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.

Global labor issues present a big problem

The pace of this year’s harvest in Iowa combined with the record-setting yields can stress the labor of any farming operation. Making sure that help is available to run equipment and haul grain is important in keeping the wheels of harvest moving.

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Recently farmers from around the world met in Des Moines to discuss important issues they face with their farming operations. All agreed that labor issues are a major concern.

Fourteen farmers gathered to take part in the Global Farmers Roundtable and World Food Prize Symposium last week. The farmers from countries spanning five of the seven continents said that farm labor supply, farm labor costs, and labor work ethic can be a limiting factor in the future for their operations.

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Levi Wood, a grain farmer from western Saskatchewan, Canada, has difficulties in finding labor due to the pressures that other industries place on the labor force.

“We’re competing against other industries. In Canada, those industries are mining, oil, and gas. It’s a barrier because even people that grew up on a farm or work on a farm can make $80,000 to $100,000 U.S. dollars a year at 18 with no skills,” he said.

In India, low wages have forced laborers to find other jobs to sustain a living. That puts farmers in the difficult position of choosing expensive machinery to do the work or limiting the size of the farm because of the labor shortage.

“We cannot pay wages that are deserved by farmers,” Balwinder Singh Kang, a farmer from India said. “Expenses have increased so it limits how much can be paid. I don’t think $500 a year is enough for a worker to live and feed a family. But even if we are willing to pay more we can’t get the people to come.”

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Farmers in Argentina and Australia are facing a pull of labor from small rural towns to the larger cities according to Maria Beatriz Giraudo Gaviglio of Argentina and Sarah Sammon of Australia.

“We lose a lot of our youth to the big city which is four hours away. So we start with a lack of availability for helpers,“ Sammon told the group.

The story is the same in Argentina according to Gaviglio.

“Everybody wants to live in the cities these days,” she said. “We need people living on the farm, but they prefer to live on less money in the city. The government also gives subsidies for people that don’t want to work.”

To help with the problem, she has been proactive in working with other farm groups in Argentina to create training centers in small cities to help train workers that might not have the opportunity to go to universities in the city.

“The problem is limiting our production, and it is a very big problem in my country,” Gaviglio said.

Kees Huizinga, originally from the Netherlands, has farmed in Ukraine for the past 12 years. He raises soybeans, winter wheat, and other row crops along with 850 dairy cows and 750 sows, farrow to finish. He currently employees 350 people. For his operation, he sees a large labor pool to draw from but he feels the workforce is not motivated to work because of government incentives.

“In Ukraine there is enough labor but there is a shortage of jobs,” he said. “There is an enormous workforce, so it comes down to management. We have to stimulate people to work. We have to spend time teaching people the jobs and then retaining them.”

Kang sees the issue of labor as a crisis in his native country of India with ramifications around the world. He believes that it goes beyond a labor shortage to the willingness of farmers to keep farming.

“In 10 to 15 years no one will be willing to farm if things continue,” he said. “All of these things are problems we are facing. Labor is not there; technology is not there it is all combined together.”

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean