Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is an Executive Editor for Meredith Agrimedia, including Living the Country Life and Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and has an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, live on a farm in Iowa where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.


Twitter: betsyfreese

December 17, 2013

Wrapping up 2013 in wool

We sent the last 20 market lambs to auction on Saturday. They averaged 130 pounds and brought $1.58 a pound. That's double what lambs brought last year (which was a disaster). Our sheep were extremely healthy all year. We lost one lamb to coyotes, but that is nine less than the year before.

There are 79,500 sheep operations in the U.S., according to the USDA, making it the second largest livestock industry (based on number of operations) in the U.S., says Jeff Held, South Dakota State University Extension Sheep Specialist. We are happy to be a part!

Here are our ewes on a snowy day last week.

December 16, 2013

Funny Family Stories

I hosted a Christmas dinner for family on Sunday. What fun. The best part of any family gathering is storytelling around the kitchen table. Here are two of my favorites.

The Missing Roasting Pan

When Bob's family moved to their acreage almost 40 years ago, it was a speedy move. A truck pulled up to their house in town and they hurriedly loaded everything on it. Bob's mom never could find the roaster after that. It must have been lost in the move. A few years later, Bob found the roasting pan -- still in the old oven in a shed. The chicken that had been cooking when the truck arrived was still in the roaster. Bob said it looked like a dinosaur skeleton.

Your Battery is Low

My mom got into her minivan one day last summer and heard a woman's voice say, "Your battery is low." She was amazed that her old van had an electronic voice alert, but she took the van to the nearby auto mechanic and asked him to replace the battery, which was the original. He did, and also inspected her tires, which were worn. He replaced them, too.

That evening, Mom got in the van to go to my sister's house and heard the voice say, again, "Your battery is low." She could not understand why her battery was still low after being replaced, but told my sister, "At least I feel safe knowing it will tell me when something is wrong."

The next morning, my sister got in Mom's van to load luggage for a trip. She heard a voice say, "Your battery is low." That's when she realized she had left her Bluetooth on the visor from driving the van earlier that week.

Dad was peeved the device cost him a new car battery and four new tires.

Here is an old postcard from 1906 I found in Mom's attic.

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December 11, 2013

New calf

Bob had to do a c-section on this show heifer -- she had a huge calf! The weather has been so brutally cold, he kept the cow and calf at the clinic overnight. Dr. Brennan tried to milk the cow, but she was practically dry. He mixed up milk replacer and gave the calf a stomachful. Mom and baby went home healthy!

December 9, 2013

Cold Construction

We got our first snow of the winter along with bitter cold, but that didn't stop construction on the homemade sheep shed. Warren and Bob put the roof on, and then Bob cut and installed the side panels using a borrowed "nibbler" tool that punches holes to cut the sheet metal.


December 6, 2013

Bob's Homemade Peanut Brittle

Bob made homemade peanut brittle last night for our church cookie walk fundraiser. There are lots of recipes that work fine. The process takes patience, a lot of stirring, and a big candy thermometer. Here are more tips:

  1. Butter cookie sheets and keep them warm in a 200-degree oven while you are making the candy. You have to keep the cookie sheets warm so the candy spreads without setting up too quickly.
  2. Only use unroasted (raw) peanuts.
  3. Use the largest, sturdiest, thickest wooden spoon you can find to stir the mixture. Bob has broken many spoons over the years.
  4. Buy thick oven gloves with a good grip to hold the pot while you stir. They will protect your hands if you spill the boiling candy goo.

Have fun!


December 3, 2013

Preg check

Bob preg-checked 280 cows in three hours this morning on a hilly farm in southern Warren County. I followed him out there to take photos. It was foggy, the roads were gravel with twists and turns, and he drives very fast. C'mon, man!

The process worked efficiently with the owner running the head gate, a kid recording data (he was happy to get out of school), Bob doing the rectal palpation, his vet partner, Brian, treating the cows, and three guys herding the cows. Thanks to Temple Grandin for designing the effective curved chute.

Bob has done so many of these pregnancy tests he knows in a few seconds if the cow is open (10 out of 280 weren't pregnant), 70 days along, or 3 months, just by feeling the uterus.

It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.


December 2, 2013

Cow call

Dairy farmers typically call the vet around 4 a.m, or milking time. Milk fever, or hypcalcemia, is a common emergency. At calving time, large amounts of calcium are removed from the cow's blood and used in colostrum. The rapid drop in calcium can cause milk fever. The first signs in a cow are nervousness and loss of appetite. A cow in the final stage of milk fever is unable to stand and may lose consciousness. These cows will not survive without treatment, which usually includes administering a warmed solution of calcium salts. The cow should stand up on its own within two hours.

Bob got the call to help this cow early Sunday morning and I rode with him. The barn had no lights, so Bob wore his headlamp. In this case the initial treatment did not work, as the cow was also suffering from toxemia. It was a more complicated case than usual. Country vet work is not pretty.

November 27, 2013

Moving On

Moving On

An ATV accident changed this family farm forever.
How they learned to adapt.

By Betsy Freese; Photos by Caroline Freese

The Sawyer family includes (from left) Lorna, Norman, Ruben (4 days old in this picture), Neal, and Lucie.

On April 19, 2012, Neal Sawyer and his father, Norman, were checking cows and installing portable electric fence in a pasture on their farm near Princeton, Iowa. They were both riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), also known as four-wheelers. On their way back to the house, there was a stretch of high-tensile fence to go through. Instead of driving to the gate, both Neal and Norman used sticks they always carried with them to lift the thick wire and then to duck under. Neal went first – lift, duck, drive. Norman was next.

“I had done it before many times,” says Norman. This time, the wire popped off his stick and caught on the throttle of the ATV, causing the machine to go wide open, full throttle. The wire then snapped back and hit Norman in the chest, pulling him backwards off the vehicle.

The ATV went roaring ahead with no rider, startling Neal. “I saw the four-wheeler fly down the hill and tip over,” he says. He raced back and saw his father on the ground. When he asked, “Are you all right?” Norman said, “I can’t feel my legs.” Neal called 911.

An ambulance couldn’t maneuver the pasture, so a medevac helicopter was summoned, landing in the field. Norman’s breathing was unsteady. He was flown to the hospital in Rockford, Illinois.

“I could feel them cutting my clothes off, but I couldn’t move,” says Norman. “I don’t remember much after that.”

No going back

Many surgeries followed; Norman was in an induced coma on life support for almost a month. His wife of 40 years, Lorna, visited every day. With the help of friends, she commuted the two hours each way from the farm.

Neal had to run the 160-cow operation on his own.

“Through that spring and summer, I managed to feed and move the cattle, but the little projects didn’t get done,” he says. Neal’s wife, Lucie, and other family members pitched in, but the future was uncertain.

“The worst thing was knowing he wasn’t going to come buzzing over the hill on his four-wheeler ever again,” says Neal.

Norman’s recovery moved slowly. After six months, he was moved to a Veterans Affairs (VA) rehabilitation unit in Minneapolis. He was defined as quadriplegic, paralyzed from the stomach down with some use of his hands.

It was in the VA unit that Norman hit his “lowest times,” he says. He knew his life would never be the same.

A computer speech therapist helped pull him out of depression by training him to use a voice-activated speech program called Dragon. It allowed him to write emails. “That has been a real salvation for him,” says Lorna.

Back home, the family was converting the house for a wheelchair, adding a ramp and an elevator. A special bed was installed with a mattress that moves at night to relieve bedsores.

Going home

Finally on March 22, 2013, almost a year after his accident, Norman moved back to the farm where he has lived since 1950. “It’s a blessing to be home,” he says, “but the low times still come. I look out the windows and can’t be out there. I’m still trying to adjust to life in a wheelchair.”

The sweetest day of spring came on June 19, 2013, when Neal and Lucie’s first child, son Ruben, was born.

By that summer, Norman had taken a spin on the zero-turn lawn mower, mowing for 20 minutes. His next goal is to drive a utility vehicle. Twice a week he goes to outpatient rehabilitation.

Norman uses the voice-activated computer program to keep track of cows on the farm. He also uses Dragon to work on QuickBooks for farm bookkeeping.

“I do all the chores and Dad keeps track of all the data,” says Neal. “He analyzes how much hay we are buying and how fast we are moving cattle.”

When Neal sees a cow in the pasture with a new calf, he sends an email to Norman, who records it.

“Every time the cows go in a new paddock, I send that to Dad,” says Neal. “I know how long of a rest the pastures are getting.”

Lessons learned

Both Norman and Neal say they have no hard feeling toward ATVs because of what happened.

“It was just an accident,” says Neal. “When we went to a grazing system, we bought brand-new four-wheelers. We had to have them.”

Neal has put 9,000 miles on his ATV in four years. “I use it all the time. I still go under poly wire because they will break, but I don’t go under high-tensile wire now.”

Norman agrees. “It was no different than getting bucked off a horse,” he says. “It would have taken me another minute and a half to go round through the gate. I should have gone around through the gate.

“I told Neal that’s the number one change we will make for sure,” Norman says. “Nobody will ever again sneak under high-tensile wire.”

Learn More

Norman Sawyer:

Neal Sawyer:

Read about Sawyer Beef at


The Dragon voice-activated speech program helps Norman Sawyer write emails.

Neal shows a high-tensile fence similar to the one involved in Norman’s accident (which only had one wire, not three).

November 25, 2013

Cold fun

An Arctic blast dropped temps to 3 degrees over the weekend, but that didn't stop our fun. On Friday night, the Indianola Veterinary Clinic unveiled its fabulous float for the Jolly Holiday Lights parade around the town square, winning the Chamber's Choice award. It wasn't easy pulling costumes on over coveralls, but they did it.

Speaking of coveralls, those were needed again on Saturday night when we cheered on the Iowa State Cyclones football team. It was the coldest kickoff in school history, but worth the layers of clothing. Big win! Hope you can find some fun in the harsh weather this week.

Dr. Brennan found out it is hard to pull a costume on over coveralls.

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