I once dated a girl in college who told me she loved the smell of cow manure and wanted to marry a farmer. I thought she was nuts. No cows or manure for me, thank you. Little did I know that I would be trudging through cow manure on dairies for 17 years.
When the cows ran they splashed manure everywhere. Some days I ended up splashed from head to foot in manure. I never did get to the point of actually enjoying manure facials, but I do think they helped my complexion. The labels on my coveralls all said Do Not Use Bleach, but that was the only way to get the manure stains out.
Winter time was the worst. Manure plugs up the pores in the soil and the rainwater wouldn’t drain. On some dairies the wet mess wouldn’t dry up for months. The worst were wet year around. And you couldn’t see what was beneath the surface. A woman on our crew once stepped in a hole that was over her head. Good thing we were right there to pull her out. I learned to follow the cows. If the cows wouldn’t step there it was for a reason.
The space behind the feed bunkers and lockups was usually lined with concrete. If the dairyman cleaned the manure off before we came it wasn’t too bad, but if he didn’t it was slow going and harder to move out of the way of the cows that kicked. The worst was the cows that had been left out in the pen and we had to slog through the manure to chase them in.
In the spring as the manure dried out it got like glue. Every step was a struggle. A couple of times I got completely stuck and had to dig my boots out with my hands. The dairyman just watched and laughed. He didn’t want us messing with his cows anyway.
The longer the manure stayed wet the more it stank. Dry manure doesn’t have any odor at all. And flies bred copiously in wet manure. Most dairies had pest control people spraying once a week, but the flies had a five day life cycle and kept on coming. I couldn’t even get out of my car without getting a carful of flies.
Modern dairies have come a long way since then at controlling odor and flies. Nearly all dairymen live with their families on their own dairies, even the big 10,000 cow ones, and they haven’t been slow at making improvements.
The improvements started 50 years ago when Tulare County began requiring dairies to own enough cropland to adequately dispose of their manure. This has since become an industry standard because there is no market for manure anymore. Simply removing the manure at least once a month and putting it on crops, mostly alfalfa and cotton, goes a long way towards controlling odor and flies. The crops take the manure up in their roots before it becomes a problem. Raking the pens in between removal to dry the pens out helps even more.
The biggest change came in the design of dairies. Pens are now sloped to facilitate runoff and drains and pumps are installed. The concrete in front of the feed bunkers is flushed twice a day with wastewater from the milk barn. About half of the total manure production is flushed into a lagoon. Water from the lagoon is then used to irrigate crops. Lagoons are required by law in California to prevent runoff into nearby fields and streams. Now manure cannot be removed from the dairy property for any reason without a permit.
Modern dairies are remarkably clean with little odor or flies. I can even drive around with the windows down without encountering a fly.
There are still plenty of the older, smellier dairies around. Most of the improvements can’t be done without tearing the old dairy down and building a new one. Tulare County in Central California has the world’s largest concentration of dairies. They still have quite a few of the old, smelly dairies but these are rapidly disappearing. Most of the dairies in Kern County are new and clean. A new dairy hasn’t been built in 40 years in Chino, in Southern California. All of the dairies left there stink. That’s all people think of when you mention dairies.
No matter how clean and odor free a dairy is, there is still plenty of manure to go around. I couldn’t do without my boots and coveralls, and I always carried an extra set or two of clean clothes to change into. And I still got manure in my hair. Yuck.
By the time the old dairies are gone California will be filled with houses and there won’t be room for new dairies. There are already lots of new dairies in Baja.
I met my grandmother, Luella Hargreaves, only once, when she was an old woman. She had left my grandfather in a fury over the death of her son in a farming accident and moved to Santa Cruz where she taught school for many years. She took her two youngest sons with her and left my father with my grandfather on the ranch in northern California. My grandfather's sister, Aunt Ethel, moved in to help raise my father and lived on the ranch the rest of her life.
I don't think my father ever forgave her. My family frequently vacationed in Santa Cruz when I was young, but never visited my grandmother. I finally met her when I was in the service at Fort Ord for six months and made the short trip to Santa Cruz. My grandmother didn't have much to say. She showed me her engagement ring made with a diamond my grandfather had found in California and filled me in on her side of the family, the Raymonds. I never saw her again.
I saw my grandfather more frequently, but that was all when I was very young. He died in 1948 when I was nine years old. Each visit to the ranch was a time-warp into the past. My grandfather built a spacious three bedroom log cabin with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Electricity was added in the 40s under Roosevelt's rural electrification program, and with the electricity a pump was added to the well to bring water to the kitchen. The hand dug well was just like in the picture books, with a ring of rocks and a winch overhead to pull up the moss covered bucket. A dipper hung on the side for drinking.
The house was built into a rocky hillside, and the sloping ground left the front porch three feet above the ground. Dogs and chickens scurried in and out under the porch. The combination living room/dining room/kitchen had a big potbellied wood stove in the middle and a wood-burning kitchen range at one end. The chairs were all covered in rawhide. Old Norman Rockwell calendars decorated the walls. A dozen thick leather belts, razor strops to sharpen straight-edge razors, hung on one wall. My father told me they were used on his backside whenever he got out of line.
There were no toilets or showers in the house. We took Saturday baths in a big metal washtub using hot water heated on the wood stove. "Once a week, whether you need it or not," my father joked. A two-hole outhouse jutted out over the creek. The creek ran dry most of the year and the deposits just accumulated until the rains came. My uncle once surprised a mountain lion ensconced in the outhouse. It was just as startled as my uncle and ran away. For nighttime urges we had chamber pots under the beds.
The ranch itself, an eighty acre homestead, wasn't much. One-third of it was creek bottom sand and gravel. Five acres along the creek provided fruit and vegetables. Another third was rolling hills with oak trees. Pigs ran under the trees and ate the acorns.
Some pasture land ran in the back for seven dairy cows. Six of the cows were always waiting at the gate at milking time. They had go look for the seventh one and chase it in with a stick. The milk barn backed onto the creek, and the manure was swept into the creek daily. The sweet smell of molasses in the hay covered the odor of manure. The milk was poured into a hand crank cream separator and the cream was sold to the creamery truck that came once a week. The skim milk was fed to the pigs.
Highway 101 ran through a corner of the property and a few sheep were kept on the five acres on the other side. The highway then was just a winding rural two lane country road.
My father hunted, fished, and trapped to supplement their meager income. My grandfather also earned a little as part-time minister of the one-room Redwood Valley Community Church.
After my grandfather died the animals were sold and the ranch was leased to a construction company that quarried sand and gravel. When my father got his farm he sold his share of the ranch to his brother, George. And that was the end of it.
All I had to go on was a name and a rural route post office number in Pixley. I was looking for a pig sold a month earlier from a swine show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A prominent breeder in the Midwest had come down with Pseudorabies in his pigs just a week after showing at the Cow Palace. Now we had to track down the 12 pigs he had sold to California swine producers. I was assigned three of them.
I already knew the other two, but I had never heard of this one before. I had trouble finding one of them the first time I visited. I spent the better part of one morning to find the road didn’t go straight through to him and I had to backtrack around until I found him.
That was par for the course – one place hard to get to, one easy, and one I didn’t know where he was. I went to the post office in Pixley. Rural postmasters usually know everyone in their district. After explaining my situation and presenting my business card she agreed and gave me directions to an intersection 30 miles away. It was one of those places you don’t get to by accident. When I got there all I found was a row of a dozen mailboxes in front of a single house. I knocked on the door. Bingo! It wasn’t her, but she knew who it was and offered to take me there.
“You don’t need to go to all that trouble. Just tell me how to get there.”
“That wouldn’t do you any good. They’re deaf-mutes and can’t talk to you. I can sign for you.”
“Ok, in that case, let’s go.”
The place was another five miles down the road, and I almost got stuck in their new gravel driveway. They were home and agreed to let me take a blood sample from their sow. She had just given birth to 10 healthy piglets, a good sign. The sow was lethargic, the usual case for new mother pigs. Pregnancy and milk production take a lot out of them. She was in a home-made plywood box farrowing crate with holes cut in the bottom of the sides for the piglets to run in and out. The crate was to keep her from rolling on and crushing her babies, but that made it difficult for me to get a blood sample. They took the top off and I gingerly climbed in from the top. Sows can be dangerous. I knew a veterinarian who had his knee bit off by a sow.
Getting a blood sample from a pig isn’t easy. The veins are covered by two to four inches of fat. You have to use surface cues, going in to the jugular vein from the notch behind the ear. The 6 inch needle is enough to scare some owners. I got lucky. The sow flinched but didn’t move. I hit the vein on the first try.
The blood test came back negative and that was the end of that.
Most of my traceback efforts came from slaughterhouse reports of TB or Brucellosis. About half of these came with names and addresses. The other half were purchases from salesyards and feedlots, and I had to go to them for the information. The salesyard and feedlot people were very helpful. Just give them a date and they could tell you everything sold to a particular slaughterhouse that day. Sometimes it took some digging, but it was rare that they couldn’t come up with names and addresses. Even more importantly, they frequently had phone numbers as well. With a phone call I could make an appointment and get directions.
Unlike people, farms and ranches can’t just pick up and move, but they can do a good job of hiding. Some dairies hide behind cornfields and make it difficult to find the entrance. A million layer egg ranch a mile away from the town of Wasco is in the middle of an almond orchard, invisible from any public road. And no signs, of course. The worst are cattle ranches in the mountains. Usually the only evidence is a mailbox with no name on it near a gate to a dirt road.
Most of the gates are padlocked, even when the rancher is in. I once tried parking my car at the gate and climbing the fence, only to be met by an armed rancher demanding to know what I was doing on his property. I was on the wrong ranch! A private paved road runs to Glennville through over a dozen ranches. There is a padlocked gate between each ranch as well as padlocked gates to each ranch.
One time I went to inspect some calves coming from out of state to a ranch near Bakersfield. I passed through six gates before I reached the place where they were unloading the calves. I could see a padlock on the chain for each gate.
The main reason for all the precaution is to prevent thieves. Cattle rustling is alive and well in the 21st century. The rancher can’t be everywhere at once. It isn’t just cows. Once I went to inspect some pigs just after someone had driven up with a semi truck and took 300 pigs in broad daylight! Some dairies and poultry farms have taken to hiding their facilities after being besieged by complaints from new housing developments. None of this made my job any easier.
The worst traceback I was ever involved in had a mistake in the report from the slaughterhouse. The owner was a dairy but the cow was a black angus. The dairy never had any angus cattle. After reviewing the records the epidemiologist decided it could have been any one of 50 different premises and asked us to check them all. I was assigned along with another veterinarian and three livestock inspectors. We couldn’t find eight of the premises. Another 12 had either gone out of business or no longer had any cattle. Fourteen were determined to be not involved for a variety of reasons. We tested 16 places and never found anything. Frustrating.
Sometimes my efforts did pay off. I traced one cow with TB from a salesyard in Bakersfield to a ranch in San Luis Obispo County. I phoned them and learned they had 400 registered purebred shorthorns. They also leased most of their land to another company with several thousand Mexican steers in close proximity to the shorthorns. Our veterinarian in San Luis Obispo tested the shorthorns and found over 100 positive for TB. We bought the herd and sent it to slaughter. We also quarantined the Mexicans until they went to slaughter. But it didn’t stop there. The company with the steers had 40,000 Mexican steers in 16 states! They were all full of TB. One traceback found TB in 16 states! At least I wasn’t required to go out of state. I didn’t have to get there from here.
My father always dreamed of having a farm of his own, a dream that none of his children shared. In the 60s I was amazed at how many people I met who said they wanted to retire to a small farm. This didn't sound like retirement to me, more like working harder than ever. My ag economics professor told us the average farmer could earn more selling his farm and putting the money in the bank at 6 per cent interest. Obviously farming isn't just about money. American soldiers in Vietnam used the phrase "He bought the farm" as a euphemism for someone killed in action.
The dream finally came true in the 70s when father was almost 60. He bought the farm, 20 acres near Lamont for $6,000. Just bare land with no water and the water table was 300 feet down. He had a well drilled for $10,000 and bought a Kapp Home for another $10,000. The Kapp Company provided all the parts with instructions and you built it yourself. This one was a two story house with a basement. My father dug out the basement himself with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. He then dug a roadway down to the basement for a garage and a big whole behind the house that he planned to use for air conditioning. The whole family helped build the house.
After several years the house was far enough along to actually move into. The construction electric cord still came in through the kitchen window. It didn't provide enough electricity and every time too many appliances were turned on at once the breaker on the power pole would kick off. My father never did get the electricity hooked up. He kept saying something about having to connect the electricity to the gas furnace, but he never did. They didn't use the furnace. They heated the house with the fireplace in the winter and that kept the house plenty warm.
My parents didn't move into their new home any too soon. The house they had been living in since 1957 was in the Carnation tract and the neighborhood had gradually changed from all white to all black. This was never a problem until they finally became the last white family in the neighborhood. Then bricks started coming through the front windows and there were repeated burglaries. You couldn't walk down the street without people shouting "Honkey, get out!" My father was a stubborn man. He wasn't about to let anyone chase him out of his own home. He probably never would have left if he hadn't gotten his dream farm.
When he got his farm my father was working for Belridge Oil Company in charge of their new soils laboratory. The new aqueduct down the west side of the valley was now providing water for large tracts of land owned by the oil companies. Belridge built a lab to test their land and hired my father at twice the salary he was getting from his job with the county. Five years later Belridge was bought out by a bigger oil company that fired everyone and brought in their own people. That was the last job my father ever held. My mother still taught school as a Title IX reading specialist until she was forced to retire at the mandatory age of 70.
My father planted 10 acres of plum trees with 9 different varieties that ripened from June into September. He also planted a few apricots, persimmons, pomegranates, peaches, and grapes. Every summer he took his produce to the Farmer's Market twice a week. My mother took the plums that didn't sell that week, cooked them up and dried them into plum leather. The plum leather turned out to be more profitable than the fresh plums, but the County Health Department finally contacted her and said she had to have a permit with regular inspections of her kitchen to do this. My mother decided it wasn't worth the trouble and quit.
Five acres was rented out to a man who planted tomatoes. We all had a good supply of tomatoes for our own use until he moved.
An antique Allis Chalmers tractor was acquired that kept breaking down until we traded it in on a John Deere. It was used mostly to disc the weeds down. The biggest problem was thorns from the plum trees. You don't think of plum trees as having thorns, but we were regularly getting flat tires on the tractor from them. The tractor was a lot simpler than today's cars, and I got so I could strip it down to the frame to fix. The John Deere was made in Germany and all the nuts and bolts were metric and were hard to replace.
My father got cataracts in both eyes and very nearly went blind before he finally agreed to cataract surgery. The weeds grew six feet tall on the farm. The week before his scheduled surgery my mother had an accident making plum leather in the kitchen and spilled boiling plum juice on him. He was in the hospital overnight and treated for the burns. He still had the cataract surgery as scheduled and recovered twice as fast as normal. The doctor suggested the scalding may have primed his immune system. My father replied he wouldn't recommend it as a regular procedure. The first thing he said when he came home from having the bandages come off was "Where did all these weeds come from?"