We raised Critters and Crops
This is one of a series of essays on my life. In 1944 we moved from Ellsworth Wisconsin to a farm in the countryside.
Our life was synchronized to the growing seasons and punctuated by the weather. We started with horses but quickly moved into mechanized management of crops and livestock.
General purpose farming in west-central Wisconsin
Seventy years ago most of the farms in western Wisconsin could be described as
general purpose farms. Maturing from family homesteads (40 acres and a mule) that
fed a single family through hard work, these farms raised a variety of crops and critters
to provide sustenance and reduced the risk of dramatic crop failure. Farms had already
begun to enlarge and allow for participation in a larger commerce. This is the
community our family participated in. We raised critters and crops for our own use but,
also produced both for sale. Dad also supplemented the farm's income by hiring out
himself and his machinery.
Over the years on the farm we always had a dozen or so milk cows, another 15 or 20
critters Dad was raising for beef, eight to twenty hogs, a hundred chickens and
occasionally some ducks. There were always horses and ponies as well. The mix of
livestock moved around with Dad's perception of the markets. And there were cats, lots
of cats. The cat herd seemed to grow until something wiped them out for awhile before
they came back. As for lambs, sheep, or goats, there were none. My Dad had a deep
prejudice against anything wooly. To him they were especially hard to keep penned up
and they smelled bad.
The original farm was 120 acres of which about 80 were planted to crops. The balance
was woodlands and pasture. The setting was actually picturesque being atop some
hills that rolled off into ravines and coulees leading to dry runs and streams all headed
to the Mississippi some five miles to the south. The crops were mostly hay, oats, and
corn as well as a big garden. The farm also sported an acre or so of apple orchard.
The pastures and woods were filled with hardwood trees and lots of wild berries.
The farm was expanded in 1948 when an adjacent 80 acres was added in roughly the
same proportion of crop land. Over the years, Dad added acres through, share
cropping and outright rental. He also hired out our machinery on an as needed basis.
In all we were working 350 to 400 acres by the time I got out of high school in 1958.
The farm buildings included a large barn, a chicken coop, and a machine shed. Over
the years corn cribs, a silo and additional machine sheds were added as well as
additions to the barn.
The barn was a sturdy affair of post and beam construction with a metal roof. I
remember it being exactly 100 feet long by 40 feet wide and aligned on a north south
axis. The lowest floor was walled in a sandstone layup and buried in dirt on two sides.
The floor was cement. Cow stanchions were arranged down the east side. A pair of
horse stalls and livestock pens were arranged on the west side. The barn was heated
with animal heat.
The upper floor was open to the roof maybe 25 feet to the peak. The middle half of the
sides were hung on rollers and tracks to allow easy access for crop storage or retrieval.
The north 2/3 of the upper floor was devoted to hay storage. The south 20% had a
mezzanine floor for straw storage and grain storage underneath. This whole upper level
was unheated and damn cold in the winter.
There was a stockyard to the south of the barn that sloped away. Various pens were
constructed along the periphery of this yard to accommodate the critter mix of the day.
Cattle were the most important critters on our farm. Our herd included a few calves
born over late winter and early spring as well as a few yearlings. In the spring the dairy
herd was routed into the local pasture and woodlands nearest the home buildings where
we had easy access for feeding and milking. The beef heard was headed to pastures
further away. The total herd was developed for both dairy and beef. Top producing
cows were bred with bulls from prize milking stock. The female dairy calves were saved
for the future of the dairy herd. Males were sold for veal.
Cows without top production credentials were bred from good beef stock such as angus
or Hereford. The resulting calves were kept for sale or butchering 18 to 30 months in the
future. Most males were castrated; very few were saved to grow up as quality bulls.
The dairy cows represented steady income from milk sold to the local cooperative. The
dairy herd was a protected and nurtured asset. They also represented a serious
commitment requiring feeding and milking twice a day, everyday, regardless of ANY
other planned or unplanned commitment. I could probably count on my fingers the
number of times Dad missed and turned over this activity to some one else. Morning
chores started about 0545 before breakfast. Milking equipment was cleaned and "
sanitized by Mom in our basement after breakfast. Evening chores were usually done
after our evening meal(supper). We always returned from or interrupted family
gatherings for the evening feeding and milking regardless of the occasion.
The herd represented a source of available cash throughout the year. liquidation could
occur by sale or trade with other farmers or cattle traders or by sales to the meat
packing stockyards in nearby South Saint Paul. Here is where attention to the radio
broad casts of the markets could pay off. For a kid observing all of this, lessons could
be learned. My biggest observation was watching my Dad orchestrate the various
negotiations. It started in discussions over a beer, euchre game, or after church. Hints
were dropped and loose appointments made for more detailed discussions. Invariable
a day or two later the discussion resumed in the barn where the animal in question
could be examined. Sometimes these discussions ended in stalemate, walkout or
delay. But, more often then not an agreement was reached and settled. Later, the
participants would meet in a friendly card game where drinks were exchanged and the
theory of mutual benefit was on display.
Sometimes the animal had to be "shipped" to the meat packers. This process involved
the oft maligned "middle man." The packers (Hormel for instance) we're not interested
in small buys, preferring instead to purchase more complete herds of pre-graded
animals. Therein lies the the source of the middle man. These guys earned a
concession adjacent to the packers. The business assets consisted of a series of
sorting pens and loading ramps. The Man's office was a shack above the pens where
he had a panoramic view of his operation. The farmer arriving with stock unloaded his
animals and waited for weighing and grading. The Man then made an offer a few cents
per pound less than he could expect to get from the packer. Remember that radio
broad cast of the markets? That was the hint to the farmer about what he might expect.
There was more than one Man at each packer so there was some competition as well
as a suspicion of collusion. There was even trading among these middle men as they
arranged herds acceptable to the packers. It was incumbent on the farmers to develop
relationships with his favored Man.
Back at the farm, it was not always practical to do trucking of individual animals to "the
cities". Here the local cattle buyers rose to the occasion with their trucking service. By
necessity, they owned one or more trucks supporting their business. If they were on the
way to the cities with their own load, they might find room for an animal or two. Of
course there was a freight fee. And there was more opportunity for chicanery in terms
of out of earshot discussions between the Man and the shipper. Relationships and trust
are necessary to keep such a system working.
Auctions were another source of sales, or more often, purchases of new stock of
virtually all species. Auction notices with lists of sale items were posted in most places
of commerce especially in taverns that supported the social interaction of the farmers.
Some of our beef cattle were sold alive but many if not most were butchered and sold
by quarters. Butchering took place at the edge of the upper floor of the barn were a
block and tackle facilitated the process. The subject animal was dispatched with a
sledge hammer to the scull or by a twenty-two bullet to the head whereupon the animals
throat was cut to allow bleed out. Our family did not save the blood for consumption but
many of our neighbors did and came by to collect the liquid. Pork blood seemed to be
especially prized. Otherwise, blood was mixed with feed and fed to other animals.
As soon as the death struggles subsided, sharp knives came out and skinning began.
The resulting hides were sold to local tanneries. Soon, the carcass was split and
relieved of its innards. The usual offal items were saved and used. We could always
plan on liver and onions for supper on these nights. The tongue, heart, and other less
popular tidbits were sold or given away. (As I write this in 2016 I wonder what
happened to the cheeks. I don't remember anyone harvesting these wonderful cuts).
The rest of the entrails were loaded onto a stone boat and hauled to the pigs or
disposed of in the woods. When pigs were butchered the excess fat was trimmed and
rendered for lard. The cracklings were strained out and hauled to the woods "for the
foxes". Why? I have no idea. It was not until I experienced Mexican food that I
discovered how good fatty cuts of pork are when rendered and left with the cracklings
Butchering day involved as many as four animals. The carcasses were cut into quarters
and carried into the basement of the house. Each quarter was hung by hooks and
allowed to dry age for 30 days or more. Most of the meat had been sold months before
to friends, relatives and previous customers so, when the aging was done, the quarters
were hauled off to the local locker where a butcher weighed and sliced the meat into a
custom array of meat cuts. The meat was packaged and frozen hard.
As I recall the economics of those days, butchered beef sold from 15 to 35 cents per
pound depending on the market. Front quarters were 5 to 10 cents less than the
"hinds". Our family always dined on the fronts. I don't recall ever eating a steak until I
was a teenager. Then it was a T-bone cooked very well done. I did not learn to
appreciate rare cooked meat until well after I left the farm.
Land Use and Crops
Our farm was about 40% pasture and woodlands. Pasture land was important to feed
cattle through the mild months from April thru October. The cattle were also important in
keeping brush and undergrowth controlled. The real woodlands were too steep for
pasturing but yielded substantial value in lumber grade trees. The lumber trimmings
were saved, cut up and burned in the household furnace. The woodlands were excellent
wildlife habitats at times providing squirrels, rabbits and an occasional deer for our
table. The area had several butternut trees and their exotic meats.
The tillable lands were planted in crops used mostly for feeding our own livestock
although surpluses were identified and sold off. Clover and alfalfa were the usual crops
put up as bulk feed for the herd. Oats and wheat were typically mixed for feed and
planted along with hay seed. This combination assisted in crop rotation. Crop rotation
and protection of the land was always very important to my Dad as steward of the land.
He was one of the first in our neighborhood to incorporate contour crop patterns.
Corn was the ultimate cash crop even back then. As much as 30% of our land was
devoted to corn. Three kinds of corn were planted. The first was a leafy variety that
was chopped up and stored as silage. The second was traditional field corn praised for
its large cobs and big yield. Finally, there was sweet corn usually planted in a few rows
close to the house. Dad was always proud of his incredibly delicious sweet corn. At our
house it was important to not allow more than 15 minutes between harvest and cook.
Soybeans were introduced to Wisconsin Farmers in the mid 50's. It was an interesting
crop because it used machinery the farmers already had and it could be planted late.
Sometimes it was possible to get another crop of hay or grain off before the beans were
planted. Soybeans were strictly a cash crop in this part of the world.
The seasons determined the activities on the farm starting in the spring as the snow
melted and soil began to warm. Fences were checked for winter damage as grass
began to cover the pastures. Milk cows and beef cattle spend longer and longer outside
where hay and ground feed is available in feed bunks. Serious field work started in
early April. Manure left over from the winter months was hauled out and spread over
the fields where it would be turned under doing spring tillage.
By late April ground was being plowed and tilled in earnest. First plantings were an oats
and wheat mixture that usually included a "cover crop" seeding of grass or hay. These
grasses sprout quickly to help squeeze out weeds and form the basis of the hay crop in
the following year. All of these seeds were planted with an implement called a "grain
drill". Originally, our drill was horse drawn, dropping a swath about six feet wide from
three boxes holding large grain seed, grass seed and fertilizer. The drill idea comes
from the gear drive metering the seeds and fertilizer out of the boxes to fall through
tubes into small furrows plowed into the surface of the soil. The metering gears are
connected to the main wheel of the implement to precisely place the seeds as progress
is made along the field.
Each round across the field and back emptied the boxes and reloading was required
from gunny sacks of seed and paper sacks of fertilizer. Once planted the grain fields
were left alone to sprout and grow until harvest. Some fields might be infested with
persistent weeds such as mustard that required manual weed pulling, roots and all,
midway to harvest. This was hot, boring work in which the whole family could
We also panted our family garden in May just after, hopefully, the last frost. Tomatoes,
cucumbers, and squash went in as seedlings while peas, beans and greens were
seeded. A row or two of sweet corn was planted here well away from field corn.
In the mean time, the month of May found us tilling the corn fields in preparation for corn
planting. Corn was planted differently in those days. Today, farmers use chemicals for
weed control. No cultivators required. Back then we drilled the seeds meaning the
seeds were dropped in the ground in a regular stream a few inches apart in the rows.
Alternatively, they were checked. With this method, a " check wire" was strung out over
the field. Knots in the wire tripped the planter mechanism to drop 3 or 4 kernels at
precise and regular intervals. The interval spacing was made identical to the row
spacing. The result was a field that could be cultivated straight on or crosswise. During
the planting process the stakes for the trip wire at each end of the field had to be
stretched and reset on each pass. The result could be somewhat imprecise especially
on rolling terrain. Cross cultivating was a rough ride as the tractor crossed the rows and
had to be done with a good deal of care.
I don't think anyone check plants any more due to the loss of extra plants in the row.
Today, everything is about efficiency and yield aided by chemicals and scientific plant
We were glad to have everything in the ground by late May to end 45 days of
hard work plowing, tilling, and planting. We waited for gentle rains and got our
machinery ready for the next phase: cultivating and the process of "haying". In the
meantime our cattle herd was turned out to feed on pasture grasses.
Hay in the form of dried alfalfa and clover cuttings were put up to feed the herd through
the winter months. Hay was put up in loose bulk for the first several years on our new farm.
By the early fifties Dad experimented with both chopping and baling. Both methods
reduced manual labor but, baling became the preferred method. In most years two
good cuttings of hay were achieved with a sparse third cutting late in the year,
In June grasses and hay crops begin spurts of summer growth. As soon as the alfalfa
and clover begin to blossom it is ready for the first cutting. In the early days of our farm
mowing was done with a horse drawn sickle bar mower. The sickle bar was five feet
long and equipped with a swath board and deflector stick at the far end. The operator
sat on an iron seat positioned over the machine's axle. The sickle bar could be lifted
with a foot pedal. Cutting power was derived from gearing between the main wheels
and the pitman arm. A team of two horses provided steady power to the machine.
As usual, the horses soon became a limit to productivity. They could not go far without
rest, water, and feed. So it was that the hitch pole was shortened and provisioned to be
towed by a tractor. By the early fifties we turned to an integral mower hooked to the
tractor's hydraulic lift and powered by the PTO. This mower had a 7 ft sickle bar.
Mowing was done in third or fourth gear depending on terrain and conditions. At four
miles per hour the yield was 3.5 acres of cut hay per hour. Now that the hay is down
let's hope for sunny days with no rain.
The drying time between cutting and loading or baling was always nervous time. It was
best to put the hay up as soon as possible which usually meant two or three days of
good sunshine. If the hay got rained on the swaths or windrows would be rolled over to
help dry the underside. Wet hay could mold or, worse yet, spontaneously combust. I
remember numerous hay storage barns burning around our area. I can also remember
forking over hay already in the barn that was sweating and very hot. I have heard tales
of farmers digging into a haystack and finding a pocket of char and ash; a fire had
started but died due to lack of oxygen. Dangerous times.
Some of our neighbors used "dump rakes" to gather hay into piles where it was then
pitched onto wagons and hauled to the barn. I vaguely recall an old dump rake on our
farm but do not remember using it. Instead we had a "side delivery" rake that rolled the
cut hay into neat windrows. I remember our first rake was a Minnesota brand built in a
Early on we loaded the hay in bulk using a Minnesota Hay Loader. The wagon was
towed by horse or tractor. A couple of guys worked on the load to spread the hay over
the wagon. This was slower work moving over the ground at two MPH while the guys
on the load struggled to stay balanced and on the load. The loaded wagons were
unloaded at the barn with grapple hooks pulled up to a track at the inside top of the
barn. A horse pulled the tackle line to power the unloading.
By 1950 Dad had settled on baling as his preferred method of putting up our hay crop.
Baling became so much a part of my memory that I have dedicated it in a separate
There were two and sometimes three cuttings of hay, each smaller than the previous
one. Haying operations continued throughout the summer and into fall. It is no wonder
that quick attachment cultivators and mowers became popular when frequent switching
between them became so necessary as crop needs overlapped.
In Late July and August all attention turned to the Grain harvest. In our early days on
the farm we cooperated in a local "threshing run". Again, this is the subject of its own
chapter. By the mid fifties Dad bought a new JD#30 combine which we used on our
own farm and hired out to other farmers. The usual procedure was to cut the grain with
a "swather", let it dry for a few days and then pick up the swath with the combine. The
alternative was to equip the combine with a header to cut and combine all in one
So, here is the deal. Originally most grains were dried as much as possible
in the field to help reduce spoilage during storage. But, more modern farmers are not
so patient - they invented propane driers capable of drying grain to precise levels of
moisture content. Today, most grains are cut by the combine and go directly from field
to dryer prior to final weighing, grading, and storage.
The grain we kept was stored in a large bin on the upper level of the barn. We brought
the grain from the field by truck, dump trailer, or wagon. It was dumped or shoveled into
an elevator positioned to fill the grain bin. A trail of straw was left behind the combine.
The straw was racked together and baled for animal bedding through the winter.
Corn harvest marked our movement into fall and came in two phases (if we skip
summer sweet corn). Our two Styles of field corn were selected for silage or for hard
corn production. Silage corn was harvested pretty green and came first. Once again
our harvesting methods changed over time. Early on the corn was cut and tied into
bundles by hand or by using a machine called a corn binder. The bundles were loaded
on wagons and hauled to the silo. Here the bundles were fed into a "silo filler". This
machine fed the bundle along a dragline trough into a centrifical fan equipped with large
cutting blades. The chopped corn was blown up a pipe to the top of the silo. The silo
filler was powered by a belt drive from a tractor. The tractor had to have sufficient
power to sustain blower speed even in the face of corn chopping. The largest available
John Deere was the preferred filler tractor owing to its big torque and superior governor.
Even then it was possible to over feed the silo filler and have to deal with a plugged
In the mid 50's Dad bought a John Deere two row corn chopper and a JD 70 tractor to
power it. Silage corn was chopped in the field and blown directly into chopper wagons.
These wagons were equipped with a PTO driven dragline to facilitate unloading. These
were the first wagons I saw equipped with big flotation tires. We called them airplane
tires. The silo filling task was still done by a silo filler but the cutting blades
As an aside, I always liked filling silos as it was by far the cleanest harvesting crop we
had. It was also relatively cool by this time of year. Driving the chopper boxes back and
forth from field to silo with was easy and fun despite the long hours. I also got to skip
school for a few days to help out on the harvest.
Fall chills turned the leaves in the woods and "dent" the corn; drying of the corn was
indicated by a dent in the crown of the kernels. It is ready for harvest. I remember
some manual corn harvesting and at least one year where bundles were shocked and
allowed to dry before they were hauled to a sheller set up near the barn. More often,
the whole ears were picked off the stalks with a tractor mounted two-row corn picker.
The picker delivered whole ears shorn of husks to a wagon towed behind. The ears
were stored in corn cribs constructed to encourage airflow through the ears.
During the winter months some of the ears were shelled for the chickens. Corn ground
for cattle was coarse ground cob and all and mixed with ground oats. All grinding was
done with a Bearcat brand hammer mill. The mill was powered by belt drive from one of
the tractors. Belt alignment was facilitated by a twist in the belt. Before my 7th year I
had mastered the belt hookup -easily the most enjoyable part of grinding feed. All
through the winter, Saturday mornings were devoted to grinding feed as soon as I got
home from Catechism class (another story).
After soybeans were introduced, they became the last item harvested before snow
began to accumulate. Many times the soybean harvest had to be suspended due to
wet or winter conditions. My Dad and my Uncle Bud frequently worked together on this
part of the harvest to get as much crop harvested as possible while conditions
permitted. None of the soybeans were used on our own farm. The entire proceeds
were sold to the local elevator for shipment to some distant buyer.
So most fall activities involved the last stages of harvest. Some fall plowing and tilling
was done to get an early start on the decomposition of stalks and scraps from the
harvest. Soon enough, frost set in deep and solid enough to end field work. Winter
became a time of feeding, milking and cleaning up after the penned up animals. We
tried to haul barn cleanings (manure) to the fields as often as weather permitted in the
winter. First with a team of horses and later with a tractor equipped with tire chains.
Dad's common routine was to have the barn cleaned by mid morning then use his
horses to haul and spread the manure before stopping in the woods to pick up a load of
firewood. After dinner (midday) my folks would "go to town" for shopping and