Experts in Their Fields: Farmers, Land, and Livestock

(Because he’s fantastic and helped me think of a catchy title of this post…I have to give a shout-out to my pal Zach Hunnicutt. You’re one cool cat, Z-Dawg.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in fields. I know a lot of fields like the back of my hand, and that trait was learned from the farmers who introduced me to said fields. Once upon a time, when I heard the words “St. Anne” used in regards to a field, I thought of clay, terraces, flooding, and a 40-foot difference between the highest point of the field and the lowest. “The 60” was distinctly different from “the 40” and to confuse “Brown’s” with “Johnson’s” was downright wrong. These are all “names” applied to specific fields on the farm I used to work on.

Each of these fields had different challenges and benefits. Each had a unique personality. I would have never learned the differences between these chunks of land if it weren’t for the passion and attention-to-detail that tends to come naturally to the people who farm it.

I learned similar lessons from raising rabbits. When you have several rabbits who are virtually identical, you have to learn the personality and cage placement of each one. We had a barn full of large white rabbits that all looked about the same, yet I could walk in and tell you which female was aggressive, which male would spray, which kit would hop to the front of the cage for attention and which would try to knock the food cup out of your hand. Why is that?

New Zealand White kits. They're born identical. They grow up identical, until they're old enough to display gener-specific characteristics like dewlaps, head shape, and adult weight.

8-week-old New Zealands (and their mother, with her big head in front). I would eventually go on to memorize their personalities and temperaments, when they were wold enough to receive their own names/numbers and cages.

Okay, not all of my rabbits were identical. These are Mini Rex, vastly different from the New Zealand Whites above. While they are of different colors and patterns, I did have a lot that looked identical or similar. It was a matter of matching colors, names, personalities, cage assignments, and pedigrees to keep each animal's individual needs (and uses) straight.

Well, farming is not a one-size-fits-all trade. You can’t just draft a plan and apply it to every field, every animal, and every aspect of the business.

I know several people who spend their days surrounded by cattle, whether they are dairy or beef cattle. Large or small, these farmers know that each animal had its own specific needs. Whether it’s a large dairy where milking cows are given numbers under which to file their entire lifetime health records, or a smaller dairy where each cow has a name, the people who run these operations take pride in ensuring that each cow gets the specialized, individualized care that she needs and deserves. I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the phone with a farmer during chores and they told me some of the ins-and-outs of their interactions with the animals. This cow needed assistance with a birth, while this heifer had to be treated for a sore hoof, and his little bull calf likes to steal milk from other cows, and that brand new calf has a crooked baldy blaze that makes it adorable.

Farmers know. They feel deeply about the things they care. This can be applied to just about any operation, and to the land on which farmers grow their crops.

At some point in the year, a farmer has to sit down, look at their stats, and decide a plan of action for each individual field (or in other cases, orchards). That plan may change over the year due to things like moisture levels, insects, mold, weeds, or fungus. They adjust their schedule, their finances, and their strategy based on what it best for the land under their stewardship. Plans change, situations morph, and farmers must adapt.

This field is from the Exline area of Kankakee County, Illinois. This picture was taken during a long, late harvest. While this farm was normally done harvesting in late October, this specific year saw them harvesting into late November. It had been a very rough evidenced by the many downed stalks. While the farmer worked hard to do what was best for this specific field, sometimes there is only so much you can do.

Technology has made this individualized attention to detail easier, and different farmers apply these technologies differently for different plots of land and animals. In livestock, one of the big things that comes to mind the use of “bolus” sensors in cattle. These sensors tend to look like giant pills that an animal swallows. They stay inside of the cattles’ stomach, and take readings on things like temperature and activity. These stats can then be analyzed to track things like stress, which is then put into practice to improve the operation as a whole. A friend of mine named Dino who runs a dairy in California referenced studies using bolus research when his dairy revamped temperature control systems for the milking flat barn and the que where the cows wait to be milked. There are new technologies that allow for lower-stress handling, and the prevention of disease spread. There are new tools that help prevent heat stress and overt cold. There are new record-keeping technologies that allow farmers (and any employees they may have) to track every single detail of an animal’s well-being. There’s even ultrasound equipment that can be used to find out the quality of meat that can be yielded from beef cattle…while the animal is still alive, munching on grain and chillin’ out with its little cattle buddies.

The technologies for field care and cultivation improve, as well. Low-erosion methods like strip-tilling allows for the working of ground without compromising topsoil integrity. Similarly, new machinery allows farmers to use no-till or low-till planting methods on ground that, once upon a time, would have been too hard to plant into without tillage. Specializes machinery helps niche growers achieve optimum productivity, and the research and innovation going into the machinery used on farms is downright awe-inspiring. Then there are other technologies, which, albeit controversial at times, have helped the farmer become more efficient and specific in their planning. Genetically altered crops can withstand certain pests which once upon a time were only deterred by heavy use of chemicals. This, in turn, reduces the need for chemical intervention. Because there are so many options across the many different brands of seed throughout the many different crops we raise in North America, farmers have the ability to plan out their fields with endless variables. From choosing how to plant refuge (non-pest tolerant plants to keep the pests from building an immunity to the traits introduced to deter them) to mixing varieties of seeds to balancing fertilizer and chemical treatments for fields…the combinations of different variables that make up a farmer’s approach to each individual acre are nearly endless.

It gets even more interesting, too. The use of GPS technology in crop production allows farmers to understand their fields’ needs…from foot to foot. GPS-based data allows them to get more specific than ever with their approach to land care. It’s amazing, simply amazing, to see what doors have been opened by these developments.

This care, this ability (and desire) to be well-informed on all of these different aspects of their operations, is one of the many reasons why I love working in agriculture. The passion and knowledge incapsulated inside the farmers and ranchers I’ve worked with are nothing sort of impressive. It’s not just a matter of knowing about the types of crops and animals they raise…it’s about understanding and tending to the specific needs on a more attentive, individual basis.

Next time you doubt a farmer’s intelligence because they’re “just a farmer,” remember this: every farmer is expected to be an expert in their field…actually, in most cases, several fields.


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