Illinois Farm Families Blog

May 21 2015

Mama Mania

While I would LOVE to breath a sigh of relief, that is not going to happen. Calving is almost done, we have about 10 more cows to go, and we have started planting! Actually I have disappeared for awhile due to crazy hours in the fields. We are almost done with our corn planting and then we will be onto soybeans. For the time being I have a moment to sit down and tell you about the scariest part of my job… the mama cows!

While I dearly love the time with our calves, I wouldn’t exactly call this time of year cute and cuddly. Actually I pray more during calving than any other time of the year. I mainly pray for safety. Sometimes you just never know what you are getting into. The job should be simple right? Catch the calf, move the mom and baby over to the pasture, give the calf some bling (ear tag) and check gender. This could take 5 minuets or an hour depending on the mom cow. While we have many friendly mothers who know the routine, there are others that just kinda freak out. I have never held the glare of a 1500 pound animal as she angrily stares into my soul until this year. The only thing between us was the ATV and I’m pretty sure she was considering jumping it. This is the part where I say a quick prayer… multiple times… plus a few more… and consider that things can get bad very VERY quickly. We trust that our Lord and Savior will keep us safe, maybe send some guardian angles or something, but let me tell you, not every day is a piece of cake.

There are a few stories I can recall from this last calving season. We had two crazies, as we call them, this year. I don’t think they even cared about their baby, they just like to try and run us over. Both times my prayers were answered and the cows would go from trying to charge to a moment of confusion where they literally just turned around and ran off in just enough time for us to get the calf and do our thing.  My husband had to park next to a hut and clime on top of it in order to even get off of the ATV as the cow would try to get him the moment he stopped. Usually they leave you alone on the ATV, but this one was different. I have walked into the barn to feed and had two more cows literally charge the fence. Great way to start the day! While it would be so much easier to just leave the cows and calves alone, it is necessary to check the calves.  We make sure they are nursing and healthy. This is the price we pay. After everything is checked and good, we move the two where the calf can have shelter and we can ensure water and feed every day for the cow.

As you can see, there seems to be a pattern with things happening in pairs of two here, but needles to say, while calving is the most precious time of the year, it is also the most dangerous. I don’t know the statistic, but more people die from cows every year than deer. On the contrary, like I said before, most of our cows are very gentle. We even had one cow that waited until we drove up with the ATV and cart, she moved over by the ATV to wait, we got the calf and as soon as we shut the door on the cart she came back around to follow. We got out of the pen and she led us to the pasture. She stood out of the way while we worked the calf and then nuzzled her with love when we were done. (Fun fact, if you read my blog last year, this was Buddy’s mom! Buddy lived in our basement for a week.)

I have said it and I will say it again. This is my favorite time of year! I love to watch the calves as they grow, play and interact with the others. Yes they still kick hard, some can be rambunctious, and the mothers are not always the best, but to be part of a new life coming into the world and doing everything in your power to help it grow and thrive is the best feeling in the world!

Originally posted on Dare to Dream with Rachel.

Rachel Asher
Ursa, IL

Rachel farms with her husband and his family in West Central Illinois where they raise cattle, pigs, corn and soybeans. You can learn more about Rachel and her farm on her blog: Dare to Dream with Rachel.

May 15 2015

Farm Photo Friday: When the weather cooperates but the tractor doesn't.

Not a good day when the weather is nice but the tractor quits running. Had to tow it home and call for service. Doesn't seem to bother Bert though.

Photo courtesy of Willow Lea Stock Farm.

Gary & Michele Aavang
Woodstock, IL

Michele and her husband, Gary are full-time farmers raising corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat and oats in northern Illinois. Gary has been farming his entire life, while Michele grew up in the Chicago suburbs and became a "farmer by marriage." Learn more and stay up to date with farm happenings on their Facebook page.

May 12 2015

My understanding of farming changed after I met farmers

I am a food science and human nutrition major with an AAS in culinary arts that had previously served almost 9 years in the US Navy. Even with all of that, I had absolutely no idea about production farming. Everything that I knew about farming was whatever I had read or seen on the internet or TV. This of course includes movies like Food Inc. My perceptions of farmers were that they were only nice farmers if they were organic farmers and bad if they weren’t. I assumed that because of what I had seen, via various forms of media, that enormous multinational corporations owned the majority of farms in the US. I thought farmers were exactly the way they are often depicted on TV, simple characters lacking any kind of sophistication without any regard for the environment or animals. This was not something that I thought was specific to any region, I just thought all farmers were this way. In the case of Illinois farmers, well, I just thought they really liked corn and soybeans. 

I had no idea. I suppose the reason for this is that I had never really been on a farm, nor did I know any farmers, except for the inner-city hipster, “strictly organic” variety. This past semester all of that changed when I decided to enroll in a class on “farm, food and environmental policy.” The whole point of the class was to compare and contrast the differences between farms and farming practices in California to those of Illinois. Our class toured farms and talked to farmers in both states and I can tell you that everything I thought I knew about farmers was what someone else wanted me to think. After going to meet and talk with these fine men and women, I was finally able to make my own decisions and come to my own conclusions.

I found myself to be completely wrong about my assumptions. Farmers are very sophisticated. The technology that farmers use is mind-blowing to me! I found out that they use GPS navigated equipment to get within two inches of accuracy when applying fertilizer and planting seeds. They use drones to survey their fields, which allow them to detect soil issues and identify weed species. To accommodate the needs of their customers, they use different varieties of seeds and are involved in commodity trading. Farming is neither a yokel’s business nor some large industrial machine. Illinois farms are, I have learned, for the most part (97%) family-owned businesses. In talking to these farmers, I have realized that their way of life is something that has been passed down to them by their elders from generation to generation and that they have an intense interest in conservation. For them, taking care of their land and animals means that they will have something to give to their children. This way of life is a source of pride for them. 

The biggest take-away that I’ve gained from this experience is that misinformation about these people and their businesses spreads through conventional media, and especially social media, like wildfire. I believed it and so do many others. I’m not sure what exactly motivates all of this misinformation, but I would highly recommend to anyone that’s interested in learning about their food go to a local farm and ask for a tour. Talk to your local farmers. Ask them questions, get to know them and find out what they do. I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised.


Originally posted in Farm Week.

Regina Cortez
Chicago, IL

May 07 2015

Farm Visit

As a part of the City Moms program, I have had some great opportunities to learn about farming in Illinois, and to share that information with my family. But another exciting part of the program was when we were all given a farmer pen pal, and to find out that mine lives less than an hour from my home! 

My pen pal contacted me right after our City Moms orientation in February, and invited my family out to the farm to see the calves in the spring. My boys were off school on a recent Monday and we were able to take advantage of this invitation! My boys enjoyed hearing about my visit to the hog farm in March, but actually getting to visit a real farm themselves was very exciting! We saw a five-day-old calf up close, and we got to bottle-feed an orphan calf that was just over a month old. 

We were at the farm during spring planting, so we got to take a look at some corn and soybeans that had just been planted a few days earlier and were already beginning to sprout – tying in to the lessons my second grader is learning in science right now! It was a great opportunity for my kids to learn more about where their food comes from and see it all first hand. They’re already talking about going back in the fall to ride the combine during harvest! We’re all looking forward to it!

Jen Meiring
Batavia, IL

Jen is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she will visit Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the City Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

May 02 2015

Checking Corn with Dad

Illinois farmer Andrew Bowman checks the seed depth of his recently planted corn with his son Ryker. Proper seed depth is critical for proper emergence and root development.

Apr 22 2015

You Bet Your Life On It- Earth Day 2015

You get your hands in it
Plant your roots in it
Dusty head lights dance with your boots in it…

You write her name on it
Spin your tires on it
Build your corn field,
You bet your life on it

It’s that elm shade
Red roads clay you grew up on
That plowed up ground that your dad
Damned his luck on…

You’ve mixed some sweat with it
Taken a shovel to it
You’ve stuck some crosses and some painted
Goal posts through it

You know you came from it
And someday you’ll return to it

The first time I heard Florida Georgia Line’s song Dirt, it struck a chord with me, and I imagine with many other farm families. 150 years ago, my great-great grandfather Daniel Mackinson decided to “bet his life on it”, to “plant his roots in it”.  He decided to start farming near Pontiac and today our family continues to live and farm those original acres plus a few more.  This concept of “dirt” being so important is both symbolic and real.  When Jesse and I got married, we each had 2 containers of dirt, 1 from each of our family farms that we poured into a new container.  This represented the coming together of our families, and the importance of agriculture in our lives. The practical importance of dirt is not to be understated either.

At Mackinson Dairy, we use cow manure as a natural source of fertilizer and follow a detailed manure and nutrient management plan.  In 2011, we worked with engineers and other experts and together, they helped us design and build a manure-handling system.  Our current storage facility holds 2.8 million gallons and it is applied to our fields in the months after harvest. The manure helps improve the productivity and water-holding capacity of the soil.  As recognition of this work, we were awarded the 2013 Conservation Farm Family Award by the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Other examples of sustainable farming practices regarding ‘’dirt’’ include crop rotation which is used to naturally mitigate weeds and to improve soil quality. No-tillage crop farming for soil and fuel conservation involves leaving a field as it is after harvest and then planting over it the next year.   This reduces erosion, retains soil moisture, and conserves fuel.

We believe that using resources wisely and planning for the future so that our children will also be able to not only live here, but to be able to live off the ‘’dirt”. Conservation is part of what do every day at Mackinson Dairy.  The agriculture industry as a whole also continues to work towards achieving a sustainable food system.  You can read more here about what other sustainable work Illinois Dairy farmers are up to.

You might be wondering what you could do to help (even if you aren’t a farmer).  Everyone (me included) can reduce their food waste and this article provides us with 7 simple tips for cutting back on food waste. Our time here is limited so remember that it is our job not only on Earth Day but every day, to protect the land, water, and air for future generations.

You know you came from it

and someday you’ll return to it

Originally posted on Mackinson Dairy.

Mary Mackinson-Faber
Pontiac, IL

Mary raises dairy cattle and grain with her husband, Jesse, and two children in central Illinois. Mary's great-grandfather started the dairy farm over 150 years ago with just a handful of cows. Today, her family continues to live and farm on those original acres. Farming is a history and a passion for Mary and her family!

Apr 19 2015

Farm Families do more than put food on your table...

"Farm families are doing much more than putting food on our tables. They are raising well-rounded, modern-day problem-solvers, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need more young people like that in our country." 

Alicia Gonzalez
Chicago, IL

Alicia is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she will visit Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the City Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

Apr 14 2015

Tornado Aftermath for Illinois Farmers

Last Thursday, an EF4 tornado ripped through 20 miles of my community in northern Illinois. My farm and family were lucky enough to receive very little damage. Many of our friends and neighbors, however, were not so lucky. As you can see in the picture below, the path of the tornado left the town of Fairdale devastated, but stayed on an otherwise rural path tearing through farms and fields.

So, what does the aftermath of this storm look like for those farmers?

First and foremost, we help our friends and neighbors any way we can to rebuild our community. If a farmer wasn't directly affected by the tornado themselves, you can bet they have every family member and piece of equipment they own at a neighbors house helping to sort through the rubble. This morning, for example, the town of Fairdale is trying to get some of the rubble hauled away so they can continue to sort through what is left of their homes. Every truck and tractor driver helping in Fairdale this morning is a farmer from our community. 

Next, we have to think about planting. As farmers, we are pretty used to Mother Nature running the show, but this year she threw us quite a curve ball. Over the past few weeks, most farmers have been preparing their equipment to begin planting season. If your field was anywhere near that tornado, though, you have some pretty serious clean-up to do before that field is safe for your equipment to be driving through.

The biggest issue is that so much of the debris is large pieces of metal and tin from the buildings that were destroyed. We are also seeing fence posts that are stuck into the ground so far you will need a tractor to pull them out. It is likely that we will be finding debris from this storm for the next 3-5 years, but we need to do the best job we can getting it cleaned up before we can plant anything this year.

At this point, everyone affected by this storm is just hoping for a few weeks of good weather so that we can get as much clean-up done as quickly as we can. So far, the help we have seen through donations and volunteers has been astounding. Farmers are driving here from up to 200 miles away to help run equipment in Fairdale or pick up debris in fields, donation centers are full, and monetary support for the families that lost everything is gaining great momentum thanks to Go Fund Me accounts. 

The sense of community in a small town is always great, but after an event like this, it is even greater. Thank you to everyone who has come forward so far to help however possible- every little bit is appreciated. Even though the news crews are packing up their vans and moving on to other stories, our work here in northern Illinois isn't anywhere close to being done. Hopefully, Mother Nature gives us a little break and we are able to salvage what we can and get our crops into the ground for a successful growing season.

Trent Sanderson
Clare, IL

Apr 13 2015


In the midst of calving season and really any other time of the year – the dairy industry is often the focus of consumer questions and concerns.  The beef industry often flies under the radar.  With the buzz word being TRANSPARENCY, flying under the radar is not always ideal.

I love taking pictures, especially pictures of my cattle (cows, bulls, and calves alike) and, of course, my kids!  A picture is worth a thousand words and this picture below is no different.

This little black-white faced heifer calf was born outside on a sub-zero February morning.  Her mother, a first time mother no less, showed no signs of being close to calving the night before (hence the reason she was born outside).  Right off the bat, during morning chores and calving checks, my husband noticed her.  I was inside getting ready to go to work and I hear the truck back up to the door and moments later I had a newborn calf on my kitchen floor.  And just like that my super soft, but worn out king size sheets were being used to warm up this little icicle of a babe.  My blow dryer that was on it’s last leg was getting a workout.  Her little ears were frozen and just like humans – 5 minutes in sub-zero temperatures – can become frostbit.  I dried, my daughter dried, I dried again and we kept taking turns.  After about an hour inside, this little sweetie was back in the barn with her mother & ready to take on the world. She needed a little extra help nursing for the first time and getting that ever so important colostrum into her system.

Up to this point, this whole process may sound very similar or almost identical to a dairy operation!  Our beef cattle operation is called a cow-calf operation.  Point in case.  A cow is a female bovine that has birthed a calf.  The cows on our farm range in age from 3 – 15 years old.  The goal of our operation is for our cows to produce calves that will yield high quality meat cuts that are in demand in the marketplace.  We keep the top 10% of our heifers for replacement heifers – replacing older cows or cows that have slacked off on raising a calf.  While providing our customers with high quality beef is very important to us, it is equally important that the animals we raise are done so humanely and live a quality life on our farm.  When explaining to others how we go through our “heavy bred” pen every night during calving season to determine which cows need to be put in the barn for the night, some may say that we are babying them.  Some statements made have been such as, “A good cow that is bred right should be able to have a calf unassisted” or “if you help them all the time they will never try to have a calf on their own”.  My immediate response to these comments is always that every operation is different and every producer can run his/her operation the way he or she sees fit! Which is exactly what we do.  My husband and I both have full-time jobs off the farm, therefore our operation is more like a hobby.  It takes up just as much time as our jobs do, but we love every second of it. One calf makes a HUGE difference!  Hence, the reason why we put cows that are close to calving inside at night.

We typically wean our calves when they are between 6-8 months old.  This is different than a dairy operation.  Dairy operations maintain only females on the farm and cows must continue producing milk even after having a calf.  For the safety of dairy calves, they are weaned off within 3-10 hours after calving for safety purposes.  This is where beef operations and dairy operations are different.  In order for beef cattle to grow and eventually produce high quality meat cuts, they must thrive as a calf still nursing, begin consuming small amounts of feed as they get older and then eventually be weaned when they are old to “take care of themselves” and strictly consume grain and/or forage!  A beef calf that is older than 9 months old and still nursing from it’s mother is really doing more harm to the cow than good!  Cows still nursing older calves will begin to lose weight and their overall body condition is poor because that calf is essentially “sucking the life out of them”!  It will take longer for that cow to get back to her optimum body condition after nursing a calf for too long.

Long story short, CATTLE operations – dairy or beef – have one goal in mind…care for animals in a humane and ethical fashion and, of course, feed the world! As always, if you have questions about how your food is produced, please Ask the Farmers!

Originally posted on Ask the Farmers.

Alison McGrew
Good Hope, IL

Alison was born and raised on a grain and livestock farm in Central Illinois and now resides on a farm where she, her husband and their two children own and operate a beef cattle farm. Alison and her husband both have full-time jobs off the farm that are directly related to agriculture. Alison is a former high school agriculture, as well. You can learn more about their farm on Alison's blog Outside the Ag Room.
Apr 07 2015

What does it mean to be a farm family?

Our City Mom visit to the Gould Farm on a beautiful spring-like day earlier this March began with a warm welcome by several members, indeed generations, of the Gould Family. That warm welcome and that up-close encounter with the family is what has stayed with me most about the hog tour. While many of my colleagues are much more interested in and well-informed about food safety and animal welfare, I have to admit I am always much more interested in the human side of things. 

What does it mean to be a farm family? I think the Goulds are the perfect example. Along with Eldon and Sandy, the patriarch and matriarch, their son, Chris, and his wife Dana, as well as their kids, ranging in age from high-school to college, it seemed like the whole family is involved in the farm in some way or another. This is important because running a modern-day farm requires a multitude of talents and knowledge, from using computer technology and sophisticated software to monitor breeding and average litter size to actually handling the animals and feed. 

During our visit, Chris` teen-age son handled a huge boar, as Chris demonstrated the artificial insemination process to us. As a high school teacher, I am always drawn to how teenagers think, how they learn and how they grow. Meeting Chris and Dana`s kids that day was so refreshing. They are regular high school kids who play sports and take AP classes, but also obviously know hands-on how to run a farm. 

Based on my very limited encounter with the Goulds that day, I can`t help but observe that farm families are doing much more than putting food on our tables.They are raising well-rounded, modern-day problem-solvers, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. We need more young people like that in our country. 

Alicia Gonzalez
Chicago, IL

Alicia is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2015 City Moms. Throughout the year she will visit Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the City Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.
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