Where the Gricklegrass Grows

I always support Joe and hard work. Until last week. I gave him a deadline of having until Saturday at midnight to be done planting for the spring. It is the middle of July anyhow.

This is how dirty Joe has been when he comes into the house the last few months.

He and employees have worked together to plant an extra 2,000 acres. There actually isn’t any gricklegrass growing here in southwestern Minnesota (only in Dr. Suess books) but there is brown-midrib dwarf sorghum, Japanese millet and teff grass. We have been collectively referring to this in our home as gricklegrass.

I seriously had to google this stuff to see what in the world is going to be growing. The reason I made Joe quit planting is that I know what goes up must come down. Meaning, that whatever is planted will need to be harvested, and 3 months of 24-hour, 6-days-a-week harvesting of cow feed is …. ridiculous. Joe assures me that it won’t take that long. I hope he is right.

Rain that just kept coming all April, May, and June is the reason for all the extra gricklegrass. Farmers that are strictly corn and soybean farmers in the area and do not have livestock, gave up on getting a decent crop. So, as livestock farmers, we planted crops on their land that need fewer days to reach maturity and then will harvest them for cow feed.

My husband LOVES the unknown. He thrives on craziness. To him, this has been a dirty, hectic, unpredictable stretch of fun.

I don’t like to be a fun-hater, but sometimes a wife has to draw the line. Set a deadline. Put her foot down. Even if it is in a lot of extra Gricklegrass.


Purple Hay

When we turned the page on 2018, we were thinking we were going to return to a more moderate weather pattern. 2019 has been anything but! That’s why we are making purple hay.

Here in southwestern Minnesota, we make alfalfa hay 4 times per summer, typically starting in late May/early June and then every 4 weeks after. Due to so much rain this spring, our first cutting hay was late and now this cutting is too.

When alfalfa matures, it blooms purple. Not good. That means that the plant is changing in how it is allotting it’s energy, and has moved into a reproductive stage that isn’t as nutritious for our cows.

I honestly can’t remember the last time we couldn’t find a decent window to make hay so long that we had to wait until it was this purple. It has just been so so wet! 2019 is one for the record books for sure.

Joe has been taking lots of samples this cutting because there is a lot of variety in what he is chopping — some of it has some other stuff interseeded because of winterkill (can’t even get a normal winter here!). All those samples need to be frozen before being sent off to the lab. We recently butchered a cow and my freezer is nearly full. I’m tired of playing Freezer Tetris so I stuck these in my father-in-law’s freezer, next to some ground beef and on top of 3 butterheads from when Joe’s sisters were dairy princesses.

I am beginning to think there is no “normal”. Today, it was so incredibly windy that hats are flying and semis are swaying. Is this the weather pattern we will be stuck in for years? Who knows…all I can say is that I am glad we have some more feed for our cows, even if it is purple.

What Can We Do For Ava

Two weeks ago, I was with Ava (8)and Vic (5

months) at Cincinnati Children’s for Ava’s annual brachial plexus clinic appointment.

I was expecting that we were going to make plans to take the next step. Ava’s initial surgery was almost 4 years ago and they had said to wait four years to get all possible growth and function, then we would move forward with other smaller surgeries in her forearm and hand.

Instead, the hand doctor, Dr. Little, said, “Take some time to identify 2 or 3 goals that Ava has. Then, we can perform surgery to help her attain those things.” So, for example, if she wants to use her right hand to support a musical instrument or hold a cell phone.

This caught me off guard and has taken me weeks to process. Right now, I feel like that sounds like something he is wanting to say and like a gentle way of proceeding, but the reality is Ava has no idea right now what would best serve her and the clock is ticking. The doc agreed that if we wait until skeletal maturity, that’s too late. Ava is not a very vocal child and, after having that Saturday to visit with other brachial plexus families at the zoo, I definitely noticed that she has way less drive to use her affected hand than all of the other kids. I think this is because her injury was at 4 years old, and all of the other kids had injuries that happened in the birth canal, so they had more brain plasticity at the time of recovery.

My hand, showing the struggle Ava would have trying to hold sorghum seeds. (Sorghum seeds would be a whole new blog post I could write.)

This is a picture of my hand imitating the struggle Ava has in her hand currently. It can’t hold anything, because her fingers can’t cover her palm. It is always in this “face up” position and she can’t rotate her forearm.

I think the next step for Ava is the one I thought we were planning on — an osteotomy. It is kinda gruesome and leaves a huge scar, but it is breaking one of the two bones in her arm, rotating it and fusing it onto the other bone (an arm has two bones in it). They had been doing just a one bone procedure but were finding that the kid would grow and the arm would rotate back to where it had started. They have done this 2-bone procedure with 3 or 4 kids and are thinking it is a better way to go. It would basically turn her forearm so the hand can be in a more functional position for passing items between her hands, as well as any hands-down types of activities. To be effective, she needs to develop wrist extension, (being able to lift her hand at the point of the wrist) so we have been back to using her e-stim machine that she abhors.

In any case, it is a big change and a decision that will affect her forever. Joe is running around like a crazy man trying to plant sorghum to make feed for our cows in this wet wet wet year of crop farming, and he hasn’t had the room in his mind or the time to think about this. I plan to spend a month more in prayer and research, carefully watching Ava for an answer, and will hopefully feel confident in a decision at that time. If you have read this far, thank you so much for caring and following along on this journey.

Alta Genetics Brings World to Ocheda Dairy

Romania. Ukraine. Australia. Japan. China. Brazil. Mexico. Argentina. Peru. Canada. Wales.

Wisconsin. Idaho. Kansas. California. Oregon.

People from all over the world came to Ocheda Dairy this morning as part of the 20th annual Alta Genetics 3-day tour. This year’s tour is based out of Sioux Falls and we were the first stop.

5 charter buses with 50 people each came to check out how we milk cows in the Midwest. We had 5 stations set up for people to rotate through and wow, it was so much fun!

These farmers were full of fantastic questions. A farmer from Dubai asked me questions about the costs of production. A lot of laughter was enjoyed as we tried to do conversions from hectares to acres, hundredweights of milk to liters, and of course, all of the different currencies.

Our farm has done business with Alta Genetics for many years. We don’t have bulls on our farm, so we buy frozen semen from them. It is much safer for our employees and allows us to choose from a huge number of sires. We were humbled to be chosen to be a host for this tour.

I had a lot of questions about my blog and why I do it. This was so good for me to think about, as it stirs me forward to make sure people hear the great story that I have to tell about how we produce nutritious milk on our dairy.

If you are new to my blog — welcome! My name is Rita Vander Kooi and I appreciate new readers so much. I am happy to answer any questions you have about dairy farming, whether you are another dairy farmer from half-way around the world, or live just down the road from us here in Minnesota.

Make-a-Wish (John Deere Style)

Since Vince has been 3 years old, he has dreamed of running a tracked tractor. He finally got his wish last week. Here’s the story:

Last week was wild. It was FINALLY dry enough to plant corn and make hay. People were running every direction. And then stuff started breaking.

A lot of it was small stuff like a trailer couldn’t unload haylage on one semi, or sensors weren’t working on the mower. Then, things got serious when one 4-wheel-drive (the big type) tractor needed to be brought to the local John Deere dealership. Once they had that torn apart to start fixing it, the other 4-wheel drive started shaking and smoking. Yikes! The decision was made to rent something or anything from John Deere so we could keep cultivating (prepping the soil for seed) ahead of the planter tractor.

Vince (my 13-year-old) and Grandpa Dave were at John Deere and unhooked the cultivator and were about to hook it up to an older, smaller tractor. Just then, our favorite salesman and his boss were pulling on to the lot with a snazzy new huge 9RX (I have no idea what that means) tractor that they had picked up from a different dealership. Vince’s Dream Tractor — fresh from the factory, as big as they come, WITH tracks.

You can imagine his excitement as the tractor began to come toward them and then, backing up to our cultivator. Vince got on the two -way radio (still in the broken down tractor) and started to shout at everybody that they would never guess what was happening.

Apparently, as the salesman and his boss were going to pick up this tractor, they decided they may just as well let us “demo” this new one, hoping we would like it so much we would buy it. Good thing Vince doesn’t have access to the checkbook or it would have been a done deal.

The tractor worked very well through lots of wet holes and seeping side hills. It made for an adventure for the guy trying to plant behind him though, because the tracked tractor never left ruts to indicate the wetness.

In any case, planting continued! First cutting hay was complete. In fact, we were so close to completing the planting that Joe decided he could come on vacation with the family! What a relief to me. We are currently en route to a family reunion on my dad’s side. Every five years, we get together in Estes Park, Colorado. We will stay in one huge cabin with about 60 other relatives, eat meals together, ride horses, go zip lining, and play cards.

Who says you need to travel to Florida (or Colorado for that matter) for Make-A-Wish? If you are a farm kid, you just need a wet late spring, lots of breakdowns on your equipment and a savvy salesman.

**If you know a farm kid who would appreciate these pictures, please share this post.

We Bought the Class

We Bought the Class

Last December, we bought Vince’s class at our school’s fundraiser auction. When the bidding was getting started, I was calculating (number of kids) x (number of hours) x ($10/hour value) and thought it was way too cheap to be true. So, we bought the class figuring on a day of quintessential middle-school farm labor — picking rock!

Tough kids and one tough teacher!

Then this spring, it started to rain. And it just never quit. So, picking rock was out of the question unless I bought every kid hip-waders and handed out 5 – gallon pails. (Now THAT would have made a great photo!).

Instead, we opted for Plan B. We rounded up a bunch of shovels and had the kids shovel out the sand that had spilled into the narrow walkway that wraps around our north barn. We provided gloves and only one kid (she worked her tail off) got a blister. Of course, I hadn’t thought to bring bad-aids. It was very interesting to watch how each kid worked throughout the day.

Everybody working together!

I would give them a break every 30 minutes or so, and speak to them about an area of caring for cows like nutrition, reproduction, and lactation. I have never had middle-schoolers ask me so many questions because they were stalling — wanting a longer break before shoveling again!

We had some fun too. The kids all enjoyed passing around Vic and eating 6 Godfather’s Pizzas for lunch.

Hanging out at the new gas station after enjoying pizzas.

One thing is for sure, many hands make light work. Also, I really enjoyed having the whole day to give a tour as so often I realize there was so much I left unsaid when a tour group leaves our farm.

I certainly hope the class decides to “sell” themselves next year at the fundraiser auction. I would buy them back in a heartbeat, and probably find a few more shovels to bid on. And a box of band-aids! You never know what fun we will find at Ocheda Dairy.

127 Days of Therapy

Today is the day after Mother’s Day. If you are a mom, I hope you were shown love in so many tangible ways yesterday. But now you have 364 days ahead of you until next year’s special day, and I encourage you to find ways to fill your cup for yourself. Decide what makes your heart feel renewed and make it happen.

Self-care is a topic that is hot in agriculture right now. It’s because markets have been down for a long time and that has certainly taken some of the joy and satisfaction out of farming. The fear of being the last generation on your family’s farm is real.

For some people, self-care involves daily exercise. Others enjoy a monthly pedicure or maybe a weekend away. For me (and I know it’s not normal), I’ve found the best way to take care of myself is to have another baby.

Of course, there is the aspect of having to make good choices for my body (like taking time to eat and sleep) because of growing a baby for 9 months. Yet, that pales in comparison to knowing that a precious little helpless newborn baby absolutely needs me! Having Victor in our family for the past 127 days has brought SO MUCH healing to me after the hurt of Ava’s farm accident 4.5 years ago.

I am finally able to talk about it without tears coming to my eyes and my voice choking. I can’t believe how heavy grief has weighed on me for so long, but my healing just needed to be boosted by absolute joy.

Last week, my 5th and final baby was washed in the water. A baptism is such a remarkable day. Victor Albrecht Vander Kooi has the mark of God upon him.

Our church doesn’t have a pastor right now; the retired pastor that married Joe and I was able to baptize Victor and another baby. Part of his sermon was about the meanings of each baby’s name. For us, Victor has a meaning more than just keeping a “V” in our kids names (Vince, Liv, Ava, and Violet). It means that we finally felt we had it in us to care for another child. Our baby boy signifies our Victory over grief and shame and guilt.

I beg you to find the things you need to do to feel well. Take good care of yourself. If you are struggling right now, know that God does have a purpose for your pain. If you believe there are brighter days ahead and you keep working to get to the next day and then the next day after that, some time you will look back and see how far you’ve come! I need to go now, my baby is waking up and I’ve got some snuggling to do. I hope you have a great week.