All of us set out believing ourselves to be prepared when we pursue what is dear to our hearts. When a dream has tugged at us all of our lives, we do not dive in without regard for the demands or requirements to successfully achieve out goal. Despite the best planning however, sometimes things which are beyond our control, beyond our planning and beyond our imaginings of worst case scenarios –even when we are as O.C. as I believe myself to be in worrying–can and do occur to catastrophic proportions.
I started buying books on farming and keeping livestock years before we bought our land. While still living in a fine community with covenants and restrictions, my mail carrier was delivering ‘ Grit ‘ magazine and books on keeping dairy cows and grass fed beef, not to mention her fair share of odd looks at me when she caught my eye in the driveway. I was well read. I had mentors whose brains I picked until they avoided me by ducking behind compost piles when they saw me coming. I attended lectures and seminars. I was ready. Or so one would believe.
What I did not consider was how mother nature can turn on you and how the land itself will revolt against being overburdened. The year we achieved our goals of building our herds of beef and dairy cows & dairy goats to the numbers we desired and got our licensing for selling raw milk in our state, a major accomplishment by any standard, mother nature freaked out on the southeastern U.S. with record shattering flooding, preceded by what seemed like endless rains for over a year in our area. Our land revolted against the massive, sustained rainfalls and the numbers of animals we had burdened it with by cursing us with health and safety threatening mud the likes of which I have never seen before. Everywhere on our land there was either standing water or ankle to knee-deep mud. No exaggeration. I sunk to depths that were not only laborious to walk through but dangerous for myself and the animals in my care in huge areas of my farm. This went on for months.
In the south we have a unique sort of thick, lasting mud that forms where water stands for long periods of time in loamy areas; areas covered by the shed mulch of trees and a mix of sand and dark earth forms the ground underneath, it is called ‘ Pluff mud ‘ and was often confused by olden travelers with quicksand when they happened to fall into it. It sucks you in like quicksand and pulls off your boots to be sure, but it is not deadly and generally not deeper than knee to waist-high or so. The local children play in it, although one must be cautious as it often contains debris such as shells and sticks. I lost so many boots to this type pf mud around the farm over a three-year period, particularly the last several months in and around the cow yards, I joked that a thousand years from now archeologists would happen upon them and think there was an entire settlement condensed on this farm. The boots were sucked right off my legs and just lost in the deep, thick mud. If I was lucky enough to find them after extricating my legs, they were too filled with the dense mud and stuck tight in it’s squelching grip to retrieve.
We fought the rains and mud for nearly two years. We would design seemingly good systems and have them fall apart when the yards we employed went bad with more flooding or more mud. The weight of large livestock constantly churning the ground while it’s wet creates a set of circumstances that do not exist in any other form. It is like a giant mixer going 24/7 grinding and turning the soil –add in a steady flow of moisture and you have the perfect recipe for a disaster. The earth never has the chance to heal or firm.
I re-routed the cows. I moved animals. I shuffled and re-shuffled. Sometimes twice daily during milking season, I had to walk them acres to the parlor and acres back to pasture after milking.
In the two years prior to our flooding issues, our state had two of the worst winter storms we had ever been hit with back to back. Our deep southern climate does not typically get winter storms; it is , in fact, often referred to as ‘ sub-tropical’ by botanists and biologists in certain regions. When severe winter weather events happen here it is crippling. There is no steady thinning of trees in this state by normal phases of weather, so we had hazards everywhere. The morning after the first heavy winter storm we had no power. I went out to milk my cows using a generator for power and heard what I thought was gun shots on my way to the parlor. I thought to myself ‘ What idiot is out hunting in this mess ?’ About that time, a giant chunk of a pecan tree fell off right across from I was standing and shattered on the ground. Pine trees as tall as high rises, heavy laden with ice and full of water from the extended rains that had never experienced that kind of abuse before were breaking all around me. The sounds I was hearing were their giant branches and tops hitting the frozen earth and shattering there.
I penned all of the dairy girls in a very small yard free of trees as they left the milk parlor to keep them as safe as possible and started rounding up llamas and sheep and goats right after–tree limbs and chunks of tree-tops falling all round me as I desperately tried to secure everyone. One of our rescue alpacas, whom I had roped as a stray with the aid of animal control was pinned under a pine tree about 14 inches around that snapped off at the base , rotted at the root from the excessive rains and broken over from the weight of the ice. It took myself, my husband, my daughter and her husband to lift it enough for the alpaca to free her thin neck. If it had landed anywhere else on her, it surely would have killed her.
We recovered from the ice storms as best we could, dead trees remaining in boggy areas we could not access. The rains continued through the winter. Hard and heavy and seemingly continual. It was the darkest, most dreary winter I can recall.
We brought in dirt, rock, gravel and sand by the truckloads on three separate occasions to try to deal with the mud and standing water, all to no avail.
I worried as the top-heavy cows slid in the shallow mud that they would break their ankles and as they sank in the deep mud that they would break their legs.Several of my dairy cows had succumbed to tenacious mastitis , which was costly to identify and treat, due to the nasty mud and I was in a constant state of fear that one would injure herself and have to be destroyed. I had to pull a newborn calf out of a nature created ravine of fast running water in a driving rainstorm after her mother tried to lead her to the barn and she slipped in on the muddy side. I thank God I was following them to ensure they got to the yard safely. Although that calf no longer resides here, I keep up with her to this day.
We were going broke and we were broken down.
The strain and worry and expense of trying to cope and keep the animals safe took an indescribable toll on my health , my psyche and my nearly 30 year marriage. My poor husband would work 15 hours at his job and come home to hours of work with the mud and cows. We fought over what was the best plan for them. I complained about the mud and exhausting toll the extra work was taking on me– He complained about the wasted expenses and exhausting toll it was taking on him….all the while, it continued to rain and flood and the mud built.
Trees that had stood on this farm for a hundred years began to fall over at the roots and break off at the tops. Rotting. It seemed to all be rotting. We were literally and figuratively drowning.
Our farm has on its premises and in its vicinity natural wetlands. When we bought the place, I found that charming. The cows enjoyed wading in the shallow wetlands to cool themselves in Summer. It also swelled with the extended rains to the point that it ran in forks over the paths and into the pastures and into the yards and around the house….soaking and bogging everything on the property.
In this general area of SC, rain has fallen so often and so hard the past few years that farmers have been unable to grow and/or harvest fields due to bogginess. Fields for miles around stand unplanted or unharvested, crops rotting from the root or drying to seed because equipment cannot access it through the standing water and mud around the field–sad testaments to the state of things.
In SC last year we had more rain than had fallen anywhere worldwide in over two hundred years following the hurricane bands that passed over out state and we had dams break which ran their course right past my farm —
Bottom line : I was unprepared.
I didn’t read the most important information and consult the most vital mentor: The land and Mother Nature. I should have gone to them above all. That’s on me.
There’s a term in psychology for a memory of an event that is so traumatic one remembers the details to minutia. It is called a ‘ Flashbulb memory ‘ . For instance, everyone knows what they were doing and where they were when they heard the news of 9/11. I remember in painful detail the days I decided to part with the majority of my cows and the day I loaded them for their trip to a farm in Virginia.
Making that decision was one of the hardest I ever have had to face. My husband and I had just brought in more crushed gravel and dirt and moved the dairy goats to the back of the farm to free up their yard temporarily for the dairy cows. We moved the cows that morning to their new yard –that evening we stood in front of the cows and watched it flood; the water running in rivulets during a driving rain storm between us into the yard where the cows ankles began to sink in the black mud forming at the gate.
I looked at my husband ,who had said repeatedly after all of our failed attempts to keep them safe and mud-free that he would be done with them if it wouldn’t break my heart , rain running off the rim of my hat and mixing with my tears and choked out, ” I surrender. Let’s let them go. They’re going to get hurt. ”
The day I loaded the girls I cried harder than I have ever cried over a non-human loss. I lay myself across Melody, my first ever female bovine, bought as a four month old calf , as she stood in the stanchion milking and sobbed to the point of piteous wailing as I milked her for the last time. My chest hurt in a way I had never felt before. I thought surely I was physically in jeopardy. I shook. I gasped for air. I cried until I had run dry.
AJ ( AnnaJoy ), I could not bear to look at. She was dog-like in personality and was my first grown up cow. I never said my good-byes to her because I knew I could not bear it. I still cry for AJ if I allow myself to miss her. Like a beloved pet, she has never left my heart.
I never imagined I could feel that kind of grief over anything other than a loved one. It was profound. It was dark. It was all-encompassing. I moved through all of the classic stages of grief as I tried to process the loss of my beloved cows, my dairy business I had worked so hard for and invested so much time and money in and my dreams that were now not only shattered, but completely taken away–gone–irreparable, it seemed. I was angry. I was hurt. I was alone…
Not a single soul understood what I was going through.
A couple of my friends were very sweet, but admitted they didn’t get it; they thought it should be a short sadness followed by relief not to be dealing with all of the frustration and worry anymore. Several people were just plain insensitive and ignorant, stating things like ” we all deal with mud on farms.
At first I tried to explain. Then, I tried to defend. Then, I lashed out. Then, I shut down. For many months, I stayed to myself. Trying to recover.
For over a year now, my dear husband has been reclaiming the land by clearing and cleaning, widening and putting in extra draining ditches, adding extra fencing and pastures, taking out the dead and damaged trees and stumps and bringing in dirt and gravel. Removing underbrush and small saplings to allow more sun to get to the pastures and wooded areas. Creating more space and less mud–way less mud. By far.
We now have grasses growing where it was formerly covered by mud and standing water.
The wetlands, which had swelled to cover the majority of several acres and ran over our paths and into our pastures for two years or more now maintains as merely a small area at the back of the property.
The water barely visible at the very back of the photo used to be sustained in the entirety of the of the area in the photo.
We Parted with the majority of our cows, beef and dairy during that time of natural, financial and spiritual devastation, retaining only my favorite heifer–who has since calved a heifer of her own and a cow who has had two stillbirths that I did not want to end up as hamburger due to her issues and a couple of mutts who stood no chance as the mild pets they are in a herd. We also parted with all 8 of our dairy goats, which had all just kidded , given to my uncle as pets.
We just had our first rainy season and we had only minimal mud and only in the expected places. No sinking. No boot sucking. No loss of footwear. No hazards to livestock.
We are starting to rebuild and recover. I am dreaming again.
We now know how many cows our land will sustain at any given time and have the ability to move and rotate them as needed if another flooding incident occurs , which is always a possibility in the southeastern US.
We have another piece of land down the road for beef cows that has lots of extra acreage now fenced for my Jerseys–just for grazing purposes when they aren’t milking.
Life is good.
It is a learning process, this thing called life. Every aspect of it.
Sometimes, you have to learn the hard way.
As long as I arrive where I am supposed to be, I’ll take my knocks to get there.
I feel like we’re finally there.