Do you remember that high school biology lesson about amphibians and ambient temperature? My science teacher explained it something like this:
If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out. But if you put that same frog in a pot of cold water and set the pot over low heat, the frog will happily stay in the pot, even as the water gets hotter and hotter. Eventually the frog will be boiled to death.
My science teacher used the boiled frog story during the lesson on cold blooded animals and how their body temperature matches the temperature of their surroundings. The premise of the boiled frog story is that amphibians and other cold blooded animals don't notice gradual changes in temperature. Experiments done by scientists in the 1800s provided the basis for the story, but modern biologists have found flaws in those experiments. Frogs won't allow themselves to be boiled to death.
Dairy farmers, however, will.
How many times do we find ourselves in situations that we wouldn't willingly jump into, because the situation was the result of gradual change that we just kept accepting?
I don't think most dairy farmers say to themselves, "Let's find ourselves 10 more cows so we can switch them in and out of the barn for milking."
Nor do they think, "You know, we don't have enough to do, so we'll buy a dozen bull calves to feed out."
No sane dairy farmer makes decisions like those. But when you add one switch cow at a time and one bull calf at a time, soon you're milking 10 extra cows and feeding 10 extra calves, and you wonder why you're going crazy.
That's how it happens around here, at least.
I can't really complain about the switch cows, though, because we've been switching cows for a couple years now. And we did take the winter off from switching. But now it doesn't make sense to sell the extras or dry them off early, because we'll be putting the cows out to pasture soon. It's just that taking care of switch cows living on a bedded pack is so much more work than taking care of switch cows living in the pasture.
The 10 extra bull calves were another story.
When the cows started calving again after our winter break, they delivered five bull calves for every one heifer calf. Since we only had a few heifer calves, Glen thought we should keep the bull calves for a while. We had gallons of fresh cow milk available to feed them. I agreed that it made more sense to feed the milk than dump it down the drain.
So we kept a couple bull calves and then a couple more and so on. We did sell three, but that hardly put a dent in the numbers. Before long, we were bottle feeding a dozen bull calves. We ran out of room for them inside, so Glen made a pen for some of them in the shed.
In the past, we kept bull calves for two or three weeks before selling them. Then we started selling them to a farmer who picked them up at two or three days old. Now, we have month-old and two-month-old bull calves. Discussions ensued about when and where to sell them. Soon we were talking about castrating and vaccinating and dehorning and raising them to 300 pounds, because we were told they would sell best as feeder calves.
And that's when the water started to feel a little hot, at least to me.
By this time, we didn't have any more fresh cows, so we were hanging onto a couple of do-not-breed cows with milk quality issues, just so their milk could be fed to the bull calves. So we were milking extra switch cows to feed extra bull calves. And all of this was adding up to well over an extra hour of work each day.
Keeping the bull calves long enough to make good use of our fresh cow milk was a good idea. Really, the only input we had, besides a little straw for bedding and some grain, was the time it took for us to feed them. But, if we started castrating and such, there would be a much larger investment of our time and energy. Feeding them to 300 pounds would require additional feed.
Finally, during one of our discussions about when and where to sell the bull calves, so we could get the most money possible for them, I put it this way: Well, what's the value of an hour of sleep? How do we factor that in? If we weren't feeding these calves, we would get done with chores an hour earlier and get to bed an hour earlier. (Or, more likely, we'd use that hour to do something else that needed to be done, and still only get to bed late, but at least we'd have the option of being done.)
We sold most of the bull calves and the cull cows a week later. Chores take less time. We get to bed earlier. I don't feel like I'm going crazy anymore.
We need to remember to balance the financial well-being of our farm with our own well-being. After all, money is only money. We don't need more than enough.
I'm going to try hard to remember that next time - before the water starts to heat up.