A windshield view to Americana

Wide open spaces. Room with a view. You know that I don't shy away from adventure. Whether I'm visiting foreign countries for work or exploring the backroads of Iowa adventure is always on my bucket list.


 The moon shines bright over rock formations at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

The moon shines bright over rock formations at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Last week I loaded by motorcycle with a change of clothes, tent and sleeping bag and took off for western Nebraska. Why Nebraska you might ask? Primarily because of the weather forecast but also because I knew it was rich in one ingredient. Americana.

Prior to this trip, my travels were like a majority of visitors to the state. Interstate 80 with a stop here or there and a boring view that stretches for miles. Over 450 miles until the next turn as my GPS reminds me when travel home from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

But this time I took a different route. I wanted to soak the state up and that choice didn't disappoint.

I decided to take the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway north of Grand Island. The trip is a riders dream comprised of a 272-mile stretch of highway that passes through numerous towns, scenic areas and plenty of great people to meet along the way. I also extended the trip by visiting the Scottsbluff National Monument and headed north to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Trip highlights

  • Visiting with the fine folks that live in Nebraska - One individual stands out in particular. I was filling my bike with gas near Mullen when a rancher with a cowboy hat and big belt buckle looked around the pump while he was filling up. He told me he would trade me for the bike and and we had a great conversation. His son was playing in an eight-man football game down the road and then he was going to work cattle with his horses.

  • The wide open spaces - It had to be a solid 20 minutes since I passed a car or went through a town. As I scanned the rolling hills bordering the highway, I spotted a freight train heading toward me about a mile away. As it neared, I raised my arm and gave the conductor a thumbs up. He responded by blaring the horn as we passed. No words exchanged just respect for the moment as we passed.

  • Carhenge - think Stonehenge but made out of cars. This eclectic monument is just north of Alliance and proved to be a cool spot for photos as the sun dipped below the horizon. Carhenge is a replica of the world-famous monument that was built by Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father in 1987.

  • Scottsbluff National Monument - No dysentery here. Just an amazing National Landmark that serves as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains for travelers on the Oregon Trail. For those that enjoy history, this area was pivotal during the western expansion. The view from the top was amazing in every direction.

  • Badlands National Park - 244,000 acres of amazing views and unique geologic features. I spent the night at Cedar Pass Campground in the shadows of the massive formations caused by erosion and layered deposits.

Take a look at this selection of photos from my three-day trip.

 Carhenge near Alliance, Nebraska.

Carhenge near Alliance, Nebraska.

GOVERNOR'S CHARITY STEER SHOW

Scissors, clippers, hair dryers and Aqua Net are usually reserved for beauty salons, but on the first Saturday of the Iowa State Fair, they are used to bring beauty to the best bovines in the cattle barn.

  Governor Kim Reynolds and Tyler Pudenz lead Jet out of the livestock barn during the parade to the Governor's Steer Show. Pudenz said she usually doesn't get nervous until she enters the ring before a show. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

Governor Kim Reynolds and Tyler Pudenz lead Jet out of the livestock barn during the parade to the Governor's Steer Show. Pudenz said she usually doesn't get nervous until she enters the ring before a show. Photo credit: Joseph L. Murphy, Iowa Soybean Association

For 36 years the Governor's Charity Steer Show has been a staple of the Fair allowing youth to show their projects in the ring with local celebrities, state officials and the Governor. The event is part pomp and circumstance and part friendly competition, but it is all for a great cause.

This year $294,000 was raised for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Iowa during a record-setting auction. The money raised benefits the Ronald McDonald Houses of Des Moines, Iowa City and Sioux City. All the houses are located near hospitals and provide a “home away from home” for families of seriously ill children being treated at the hospitals. The Iowa Beef Industry Council and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association sponsors the annual steer show and auction, which was hosted by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

"I’m so proud of them (the youth showing at the event)," Reynolds said before the show. "They put a lot of work and dedication into raising these steers. Then they turn them over at auction to support an important cause like the Ronald McDonald House. It says a lot about the young people that are showing today."

Since its inception in 1983, the Governor’s Charity Steer Show has raised over $3.5 million for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Iowa.

This year's event featured 25 steers that were carefully cleaned, sculpted and manicured by the youth that raised them, family members and friends for their moment in the spotlight. Over 2,000 people filled the Pioneer Livestock Pavilion to watch as celebrities and youth paraded their steers around the ring while being judged in three categories: Judge’s Choice, People's Choice and Showmanship.

 

Tyler Pudenz, an incoming freshman at Gilbert High School, was lucky enough to show her steer, "Jet," with Reynolds.

"It's really exciting," she said about the opportunity. "We were at home when we got a call telling us that we were selected to be with the Governor."

She has been showing cattle in 4-H since she was in third grade. She said her favorite part of showing cattle was spending time with family and meeting others with the same interests.

"It’s a family event," Pudenz said while her father and others put the finishing touches on Jet before the show. "I’ve made a lot of friends over the years I’ve been showing."

Reynolds said the Governor's Charity Steer Show is one of the highlights for her during the Fair.

"I’m pretty competitive. I’ve won twice. So the Lt. Governor and I had to shake hands and part. This is a competition. So let the best steer win," Reynolds said with a laugh before entering the show ring.

Reynolds and Pudenz fell short of winning the show this year but both said they had a fun time.

"Chip," a steer sponsored by the Iowa County Beef Supporters, won the "Judge’s Choice" award this year. Tate Manahl was selected for the title of "People's Choice." Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig earned the Showmanship award.

Article originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project. You can find out more about the Iowa Food & Family Project by clicking here.

Enduring the grind of calving season

The rolling hills of Bryan Reed’s farm near Albia provided a serene backdrop as cows and calves basked in the spring sun on Friday.

Reed navigated his utility vehicle through the pastures checking the health of calves that were born just days earlier. With the sun shining you could see a spring in Reed’s step as he finished his daily chores. That hasn’t been the case for the majority of his calving season though.

 A pasture next to Reed's farm is speckled with cattle during calving season.

A pasture next to Reed's farm is speckled with cattle during calving season.

The calendar says spring but Mother Nature refuses to close the door on winter. Snow, ice and rain have made this calving season especially tricky.

“My coat still shows signs of the challenges earlier this week. I had days where I was rotating coats every few hours while trying to stay dry and warm,” Reed said while looking at a pasture speckled with new calves and their mothers. “The sun makes a difference when you are checking calves and doing chores.”

 Reed says that every calving season is different. 

Reed says that every calving season is different. 

Calving season starts in mid-February at Reed's farm and goes through late May. It isn't a surprise that winter is a difficult time to care for livestock, but some winters are more comfortable than others.

"It happens regardless of the weather. It's going to be going on 24/7 whether the weather is cooperating or not. Whether you are sick or not," Reed said.

Reed recalled several years ago when a fight with the flu came during a rush of calves. 

"My wife drove me to the emergency room because I got run down," he said. "They gave me IV fluids and I was back home working with the heifers later that night. You have one chance to keep that calf alive and that is my paycheck for the year."

During a typical spring calving season, Reed expects about 240 calves and another 60 during the fall. But over the years he has discovered that there is nothing ordinary about calving season. 

"Everyday is different and has different issues to deal with," he said. "Some days you are an OB/GYN assisting with difficulties in delivery. Other days you are a vet trying to figure out what's wrong with a calf to help it."

Reed also added nutritionist to the list of his job responsibilities during calving season to make sure that the mothers are getting the nutrients needed to give birth and take care of their calves.

"Sometimes you even have to be a rodeo clown dodging a protective mother while helping a calf," Reed said as he scanned the pasture filled with mothers and babies.

Even though the grind of calving season means work around the clock through challenging weather conditions he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's what I do and I don't know anything different. When you turn the cows and calves out into the pasture for the summer, you can see how good they are doing. It makes all the challenges of getting them started worthwhile," he said. "To know I'm feeding someone else and that person doesn't have to fight these battles gets me through it. I'll be cold and muddy and worn out if that means someone else can have safe affordable food."

Story and photos by Joseph L. Murphy

Auction marks the passing of time

The traffic flowing from Lacona, a sleepy town in southern Iowa was unmistakable. Silverados, F-150s and super duty trucks followed each other east out of town in an ad hoc parade of farm trucks.

Two miles east, one mile north and a quarter mile west revealed their destination. It was a farmstead on a ridge overlooking a scenic valley with frozen farmland stretching into the distance. A man directing traffic directed drivers to park in the field and then head to the barn. Snowfall the night before yielding several inches of powder was cleared from the field. Now, nearly 70 trucks were parked adjacent to three parallel lines of assorted implements.

 Men look over tractors before the auctioneer sells them to the highest bidder.

Men look over tractors before the auctioneer sells them to the highest bidder.

A short walk from the trucks to the barn revealed the unmistakable sound of an auctioneer. He rattled off numbers in a cadence that could be mistaken for a song. It was auction day and a large crowd had turned out to find deals, visit with neighbors and pay tribute to a lost friend.

Farm auctions are part of the tapestry of Iowa. According to the National Auctioneer Association, they date back to the 1600s and the arrival of the Pilgrims on America's eastern shores. Auction schools came to the United States in the early 1900s. And for farmers who persevered through the 1980s Farm Crisis, auctions occurred frequently, an oratory reminder of broken dreams and tough times for families next door.

Now, on a chilly February day, bidders flashed their numbers as the auctioneer went from hay rack to hay rack selling extension cords, boxes of bolts and even chainsaws. The warmth of the machine shed provided temporary comfort from the cold before the crowd moved to the frozen pasture for the big-ticket items.

Like some auctions, a heavy feeling hung in the air. While people searched for deals and community members and neighbors visited, it was unmistakable that the gathering was predicated on pain of others.

Change is at the root of every auction. Whether it was a retirement, a bankruptcy or a death, farm sales can be associated with broken dreams and the march of time. Today's auction fit the bill. A conversation between neighbors revealed that the owner had committed suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in 2013. The CDC also noted that males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9 recent of all suicides. Suicide can have lasting harmful effects on individuals, families and communities.

The reasons behind suicide aren't always clear but depression is often at the forefront. Downward economic pressure in the farm economy paired with tight margins in farming can lead to depression for farmers.

To help farmers deal with depression and stress Iowans can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern Hotline, (800)-447-1985. The Iowa Concern website has a live chat feature as an additional way to talk with stress counselors. Agencies and professionals serving individuals and families can contact local ISU Extension and Outreach offices about Iowa Concern hotline number business cards available for distribution.

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As the last items were sold and the auctioneer's voice fell silent the parade of trucks dispersed across the frozen countryside. As one farmer said; auctions are a sweet and sour time where farmers put portions of their life's work up to the highest bidder.