashion, with the sun-setting in the background. I bet Mr. Rockwell never expected to see what I saw at the Post homestead: a ginormous grinder, able to accept the size and weight of a 1000 lb. or better hay bale.

Post, like Phillips, keeps his hay and stalk bales inside and dry as long as he can. Exiting the storage shed with Bobcat carrying a hay bale, Post approached the grinder, which was hooked up to the a tractor, both running. He dumped the massive bale into the bowl which immediately shot the chopped up hay – with equally massive amounts of hay dust – into an already established hay-feed pile.

“It’s important to note that I only do this when the wind is from the northwest,” explained Post with a smile. It took me awhile to get what he was saying, but as I glanced at their homestead to the northeast, it became apparent that Post was being sensitive to how that mistake would affect his household. I thought about my home which sets just east of a farm field; I don’t dare wash windows until the fall’s crop is out.

My cattleman experience would come to a close in the same way it started: feeding time. We had been getting that same ‘look’ since I arrived, the universal ‘gimme’ look which I prefer to the ‘I’ll hurt you if you come closer’ look. Post had his wagon loaded with a mixture of hay, corn, stalks and the same liquid syrup that Phillips introduced to me. “The liquid works well with the feed,” detailed Post. “In the past, some of the cattle would turn their noses up to the stalks, but they eat everything without question now.” I never imagined a cow to be finicky.

The wagon was loaded with 3420 lb. of feed as noted on the wagon’s monitor. All of it needed to be portioned out for the different groups of cattle, and Post knew exactly what he should have left after each bunk’s filling. “I’m going to give you a hand at driving the 3020,” said Post. I had watched Phillips do this same activity and just the act of trying hit the bunks without spillage was intimidating.

Now, I consider myself an exceptional multi-tasker as a customer service manager but, believe me when I say, this skill seemed non-transferable when it comes to operating a tractor. Working the clutch, maintaining a consistent speed, staying in a straight line, and opening the chute on the wagon’s feeder system was quite a humbling experience. I’m pretty sure I heard a snicker or two from the herd as I passed the bunk system, unsteady and uncertain. So much for She Thinks my Tractor’s Sexy.

Having gained a great deal of experience and respect for being a cattleman, I thanked Post for his patience and trust. “Oh, no, you’re not done yet,” he said with a grin. “No farm experience is complete without a good farm meal.” It was a gracious offer not to be refused; I took off my muddy old sneakers and entered the Post home to break bread with Post and his wife Everly.

After Harold said prayer, we sat for an hour talking about farming, our teaching experiences (Everly is a retired teacher as well), and family. It’s apparent that the Posts have built their farm-life not only on hard work and intelligent choices but on a foundation of faith as well. After coffee, warm chocolate chip cookies, and mint ice cream for dessert, it was time to say goodnight with a handshake of appreciation to both.

As I drove out the dark lane in my Subaru, it occurred that I had indeed ended cattleman experience the same way it began, with a good meal and a solid, Iowa farm experience for this city boy.

Contact Doug Clough at douglasclough@gmail.com.

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