Lately, I struggle to find the positive in being a dairy farmer. Between the doom and gloom of milk market projections to the unpredictable Ohio weather, I have been in a funk.
That is, until I had a 4-Her from Warren County call me. Adam simply asked, “Will I be able to take the same calves as 4-H projects that I did last year?” The excitement in his voice when I told him “yes” was what I needed to snap me out of my dairy blues.
You see, Adam isn’t from a dairy background. Last year was his first to show dairy cattle, and those two heifers gave him the opportunity to get involved in agriculture and learn more about the dairy industry.
Yes, dairy farms in Ohio are declining in alarming numbers. Our industry is in crisis, but for those of us that are trying to weather the storm, we need to find something positive to focus on. For me, that safe harbor in the storm is helping out area 4-H and FFA kids.
Livestock projects take a lot of time, effort, money and facilities. For several of our 4-H and FFA members, facilities is an area they fall short on. That is where a lease program becomes a perfect opportunity that can be met by local dairy producers who are willing to lend a hand.
In our county, there are a few farms that lease their dairy animals to 4-H and FFA members. Some have been doing so for a few years, while others are just getting started.
I actually have some good firsthand knowledge of how the leasing program can benefit 4-H members. In 1983, I was that kid who “borrowed” a dairy heifer for my first 4-H project from Maple Rey Farms. Her name was Hickory and we had quite a run at the county fairs during my 4-H career. My time caring for Hickory taught me life lessons that became more valuable to me than the degrees I earned in college and grad school.
My daughters also found their passion for agriculture by taking the same path that I did. Emma and Maggie both leased heifers from Dale and Paula Baumann at Bottom-Line Farm. Their leasing experience took us beyond my comfort zone of showing at the county fair, and we found ourselves traveling to National Shows and purchasing our own animals. As a bonus, my dairy farmer husband found me during that exciting journey.
Fast forward to 2018.
Donald and I provided 33 heifers and cows to eleven kids in three counties. Two of these kids are grandchildren of my own childhood 4-H advisor, Debhora Herron. During the time frame of the project, the kids are responsible for the feeding and care of our heifers. Some took the animals to their own homes. Other members are committed to being at the farm at least three times a week to provide help with bedding, feeding, grooming and halter-breaking “their” animals in preparation for the shows. During this time, the heifers and kids develop quite a bond together. To them, leasing is more than taking the animals to the fair and showing in the ring, it is a learning experience for several months, and sometimes many years.
I have experienced so much joy and satisfaction in watching these kids get excited about 4-H and dairy cattle. They are eager to learn and are genuinely appreciative of the opportunity, which makes the arrangement even more satisfying for myself and Donald.
Whenever I think about “our dairy kids,” I am reminded of a blog that my friend Jodi McDonnell wrote a few years ago. I cannot find better words to describe the benefits related to matching up a child and a calf, so I am going to share her words with you:
When You Give A Boy A Calf
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him responsibility. He is responsible to help in the daily care of his calf. She must be fed, watered, comfortable and content. It is his job as her caretaker to give her all her little cow heart desires. If something goes wrong, the weight of the problem can fall on his little shoulders.
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him work ethic. The calf doesn’t care if it’s raining, cold, or if he’s hungry. All she knows being a cow, is that he is her care taker. He feeds her twice a day, seven days a week. He gives her clean water and dry bedding. Christmas presents and Easter baskets may have to be put on hold so he can tend to his little lady. Giving him a calf teaches him that he must work hard and put the needs of others above himself.
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him discipline. He must work with her diligently so they preform as a team. She must be led even if he’s tired. She needs bathed when she’s dirty and she needs to be groomed to make her hair stay just so. Practice makes perfect and the show ring is no different.
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him compassion. He must learn to care for another living being. You attract more flies with sugar than with salt. Cows work the same way. A gentle, loving touch can be much more convincing than a harsh hand.
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him joy. Much happiness can come from a bovine best friend. Growing and learning together is something they will excel at. The boy has to learn what makes his calf happy. What does she like, what irritates her. The moment everything comes together both are happy. The joy brought about by a calf is not something that to many other things can surpass.
When you give a boy a calf, you teach him skills for the future. When he talks endlessly of joining an industry that can be challenging, his calf teaches him that there are rewards at the end of a long and hard day. There will be trials and there will be triumphs. There will be happy and sad days. But in the end he is happy because he is just a boy with his calf.
While I am trying to power through the dark times, and everything else that seems to be working against us at the farm, I remind myself that Will, Ellen, Meredith, Mitchell, Kaitlin, Lizzie, Pierce, Isaac, Grace and Adam are all looking forward to reconnecting with their heifers..
Because I am also looking forward to watching these kids grown and learn the same life lessons that I did as a 4-Her...the coming days seem a bit brighter.
Seeing our animals provide so much happiness to others make our cattle far more valuable than any milk check would suggest they are worth. That reason alone motivates Donald and I to continue pursuing our own dreams here on the farm.
Warmer weather is almost here, make sure you cultivate your fields, as well as your soul!