January was always my favorite time on the farm.
During the 1940s and 1950s, almost every farm in our small rural community was a family farm. Let us describe that farm as a rather small holding, from 40 to 150 acres or so. Each farm had its inhabitants: first the human family, then a few cows (either a small beef or dairy herd), a few sows, some sheep and, of course, chickens.
Each month all year long was a working month – except January. January is named in honor of the Roman god, Janus, the two-headed god. One head looks backward, the other forward – into past and into the future. That’s the way it is with farming, too. It is a time to look at the past year’s production accomplishments and to look to the future and plan for the coming year’s production cycle.
And for me, and my dad before me, the best time to do that was during early morning chores in the barn. That was an ideal time to go a little more slowly and spend quality time with livestock.
We usually started feeding in the hog barn. There the ever-hungry hogs would greet us with grunts and squeals as we carried their special treats to them. Even though they had automatic feeders, when we walked in with a metal basket full of ear corn for them, they acted as though they had never had a bite to eat. As we walked amongst them, they relished the idea of a scratch behind their ears. In fact, most would rub against my legs just to get a little special attention. And it was good for me too. It gave me a chance to look over the animals to make sure all were healthy. These were the animals that brought in the most money throughout the year. Healthy, well-fed hogs gain weight more quickly, finish faster and go to market earlier.
Next we would go to the sheep shed where the old ewes were impatiently waiting to be fed. It seemed a few of them were always bleating as a way of welcoming me to their pen. The older ewes would line up at the trough waiting for their ration of grain. And we learned never, ever to climb in the haymow to throw down a bale of hay before sprinkling grain in their feed box. My goodness but they would all scold me to let me know they were unhappy. But once fed, they contentedly munched away while I put hay in their manger and spread a new layer of straw in the loafing area.
Finally, it was time to feed the cows. They always seemed more tolerant and patient than either the pigs or the sheep. And for Dad and me, it was the best time of the day. We finally had time to spend in the cow barn. I like cows. Compared to other farm animals, cows are kind of quiet creatures. Hogs grunt and snort and squeal at feeding time. Sheep make pleasant sounds as one walks into their midst, but cows just stand by quietly waiting to be fed.
Cows, I think, take more work, more feed and more time. First one had to climb up into the haymow to drop a few bales of hay down the chute for feed and a couple of bales of straw for bedding. They get up from their nesting area and stand by while one gets ready to feed them.
For me there is nothing to compare with the smell of a freshly broken bale of clover and timothy hay to feed the cows. When I break a bale, the aroma wafts upward and fills my nostrils with the pleasant scent of quality, cured hay. Then when one drops a wafer of hay in the manger, cows step up, grab a bite and start munching away. Did you ever notice while they munch, their lower jaw always seems to moves from side to side in a grinding motion? I used to think, “My, but that’s a really dry breakfast. It would be like eating a shredded wheat biscuit without milk.”
And cows don’t mind when you interrupt their feeding to put down a new layer of straw for bedding. As you walk among the animals, they move aside so you can shake out the straw for new bedding. The straw smells so good to them that they will often chew the straw, especially oat straw. And they, too, like to be petted and rubbed. I think they like to know that someone cares about them. Of course each animal species has its own odor. But I like the smell of cattle better than I like the smell of hogs or sheep. There is just something more pleasant to my nostrils about the body odor of a warm cow.
And after feeding and watering the livestock is complete, it is an opportune time to just sit and relax, watch and enjoy the stock. This is the time for contemplation and planning. Any cold January morning is a perfect time to spend time with your livestock, to look back over the past year to figure out what you could have done better, where you could have saved time or a little money, and to apply what you have learned when you work out your strategy for the new year. January is the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor by sharing time with the animals you raise. That’s why I always liked January when I was farming.