During the fall and winter of 1983 the price of bull calves fell to a record low. Dairy farmers in our area were eager to get rid of them almost immediately after birth. My husband, Jim, saw an opportunity. He knew that there were several things that affect the market price of beef, and that each of these things runs in cycles, not necessarily all together. Weather, feed supply and the current market price, among other things, all determine the breeding practices of farmers. If we could buy up as many bull calves from our dairy farm neighbors as we could house, we could possibly reap the benefits two or three years later.


Good idea. The trouble (in my mind) with that plan was that we did not own a truck. Those calves would need a warm vehicle in which to make the cold trip from their birth farm to ours. Jim saw no reason (at all!) why he shouldn’t be able to haul calves home in the back seat of my car. 


Now, granted, my 1967 Chevy Impala was not a luxury car, but it was clean, it always started and it was mine. No matter. My car was now the official calf-hauling machine. We purchased 50 calves that winter. Every one of them arrived on our farm in the back seat of my car. Jim did his level best to clean up the mess after each trip but that smell never completely left my car. (The following winter I replaced it with an early model Monte Carlo, but that is another story).


Of the 50 calves we purchased, we lost only four to illness. The harvest season of 1985 proved to be a challenge. We fed our herd with hay and feed we raised on our own farm which includes pasturing them in the corn fields after harvest so the cattle can glean all the corn that may have been left behind by the harvesters. It was a very wet harvest season. 

One morning, we found one of our steers had died in the barn over night. “When you have livestock, you have dead stock” my father-in-law used to say. We attributed the death to fighting amongst the cattle and put them out to pasture.  

We fed the calves with bottles at first

The next day another steer was dead in the field. That death could not have been caused by fighting because they were out in the open with plenty of space to run. We called our veterinarian. He couldn’t identify the cause, but noticed that all of the steers were sluggish (and we had been relieved to think that they had finally calmed down!). Our veterinarian advised us to choose the slowest of the bunch, then take it to UW Madison where they would post it to identify the disease. 


They diagnosed pasteurella pneumonia, caused by a rare mold in the corn leaves formed only when conditions are perfectly wet. The cure was a rigorous regimen of antibiotics to be applied by shot thrice each day to each animal. We now had 46 grown steers (we had lost one calf to pneumonia the day after we bought him) to treat thrice daily for two weeks. Not only was this labor intensive (try catching 46 steers and giving them each a shot once. Now do it three times each day for two weeks!) and expensive, but it would set us back a year in our marketing plan. 


In 1985 we had three children aged 10, 8 and 6. We ran a family farm and our children were too young to help with this job. It fell to Jim and me to do this alone. Three times a day we ran those 46 steers through a gauntlet in the barn where only one animal could be trapped, administer the shot, then turn it loose and catch another. We used the alley that leads out the west door of the barn. Close the door. Chase one animal in. Close the gate behind him. Administer the shot. Open the door and chase him out. Close the door and do it again 45 times more, three times each day for two weeks. With practice we were able to get the process down to about an hour.


We waited for all those factors that affect the market price to come to a high at the same time. It took a year more than we had hoped, but that time arrived in late autumn of 1987. We used Jim’s father’s cattle truck to ship the animals, 4 - 5 at a time to market, one trip to Johnson Creek, WI each day for ten consecutive market days.  We used those paychecks to pay off our farm. Each business day for ten days in a row we walked into the bank with a check to pay against our farm. When we paid off the last bit, the clerk at the counter didn’t know what to do! She said “no one does that! People always borrow more!”. The Zahns do not.



On December 29, 1987 we were handed the deed to our land. Just 14 years after we were married Jim and I made the final payment on our farm. We have never borrowed money against our land since then.





The deed, which back then was an abstract, (a complete and very detailed 300 page history of the land, its owners and its debtors since it was first acquired by George S. Armstrong from the U.S. Government under the Homestead Act on December 26, 1844) now holds a special place of honor in our home. 





Since writing my last newsletter I have been working on a hand-spun hand-knitted sweater for my daughter, Sara. It is now in its final stages. I have only a few more rows to knit on the sleeves before I can sew the one seam required to finish it.  After I block the sweater into shape it will be ready for use. I sheared the sheep in April. The sweater will be ready in October. Perhaps this will be her Christmas gift? Likely not. I am not good at waiting to give these things to their recipients! 


Until next time, enjoy life!

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