News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, October 23, 2015

Where did all the cattle go?

The family farm is a thing of the past.  Actually, the farm itself is a thing of the past.  It is no longer part of an agriculture.  It is now a production unit in a vast food factory that covers the land.  There are a few lingering family farms, but even they have had to adapt to a farm economy that has shifted from the science and art of growing things to mining the soil.  I have witnessed the transformation in terms of the way it has changed the landscape I travel through on an 18-mile commute I make often, sometimes daily, from Aberdeen to a work studio in Tacoma Park on the James River.  

There are a number of routes I can take and I take them all.  I like wandering the countryside.  Once as a farm editor for a newspaper, I got paid to do it as I covered agricultural meetings, interviewed people for stories, and observed first-hand what was taking place in rural America.  With my commutes to and from Tacoma Park, there Is the aspect of getting acquainted with the neighborhood, learning the people and the animals who populate land I travel through.  

In recent years, I hardly ever see people or farm animals.  The industrial rural landscape does not include them.  And I see much less wildlife,  except for deer dashing across the road between bean and corn fields.  The wetlands are plowed over and filled in so I see no water fowl where there once were ponds.  The rural landscape has changed.  The pasture land on which cattle, sheep, and horses grazed has been converted to cropland for corn and beans, and a little hay.  The only hogs near Tacoma Park are in an incorporated complex of confinement buildings that shield the animals from observation. Their presence is evident only in the powerful smell that emanates from the place on muggy days.  (Once one of my Tacoma Park neighbors who invited some foreign exchange students for a Fourth-of-July wiener roast had to cancel and move the event to their home in town because the  odor was so repulsive and overpowering.)  

I got to observe and know animals who were denizens of the farms I passed.  There were some herds of sheep, with lambs frisking about in the springtime.  A number of farms had horses grazing in the fields when their human owners weren't taking them for rides.  And there were many herds of cattle, that I got to know.  On one farm, a huge herd was trucked into fields that grew corn and soybeans after the crops were harvested.  They browsed the stubble all winter, when they weren't munching away on hay bales or feed supplements dispensed in old tractor tires hauled in with them.  Then in the spring as planting time approached, they were hauled away to some pasture to calve and eat grass.  Then a few years ago, the cattle did not show up for their winter occupation of those fields.

Lsst year this field was grass pasture with cattle grazing on it.  This spring it
was plowed up and planted in soybeans.  The cattle are gone.

On another farm, there was a field of grass pastureland that had a few trees under which a herd of Red Angus lolled about during the summer.  The trees were cut down but last year the cattle were present.  This spring the grass was plowed up and the field was planted with soybeans.  

Now there are no sheep or cattle herds on the farms on my commuting routes.  If that 18-mile stretch is an indicator of the trends farming is following, and statistics indicate that it is, it seems as if cattle are no longer a major component of the farm business.  The beef plant in Aberdeen,  which is starting up under new owners after it failed, may have some difficulty in finding cattle to process.  A Tyson beef plant in Iowa was closed down because the managers said there was not an adequate supply  of cattle to keep it going.  

The cattle pens on this farmstead were always teeming with cattle on feed.
Early this year there  were only a few.  Now there are none.
There are many factors that work together in turning farmland into  factory land. One of  those factors asserted itself in the children of the homesteaders who broke the prairie soils.  Second generation pioneers found that farm life was arduous and confining.  The independence and self-sufficiency that their parents sought and built was a restrictive and confining shackle to young people anxious to explore other dimensions of opportunity.  Henry David Thoreau expressed their frustration:  "I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men, the former are so much the freer."

Jefferson initially conceived of the U.S. as an agrarian democracy in which yeoman farmers occupied and ruled over their own land, free from the intrusions and conflicts inherent in a contentious society.  The definitive work on the role of the farm in American democracy is Willa Cather's "Neighbor Rosicky"  which delineates the farm as a refuge from human strife:  "In the country, if you had a mean neighbour, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours. But in the city, all the foulness and misery and brutality of your neighbours was part of your life. The worst things he [Rosicky] had come upon in his journey through the world were human, — depraved and poisonous specimens of man." 

The  pioneers, most of whom were immigrants, fled the political and social oppression of the  Old World that regarded them as serfs whose lives were dictated by the whims of the over class.  On their American homesteads they found freedom from that oppression through the rewards of their own labor and the independence of self-sufficiency in which they were beholden to no one else.  This quest for freedom and independence formed the basis for the general farm which provided all the  necessities for life through the variety of crops, produce, and livestock raised on it.  But that freedom and independence was paid for by constant, arduous work that involved the entire family.  The children of those farms felt confined and oppressed by that work.  An old quip expresses their perspective:  nothing sends young men off the farm like working in the hay mow on a 90-degree day.  

During the time electricity was brought to rural America, people who wanted the convenience were frustrated by those who didn't.  To many farmers, that electric line into their farm represented a thread that could bring a rope of dependency and indebtedness to the farm.  It was a threat to self-rule and self-sufficiency that to the pioneers was the purpose of the farms they built.  There are stories about the first electric lines being run only to the milking barn so that farmers could get light on their pre-dawn milking more efficiently, but kept their household free of that symbolic bond.  Lighting the house with lanterns and candles kept alive the self-suffiiciency and independence, and if the worst happened, that eelectric wire to the barn could be dispensed with and the family could rise a little earlier to fill and light the  lantern for milking.  

From the outset on the American farm, there was that inherent conflict between maintaining the freedom of independent self-suffiency and the quest for ways to ease the burden of constant labor and attendance to the animals.  The chores required to feed and care for the livestock were demanding and confining.  As a youth who spent summers on the farm of two bachelor uncles,  I knew the routine, as they milked twice a day,  tended to the steers on feed twice a day, fed pigs, fed chickens and gathered eggs, and did all those chores involved in keeping the farmstead running.   And there was a large garden with a small orchard to attend, as well as the rows of potatoes planted on the edge of a cornfield. The work was constant and unrelenting.  Other farm relatives had family members and hired hands with whom they could arrange for a little time off.  My bachelor uncles, who purchased their farm with World War I military  bonuses providing a down payment,  did it all themselves.  That is a major reason they were bachelors.  They had no time or opportunity to socialize.  

To manage a life that included  something other than constant work, farmers gave up general farming and focused their efforts on specialties.  In order to have lives that provided time for family activities, especially as children became acitive in school events,  they gave up livestock.  Most of the farmers in my family quit milking, but kept a cow to provide milk for the family.  But soon it became a nuisance to  care for a cow twice a day when buying milk was more convenient and economical.  Farmers in my family continued to raise crops for feeding cattle and hogs.  They adjusted their herds according to the markets and made their decisions by a daily perusal of the Drovers' Journal,  a newspaper that tracked and analyzed the markets.  However, when the International Livestock Yards in Chicago closed and ended competitive bidding by packers,  farmers sold ttheir livestock to the packing plants nearest to them.  Soon they began selling by contract, which locked in a price they received for their animals.  This was a major step toward integrating farms into the corporate scheme of production.  

The contracts also made it convenient to specialize in the raising of cattle or hogs  or poultry and eliminated the task of studying maket trends.  The focus on a few crops and a livestock speciality freed up time, but at the same time relinquished self-sufficiency and integrated farms into the corporate economy.  Those farmers who continued more general operations with multiple crops and livestock found it necessary to gear their operations with food processors to market their products and receive a sufficient financial return.   As farming became more closely enmeshed with the corporations who bought and used its products and supplied planting and harvesting materials and machines,  farming became less and less operated for independence and self-sufficiency and more dependent on corporations to supply farming needs and sell farming output.  The term family farm names a concept of the sentimental past, not the actual agribusiness of the present.  

In looking for ways to ease the burden of labor required for full independence and self-sufficiency,  farmers over the years conceded  some independence for labor-saving convenience.  But just as those earlier farmers  feared that an electric line to their farmsteads would make them servants to the electric companies in paying for the service, the subservience of farmers to corporations who supplied their farming materials and were the market for their products became a fact.   The farm crisis of the 1980s was a matter of the debt that farmers owed to corporations.  

The South Dakota Dept. of Agriculture boasts on its website that 98% of South Dakota farms are family owned and South Dakota has approximately 5 beef cattle for every state resident.  Those slogan claims cover over the trends affecting agriculture in the state.  The integration of agricutture into factory cropping is evident in the decreasing number of farms in the state.  In 1974, the state had 45,000 farms which averaged 1,011 acres.  By 2014 the number was 31,700 farms averaging 1,366 acres.  During that time period the state lost its ranking as one of the two largest sheep producing states,  and a change in cropping from an emphasis on wheat to corn and soybean production gown largely for the making of bio-fuels.  That change is reflected in my commute from Aberdeen to Tacoma Park through a landscape covered with corn and soybeans, all Roundup ready, and only rare sightings of livestock.

South Dakota is the eighth largest producer of beef cattle with a current population of 3,700,000 head.  However, it participates in the overall trend for beef cattle.  Beef  prices are up, with cattle numbers dwindling.  Beef producers fear that the high prices is sending consumers to lower priced alternatives.    Agweb gives the prognosis:

America’s cow herd is the smallest (29 million) in 60 years, with a total cattle inventory of 87.7 million, which is also the lowest level since Harry Truman was president. Those short supplies produced roughly 24.4 billion pounds of beef in 2014, a 5.2 percent decline from 2013 and the smallest annual slaughter since 1994. Total steer and heifer slaughter in 2014 is projected to be the lowest since 1968.
As the beef packer in Aberdeen begins its second attempt to process cattle,  it faces a market that is pricey and a cattle supply that is dwindling.  General farmers could raise and lower their livestock inventories according to the markets, but the specialized cropping does not leave many  farers with that alternative.  The higher prices for cattle are not attracting producers to increase herds or get back into production because their land and facilities are committed to single purposes.  The cattle are  not on the land.  Those commutes through the farmland are lonely.  

The old farmstead

The new farmstead


No comments:

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States