Through the early-morning shadows we go, my 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, and I, across the little stream my father rather grandiosely calls Jay's Creek and then out into the misty sunshine.
The stream is fed entirely by the springs with which our farm is blessed. Most of the time there are six of these. Their combined overflows, perhaps 150 gallons a minute in the spring of a normal year, make their way to Mill Creek, thence to Deer Creek, thence to the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.
The weakest of the springs has dried up in past summers, then started again with the autumn rains. After last year's dry summer, though, it didn't restart in the fall, and a second spring stopped this year. So now we're down to four. Their flow is still cool and clear, but a minute's worth today is only perhaps 12 gallons--about what a cow or a horse needs every day. When I cross the stream bed now, in this dry summer, I imagine what it would look like if even this little trickle were to cease. It isn't a pleasant thought.
The temperature is cooler this morning than it has been, and the humidity has dropped. In an hour or two, the mist will be gone and the sun will be hot in a cloudless sky. It's suddenly Wyoming weather here in the northeast corner of Maryland, and we're performing a Wyoming chore, moving cattle on horseback.
We're moving the cattle because they're out of grass in the scorched hilly hayfield they've been picking over the past couple of weeks. And we're doing it on horses because it's more efficient. I once used to kid myself that I could outrun or outmaneuver a cow on foot, but now that I'm pushing 60 I know for certain that I can't.
Most of the time, working healthy cattle on a good horse is pure pleasure, for the horse and his rider if not for the cattle. But not this morning. Deerflies swarm over the horses, and dust puffs up as we ride over the brown grass. The cows aren't happy, nor are the horses, and neither am I. Everywhere I look I see something else to worry about.
The farm pond is two feet below the overflow pipe. The field where we just plowed down wheat stubble to get ready to plant alfalfa seems as dry as talcum powder. On a windless afternoon a day or so ago, a drought-stricken cherry tree simply fell over in the field to which I'm about to move the cows.
We cut up the tree and moved it quickly; cherries are cyanogenic plants, which means their leaves, when wilted, can cause a form of cyanide poisoning fatal to livestock. Healthy leaves or dry dead ones aren't dangerous, but a leafy broken limb is a threat, especially when dry pasture conditions make the leaves more inviting to cattle. There are other cherry trees in the field, and I'll have to check them closely every day while the cows are there.
This drought is pretty bad, and in the local farming community it's about all we talk about these days. It seems to me I can remember others that were worse, but that may be only because I was cautious and therefore reasonably well-prepared to deal with this one.
For one thing, I didn't plant any corn this spring, so my only grain crop was winter wheat, which isn't much affected by summer weather and was harvested last month at a near-normal yield. I also reduced the cow herd significantly last year, culling many of the older cows. So even though my hay production was sharply reduced this season, I should have enough to carry the cows through this winter.
I say that hay production was "sharply reduced," but it was really much worse than that. In a normal year I cut the fields where I grow grass hay at least twice, and the alfalfa fields four times. This year's second grass hay cutting yielded about 15 percent of what it should have, and those fields won't be cut again.
The alfalfa fields look better, because the deep-rooted alfalfa keeps growing, but that's deceptive. The growing plants look rich and green, but there aren't as many of them as there might be. Our second alfalfa cutting was pitifully thin, and the third, if there is one, will be worse.
This means that while I'll be able to sustain my own livestock, I won't have much hay to sell. Hay has become a good cash crop for us in recent years, as farms in the area have been broken up into farmettes. The farmettes are owned by people who don't grow hay themselves, but need it for their horses and ponies. They'll be paying top dollar this winter, if anyone has any hay for sale.
So as Sarah and I ride toward the cattle this morning, I ask myself yet again why I'm still raising them. In a week or two I'll be selling my 6-month-old steer calves, and the feeders who will buy them know that because of the drought, grain to feed them is going to be expensive this fall. That, along with beef imports and changing consumer tastes, will hold down the price I receive. I'll get more per pound for the steers than I would have last year, I expect, but I'm still not going to make any money from the sale.
In the short run, it would probably make sense to sell all the cattle, and then sell the hay, too. (The big national cattlemen's groups would applaud if I did. They blame small producers like us for keeping cattle numbers up and market prices down, and maybe they're right about that.) In the winters recently, usually on bitter cold days when the water pipes are frozen and the tractors won't start, I've found myself grumbling about feeding valuable hay to worthless cows. I didn't really mean it then. But now, looking at a half-full hayloft, I'm not so sure.
Still, the cows are part of life here, on this modest patch of ground where my family has been farming for more than 50 years, and I know I won't give them up easily. Besides, they graze those parts of the farm that are too hilly and rough for crop land.
Sarah and I let the cows through the gate and urge them across a field toward the next gate a quarter of a mile away. If they decide to scatter now, or to break for the woods, we'll have to do some cowboy work. But the senior mothers in the herd have done this before and know exactly where they're going, and they head for the gate and the fresher pasture beyond it at a run. The big ready-to-wean calves follow along, bucking and bellowing. Dust flies up. In a few minutes, the job is done. The cows have made it easy.
They did so, of course, not to please me but because they wanted to go where I was taking them. At other times, they're not so easy to push around, which might surprise those urban adolescents who talk about "cow tipping." Their explanation is something like this: "You go like way out in the country until you find some cows sleeping, and you sneak up on them. They sleep standing up, so you just like tip them over! And then they can't get up! It's awesome!" The kids apparently don't know that cows weigh well over 1,000 pounds, that they have excellent hearing and an even better sense of smell, and that they do not sleep standing up. One would be better advised to try tipping over a mounted policeman.
During the Depression, when Americans had more pressing concerns than tipping over cows, our farm belonged to a man named Thomas Weaver. He made a living on it for several years after returning from a homesteading venture in Montana. This spring, his two daughters stopped by to pay a visit to the old place where they lived as children. It's changed somewhat in 60 years, but the hills are as steep as ever, and the same big maple tree still shades the kitchen window.
The women also remembered the abundant water, which then as now made the farm unusual. Long ago, they had heard, there had been a windmill on the farm to pump it. In their father's day, before the farm was electrified, water was raised to the house from the big spring in the hollow below it by means of a ram, an ingenious device in which the energy from a large volume of falling water is used to pump a small amount to considerable heights.
The ram has been gone for years, and that powerful spring isn't used for the house any more. There's a well now. But through a system of plastic pipes, the old spring still feeds five separate water troughs in different fields, running day and night, winter and summer, through wet years and dry ones. The overflow contributes to the little branch Sarah and I crossed on our way to move the cows.
We can make it through the drought, I keep telling myself, as long as the springs keep flowing. Like the others who have farmed this place before us, we can endure bad weather and low prices for a long time. But eventually, if rain doesn't come, the springs will go dry. When that happens we'll be just plain out of business.
Peter Jay, a former Post reporter, manages his family's farm in Harford County, Md.