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 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.

April 29, 2013

Garden is a GO!

The conditions were finally right for Bob to till the garden. With all the compost he dumped on top last fall, the ground was as soft as commercial potting soil when he finished tilling. I made deep footprints and knee prints as I planted potatoes, onions, kohlrabi, and brussel sprouts. I still have the front of the garden to plant. Beets, lettuce, and tomatoes will go there. I'm planting gladiolius around the edges.

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April 25, 2013

Barn of baaas

We have had some unfortunate deaths of ewes this spring, resulting in this cute set of triplet bottle lambs. They are doing well.

Bob is upset with himself for getting the ewes too fat, and says that is the cause of our lambing troubles. The drought last year meant alfalfa yields were lower, but the quality was much higher. Each bale we fed the ewes had significantly more protein and energy than normal.

We didn't notice until we sheared them that the ewes were so fat. Too late. You can't cut back on groceries in the late stages of gestation or you will cause even more health problems. So we make do.

Even when you've been farming for 25 years you can still learn something every season.

Every ewe but one has twins or triplets. Thanks to our good neighbor Bill Hulen for helping with the ewe checks again this year.



April 22, 2013

A rough spring for cattle

The sick Red Angus calf says it all. It's been a rough spring for cattle -- long, cold, and wet. She ended up in the vet clinic "hot box" last night with an IV.

Bob says this has been the worst spring calving season he's seen in 25 years. He's treated many calves for pneumonia and other conditions. It's been a steady stream of farmers bringing cold calves into the clinic.

A farmer called last night about a cow down, possibly from grass tetany. Spring rains came quickly, so pastures are greening up fast. Bob is seeing more problems with this deadly condition caused by low amounts of magnesium in the blood serum after livestock graze young, succulent, cool season grasses. The recent drought can be playing a part, according to this report from Montana State University. Older animals, cows that have recently given birth, those nursing, high milk producers, and fat animals are more susceptible to grass tetany.

Early symptoms include uncoordinated gait, staggering, nervousness, excitability, and muscle spasms. There is only a four- to eight-hour interval between the onset of symptoms and death.

Montana State gives these tips to decrease the likelihood of grass tetany in your herd:

  • Graze animals that are less susceptible to grass tetany on tetany-prone pastures (i.e., steers, heifers, stocker calves, cows with calves older than four months).
  • Delay spring grazing until grass is 4 to 6 inches tall.
  • Graze pastures that have residual standing dead forage present before grazing pastures without.
  • Feed animals roughage for 10 to 14 days at the beginning of the grazing season before turning them out on lush, green pastures.
  • Feed legumes, which are higher in Mg than grasses, or graze legume pastures first in the spring.
  • Do not fertilize pastures with nitrogen (N) or potassium (K) before spring grazing.
  • Check animals grazing lush, succulent pastures periodically throughout the day for symptoms of grass tetany.
  • Supplement animals with a legume hay.
  • Supplement animals with a mineral or protein-energy supplement, using a form that will ensure that every animal will receive 1 to 2 ounces of magnesium oxide per day, for 30 days before spring grazing and for 30 days after the initiation of spring grazing.
  • Supplement animals by treating controlled water sources with soluble Mg salt.
  • Cull or develop alternative management strategies for animals that develop grass tetany because they will be prone to develop it in the future.

Call your veterinarian if you see signs of grass tetany. A sterile solution containing Mg and Ca (e.g., 200-500 ml calcium magnesium gluconate) can be given slowly to the animal intravenously. Enemas of 60 grams of magnesium chloride dissolved in 200 ml of water, placed in a collapsible, plastic bottle can be administered.

April 16, 2013

New lambs


These little Dorset lambs provide a bit of sweetness in this cold world today.

Lambing hasn't gone smoothly, but it rarely does. We've lost one ewe and had a few stillborns. Several lambs are getting bottles.

I am thankful to son Warren who has been on night duty for two weeks, checking the ewes at midnight, 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. This is the first year in 25 that Bob hasn't had to get up in the middle of the night during lambing season. That means he's not quite as tired and grumpy as he normally is this time of year. :-)

Seeing lambs bouncing around the pen is a cure for the blues.


April 11, 2013

Country Party!

For her birthday, Caroline brought a dozen friends home from college for the weekend. They had a barbeque and bonfire on Saturday night, ran around the yard playing kick the can until one a.m., and then crashed in the shop and basement. Sunday they had to be back at school by noon, so I had brunch featuring leg of lamb and lamb meatloaf. Most of the kids had never eaten lamb and Caroline wanted to give them that culinary experience. They loved it.

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April 9, 2013

Seeding time

Rain was heading our way, so Bob and I spent Sunday afternoon seeding the pond dam and new fenceline. This was the area we cleared out last fall after a drought dried up the marshy area behind the pond. Bulldozers had pulled out trees on the dam (the roots were harming the structure) and cleared brush around the outlet pipe.

Bob harrowed the area and I used a hand seeder to spread $100 worth of grass seed. We could have used more.

That night we got a nice rain and another storm blew through today. By this weekend I will be able to see all the spots I missed with the seeder.

The houses are creeping closer and closer to our 22-acre pasture and pond. They like the pastoral view we provide.

April 5, 2013

A visit to DewKist Farm

The editors of Living the Country Life and Successful Farming went on a road trip this week and one place we visited was Sharon Larson's acreage near Long Grove, Iowa. You can read about her great place here:

Sharon's blog about DewKist Farm is here:

Sharon showed us her dogs, horses, chickens, cats, and much more. Here are some photos. Thanks for hosting our crew, Sharon!

Sharon has 10 hens and says she wants 100 times that many.

That is our radio editor, Jodi Henke, interviewing Sharon's favorite hen.

Sharon has the perfect little horse barn.


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April 1, 2013

Water levels

I took a tour of the pasture and pond. Thank goodness we had a normal winter, meaning plenty of snow and rain. Below is the pond last September looking north. Note the duck nesting box on dry land. The next photo is looking south in late March. The nest is back in the water, as it should be. (If your water levels are still low this spring, here is advice on managing a pond after a drought.)

March 28, 2013

Share farm stories with Smithsonian

I was in Washington D.C. at the launch of the Smithsonian's Agriculture Innovation and Heritage Archive, a part of the National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian is asking the public to help it preserve the innovations and experiences of farming and ranching across the United States. Visitors can share their stories about the technologies and innovations that have changed agriculture. Your stories will be used by the Smithsonian to help prepare new exhibitions like American Enterprise, and all accepted submissions will be preserved and made publicly available on the archive's website.

To share your farm story, visit:

I sorted through a box of Dad's old photos and found these three showing life in the 1950s on a family farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania.

(If James Dean raised pigs.) Dad with his 4-H market hogs in 1955. There were no confinement barns or lean hogs back then. I must say, that lot is very weedy!

This 1950 Papec chopper was the first of its kind, says Dad.

My grandfather, Warren Johnson, raised 14,000 turkeys on pasture in 1950 near Nottingham, PA.

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March 26, 2013

Very Berry Pie

I visited Mom and Dad on their Maryland farm last week. Mom thawed out blueberries, red and black raspberries, and strawberries to make her exclusive Very Berry Pie, a recipe she created from ingredients grown on the farm. She gave me her handwritten recipe and then pointed out a few places where she added more of this or that. Here's is the final version. I think.

Ruth Ann Johnson's Very Berry Pie

4 1/2 cups total of raspberries (red and black), blueberries, strawberries

2/3 cup sugar

4 tbsp flour

2 tsp minute tapioca

1 tsp lemon juice

Mix all ingredients in a bowl lightly. Pour into 9-inch pie crust. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust.

Moisten top crust a bit. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake at 425 for 15 mins. Reduce to 350. Bake 45 mins.