Living the Country Life

Betsy's Backyard Blog

Betsy Freese is the editor-in-chief of Living the Country Life and executive editor of Successful Farming. She grew up on a fruit farm in Maryland (see and moved to the Midwest to get an agricultural journalism degree from Iowa State University. She and her husband, Bob, a veterinarian, have three children and own a farm where they raise sheep, hay, corn, and soybeans.

February 4, 2013

Hens in hot water

The highlight of the Super Bowl for many people in rural America, based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, was not who won the game, but the two-minute commercial by Ram Trucks "God Made a Farmer" in the second half. You can watch it here.

Speaking of social media, here is a popular post on the Living the Country Life Facebook news feed. Have a wonderful week!


February 1, 2013

Udderly good ideas

I attended Ag Connect Expo this week in Kansas City. My favorite session was by Cheryl Mohn, founder of Udder Tech in Lakeville, Minnesota. Cheryl was milking full-time on the family dairy operation when she dreamed up a product to shave 20 minutes off of her milking time. She designed the Towel Tote so everything she needed -- towels, pre-dip and post dip -- were handy. With a $2,000 loan from her parents, she launched Udder Tech in 1994.

Today, one of the company's most popular products is a calf blanket. Made of Thinsulate and with quick-release buckles for easy on and off (no velcro to get dirty), it is a hit with vets and farmers.

In fact, by total coincidence, my husband, Bob, sent me the photo above of a newborn calf, named Buttercup Ritchie, he was treating at the vet clinic this week. It's wearing an Udder Tech calf jacket.

That brings up another good point: It's frigid out there! Calving season always starts on the coldest week of the year. Below is the homemade, rigged up calf warming hut Bob uses at the clinic. It works!


January 28, 2013


Many of you have read about my Uncle David, Dad's younger brother, who had schizophrenia. I have shared parts of my grandmother's journals detailing his suffering.

David died on Saturday in Pennsylvania from heart failure. He was 72. For the past decade he had refused to see anyone from the family, including his mother and older brothers Doug, 78, and Phil, 75 (my dad). It was hard on everyone, but there was little we could do. He was cared for by the staff at the long-term psychiatric facilty.

One of the great tragedies of David's life is that he wasn't able to enjoy the companionship of his two brothers. For Dad's 75th birthday this month, Doug wrote him a letter that I share here. It demonstates what siblings can mean to each other.

Happy 75th Birthday my dear brother,

50 years ago if you had asked me what I would be doing in 2013 I would have had no clue. If I had asked you the same question you would have been able to tell me, “On the farm.” My hearty congratulations on your perseverance. You have been the rock of our family and the preserver of our family heritage on both the Ross and Johnson sides. Granddad Ross is saying, “Well done, my grandson on the farm.” Your father is saying, “Atta-Boy. I knew you would do it.”

You will recall Pop talking of how hard Nelson Neyman [a neighbor dairy farmer] worked. Surely you have run a neck to neck race with him in your lifetime. As you have demonstrated, some things just need to get done. Pick those tomatoes, load those hogs.

Moore’s Chapel would not be what it is today were it not for your skill, fortitude and perseverance. Anyone can make a monetary contribution, but few can see the task completed.

There are those that may think of you as that “gruff old man.” How quickly that image dissipates as one talks with you. My children and their children love Uncle Phil. I have watched with envy how young people seek your tutelage. You have been able to discipline and guide without resentment. You dished out some pretty tough love, and it brought results. I have seen the love you showed my girls though the years. Many thanks. Your 4-H livestock club taught many the appreciation of animals. Those young people are all the better because you took the time to be interested in them.

Phil, thank you for your brotherly love toward me. I know many of my radical ideas needed taming. You were the source of the scraper that leveled the playing field. You must have asked, where did I come up with those ideas? We could always work together without injuring one another.

One last thought about you is your skill in picking a life mate. I remember very well the pride you had when you first told me of Ruth Ann. You can mark that decision as the very best life-altering move you ever made.

May your next years be as fulfilling as those in the past!


Aunt Jane, Uncle Doug, Mom and Dad

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January 24, 2013

Pig decisions

I stopped by the Iowa Pork Congress and immediately ran into a couple I have seen every year at this event for more than 25 years. Junior and Violet greeted me with, "Betsy! We need your advice." They are thinking about retiring, at least from the pig business. Their production contract ended and they can either look for another pig supplier or stop feeding hogs. Their barns are old and need work.

I told them what Bob did when his feeding contract ended. He scrapped what he could from the old barns and hired a company to tear down the rest. If you don't get rid of the barns, somebody will come along and say, "I have 500 pigs I need a place for. Can you feed them?" Junior had already been asked to do that. Violet says she won't load hogs any more. Her back can't take it.

I told them to retire. If you are wondering if it's time, it's probably time.

"What will I do when I get up in the morning if I don't have hogs to feed?" said Junior. I suggested a project in the shop. First he could clean the shop, said Violet.

These are salt-of-the-earth people who only leave the farm to attend farm shows. Iowa Pork Congress is their vacation for the year, unless they go wild and also attend World Pork Expo. Every day they fed hogs, moved manure, vaccinated pigs -- and they loved it. The kids live nearby, and Violet helps with the grandkids several days a week.

Good luck to them as they retire. Or at least retire from pig production. Junior reminded me, "I'm still feeding cattle."

Here was my decision for the morning: Should I try both of these foods on display?


January 23, 2013

Pie Day

Nobody will ever believe me, but I didn't know it was National Pie Day until after I posted a photo of my Mom's empty pie shell (shown below) on the Living the Country Life Facebook page and asked readers what filling they liked best. The response was so fast and fun that I created a poll with all the different types of pies, based on the reader feedback. Vote here:

I also discovered there is a National Pie Council (

For the record, I love berry (any kind of berry), tart cherry, tart lemon cream, and rhubard pie the best.

January 22, 2013

Farm signs

These old signs hang on the wall of Dad's shop. Each one has meaning. My Uncle Doug sold Kesco milking equipment. Dad planted DeKalb corn. And my grandfather, Warren D. Johnson raised and processed turkeys on his Pennsylvania farm for 50 years. The locals called him Turkey Johnson and wouldn't buy their Thanksgiving birds from anyone else. "The taste is never forgotten."

I don't know anything about the sign below, but it makes me smile.


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January 21, 2013

A good day to ship a box of meat

When I left for work this morning it was ZERO, DARK, and Seven THIRTY. (Speaking of that movie, I saw it over the weekend and highly recommend the last half.)

We have a saying at our house when it's this cold: It's a good day to ship a box of meat.

Bob is at the UPS store right now sending a box of frozen lamb chops and ground lamb to our son in South Carolina. With a little dry ice the meat will still be rock hard when it arrives.

A few years ago, when we didn't know what we were doing, we shipped a box of meat to Nowlan's apartment during the summer. It went to the wrong UPS warehouse and they were confused on the address, but failed to call us. When the meat finally arrived it was very bad indeed.

The photo below shows our kids and friends during Christmas break. I cooked a leg of lamb for their "gaming" night.

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January 18, 2013

Massages and bookcases

Two weeks ago Mom was diagnosed with pneumonia. It's been one of those winters. She got an ear infection the week before Thanksgiving, and then a nasty chest cold which lingered through Christmas. She is now on her fourth round of antibiotics, but is finally starting to feel better. I flew out to Maryland to see if I could cheer her up and stayed long enough to celebrate Dad's 75th birthday.

Dad is restoring an old manure spreader in the shop and pruning his raspberries. For his birthday Mom gave him a gift certificate for a massage, his first. She didn't know if he would like it, but thought it might help with his sore muscles. When he returned she asked how it went.

"Great," said Dad. "I'm going back in two weeks. She was a cute redhead."

I decided to buy Dad a bookcase for the basement. His books were in boxes. My friend Robin drove to the store and we loaded a 6-ft oak bookcase in her SUV. We got home and snuck it in the basement before Dad came in to watch the Ravens play.

"Where's Dad?" I asked Mom.

"He went to an auction to buy bookcases."

Soon Dad came in the lane with three bookcases in the back of his truck. He had quite a shock when he went in the basement, and then we all had a good laugh. His auction finds were junk, so he tossed them on the scrap heap.

Below: Mom and Dad in their favorite spots. You know Mom is on the mend when she starts baking.

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January 9, 2013

Stuck tongues

WARNING: Graphic image below.

An NBC report this morning talked about kids getting their tongues stuck inside popular metal water bottles. The narrow neck and brass ridges on the bottle create a suction and act like a noose, trapping the tongue. The tongue swells up and can die, or it can block the airway and suffocate the child. See the story here.

Many human health stories remind Bob of similar cases in his veterinary practice, and this was no different. He immediate thought of a hunting dog he saw last month with a swollen tongue.

On close examination, Bob saw that a tendon of some kind was wrapped around the base of the tongue. It turned out to be the trachea of a deer. The owner had fed the dog raw venison after a hunt and the dog had gotten his tongue stuck inside the deer trachea. It acted as a noose and caused the tongue to swell.

There is no happy ending to this story. After removal of the deer trachea, the tongue remained swollen. Quality of life became an issue, and the owner and Bob made the difficult decision to put the dog down.

The owner agreed to publish the story and photo as a way to warn other hunters and dog owners about the dangers of feeding raw venison to pets.

January 7, 2013

Census of Ag

Bob got a call from the USDA the other night. I wasn't sure who he was talking to at first; all I heard was "40...about 85...2...I have no more goats!"

The call was from the Census of Agriculture. I'm not sure why they called, as we still have time to fill out the batch of paperwork (shown below) before the Feb 4 deadline.

One thing they wanted to know was how many tons of hay we had fed in 2012. "Half a hayloft full," said Bob. We don't weigh our small bales of hay, and I'm not sure any small farmer does.

Last night Bob went through all the records on our sheep operation. He was astounded to find that we lost 12 tagged lambs last summer. That doesn't count lambs that died at birth or within a few days. We found three carcasses in the pasture killed by coyotes, but there must have been many more.

It was a hot, dry summer, and the ewes and lambs went into the pasture at night more often than in a normal year, searching for grass. This year we will call them up at dusk and lock them behind the barn until morning. Live and learn.

For more information on the Census of Agriculture, go here.