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Opening the doors!

I have to admit that as the holiday season approached, there was something I was more excited about than Christmas: an ag display.

Not just any ag display, but one that will likely be viewed by a good percentage of the people who attend the 2012 Pennsylvania Farm Show. The audience for the Farm Show is mostly urban and suburban people – the same people who are asking questions about how food animals are raised.

‘Today’s Agriculture’ is a 10,000 square foot exhibit coordinated by PennAg Industries Association on behalf of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Livestock Care and Well-Being and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The display, subtitled ‘Opening the Doors: Farming – Knowledge – Trust – was introduced to the media this week, and my expectation that the exhibit would accomplish its mission was confirmed when I overheard this conversation:

Young reporter, looking at a sow and her piglets as she asks the first question in an interview: “What’s her name?”

Veterinarian: (silence) … then, “She has an eartag number.”

A sow in a farrowing crate draws plenty of attention and questions, but most people are satisfied that it represents good animal care.

Reporter, referring to farrowing crate: “If she wasn’t in there, I guess she’d be stepping on the babies?”

Veterinarian: “The sow doesn’t always realize exactly where they are. It allows the pigs to get away from her, and also provides heat” (points out heat lamps).

As the veterinarian continued to offer information about the age of the piglets (21 days) and litter size (11), she explained the reasons for castration and tail docking, and how the young pigs would soon be moved from the nursery to another pen to continue growing.

Growing pigs on a slatted floor with ample space to move around accurately represents modern pork production.

The veterinarian also explained that it was her responsibility to make sure that everyone on the farm was trained to do all of the procedures correctly. She also provided information on weight gain and how the pigs are watched carefully and monitored for health through all stages of growth.

Reporter: “And you don’t name them?” followed by “Do they bite?”

This is when I realized that this exhibit was probably going to be one of the most life-altering experiences some visitors will have. And although she didn’t specifically say so, I think the young reporter’s concern was how each pig in a large group could  receive the best possible care.

The veterinarian finished up by explaining that the point of the exhibit was to ‘open the doors’ and allow consumers to see for themselves how farmers take care of their animals.

Reporter: “What will people be most surprised to learn?

Veterinarian (pause): “What are you most surprised to learn?

Reporter: “I guess I pictured that the pigs would be really packed in.”


This is the concept of animal ag that  many people have, and it’s a concept we farmers need to change. Too many consumers have read something, heard something or seen a video clip that gives the impression that farmers are hiding what they’re doing, that they’re only out to make money and don’t really care about their animals. We farmers know that’s not the case, but how do we convince the public? Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of Animal Ag Alliance, expressed it well during the door-opening ceremony for the display:

“People who choose this profession do so because they love the work, they love the lifestyle, they love the interaction with their animals and the ability to work with their own families. It’s important to recognize that these families have dreams and desires beyond the farm for their children and for the products they produce. Like all other families, they desire to have a safe and healthy work environment, and they desire safe and healthy food. They want their children to go to college and to be able to support themselves in the future. They want and need to succeed financially so that one day, their children can pass on the farm to their own children. To do that, they must know how to be good stewards of their animals and good stewards of the land.

It’s also important for consumers to know that farmers and ranchers are very good at what they do, but they have not been very good at telling their story and sharing that information with the public. The public now wants to know more about where their food comes from. The majority of America’s population is three generations removed from the farm – this has allowed some extremist groups with agendas that are out of touch with consumer values to hijack the story of food production, making today’s agriculture look secretive or less than transparent.

Consumers and retailers alike must understand that for the sake of maintaining the health and well-being of our animals, farmers and ranchers cannot allow people to walk onto their farms wander into barns and interact with their animals. These are not museums or zoos – they are businesses that are raising animals that produce food. For the health and well-being of our animals, farmers must protect them at all times.  In today’s climate of social media and breaking news every ten seconds, agriculture is now recognizing the importance of sharing its story.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture George Greig and Representative Mark Keller watch as FFA members prepare to 'open the doors' to agriculture, an exhibit that will allow the non-farm public to see what goes on in those steel buildings.

The ‘Today’s Agriculture’ display shares the story of agriculture through authentic representations of the species found on Pennsylvania farms including beef, (feeder and veal calves), dairy, poultry (layers, turkeys and ducks) and pork.

Those who enjoy eating turkey can learn about how young turkeys are cared for by farmers. Turkeys raised in airy, spacious barns receive a diet formulated by a feed specialist, and are safe from predators and disease.

Visitors can see how ducks, an important agricultural commodity, are raised on a farm.

This display of layers helps illustrate egg production, and allows consumers to ask questions about chickens and eggs. Many people are surprised to learn that there's no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs.

The veal calf area might be the most controversial, but experts will be on hand to debunk misconceptions and answer consumers' questions about modern veal production.

This Holstein cow is comfortable in a sand-bedded stall in a well-ventilated barn. She has access to food, water and a brush, and has plenty of room to walk around.

Consumers will be able to see and ask questions about this Holstein calf tethered to a calf hutch.

Most people know that cattle eat grass and other crops grown for them, but aren't familiar with alternative feeds such as chips, candy meal, pasta and corn gluten. These feed ingredients, which are by-products of local food manufacturers, are sometimes included as part of a balanced ration for cattle.

The display also includes farm equipment, corn and soybeans (which were planted in greenhouses then transplanted into ‘fields’ near the barn), cover crops and a forested stream buffer. Plenty of industry representatives will be on hand to answer the inevitable questions, some of which might be tough, but all of which must be answered.

Modern farm equipment and crops (soybeans, corn and cover crops) are outside the barn.

Soybeans - some ready for harvest and others just starting to grow - and a working ventilation fan on the barn add to the authenticity of the exhibit.

A realistic forested buffer should help answer consumers' questions about 'those tubes planted in a line'

As I moved on to another area of the display, I heard the veterinarian explain to the young reporter how much space was allowed for each pig.

“They have to be able to move around freely to get food and water without having to step on another pig,” she said. “They aren’t going to do well if they’re packed into a pen.”

The veterinarian also pointed out the pigs are highly social animals that like to be with other pigs, and for that reason, there wouldn’t be a display of just one pig because it would be too stressful for that animal.

Because pigs are highly social animals, farmers raise them in groups.

The experience of this young reporter will be repeated countless times until the 2012 Farm Show closes on January 14th. But the work won’t be finished. We must continue to tell the story of ag, and be willing to do whatever it takes to not just talk about, but show consumers just exactly how their food is raised – even if it means constructing a barn, growing crops in greenhouses, collecting animal representatives and housing them in true-to-life settings, and recruiting knowledgeable and patient individuals who are willing to answer questions with truth and transparency.


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We’ll miss you …

Not long ago, my friend Chris Raines posted on Facebook about how Hank, a dog he lovingly referred to as ‘the best dog in the world’, didn’t seem to want to perform potty duties in the rain. When I saw the word rain in the weather forecast this morning, it made me wonder how Chris was doing with the task of training his dog to poop on command – a suggestion posted by several of his friends. As was the case in nearly all of Chris’s posts, a lot of friendly banter followed. But a split second after I thought about Chris and the Hank training project, a far more sobering thought followed: the still-new reality that Chris lost his life in a car accident last night.

Chris was the well-respected meat science guy at Penn State University; respect he earned in just a short time. He was sharp, friendly, open-minded and a great teacher. I remember the first time I heard Chris address a group of beef producers in Lancaster. He was a relative newcomer to Penn State, still in the ‘we have to make sure you’re doing a good job when you’re addressing producers’ stage. He apologized for having to pass out evaluation forms to the audience. But I didn’t have to see the questionnaire to know how I’d fill it out. Chris was dynamic, interesting and easy to listen to. It was hard to believe he was the new guy on the block.

At the same meeting, several new beef cuts were available for sampling. I recall giving my feedback to Chris, and he assured me that he’d pass it along to the people who developed the product. I know he did just that. He made me feel as if what I thought mattered.

When I heard him speak the following year, he was (not surprising) even more interesting and polished as a presenter. Although I didn’t see him often, I had a chance to say hello at several events over the past couple of years. I remember being glad to see him at a USDA meeting on mobile slaughter units  – we’d have a chance to chat again. But during the lunch break, another attendee grabbed Chris’s attention and spent nearly the entire lunch hour talking his ear off about her cattle. Throughout the conversation, Chris was patient, courteous and thoughtful, and provided her all the help he could.

That’s what Chris did. He was so passionate about agriculture, so willing to help and answer questions that he didn’t seem to mind having his lunch interrupted by a producer who had questions. And he wasn’t always the giver of advice – he was open to new ideas.

Chris helped bring people together. He posed questions that made us think – mostly about meat and livestock production, but also about agriculture in general. Chris also worked hard to address one of ag’s most challenging problems: the producer/consumer gap. Through social media, he educated countless people about topics many consumers have questions about but don’t know how or where to get the answers.

Others have written beautiful memorials about how much they valued Chris’s friendship and mentoring. It’s obvious that he touched many lives, and that he will be missed tremendously.

I don’t know how all of us who knew Chris will cope over the coming days, weeks and months. All I know is that death is a part of life, and sometimes it just plain stinks. I pray that his family will find peace in the knowledge that Chris was much loved by many, and that he did everything he could for the good of the industry he clearly loved.

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They tried it … and they liked it!

Apparently, a couple of farmers in Vermont were on to something. They experimented with a new method of preserving forage in the ‘moist state’ by strong compression in air-tight pits. All three report success and express enthusiastic confidence in the future of this new departure in farming. My guess is that they’d just about had it trying to keep cattle fed and healthy through the long New England winter.

In an agricultural paper dated February 13, 1881, T.H. Hoskins, M.D., reports the value of ensilage as discovered by three Vermont farmers who wanted to continue feeding their cattle a high-quality feed throughout the winter. The farmers – Gen Thomas of Montpelier, Gen Grout of Barton and Capt Morton of Essex – were the Mikeys of their time. They tried it and liked it. The report of their successful experiment was published in an agricultural paper and reproduced for all the people to read and review in Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book and Household Physician, published in 1894. The book is an encyclopedic wonder and history lesson, and was found in many homes.

Dr. Chase goes to great lengths to outline the benefits of corn silage (yes! back in the olden days they were feeding C-O-R-N to cattle!) beginning with a description of silos:

“‘Silo’ is French for pit, and ensilage is the French equivalent of the English word ‘pitting.’ It is applied in this case to the pitting of green forage in such a manner that is shall be preserved, by the exclusion, more or less perfect, of the air from the contents of the pit. This is effected by lining the bottom and sides of the pit with concrete or masonry (brick or stone, the surfaces of which are plastered with water-lime cement. The lines and right angles of such a pit must be straight and true, so that no hindrance shall be offered to the settling of its contents under the pressure which is applied to them after filling.”

The report continues with a description of just exactly what goes in this silo, which might come as a surprise to some who think cows have been forever eating, and should continue to eat, only fresh green grass:

“So far, green maize (yep… that’s corn), taken about the time when the grain is ‘in the milk’, has been used for ensiling almost exclusively; but all green forage may be equally well preserved in the same way. The preparation of ensilage is simply the cutting of the forage, by a suitable machine driven by horse or steam power (ok, today we’ve gone beyond 1 horse power in a big way) into small bits, not exceeding half an inch in length (the Penn State particle separator comes to mind). These are dropped into the pit or silo, and rapidly leveled and trod down by men or horses (BIG horses). This leveling or treading should be as exact and thorough as possible. The treading must be especially well done at the corners, and some silos are built with curved in place of square corners to facilitate this work.”

Considering the fact that this treatise on how to make silage was written over 100 years ago, Thomas, Barton and Morton weren’t too far off. Since the time of their rudimentary but workable silos, agriculture has made tremendous progress in the science of growing, preserving and storing forage for livestock. But silos are doing more than storing feed for livestock  – they’re being used to store harvested crops for use in methane production.

Massive trench silos like this one in Germany hold fermented crops for use in methane production.


A report in The Chemist and Druggist (England) in the winter of 1884 states that “Professor Thorne Rogers reports that ensilage increases the nutritive powers of green forage: that the process obviates waste, saves time and increases the productive power of the soil. The forage is made more digestible, and the farmer is enabled to get a double yearly crop.”

“Mr. F. Sutton confirms this view by comparing the relative value of hay and ensilage from a poor quality of grass. The hay was coarse and poor, destitute of sweet taste and odor, and contained a trace of ready-made sugar. Distilled with water, no essential oils were yielded, nor was there any flavor, save that of decaying grass.”

I don’t think farmers should have to defend the feeding of corn silage to cattle. Corn is a monocot, the sister of grass, and neither corn nor grass grows through the winter. Agricultural science researchers have gone to great lengths to perfect silage crops – from soil, seed, planting and harvest to ensiling and development of balanced diets for cattle and other species.

The silage on this family dairy farm is part of a carefully balanced ration that keeps the cows healthy and productive.


Over the next few months, I’m going to share more of Dr. Chase’s wisdom – he has ‘receipts’ for homemade remedies to cure ailments from scrofula and tetter to plain old-fashioned bronchitis.  Might just need to pay attention to Dr. Chase.





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Ifs, ands, buts and a couple of reasons


You want to visit my farm? Today?

I’ll have to be honest. I wouldn’t want you to visit my farm today, especially if you want to see the whole place…including the remote pastures. Maybe you can come back in a few weeks?


OK….come on over. But I have to warn you – there are some things I’d rather you didn’t see.

Here we go.

Spring was wet, summer was incredibly dry, and we didn’t have rain until September. When we finally got rain, it poured for nearly an entire month. That means we haven’t been able to do everything as we’d like. Probably sounds like some lame excuse to keep you away, right?

Here’s what’s going on.

For now, the sheep are confined to one pasture. It’s plenty big, but as much as we’d like them to be grazing a new field of grass, they’re nibbling away at a bale of hay. We can’t move them to a new pasture because the fence charger isn’t working. Part of the reason the charger isn’t working is because there’s excessive debris on the fence at the stream crossing, and also because of some trees that fell on the fence when we had heavy rain and wind. Not only that, we can’t get back to the area to work on the trees because it’s simply too wet. The truck has 4WD but we aren’t willing to put permanent ruts in the pastures we’ve worked so hard to maintain.

The fence in this stream bank crossing caught a lot of mud, debris and trash from the past season's heavy rain, which means the fence charger isn't working effectively.

(Not to mention the fact that it isn’t really much fun to bounce wildly out of the tractor seat when raking hay in a rutted field.)

Can we visit the animals in the barn? Sure, we can go out there, but I’ll have to loan you a pair of boots. I promise they won’t leak. You’ll need boots for a couple of reasons: one, it’s (still) a muddy walk to the barn; two, I really want to make sure that you don’t bring in anything contagious on your shoes. Sheep and goats are prone to foot rot, which is caused by several microorganisms including Dichelobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. If you’ve walked through an area where infected sheep or goats have been, those pesky bacteria can easily come in on shoes or boots and infect my animals. Foot rot is painful to the animal, and it’s hard to get rid of once it’s in a group of sheep.

Sorry about the shabby arrangement of wool bags and that wool bagging stand in the middle of the floor. Now that I look at it from your point of view, I can see that it looks kind of sloppy turned on its side. But I’m leaving it there. By using the wool bagging stand to divert the sheep toward the chute, I can move them by myself from one area to the next without stressing them.

Oh yeah. Those are lambing jugs. Not too professional-looking, I know. They’re sections of hog panels, bound together with a hodge-podge assortment of twine; some orange, some white, and even a bit of old-fashioned sisal. It’s a pretty good system – they stay upright and they’re quite sturdy, and that’s what really matters. I suppose it’d be easy enough to make a neat set of pens, pick a twine color and

Lambing jugs made with hog wire panels can be put together in any combination for just the right size.

stick with the theme, but we use what we have. The assortment of wire panels hanging on the wall allows us to combine different-size panels to create just the right size space for moms and their newborns when they need a bit of extra TLC. And no, we don’t adhere to any animal ‘welfare’ organization’s guidelines about how long the animal can stay in the pen. We think we know best when it comes to caring for our animals.

Hmm…. Forgot about the cobwebs. I guess it looks like we don’t bother to clean up too often. Honestly, I started to sweep them down at the end of summer, but realized that those cobbies were helping catch mosquitoes. Lots of diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes, including West Nile virus and several types of encephalitis that can be transmitted to humans. The cobwebs will stay.

Why is that lamb in a pen by itself? I spend a lot of time just watching my animals to make sure they’re healthy and behaving normally. I noticed that this particular lamb wasn’t joining her friends at feeding time, so I moved her to a private suite so I could watch her more closely. No, I didn’t call the vet. Farmers routinely take animals’ temperatures, heart rates, and listen to stomach sounds. We watch for signs of illness, and make extra trips to the barn (no matter what the weather is) to check on an animal that isn’t up to par. We know how to do a pretty darned complete once-over to check for illness, and are familiar with the problems that each species is prone to. We also know when to call the vet, and our vets appreciate an accurate assessment of our animals’ condition before they come to the farm.

Oh…our guardian dogs get to choose where they want to be. If that means staying inside with a group of young goats, that’s where they stay.

Livestock guardian dogs are better left alone when it comes to decisions about where to hang out. They really do know where the predators are.


That lamb? She’s fine now. She’s eating hay and grain, drinking water and her poop is normal. Yeah, farmers look at a lot of poop. Sometimes it’s the best way to tell what’s going on in the animal’s gut. It’s also great for the land.

If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take that lamb back to join the rest of her friends. They’ll be happy to see her.

One more thing: please ask me any questions you have. Any. I’d be honored to be the one to help you learn more about why we do what we do.

And when you visit, I hope you appreciate the sunset and the view as much as we do.


Late autumn sunsets make it worth staying outside!



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Conservation programs benefit farmers and consumers

I don’t understand the massive chunk of legislation known as the Farm Bill. What I do know is the elementary school definition: legislation that sets government farm and food policy. Even simpler: if you eat, the Farm Bill affects you.

I also don’t  fully understand how the Farm Bill becomes, well, the Farm Bill. I know that lots of politicians have their hands in it, and that lots of special interest groups are vying for a piece of the pie.

The 2012 Farm Bill is currently on the table, and there’s already considerable (and ongoing) controversy about it. Just try reading through some of the proposals and you’ll be hit with a stream of acronyms that any government agency would be proud of.

Since I can’t pretend to even start to understand the process or most of the programs, so I’ll stick with the part I’m somewhat familiar with – conservation programs.

Conservation programs aren’t just for farmers. They benefit  everyone by protecting natural resources.


CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, helped this farmer establish the appropriate trees and shrubs to prevent erosion in a stream. A duck nesting box invites migrating waterfowl.


A program called CRP (yay! an acronym!!) or Conservation Reserve Program, protects topsoil from erosion; which in turn protects groundwater and helps improve the health of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. We all win.


Conservation programs help farmers with technical assistance and funding for manure storage such as this one on a family dairy farm.

The CBWI (another!!), or Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, provides technical assistance and funding to help farmers restore wetlands, manage manure and install streambank fencing (which keeps livestock out of streams, which means cleaner water for everyone). Another win.


The manure on this family dairy farm is safely stored in a lagoon until it's time for land application.

The FRPP (like that one?), or Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, provides matching funds for the purchase of development rights to keep productive land in agricultural use. Yet another win.

WHIP (I promise, this is the last acronym), stands for Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program; a voluntary program for landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on agricultural land, non-industrial private forest land, and Indian land. Goals for WHIP include the restoration of declining fish/wildlife habitat, reduce the impact of invasive species on fish and wildlife habitat, and protect/restore migration and movement corridors for wildlife. A win for wildlife and a win for those who think wildlife are worth preserving.

Wildlife habitat conservation benefits both animals and those who enjoy seeing them in their natural environment.


Whew. That’s enough acronyms. Or I could list all the conservation programs in the last Farm Bill (2008); by acronym, of course.

  • AMA
  •  CCPI
  • EQIP
  • AWEP
  • CIG
  • GRP
  • HFRP
  • WRP
  • Conservation of Private Grazing Land Program

Oops. No acronym for the last one, a program that provides technical assistance for protecting soil from erosive wind and water, initiating energy-efficient means to produce food and fiber, using plants to sequester greenhouse gases and to increase SOM (sorry…soil organic matter), and using grazing land as a source of biomass energy and raw materials for industrial products. Sounds like another win-win.


Conservation programs promote the use of land for biofuel production such as the canola being pressed here.


Money for these programs and all of the other programs administered by various titles of the Farm Bill is up for grabs. Farmers want to do whatever they can to keep water clean, but they can’t easily afford the newest technology in manure storage. Farmers want to preserve open space, but are often tempted to sell when bills mount and developers appear with money in hand. Farmers really, really want to do whatever they can to protect the soil, preserve land, and maintain habit for wildlife – wildlife that enhances our environment and our lives in more ways than we can ever imagine.


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Thesauarus (and almost wordless) Thursday: Autumn

Today I noticed a small patch of snow lingering in a northern corner near an outbuilding.  It reminded me that we are well into autumn and should probably be gathering nuts. After a wet spring and a rather odd summer (not unusual  for Pennsylvania) we saw nothing but rain in September. Just as the leaves were starting into peak color, we were thrust abruptly (but briefly) into winter with a record-breaking nor’easter. Within a few days, we were back to autumn, followed by a few days that might have passed for Indian summer.

Autumn: noun. season between summer and winter.

Synonyms: autumnal equinox,  fall, harvest

Pennsylvania is known for gorgeous fall foliage, which is especially beautiful in the state's rolling hills


The harvest from my garden was slim this year. Despite watering staking and watching for pests, we had about a dozen or so memorable tomatoes, the rest were not. Several chard plants made an effort, but didn’t really amount to enough for even one meal.


One of several swiss chard plants that made it through the drought.


All of the tulips I’ve collected, divided and replanted over the years succumbed to tulip blightBotrytis tulipae – also known as tulip fire. I was quite disappointed to learn that I can’t plant new bulbs in the same area for about three years because the fungus lingers. I’ve picked out a spot near the barn for my new tulips, and they should probably go into the ground now that it’s dry enough.

My flower garden started out well, then caved to summer heat. I watered perennials and left the rest to survive on their own. Or not.

Just before the late October nor’easter hit, I took pictures of what was left of my flower garden. Sad, yes, but there were some real heroic ‘tryers’ that made an effort toward the end of the September rain.

One of two impatiens plants that made it through the heat.

During the summer drought, I could see that my clematis was dying so I cut it back to just several inches of woody growth. In mid-October, it sent out new shoots and bloomed..what a nice surprise!

My cosmos, usually the most reliable plant for cut flowers, was beaten sideways by heavy rain in September. It finally bloomed in late October, and as of today, I still have three blossoms in an old blue medicine jar.

Nasturtiums, another reliable annual, didn't bloom heavily until October.

I’m really glad I took those pictures. Within 24 hours, snow had started to fall, roads were nearly impassible  due to slush and ice, and my poor garden really took it in the socks.

The over-achieving clematis that made a valiant recovery after the summer drought was encased in ice.

Nasturtiums are rather tender, so I didn't expect them to hold up under a load of wet, heavy snow.

The nor'easter dumped a heavy layer of icy snow on the roads.

I'm not a fan of snow, especially snow in October, but it was pretty and serene.


Autumn is nearly half over. By the third week in December, we’ll have our annual winter solstice picnic to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Then the days will be longer, and even though the sun will dip low in the sky for the next several months, I’ll savor what’s left of autumn and remember how fortunate I am to live in a state that truly has four seasons.



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Thesaurus Thursday: Remnant

Farmers are scientists. And like any other scientists, they’re resourceful.

If they don’t know the answer to something, they know where to find it, or they probably know which neighbor can steer them in the right direction.

Most of the northeast has had more than enough rain for one month. Rain means puddles, puddles mean mosquitoes, and mosquitoes mean nasty diseases that can affect both humans and animals. Irene and her friends left more rain than we’ve seen in years, and we’re still dealing with the remnants.

Horses are susceptible to a number of mosquito-borne diseases that are especially bad after excess rain causes ponding.

Remnant: noun. leftover part.

Synonyms: balance, dregs, excess, leavings, leftovers, remainder, residual, residue.

One disease that thrives in residual water is West Nile Virus (WNV), an arbovirus that caused nationwide panic when it was identified in New York in 1999. It was the most exotic-sounding disease to surface in a long time, and was treated as an emerging infectious disease by the CDC.  The disease spread, and although the initial panic has subsided, WNV is still present throughout the United States.  Wild birds are the primary reservoir for WNV. Most species carry the disease without being affected. However, some birds, including crows, blue jays, magpies and ravens, (Corvidae family if you’re a biology geek) are very susceptible to West Nile Virus. That’s why many states have asked residents to report dead birds of those species.

So after the 15+ inches of rain from Irene and other tropical storms subsided, it became pretty obvious that the puddles in (yes, in) and around the barn weren’t going away any time soon. I decided that it was time to make sure we weren’t hosting a breeding bonanza for mosquitoes.

As a farmer, I know that one of the resources I can rely on is our local conservation

Tractor tires left deep ruts in the ground and created the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

district. I called, and the West Nile Virus technician came out the next day. The first samples he took were from standing water in ruts made by the tractor tires.

He found a few squirming larvae and plunked them into a sample container. But the real bonanza was still waiting. Due to the super-saturated ground and seepage of ground water into one section of our barn, several semi-permanent puddles had formed. I was ready to give them names.  The technician scooped out

A very small amount of water yielded lots of larvae.

a little bit of water, barely enough to cover the bottom of his collection cup. The little sea monkey larvae were too numerous to count, and from just a small sample. The tech identified egg rafts and some almost-ready-for-prime-time pupae that would soon hatch, fly around, bite us or our horses and no doubt lay more eggs. And so on.

What we saw in that small sample of water was amazing, but they were all better off dead. Most of us are familiar with the less-than-pleasant biological factoid that only female mosquitoes bite. That’s because those females require a blood meal prior to laying eggs. Once the eggs are laid, they go through several stages and voila! They’re full-fledged adults, ready for a blood meal.

We were amazed at the little creatures; some wigglers (larvae) and some of them tumblers (pupae).

Egg rafts, larvae and pupae were all present in the sample collected from the barn puddle.

But we weren’t so amazed that we would let them survive. West Nile Virus is a serious threat to humans and can be deadly to horses. The technician treated the puddles with Bs, or Bacillus sphaericus – a naturally occurring bacterium that release toxins into the mosquito’s gut. The toxin disrupts the gut in the mosquito by binding to receptor cells (present in insects but not in mammals) which causes the larvae to stop eating and die.

Next step? Check to see what kind of adult mosquitoes are actively laying eggs. For the barn, this means using a gravid trap, which is designed to attract pregnant female mosquitoes ready to lay eggs.

The technician prepares gravid trap, which captures pregnant adult mosquitoes for ID sampling.

The device on top draws air through a collection chamber. Female mosquitoes are attracted by the stagnant water and attempts to land on the water surface to lay her eggs. She is drawn into the collection chamber and trapped.

We also decided to set a light trap to collect adults that might be seeking a blood meal.

The technician prepares a CO2 trap to attract mosquitoes seeking a blood meal.

The light trap, or CO2 trap, is hung from a tree branch and collects mosquitoes overnight. Mosquitoes are attracted to the CO2 that is emitted from the trap, just as they’d be attracted to the CO2 emitted by a human.

We may still be dealing with the remnants of excess rain for weeks to come, although cooler weather will help slow mosquito breeding. Until then, we’re watching and treating every puddle and pool of water that shows signs of life…life that has the potential to make us humans seriously ill.

Pooled water and puddles all have the potential to harbor infected mosquitoes.

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Thesaurus Thursday: Deluge

Right before Labor Day, when every weather forecaster within several counties promised close to 100% chance of rain, we were thrilled. Our region (and surrounding areas) have experienced severe drought conditions for most of the summer, so any kind of moisture was certainly welcome.We would’ve been happy with an inch or so, but what we got was a deluge.

Deluge: noun. downpour, flood of something.

It rained so hard we couldn't see across the road.

Synonyms: avalanche, barrage, cataclysm, drencher, flux, inundation, niagara, overflowing, pour, rush, spate, torrent.

We had a deluge, that’s for sure. A drencher; an overflowing rush. Rain came down in torrents and it seemed as if there was no end to it. When the rain gauge accumulated 5 inches, we had to dump it and start over. The dumping-and-starting-over continued until we tallied almost 12 inches. But we were lucky. The worst we dealt with was a flooded basement (and staying up til 5 a.m to make sure the pump didn’t overheat). Others weren’t as fortunate. Several lives were lost, and many people lost their homes and/or property.

Just a week ago, the creek overflowed; just as it did this past spring. The photo below is the same view without all the water.

Even though I had six days to take pictures of the flooded creek, the rain was nothing short of a drencher – pouring down so hard that I didn’t want to take my camera outside. I found this photo from early spring that shows how much water came through and overflowed the stream banks. The water was actually higher than this several times during the storm; close to the tops of the fence posts.

The creek, on left, has receded. The stream on the right is leftover water that will take a little longer to soak into the already-saturated ground.

The creek is almost receded now, although the horse pasture is still soggy. After a couple of warm, sunny days, most of this water will be gone. We’ve established conservation plantings (mostly black willow and silky dogwood) that help hold the stream banks in place during heavy rain.

Although we’re still slogging through puddles, clean-up for us will involve clearing the stream crossings. With the help of NRCS we’ve fenced our stream banks and have specific stream-crossing areas so that livestock don’t pollute the water.

After heavy rain, we find debris from our upstream farm neighbor in the fence wires of our stream crossings.

However, our upstream neighbor isn’t very tidy. Every time it rains, we  find trash, bale wrap and even herbicide containers caught on the wires of the high-tensile fence at the stream crossings. They’re a small-scale dairy farm, but they certainly don’t fit the non-ag community’s mind picture of a small, neat and tidy family dairy.We know that personnel from our county NRCS are trying to work with them, and we don’t want to discourage them in their efforts to farm, but it’s somewhat of a nuisance to have to pick up after them after every heavy rain. They also give small-scale farmers a very bad name.

Despite the deluge, we’re thankful for the rain and very thankful that we didn’t have significant damage. We’re enjoying cool, sunny days, and look forward to watching the pastures and hay fields spring to life just in time for autumn…which arrives next week!

We're looking forward to bright, sunny days that will allow crops to mature in time for harvest.

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(Get to) know thy neighbor

We know our immediate neighbors. For the most part, it’s us.

We’re fortunate that our farm includes property across the road and on both sides of our house. The farm also includes significant stretches of road frontage, which means passersby can easily see what’s going on in certain pastures. Our road isn’t usually busy, but traffic includes anything from milk trucks and manure haulers to cyclists and non-farm neighbors.

Lots of cyclists pass by the farm on weekends.

Our sheep spend most of the year on pasture – not because that’s the only way to raise sheep, but because it works for us. In late spring, we keep the ready-to-lamb ewes in pastures that are near the house so we can check them easily. During one pasture check, I noticed a ewe that had started to lamb but wasn’t making progress. I knew she needed help, and fast. I caught her, carefully laid her on her side and used my leg to steady her in that position before ‘going in’ to assess the situation. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Just as I figured out the lamb’s position (and mentally outlined a plan), I noticed a car that had pulled off the road. Since people often stop to watch lambs playing, this wasn’t too unusual.

Uh oh. The car wasn’t idling. For a brief moment (very brief), I considered the mini-dilemma: which was more important – explaining the situation to the woman (who had clearly stopped to watch the show) or the health and well-being of the ewe and her unborn lamb? No question. The ewe was #1; the woman could wait. I manipulated, pulled gently, manipulated again and within about 20 minutes, I was able to get the lamb out. It was huge. I cleared his nostrils, rubbed him briskly with a towel and tickled his nose with a blade of grass to help him sneeze out the rest of the lung gummies. He snorted a few times and was fine. Whew. Then I noticed that the woman was standing outside her car for a better view. It occurred to me that if I had driven by a sheep pasture and saw someone catch and straddle a sheep, I might be a bit curious myself. After about 15 minutes, I held up the lamb and shouted, ‘he’s fine!’ She watched until the lamb stood and nursed, and seemed relieved with the all’s well report. She smiled and drove off.

Tickling newborn lambs' nostrils helps them sneeze the lung gummies out.

What if the scene had been different? Lambing (or calving, kidding, foaling, whelping, etc) doesn’t always turn out ok. What if I had pulled out a dead lamb, which is a distinct possibility with a first-time lambing ewe trying to push out a large, single lamb? What do we say to our non-farm friends and neighbors when ‘stuff happens’?

I can’t explain everything, but what helps is having an open barn policy of sorts. That doesn’t mean people are free to wander in whenever they want. It means that if friends or neighbors are interested in the animals, I take the time to show them. If people pull over to watch lambs playing, I’ll stop what I’m doing and talk with them. If I have to explain that a certain animal is in a pen being treated for (whatever), I remind them that people get sick too, and when an animal is sick, we do whatever it takes to bring them back to health. I also remind them that the work we do every day – in every kind of weather – keeps our animals comfortable and healthy.

A group of teachers participating in 'Ag in the Classroom' learns about the role of livestock guardian dogs. Inviting educators to the farm pays off - teachers learn from farmers and pass that information to students and their parents.

One often-asked question is 'why do some lambs have green marks on their backs?' The answer is 'after they were born and before they came in as bottle babies, I color-coded them so I'd know which lambs came from which ewes.'

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