Trains, Planes and Automobiles

   The heyday of the passenger train was in the fifties.  The gigantic sleek Streamliners spoke of power and speed.  Just to look at them invoked a feeling of awe.  But the fifties were the beginning of two other developments, the interstate highway system and commercial airlines.  Millions of dollars in federal funds were poured into highways and airports while the railroads were left on their own. 
   Even profitable local commuter trains were being replaced by city buses and electric trolleys.  Some were accusing Detroit of doing this as a means of selling more of their product which included buses and tires.  The man in the street didn't care.  The automobile and airplane had captured our imagination.  Never mind that railroads were and still are the workhorse for carrying freight across this country.  Racehorses are always more exciting than workhorses.  In the public mind railroads were relegated to hobbyists and antiquarians.  The passenger train almost disappeared, only to be rescued by the federal formation of Amtrak.  Continuously underfunded, today's passenger train in the U.S. is only a shadow of what it once was.
   I have crossed the U.S. by bus, car and plane many times, but only rode Amtrak once, when I took my two children from Bakersfield to Fresno to give them the experience of riding a train.  But the magic was gone.  It seemed so ordinary.  And the food was terrible, worse than airline fare.
   I have ridden many trains in other parts of the world, usually because they were the cheapest and easiest way to get to where I wanted to go.  Utilitarian.  The romance was usually in the travel, not in the train.  No one has anything like the Streamliner.  India still used steam engines, made in Romania, and the sound of steam whistles was certainly nostalgic.  But the trains only went 15 miles an hour and the engines were square and unimaginative. 
   I rode the bullet train in Japan.  A rather ordinary looking train, it went 150 miles an hour.  The ticket had a number to match up with the numbers on the platform, one line for each door of the train.  The train arrived exactly on time, stopped precisely with the doors aligned with each line, and everyone had two minutes to get on and off.  The doors closed and off we went.  A remarkably smooth, quiet ride.  High speed trains have since come to Europe, China, even South Africa, but they've never gotten past the talking stage here. 
   I once rode the train across Europe from Rome to Frankfurt, Germany.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy border crossings were.  Someone would come on board to check passports while we were still moving.  Visas weren't necessary.  The only memorable part of the journey was getting locked in the bathroom.  They had to take the door off at the hinges to get me out.
   When I was in South America I rode a funky little train to the Inca ruins of Macchu Picu.  Spectactular scenery.  Our return trip was packed with more passengers than we had going.  Standing room only.  We managed to get seats, but several in our group were gentlemen enough to give up their seats to a woman and her two children.  It turned out she had come even further than we had.  She was from Spain!
   Kern County in California is a mecca for train buffs from around the world.  The Tehachapi loop is considered an engineering marvel.  Whenever I would visit ranches in the are there would always be a few cars parked on the side of the road waiting for a train to come, make the circle, and cross over itself.  The ranch that the loop is on is named appropriately Loop Ranch.  The headquarters is right in the center of the loop.  I was there once on business when a train came.  It made so much noise I couldn't even hear myself talk.  Most trains are so short that the end has passed before the engine comes out of the tunnel, but this was a long one.  The train made a complete circle around us.  Hauling freight, of course.  The glamor may be gone, but the age of the railroad is far from over.

Easter Eggs

   Before the invention of the light bulb, chickens stopped laying in the fall and started laying again in the spring around Easter time. It takes twelve hours of light to stimulate egg production, and when natural daylight falls below that in the fall the chicken stops producing eggs. 

   At the first light of dawn the chicken brain releases a hormone that induces the release of the yolk into the oviduct. It then takes 25 hours to make the rest of the egg around the yolk. Most of this time is involved in making the shell. The ovulating hormone isn’t released again until the egg is laid. Each succeeding egg is laid an hour later until the early afternoon. Production skips a day, then starts again in the early morning. Good layers lay six or seven eggs in a row before skipping a day. 

   Now with light bulbs chickens can lay eggs year around, but they still need a rest. The feathers get old and worn and aren’t replaced until the bird stops laying and molts. Egg production is at its peak at the beginning of lay and gradually decreases. When it drops to 40 per cent the birds are either sold as spent hens or molted and production begins again. 

   Chickens running loose hide their eggs in the bushes. The hunt for Easter eggs is an old tradition. Wild rabbits come out of their burrows in the spring just as the eggs appear. The Easter bunny is laying eggs! Chocolate eggs. Where did that come from? Who cares, its all good fun. 

Our Tar Baby

My letter printed 6-7-07

   Have you heard the story of Bre'r Rabbit and the tar baby told by Walt Disney? Bre'r Rabbit made a tar baby, hid behind it and taunted the bear walking by. The bear thought the taunts were coming from the tar baby and took a swing at it. His fist stuck in the tar. That made the bear even madder and he swung with his other fist. It didn't take long for the bear to become completely snarled in tar. 
   Guess what? Iraq is our tar baby, and the rabbit, Osama bin Laden, is rolling in laughter unscathed. Osama has never been near Iraq. The 9 -11 commission has said that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. Our president has admitted this. There wasn't any al-Quaida in Iraq before we invaded. 
   So what's the quickest way out of this mess? It won't be easy.

Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer

Robert C Hargreaves' new book enlightens readers on Vietnamese history
   As an agricultural volunteer in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Robert C Hargreaves experienced a different side of the country than did soldiers fighting in the war.. He shares his experiences in his new book, "Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer: Toward Understanding the Real Vietnam" published by Abbott Press.

   As a member of the International Voluntary Services - a predecessor to the Peace Corps - Hargreaves helped develop chicken raising projects and other agricultural endeavors, projects that often made the difference between starvation and survival for the Vietnamese people. The closest expression the Vietnamese had for Hargreaves' position of poultry specialist was "chicken engineer" - as funny a phrase in Vietnamese as it is in English - ensuring he was not easily forgotten. 

   In his new book, Hargreaves reveals details of the war period in Vietnam that are often not discussed in the western world: soldiers giving their pay checks away to help children, the growing anti-American sentiments as the war dragged on, and others. 

   "Most writing about Vietnam is about war and politics - an American war and American politics," Hargreaves says. "Little is said about the country itself and without understanding the people involved in our wars we continue to make the same mistakes." 

Hardcover, softcover, Ebook, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Rural Myths and legends

    In the early days of the republic ninety per cent of the people lived and worked on farms.  Today less than two per cent do.  The ninety eight per cent who don’t are now subject to endless stories about what really happens on these mysterious farms, some true, but most wildly exaggerated or even outright fabrications. 

   One of the silliest stories, cow tipping, has been around for years but keeps coming back.  Based on the fact that cows can sleep standing up, the story goes that people go out in the middle of the night, sneak up on a cow and tip it over.  Then the cow can’t get up!  Horses can also sleep standing up.  Why don’t we hear stories of horse tipping?  Consider that the average adult cow weighs 700 pounds.  It would take more than a gentle push to tip one over without waking it up.  Cows are light sleepers.  It wouldn’t be easy to sneak up on one in the first place.  And if it happens to be a bull you’re in big trouble.  Can’t get up?  Of course it can.  Just because a cow can sleep standing up doesn’t mean it always does.  Drive by any dairy and you can see that most cows sleep lying down and don’t have any trouble getting up.

   Then there are the stories about how cruel and inhumane raising cows for veal is.  Allegedly the cows are kept in the dark and not allowed to move just to keep their meat pale and tender.  And they are deliberately kept iron deficient to keep the meat pale.  Most people telling this don’t even know what veal is, the meat from milk-fed calves four months of age and younger.  This definition is written into our laws.  One of the cow’s four stomachs, the omasum, is used to digest milk.  This stomach closes up around four months of age and the calf is no longer able to live on milk.  Most of the photos allegedly showing how veal is produced are of animals over eight months old.   

   All calves are born with pale, tender flesh, and it continues to be pale and tender until they are weaned off of their milk diet no matter how they are raised.  This should be moot by now – the public stopped buying veal over 30 years ago.  Most slaughter houses stopped accepting calves for slaughter.  When was the last time you saw veal in the grocery store? The few veal producers still left have stopped using crates and are hand feeding their calves. But the issue keeps coming up.

   Greenhouse gases are another issue.  Cows have been accused of being the greatest source of methane on the planet.  Actually this distinction belongs to tropical rain forests.  All plant material, not just that passed through cows, decays into carbon dioxide and methane.  No one is clamoring to cut down the forests, for good reason.  All of the greenhouse gases released by forest decay were taken out of the air in the first place.  Why can’t people consider that the same is true of cows?  This cycle, beneficial to both plants and animals, has been going on for billions of years.  This isn’t true of fossil fuels.  No one has yet recycled carbon dioxide back into gasoline.  The effect of burning fossil fuels on greenhouse gases is cumulative.  Blame it on cows?  Look again. 

   “Factory Farms” has become a pejorative term for modern large scale farming, but virtually all farms in America are factories turning out an assembly line product for sale.  The old self sufficient family farms that produced their own food and clothing are a thing of the distant past.

   For California dairies there is little real difference between the huge “factory” dairies and the alternative “organic” dairies.  Both are the same size and follow the same general practices.  The only real difference is that organic dairies offer grass pasture and don’t use hormones or antibiotics.

   Would this country really be better off with a return of the old, smaller dairies and poultry farms that once were prevalent?  My grandfather had a seven cow dairy in Northern California  that was far from ideal.  The cows were milked by hand and he didn’t wash his hands.  Every day the manure in the milk barn was swept into the small creek that ran behind the barn.  Six of the cows regularly showed up at milking time, but he always had to go looking for the seventh one, beating her with a stick to drive her in.  He used a hand crank cream separator to separate the cream from the skim milk.  He sold the cream to the creamery truck that came by once a week and fed the skim milk to his hogs.  He had no refrigeration for the cream.  Were he in operation today the health department would shut him down. 

   Replacing one 7,000 cow dairy with 1,000 seven cow dairies would be a regulatory nightmare, not to say a giant step backward in animal welfare.  As long as people drink milk and eat ice cream the dairies will be here.


   Too bad my wife, Linda Hargreaves, died without being able to comment on the current interest in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Her childhood experiences in Nowata in northeastern Oklahoma were very different from that of the Joads. 
   Linda's father lived with his parents on a farm with cows and horses. Her mother came from a nearby farm. No one ever lost their farms and the properties are still in the family. 
   The large farmhouse Linda lived in was in a compound with a store, an icehouse, eight rental cabins, and, of course, the ubiquitous outhouse set over a stream. Linda was afraid of falling through into the stream filled with snapping turtles. 
   Baths were taken in hot water heated on a wood stove. Kerosene lanterns lighted the house at night. 
   Far from a dust storm, Linda told of a flood that went over the rooftops and floated the outhouse away.. She remembered going out in a rowboat over the treetops. 
   In 1944 Linda's father moved to Taft, CA, as a driller with chevron. Taft is only 30 miles from where most of the events in The Grapes of Wrath took place. Linda didn't live in luxury, but she never suffered the deprivations of the Joads.

The Militia

My letter in the Bakersfield Californian 04-01-2013

   With all of the controversy over gun control and the 2d Amendment, I am surprised that no one has mentioned what is written about the militia in the U.S. Constitution or the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. Reading these two documents will remove most of the confusion over the original intentions for the use of the militia.
   Article I, section 8 in the Constitution reads in part: "The Congress shall have power...To provide for the calling forth of the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrection and repel Invasions, To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving for the States, respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress." 
   Is this a call for all citizens to bear arms to protect us from our government? No. To the contrary, it gives our state and national governments authority to use the militia to suppress insurrection and invasions. 
   Today's militia is the National Guard. So-called "private militias" have no historical basis. Any attempt by such "militias" to attack our government would be put down with the full authority of the Constitution. 


   Public demand to remove animals from cages is changing the face of animal agriculture. This is strictly anthropomorphic. People don't like to be in cages and assume animals are the same. Not so. The current systems were developed with animal welfare in mind. Unhappy animals don't produce. 
   Gestation crates are rapidly disappearing. They could change even faster, but changing from crates to pens is expensive. Once the change is made the cost of raising pigs is about the same as before. 
   Veal calves were removed from calf crates years ago. It costs a little more to raise them in pens, but veal is making a comeback.
   Egg production is a different story. California's new space requirements double the cost of producing eggs. California once exported half it's eggs to other states. Now half our eggs come from out of state. California added a law requiring that eggs from out of state be produced with the same space requirements as in California. Other states are now trying to overturn this law in the courts. If the law is upheld, we still face competition from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and China. Only the federal government can regulate  foreign commerce. 
   Even if California succeeds in keeping out cheaper eggs, producers still face the hurdle that egg prices must double before egg production becomes profitable again. 
   All this to prevent chickens from being squeezed together in small cages when there is no evidence that this harms them in any way. Part of my own Masters Degree thesis compared chickens in one, three, and twenty bird cages and found no differences. Other researchers report that free-range chickens have higher mortality and l

Mad Cow Disease

   Few diseases have inflamed the public as much as so-called Mad Cow Disease.  The name did it.  The official name Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE just didn’t register.   When the first case in the U.S. appeared in 2003, sales of beef dropped by one-third overnight.  Slaughterhouse buyers stopped buying at the salesyards.  The panic lasted less than a week, but the damage continued.  Now the rest of the world quarantined exports of U.S. beef.

   Ironically, control measures already in place had succeeded in stopping the spread of BSE by the time it first appeared in the U.S.  New cases dropped rapidly around the world.  But the disease remains undetected eight years or longer before the symptoms appear and the only method of diagnosis required examining the brain.

   The first case of BSE occurred in the United Kingdom in 1986 and rapidly became an epidemic in that country.  Countries around the world, including the U.S., quarantined beef and cow imports from that country.  The disease had already spread to Ireland, France and Germany, and these countries were quarantined as well.  The U.S. used import records to identify almost 600 cows imported from the UK before the quarantine was in effect.  They could only find 200 of these, destroyed them, and found no evidence of the disease.

   It took almost a year to identify the new disease as a prion disease, spread by a transmittable protein without any DNA.  The very existence of prions was still highly controversial in the scientific community.  The BSE prions were present only in the brain and spinal chord.  Early studies established that BSE was not transmitted from cow to cow.  It took almost three more years to find the source of transmission, meat and bone meal containing rendered cow brains that was then included in the cattle feed.  This came as a shock to the average consumer who had no idea that cows were fed cow meat.

   Rendering (cooking) dead animals of all kinds to produce tallow and meat and bone meal had been around for over a century.  It became the standard method for disposing of dead animals, including dogs and cats killed at animal shelters.  A very profitable business, rendering works paid livestock owners for their dead animals and even sent trucks to pick them up.  Now they faced requirements to remove the brain and spinal chord from cows before rendering.  Most just chose to stop accepting dead cows.

   Now what?  What do you do with a dead cow?  Burial was banned in most of the U.S. over concerns of contaminated groundwater, and landfills wouldn’t accept them for the same reason.  The U.S. government backed off and settled on a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cows.  This was extended to poultry and pigs when they found that some chicken feed made its way into cow rations.

   But what do you do with the meat and bone meal now?  A once profitable product, it now was practically useless.  The tallow could still be sold as grease for a variety of commercial uses, but the profitability of rendering had dropped.  Half of the rendering works went out of business, and those that remained now charged a minimum of $100 to pick up a dead cow.

   With quarantines in place and a worldwide ban on feeding meat and bone meal, the UK remained the only country with a full blown epidemic of BSE.  Before it was over, 134,000 cases of BSE were found in the UK and another 4.4 million cows were killed to contain it.  Ninety-four per cent of all BSE in the world occurred in the UK.

   The question still remained – what if it’s there and we’re just not looking for it?  To answer this question the U.S., Canada, and other countries initiated surveillance programs in 1990 to examine brains from cows at slaughter plants.  The disease is undetectable in cows under two years of age, 90 per cent of the cows going to slaughter in the U.S.  Downer cows were selected as most likely to have the disease, but even there the likelihood was low.  Most downer cows go down because they slipped, not from any disease.  Meat inspector veterinarians already examined cows at entry to the slaughterhouse and held visibly sick and downer cows over to the end of the day to be slaughtered just before the plant was hosed down and disinfected for the day.  It was an easy matter to once a week pick a representative sample of heads to be examined.  The numbers to be sampled were dictated by the federal government according to statistical calculations.  It would have been far too expensive to examine every downer cow.  Japan decided to examine every cow over two years old that they slaughtered, but they weren’t dealing with the hundreds of millions of cows slaughtered each year in the U.S.

   I was included in the surveillance training program and taught how to use a peach pitter to take a brain sample.  Most of the actual sampling was done by livestock inspectors.  Then California passed a law banning downer cows from slaughter houses and the cows were sent directly to the renderer.  If you think slaughter houses smell bad, the rendering works is ten times worse.  But we survived.  No BSE was ever found through surveillance.  That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, just that the possibility was lower than what was considered significant.  To date nine BSE cases have been found in the U.S.  and another seventeen in Canada.  No one would be surprised if another one or two cases showed up, but the expectation is that we are close to the end of it.  2010 saw only five new cases of BSE in the entire world.

   Another prion disease, Kuru, was once common in headhunters in New Guinea.  They got it from eating the brains of their victims.  The disease continued to appear for many years after the British banned headhunting, not because of any illegal headhunting, but because it took so long for symptoms to appear.  Kuru is now just a curious historical footnote.  Let’s hope that BSE will be, too.

The Chicken Inspector

The Chicken Inspector

     One of my duties as a field veterinarian was inspecting hatcheries and breeder flocks for the National Poultry Improvement Program. This is an industry sponsored program more than 100 years old designed primarily to control poultry diseases. 
     Participation is voluntary, but all of the major poultry companies participate. I had a standard form to fill out with a checklist of things to look for. All of the eggs in the hatchery had to be identified as to flock of origin, work flow was designed to prevent cross contamination, etc. I couldn’t be on any other poultry premises for a week before I made my inspection. 
     There were no surprise inspections. The hatcheries and breeder flocks didn’t allow visitors without advanced notice. Most of the hatcheries had locked doors to keep out unwanted visitors. I had to push a buzzer to be let in, then put on disposable coveralls, hair covering, and shoe booties. Some of the breeder flocks required that I shower in, shower out, and change clothes. Others would drive me around the farms in their own company vehicle without getting out. All of these precautions were taken to prevent the introduction of unwanted diseases. Anything that got into the breeder flocks or hatcheries would be passed on to millions of baby chicks and poults. 
     The hatcheries and farms didn’t change much from year to year, so after the first year the inspections were pretty routine. I went through each hatchery from one end to the other and checked each house on the breeder farms as well as their egg collection system. I had once worked in a chicken hatchery and was already familiar with what they did.
     One time I was called out to settle a dispute between a turkey breeder ranch and a large fighting cock breeder directly behind them. It may be illegal to fight chickens but it is not illegal to breed fighting cocks. California has tried but has never been able to distinguish fighting cocks from other chickens. In this case the turkey ranch caught a disease called MG and they had to send all of their surviving turkeys to slaughter. MG is not as serious a disease in chickens and the turkey ranch was blaming the fighting cocks as the source of the disease. 
     The fighting cock people claimed they were there first and it wasn’t their fault. I was able to convince them that the disease could affect the fighting ability of their cocks and they agreed to let me take blood samples to test for MG. The manager of the turkey ranch went with me, but they wouldn’t let him in. There were five toughs hovering in the background as I took my samples. They did turn out to be positive for MG, but there was no way of proving who got it first. All I could do was encourage them to vaccinate their chickens for MG. 
     In another case a hatchery asked me to intervene when they discovered a neighbor was raising chickens. They were afraid the chickens would pass diseases into their own chickens. They even offered to replace the chickens with their own chickens at no cost to the owner. It turned out the owner was a famous artist who kept chickens as a hobby. He turned down the hatchery’s offer, but did agree to let me take blood samples. The chickens were all running loose in his orchard and he asked me to come back just before dark when the birds would be in their house for the night. What an amazing sight! The chickens all gathered together and followed him on a little walk around the orchard before ending up at their house! There I was able to catch enough for my blood samples. They were all negative and he promised not to get any more chickens without contacting the hatchery. 
     When the California Egg Quality Assurance program came into existence I expanded to inspecting egg layer operations and egg packing facilities. There weren’t many egg layer facilities in my area. I only had three to inspect: Avenal State Prison, a company in Santa Maria, and a million layer ranch in Wasco. The Avenal and Wasco operations were superb and met all the requirements, but the one in Santa Maria was a mess. The first time I went there they were having trouble with their egg washing equipment and there were broken eggs all over the place. I figured this was just a temporary glitch and told them I would be back later. But things weren’t any better the second and third time. They were selling cracked and dirty eggs to the public, a source of Salmonella, and they were disposing their dead chickens in a big open compost pile. It attracted dozens of vultures that could spread disease all over the county. They never did pass and dropped out of the program. At least I got lots of fresh Santa Maria Strawberries.  


April 2014

Monthly Archives

Recent Posts

  1. Trains, Planes and Automobiles
    Thursday, April 24, 2014
  2. Easter Eggs
    Sunday, April 20, 2014
  3. Our Tar Baby
    Wednesday, April 16, 2014
  4. Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer
    Saturday, April 12, 2014
  5. Rural Myths and legends
    Tuesday, April 08, 2014
  6. Oklahoma
    Friday, April 04, 2014
  7. The Militia
    Monday, March 31, 2014
  8. Cages
    Friday, March 28, 2014
  9. Mad Cow Disease
    Monday, March 24, 2014
  10. The Chicken Inspector
    Thursday, March 20, 2014

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