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There Ain’t No Stinkin’ Learning Curve

January 25, 2014

Every year when they add a new word or phrase to popular lexicon I always think of the words or phrases I don’t want to see anymore.  Learning curve is my pick, I would really like to see that erased from the collective mind of farming and homesteading.  It implies that there is an end to the endless process of learning to live with the land.  Do I need to tell you that the alternate title for this post is, Boy, Do I Feel Stupid!  It’s a Learning Mountain trail with no end in sight.

Experts are minted each day, the internet tells us so.  A journalist friend of mine hates bloggers.  That’s why she doesn’t know about my blog…as trained as she is in journalism she writes stories from interviews with her take on the subject.  That is exactly why I never bother reading articles about Joel Salatin.  I only read articles he has written or articles that are interviews.  Same with other others I like, you want it straight from the horse’s mouth.  So take everything you read with a grain of salt.  Including here.  I am no expert and I haven’t rounded the bend on the learning curve.  I’ve been lucky as many times as knowledgeable.

My dream is to find one of these in the hay!  I always look.

My dream is to find one of these in the hay! I always look.

This is where I think the phrase learning curve does a disservice to folks who want to get closer to their food.  The implication is that if you get through the learning curve you’re done.  You get good and then you’re done.  It’s about like the grass fed genetics buzz with cows, now that folks have started waving the grass fed flag.  To me grass fed genetics are about like a college degree.  There is no guarantee that you will have a grass fed cow or a job in your chosen field.  Usually what’s missing is the grass and the job.  But you still have the cow and degree.  Now what?  “They said….”  Ah, the learning curve, you’ll get “it” in a year or two, son.  Or even in one growing season. What’s to know?  Humans have been farming for centuries.

I’ve never figured out how to use a cookie cutter with my cows, gardens or land.  I am still learning.  I not ashamed to say that either.  How could I possibly know what lies ahead?  Especially with Jane, our family cow.  Sometimes I think I am the slow learner, and maybe I am, but I still have to operate with the brain and the cow that I have.  You would think after having a house cow for thirty-five years I would know what to expect, what to do, and I wouldn’t change a thing.  Well, stuff changes.  The dairies have went away, I have no way to just get a decent calf from down the road.  Feedstuffs have changed.  I have changed – my thinking and my willingness to explore alternatives to the old ways, which are really the new ways of forty years ago.

I’ve done things with Jane this lactation that I have never done before and was willing to suffer the consequences of, good or bad.  Which means that after thirty-five years of milking a cow, I still want to learn more, and get better at my craft.  Craft?  I think my craft is growing food and integrating all the components of the farm to where they are complimentary.  So that means thinking outside the box, and using tools that span a century or more.  To do that I have to shed the notion of a learning curve.  Farming and living farming is too complex, to just fly by the spreadsheet and talking heads only.  You have to immerse yourself in learning every single day.

What did I do?

♥  Jane freshened with mastitis her first lactation.  I did go the antibiotic route along with homeopathic remedies.  She flared up again during that lactation and I only resorted to homeopathics that second go round.  This firmed my resolve to strengthen her immune system.  Being a bottle baby on formula is not the best route to a resilient milk cow, especially since milk replacer has changed so much since the last time I had used it.  Some would say just get another cow, but I am too emotionally invested in this cow.  I’ll just deal with her and what she throws at me.  Life should be challenging to a degree.  Right?  How all this played out during all the months of milking changed my usual dry treatment.  Normally I would just quit milking cold turkey at the determined time.  No drugs.

♥  At Jane’s first dry off, I chose to administer homeopathics for a dry treatment instead of the recommended antibiotics.  This was a risk, but if I gave both I would not learn a thing.  I’m not totally against antibiotics knowing that they can make a huge difference in some cases but I just didn’t want to use them again.  I wasn’t convinced that they had helped in the first case.

♥  Before freshening I premilked.  This is pretty controversial in dairy circles, and I have to say I proceeded with nothing but doubt.  When your life revolves around saving colostrum for baby calves and loaning that out to neighbors for your whole life, you have doubts about going against the grain.  Believing what I read about colostrum not coming in until just before birth was a tough pill to swallow.  So to mitigate my fears (somewhat) I saved the premilk from each milking, dated it and stuck it in the freezer.  I wanted to premilk to see if there was any sign of mastitis…there wasn’t, but then I didn’t think I should stop.  Jane calved without mastitis and her calf did in fact receive enough colostrum at birth to become a bouncy baby calf immediately.

♥  I weaned the calf, Dickie early.  You must always be an observer if you have livestock.  With Jane’s first calf, I noticed that Jane did not care for the calf nursing once the calf reached about three months of age.  I took note, but chocked it up to a sore udder from her mastitis.  A little idea formed in my head that maybe the next lactation I should pull the calf and bottle feed from the get-go.  That stayed a minute idea in my head that I didn’t want to pursue too much.  I like the idea of the calf nursing and being my relief milker.  Twice a day milking and the subsequent bottle feeding is how dairies operate.  When Jane freshened this time, I definitely put that idea out of my head for good.  I thought.  Sure enough at about the three-month mark, Jane was getting pretty pissy at milking time, with me and mostly the calf.  Groan.  That’s a dilemma.  You’ve heard the saying – no hoof, no horse – well with cows it’s – no bag, no cow.  Jane would not win any contests in the udder attachment category, so with great trepidation I decided to teach the calf to drink from a bottle to save her bag and make milking a little easier on all involved.  The way it works with calves (at least in my experience) is that once they nurse they rarely will take a bottle, or once they drink from a bottle they will not nurse a cow.  And if you try to force the issue either way they act like you’re trying to kill them.  Lo and behold, Dickie took the bottle.  A sigh of relief was heard from the barnyard to the kitchen.  Until two days later, he just stopped nursing the bottle cold.  Okay Plan B – get him to drink the milk from a bucket.  No way was that going to happen.  So learning curve folks, there comes a time when every thing you know and believe goes out the window.  You have to reassess, in my case Jane the cow and her longevity is more important than Dickie the calf who was born with a best before date emblazoned on his testicles.  Just kidding, but that is the fate of male calves.  There is no questioning, it just is.  And here is the hard part, you can’t make an animal understand that you’re trying to help them.  Pleading your case falls on deaf ears.  So the conundrum is that you have to replace what you take away, in this case I needed to replace his milk source with something else.  So pretty little Dickie was about to become a grain fed calf like many other calves in the world.  I’m thinking he will be pretty delicious.


Dickie today - 7 months

Dickie today – 7 months

So why lay all this out there?  To show farming isn’t simple.  Sometimes it can be, but many times you don’t even see what’s coming down the pike.  I never really saw myself milking twice a day.  But now I’ve crossed that bridge and have moved Jane to once a day milking for the end of her lactation.  We’re all happier.

What does the next freshening hold for Jane?  I’m thinking I may not premilk.  I still have that niggling worry about the colostrum and Jane is bred for a Guernsey.  I’m hoping for a pink halter…and I would not forgive myself if I shortchanged a potential replacement family cow by milking out the colostrum.  But that being said, in deference to Jane I will bottle feed this baby and milk twice a day.  I heart Jane and all she has taught me in the last three and a half years.  There ain’t no stinkin’ learning curve.


Jane Butterfield

Jane Butterfield

26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2014 7:18 pm

    And here was me popping over to ask you about share milking, (with the calf) because Daisy may also present again with mastitis. She was bad last time. It was a long haul to get her clean enough to dry her up. I have decided to milk three times a day to begin and let the calf finish the bad side. Both bad quarters are on one side. My plan was to milk one side for me and let the calf milk the other. Then when I was done I would check to see if that side was stripped out. I also am hoping for a wee heifer to replace Daisy. Then let Daisy be the breed cow. You are so right. There is so much to learn and then relearn. Configurations and equations then a little luck or none. But I have heard from other dairy women that the calf is the best milking machine for an udder prone to mastitis. And why don’t I just milk my hereford and put her calf on Daisy too! Daisy will let any calf suckle her this is how she damaged the udder in the first place letting a steer suckle when she was dry.

    • January 26, 2014 9:52 am

      C., I think the three times a day is a good idea, and the calf sucking too, nothing gets an udder cleaned out like a calf, your dairy friends are right. I know the feeling too, breast pumping is not the same as nursing :O I’m hoping for clear sailing next time too, my next dilemma is drying off before the grass comes in…with a late breeding I’m looking at a July calf, not my favorite time at all for calving and the first few weeks of milking 😦 Fingers crossed for Daisy and you of course, this time. Heifers have a time with dentition and all, Jane’s second freshening has been so much better.

  2. January 25, 2014 7:28 pm

    How about “on-ramp”…allowing time for acceleration until you get “up to speed”? No arrival, just motion.

  3. January 25, 2014 7:39 pm

    For a four-leaf clover, you need my friend Cyndi. She spots them without effort. I was with her once and as we were walking and talking she stopped in mid-sentence. She stooped down, picked one out of the grass, and we went on our way. They seem to just appear before her.

  4. January 25, 2014 10:03 pm

    I use that phrase a lot. Just thinking now that maybe I won’t. However, I do tend to use it in terms of there is the steep learning process at the beginning and curves are just that, there is no end to them, they can keep on going, just not as steep at the beginning of a new experience. We also tend to use the word experiment a lot, every thing in our place is an experiment to see if it works. 😀

  5. Ben Hewitt permalink
    January 26, 2014 3:44 am

    Great post, Matron. I agree that good farmers never stop learning, but I also think there is a learning curve. I remember 15 years ago how overwhelmed I felt by everything I didn’t know. When we got our first cow, I remember sneaking up into our neighbors pasture to see how he’d set up his fence posts – how far apart, how high had he set the wire – etc. Stuff like that.

    I don’t feel that way anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty I don’t know, but we do have a foundation of knowledge and experience that allows us to do what we do. There will always be surprises, like your story above, and we are always exploring new ways of doing things, but in a sense, we are able to do that because we’ve climbed the really steep part of the curve and so much of what we have learned is almost muscle memory at this point. We don’t have to think about it anymore, and knowing it so well sort of makes room for learning other stuff, if that makes any sense.

    Now, I could really complicate this and start talking about everything we’ve had to unlearn…

    • January 26, 2014 6:52 am

      I did say I think that I’m a slow learner…and your comment brings me to Homestead Rule #Eleventytwelve, locate your new homestead near supporting farms because it takes a village to raise a homestead or something like that. Here I’ve seen the demise of farms in favor of a bedroom community and it’s all cattywampus now. I miss the farms that are gone, and the support of that type of community. Mentors, bulls, day-old calves, extra milk for pigs…all gone away. Now all the richy richy people that have moved into the bedroom community go to the food program at the community grange to get food they don’t need that didn’t need to be grown, processed, and outdated to be transported yet again. The world we now inhabit is a little too skewed. Lots of monkey motion for no reason. It’s funny too, humans are like animals and don’t want to believe it. I’ve heard gossip that the stigma of going to food kitchen is so great now, that the people who actually need this food are reluctant to go and parade their poverty in front of the well-off people that are hogging the goods. Reminds me of the bully cows “guarding” the water trough. Once the bullies have got their fill, the timid get the rest.

      Yes, unlearning is what I spend a lot of time doing. Or getting information from outside my area…sometimes all that information doesn’t do a bit of good. I just found out last year for instance that you can’t grow good onions from sets. Not been my experience at all. I guess it just goes to show that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

      • January 26, 2014 7:36 am

        This excellent reply is a post in itself! wonderful, esp those bully calves.. c

  6. January 26, 2014 6:29 am

    Can I clarify that you mean you will bottle feed Jane’s next offspring using Jane’s milk not milk-replacer and that you’ll do that whether a heifer or bull-calf? That’s a lot of milk to bottle feed.

    I was listening to On Your Farm (BBC Radio 4) this morning broadcast from a dairy farm in Scotland. There they are re-visiting “a system which allows calves to stay with their mothers to feed, rather than being bucket-fed from birth” – as I understood it, it’s a part system of 12hrs on and 12hrs off. “To their great surprise, they are now looking forward to bigger calves, calmer cows with longer lives, and a healthier herd.” Interesting programme – 22mins long:

    I would have a problem with Dickie R’s ‘best before date’ – such a handsome bull, or perhaps now a bullock (in the English sense of castrated).

    • January 26, 2014 7:03 am

      Carrie, yes, I will bottle feed probably definitely with her milk, that is if my arms hold out to that much milking, or at least train the calf to the bottle in addition to nursing. I’ve always share milked until now, not leaving the calf with the cow, but allowing the calf to nurse after I milk for the house. After a few months the calf can easily take the one entire milking and that leaves me to get a partial milking in the morning. I’ve never had good luck leaving the calf with the cow and then separating. I’ll give it a listen it sounds good.

      Dickie is already a bullock or steer as we say here. He’s a sweetie and not missing his mama for nursing, as he got out the other day when I forgot to close his gate. He didn’t attempt to nurse and proceeded to get into the hay pile.

    • January 26, 2014 10:21 am

      MOH there’s more on the farm featured by the BBC: see Rainton Sustainable Farming Project,

  7. M Langkammer permalink
    January 26, 2014 8:30 am

    My grandfather used to raise a couple of beef animals for family meat every year, buying week old calves from the auction. Sadly gone now, both my grandfather and the Saturday animal auction.
    He bucket feed the calf right from the start. Training it to drink from a bucket is easy. You get the calf to suck you fingers and slowly lower your hand into the milk while the calf continues to suck, drink the milk, and you can remove your hand. Training was always quick and easy.

  8. January 26, 2014 2:19 pm

    Yes, getting them to drink out of a bucket is easy as long as they belong to that group of calves that are a) newly born and b) will drink out out of a bucket.

    There is a group that want a teat and so it is easier to start them on a bottle first and lead them through a transition to buckets.

    Then there is that group that won’t i.e. would rather starve. Then that involves a plastic bottle and a plastic tube for a direct deposit. After a couple of feeds like this they tend to go for the bucket.

    Holding a calves head between your legs, a bucket in one hand and a finger from the other hand in its mouth with the remaining fingers curled around its muzzle trying to ease it into the bucket gets a little easier with practice but not something to look forward to each morning. It’s not the most comfortable position for your back. Fortunately most are quick learners.

    Working as a relief milker at a dairy farm for 7 years involves assisting in the rearing 40 calves twice a year. I always looked forward to calving time unlike the dairy farmer who dreaded the occasions. There was something unique about the event. Especially in those misty cold mornings with the steam rising from the new born and the mothers licking them clean. And then that first teetering drink. It was important to ensure they all received some loving care once separated from mum. Still miss it.

  9. Elizabeth permalink
    January 26, 2014 6:57 pm

    I. Am. So. Relieved. I’ve been beating myself up for pulling our little meat calves off the bottle and putting them on hay/ grain at 3 months. It just got so expensive to feed milk replacer when we were going through a #50 bag (@ $80/bag!) every 2-3 weeks. Especially since these guys will be going into the freezer. Now, how do I keep these guys from developing a hay belly? As I understand it, a hay belly is a sign of malnutrition, right?

    • January 27, 2014 6:07 am

      Elizabeth, sometimes you just have to, the price of milk replacer is just too high, and the real expensive stuff is exorbitant. I think the recommended rate of grain is about 4# per day of a high protein grower/finisher, and the best hay you can find. If they get the protein they shouldn’t develop the hay belly. The hay belly comes from them eating hay to get enough nutrients, the trouble is that their rumens are fully developed enough to extract the nutrients they need when they are young.

      • Elizabeth permalink
        January 27, 2014 7:49 am

        What would you recommend as a “high protein grower/ finisher”? A combo ration that you mix yourself or is there a product out there that you like (I know what you have available in OR might not be what I have available in MT but it would give me an idea)…

        Thanks again…..

        • January 27, 2014 8:50 am

          E., you could probably do half and half alfalfa pellets and rolled barley with some molasses added. Your feedstore probably carries a 14% stocker feed. The touchy part is if you care to avoid GMO’s you have your work cut out for you. The 14% will have soy for protein, the alfalfa pellets may be GMO too, and molasses may come from sugar beets. Here is where the ideologues can make life miserable for a person. Number one the calves needs calories, number two you need to be able to manage feeding them without breaking the bank or running yourself ragged chasing ingredients. This is the world we live in, and you just have to pick the hill you want to die on. Feed the calves and help them grow, or put them on low protein non-gmo feedstuffs and watch them languish. Calves are meant to get milk from their mothers, every time we step away from nature (I pointing the finger at myself here too) things start to get complicated real fast 😦

  10. Bee permalink
    January 27, 2014 5:51 am

    Heck, life is a learning curve and it stops when you die (maybe — haven’t died yet so I don’t know for sure…). But I agree with Ben, I’ve unlearned at least as much as I’ve learned.

  11. A.A. permalink
    January 27, 2014 9:09 am

    Technically a *steep* learning curve means something is quickly learned. ;P I tried to think of a way to express that humorously and self-depreciatively, until I realized I’ll come across a blathering ass anyway, so there goes 🙂 Now that you know, you can choose and go pick someone else’s nits with it. My long years of self-torment, never getting, bothering or daring to make that point anywhere, are now behind me, yay! 😉

    An absolutely wonderful post again! I often wonder what people do “afterwards”, after all the hurry to get nowhere. I think they’re mostly just very much afraid, of life and connection, and of facing up with the void all the attachment they’ve been denied has left. Attachment to land can help that heal and help people mature and connect, I think. With animals, I’m trying to learn the 90% mental, 10% physical admonition, which is just an outlook and doesn’t mean I’ll ever be done with learning, giving and getting.

  12. Alison BOnd permalink
    January 27, 2014 5:45 pm

    I was curious where you were lucky enough to get Jane. I’ve been looking for a gurnesey. There don’t seem to be any near Utah. I contacted the National Registry. The rep said he’d keep an eye out, but I haven’t heard. How do you go about getting on this learning curve?

    • January 28, 2014 6:55 am

      Alison, she was born here, I’ve always had Guernseys for milk cows and raised my own replacements. I would keep an eye on Craigslist and the National Guernsey sales. They are hard to find 😦

  13. January 29, 2014 8:56 am

    Being a basic math kind of guy I agree with you that the learning curve analogy is frequently misused and misunderstood which also means that it is over used. I do have to stand up for it though, like other folks have mentioned above, and at least say that it does not intrinsically mean that at some point you finish learning. It simply means that the initial learning process is relatively fast, and that over time the learning process slows and becomes more subtle. The curve, in that sense, is asymptotic, never reaching a point of full comprehension. As with many analogies, if you try to take the comparison too far it falls apart, as real learning is of course much more complicated than simply a quick start while learning the gross material with a long tail bringing slow comprehension of the details.

    Graphical representations of what I’m saying, with long explanations are here:

    • January 29, 2014 12:04 pm

      As a scientist I love the explanation Josh, makes perfect sense to me, especially at the moment with having the unexpected delivery in the depths of winter of a cria (baby alpaca). We were expecting new ones in May/June time and didn’t know this Mum was pregnant when she came to us – novice breeders you see! Learning fast for sure and lots!

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