Monday, January 31, 2011

Taxpayers may be at odds with 2012 Farm Bill spending

To paraphrase former Vice-President Al Gore, “the budget economics are settled.” And this time they really are.

Last Thursday the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its new ten-year federal budget baseline and the numbers are shockingly bad, showing an unprecedented $1.5 trillion deficit for this fiscal year – an increase of $95 billion over their last estimate – and the third consecutive year of trillion-dollar deficits.

The Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit, donor-supported, conservative research organization, notes that the reality is likely far worse than the CBO figures indicate. Researcher Brian Riedl finds that the federal government will add $19.1 trillion in new debt between 2009 and 2021, a whopping $140,000 per household over 13 years. Annual budget deficits will never drop below $1 trillion, and the debt is now projected to reach 100 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020.

Riedl also found that the trillion-dollar deficits are being wholly driven by rising government spending. While tax revenues will return to their historic norm of 18 percent of GDP by 2018, federal spending will jump to 26.4 percent of GDP, nearly seven percent higher than the historic norm, by 2021.

Our federal budget deficit, of course, is the difference between what the government spends (including interest paid on debt) and what it generates in revenues. Those revenues are almost entirely tax revenues.

Though the 111th Congress (2009-2010) never passed a budget, federal spending in 2010 was $6.037 trillion, or 6,037 thousand billion dollars. Federal revenues were $4.537 trillion, or 4,537 thousand billion dollars, leaving a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit. That’s one-and-a-half thousand billion dollars. Keep those numbers in mind and compare them to federal agricultural spending numbers as you read on.

Why should farmers and ranchers be concerned? Leaving aside the reasonable concerns most ag producers share with other business owners regarding the federal government’s unsupportable spending spree, those of us in the ag sector should understand that taxpayer pressure is likely to force changes in federal spending, including the 2012 Farm Bill, which will fund the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A study conducted jointly by economists from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank and Oklahoma State University supports the notion that real changes are likely to be made to federal ag spending beginning with the upcoming Farm Bill. A paper prepared for the study will be presented this weekend at the Southern Agricultural Economics Association annual meeting in Corpus Christi, Tex. To read the full text of the paper, visit

The study included a survey of 1,200 consumers and taxpayers from across the country, asking what the spending priorities of the 2012 Farm Bill should be. Respondents were asked to prioritize ag spending in six areas: rural development, food safety and inspection, natural resources and environment, food assistance programs, research and education, and farm support programs.

All of these areas receive federal dollars through the so-called Farm Bill, which when it becomes law usually bears a different name. The 2008 Farm Bill, for instance, is called the “Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.” Despite this, the roughly pentadal, or every-five-years, acts are almost universally referred to as the Farm Bill.

As a refresher, total spending for the 2008 Farm Bill was $57.6 billion annually for a total of $288 billion over five years. The entire $288 billion equals 0.047 percent of all federal spending in the single year 2010, or just under one-half of one percent. For comparison, 32 percent of federal spending went to Social Security and Medicare, 14 percent to defense, and 14 percent to education.

Of the $288 billion in Farm Bill spending, about 20 percent, or $57.6 billion, went to farm support payments, including federal crop insurance. The other 80 percent, roughly $230 billion, supported non-farm programs, including the five mentioned above. The lion’s share, 60 percent or about $138 billion, went to food assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the food stamp program) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. The remaining $92 billion funded all other USDA activities, including conservation, food and animal inspection, education and research, among others.

The preface of the study paper notes that while 80 percent of those surveyed favor government subsidization of farmers, more than 80 percent of professional economists feel that farm subsidy payments should be eliminated. The preface also notes that President Obama wants to cut direct payments to “mega-farmers” with more than $500,000 annual sales revenue and reduce crop insurance payouts.

So how did the 1,200 U.S. taxpayers surveyed think new Farm Bill dollars should be divided? What do these non-farming/ranching citizens see as priorities when it comes to federal agricultural spending?

Respondents were asked which of the six primary USDA programs was most important. They were also asked to divide an imaginary $100 between the six programs in the spending ratio they believed proper for federal ag spending.

Food safety and inspection has probably been the biggest ag related topic covered by the major media in recent years, and unsurprisingly, 50.7 percent of those surveyed felt that it was the most important USDA program. In the current Farm Bill, food safety and inspection receives just over three percent of USDA dollars, about $90 million, or $3.14 per $100.

Just over 20 percent felt that food assistance programs were the most important. In the present Farm bill these programs receive $60.40 of each $100 in USDA spending.

Farm support programs were felt to be the third most important priority. Such programs currently receive $22.03 of every $100 spent by the USDA. Respondents felt this number was too high, however, and set their dollar figure at $15.82 per $100.

Respondents were found to be in favor of redirecting some farm support dollars into research, which they felt would benefit both farmers and consumers alike.

In summary, the researchers find that in “…looking at an overall distribution of funds, we can see people prefer a more equitable allocation of dollars. On average, respondents would like to see more dollars going to food safety and inspection, natural resources and environment, research and education, and rural development and less dollars going to food assistance and farm support.”

Congress is going to swim through a lot of red ink as they fumble through the budget process. There’s a good chance that whatever the 112th congress does, it will be historic. Possibly historically bad, possibly historically good. As farmers and ranchers, we make up far less than two percent of the population. We’ll be mostly bystanders.

But we don’t have to be completely silent. Use some of these numbers in your morning and afternoon coffee sessions. Send this article on to your congressional representatives. Write a letter to the editor or put something up on a blog. It might not make much difference, but you’ll have solid facts on your side.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fence Radio, or, usin' whatcha got

As I pull up to the north gate each morning, I turn the heater fan down (in the winter, anyway)  and turn on the radio. Along with 850 KOA’s Colorado Morning News, I also get a status update on my electric fence. Now that’s service! No wonder the AM radio station’s call letters KOA stand for King Of Agriculture.

Of course, April (Zesbaugh) and Steffan (Tubbs) don’t actually use their broadcasted words to tell me how the fence is performing. Rather, the fence tells me, through the signal it broadcasts over the AM band, and which my pickup radio detects.

The unit that powers the north fence, called an “energizer,” or more commonly a “fencer,” is powered by alternating current (AC) electricity. Electricity is supplied to the ranch house through the regional power company from the so-called national electrical grid. Electrons flow from the far away power plant, through hundreds of miles of steel transmission cables, booster stations and transformers, until it finally reaches the ranch at a standard household voltage.

The fencer is plugged into 120 volt household current at the garage, and uses an internal transformer to change the AC into direct current (DC) which it sends in pulses through the roughly five miles of electric fence it energizes.

As the 12,000 – 15,000 volt pulses course through the length of the steel fence wire, they excite electrons in the steel, freeing many of them to fly off of the steel and into the atmosphere, making the fence a radio broadcasting station of sorts.

Though the signal is powered by quite a bit of voltage, the amperage, or “push” of the current is quite low, and so is the range of the fence’s radio broadcasting capability. At 20 feet from the fence, my pickup radio can’t pick up a single “pop,” but at 5 – 10 feet it picks up the signal nice and clear.

As the hosts of the morning show report the news Coloradoans need and want to hear with their morning coffee or on their drive to work, I can hear in the background a soft “pop-pop-pop” as the electric charge travels through the wire, then the air, then to my antenna. Hearing that “pop-pop-pop” is a good thing, and it tells me a lot about how the fence is functioning.

If the popping sound is clear and strong, it means that the fence is working properly. If the sound is softer than usual, it means that the wire is slightly grounded, probably giving up some strength to a wet wooden fence post, or sometimes to overgrown grass or weeds. If the sound is intermittent, the wire has probably come loose from an insulator and is probably grounding as it swings in the breeze and occasionally touches a steel post or even the ground. If there’s no popping sound at all, there’s obviously no current flowing through the wire. The problem could be a continuous ground, a broken wire, or a power outage at the ranch house. The fencer might even be unplugged, as happens occasionally when nieces and nephews visit and “explore.”

If I get a strong popping signal in the morning, I can go about my chores with the knowledge that the fence is working correctly and needs no attention. If the popping is weak, intermittent, or absent, I know I probably have a repair to make. Once a week or so I drive the length of the fence, looking for missing insulators and listening to the steady “pop-pop-popping.” Having the radio detect the condition of the fence makes the job quick and easy. Most of the time.

The electric fence I check each day isn’t really vital to the success of the operation. It’s there only to keep the cattle out of shelterbelts and wildlife plantings which surround the pasture. On the other side of the shelterbelts and wildlife plantings is a sturdy four-wire barbed wire fence. Still, it’s best to keep the cattle where they belong, and my pickup radio helps me with the task.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is the Renewable Fuels Standard for corn ethanol sustainable?

Like the word “green,” the word “sustainable” has a lot of cachet these days.

Over the last 10 days I asked a selection of people I met what “sustainability” means. The total number of respondents was 27. Twenty-one were from Nebraska, three from Wyoming, two from Colorado, and one from Quebec, Canada.

Five of the 27 were able to rattle off a pretty fair definition of “sustainable,” saying in essence that it involves replacing what is used in a system so that the system can continue to produce indefinitely.

Twenty-two of the respondents, however, (including a pair of college/university professors) could only come up with vague mumblings about “green”, “the planet”, “global warming”, and so forth. The single most repeated definition was, “sustainability is, like, sustainable. You know?”

So to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s see how Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines the word.

sus-tain-able adj (ca. 1727) a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged (techniques/agriculture) b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods (societal).

In very simple terms, sustainability in agriculture is the ability to replace what is used during food production so that food can continue to be produced, and to do so without permanently damaging the production system.

In 2005 congress passed the Energy Policy Act. One of the provisions of that act was the mandate to produce ethanol and other biofuels to be blended with the U.S. fuel supply. This provision, called the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), has the force of federal law behind it, and calls for a tiered increase in the quantity of biofuels – mainly ethanol – produced through 2022. In 2008 the RFS was revised and upgraded, calling for the production of 36 billion gallons of “renewable fuel” annually by 2022.

According to the RFS, 31 billion of the 36 billion gallon annual requirement is to be ethanol. Fifteen billion gallons is required to come from traditionally fermented and distilled corn starch each year. Cellulosic biofuel – ethanol produced with feedstocks other than corn – is required to produce 16 billion gallons each year. The remaining five billion gallons is called “undifferetiated advanced biofuel,” described as “…other than derived from corn starch…(including) “cellulosic biofuels, “biomass-based diesel”, and “co-processed renewable diesel.”

Can this corn help to ease fuel prices and reduce our dependency on foreign oil? Can it do so in a sustainable fashion?
Since corn-based ethanol is the subject, we’ll ignore the other fuel types in the RFS and ask this question. Is the 15 billion gallon annual production of corn ethanol sustainable? We’ll look at four areas. What is the present production level, and how does it compare with the mandate? Is there enough farmland to produce the corn required to meet the mandate? Can the required quantity of corn be sustainably and reliably produced without taking corn from the human food stream? And finally, is the RFS likely to be economically sustainable at the consumer level?

We will not look at tax credits for ethanol producers and blenders, nor will we look at the so-called “corn subsidy.” Those are topics for another article.

Production numbers

According to numbers published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in March, 2010, for the 2009 production year, 10.7 billion gallons of corn ethanol was produced. The RFS called for 10.5 billion gallons, so the goal was exceeded. Or was it? The same publication cited daily production in barrels as 787,000. At 44 gallons per barrel, production totaled 287.25 million barrels, or just over 6.5 billion gallons. What happened to the other four billion gallons? Is this a simple math or unit conversion error? Thus far the answer remains unclear. Was production in 2009 a 4 billion gallon shortfall or did the industry beat the standard by 200 million gallons? Is it possible that the number reported is different than the actual production number?

The numbers for 2010 aren’t in yet, but industry administrators are claiming a 12-month production run of slightly more than one billion gallons over their production target. What the 2010 “target” was is again unclear, and no credible number has been published. Was their target the RFS mandated 12 billion gallons? Or was it a smaller number?


According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, U.S. farmland totals 406.5 million acres. In 2007 corn was cultivated on 86.2 million acres and produced 12.7 billion bushels. According to the USDA, 2009 corn production hit 13.2 billion bushels, the highest annual production on record, on 86.5 million acres. Production numbers for 2010 haven’t yet been released, but USDA estimates put the number at 93 million bushels lower than to 2009 number, on roughly the same acreage.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the 10.7 billion and 13.5 billion gallon ethanol production numbers for 2009 and 2010 are correct. If so, it is just possible, in theory, to eke out enough corn to hit the 15 billion gallon annual RFS mandate, on the same or just slightly more acreage. But is that target reliably sustainable? What happens when the weather doesn’t cooperate? What happens when there is drought, or flooding, or disease or pest problems?

Proponents of the RFS and the mandate to produce 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol annually opine that the solution is to plant more acres of corn. But is upping U.S. corn acreage sustainable? If you count sorghum, soybean, sugarbeet, and even dry bean acres, you could theoretically add about 70.6 million additional acres of high-yield corn cultivation, for a total of nearly 160 million acres. But that’s really all the suitable high-yield corn land available in the U.S. And if you convert all sorghum, soybean, dry bean and sugarbeet acres to corn, the law of supply and demand will become the driving force. As stocks of the non-planted crops dwindle, their value will increase. Farmers, if they remain at liberty to plant the crops which will bring them their highest economic return, will turn away from corn and begin planting the more valuable crops. Corn production will fall off.

Or will farmers remain at liberty?

If the 2009/2010 corn ethanol production numbers are actually lower than reported, the prospect of complying with the 15 million gallon per year mandate begins to look somewhat bleak. Is the RFS really sustainable?

Food vs fuel

Corn ethanol production in 2009 used more than 38 percent of total U.S. corn production for the year. USDA and the ethanol industry report that somewhat more than 40 percent of 2010 corn production went to ethanol plants. The remaining 60 or so percent is used essentially for human consumption. The largest part is fed to animals, which are in turn fed to people. Humans also consume corn in sweeteners, breads, snacks, and other food items. If corn acres and corn production can’t sustainably be increased, can corn ethanol production be increased by diverting corn from the human food stream? Is this a sustainable scheme?

Presently, animal feed demand for corn is sharply down. This is because the numbers of food animals in the U.S. is at a very low ebb. The cow herd is at it’s smallest since 1963, and hog and poultry numbers are at their lowest point in decades. Yet demand for meat remains high and is increasing as the U.S. and much of the world continue to climb out of the recession.

The reduced number of food animals in the production pipeline began driving prices higher last year and will continue to do so for months and years to come. Food animals, like other agricultural crops, cannot be produced overnight.

This food animal shortfall is contributing to rapidly escalating retail food prices, both in the U.S. and around the world, where food prices are back at the same 2008 levels which were described as a crisis.

U.S. food prices were up about two percent in the fourth quarter of last year. But two percent is a drop in the bucket compared to world food prices, which skyrocketed 32 percent in the last half of 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Index of World Food Prices.

Is diverting food stream corn to ethanol production a sustainable option in the light of rising food prices? Is it politically sustainable with the grim possibility of food riots and even widespread famine just over the horizon?

The thermodynamics of blending gasoline with ethanol

Don’t let the big science word put you off. Thermodynamics is just the study of heat, and heat is what internal combustion engines produce. The heat is converted to locomotive energy, or more simply, it is used to drive the wheels.

Heat is produced by burning fuel and air in the tightly closed environment of the cylinder(s) of the engine. Traditionally, the fuel burned has been gasoline. Most transport trucks and a very small percentage of automobiles use diesel, but diesel is a tangential subject and not important to our analysis of the sustainability of the RFS corn ethanol mandate.

Gasoline is a very good fuel. It’s a hydrocarbon, and as the name suggests it’s made up of hydrogen and carbon. To provide power, it’s is mixed with air and burned in the engine, producing heat (energy) to drive the engine and chemical combustion products which are released through the exhaust system. The combustion products contain hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, mostly in the form of water (H20), carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Burning gasoline produces a lot of energy, about 115,000 Btu (British thermal units) per gallon, according to data produced by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. ORNL is one of the main research institutions of the Department of Energy.

In general, gasoline is safe, easy to handle and store, and readily available throughout the world at a reasonable cost. In the decades following WWII, however, gasoline gained the reputation of being a heavy polluter. For various reasons, early gasoline formulations and less sophisticated engines emitted lots of lead, nitrogen compounds and soot, in addition to H2O, CO and CO2. Federal emission and efficiency standards enacted in the1960’s and 1970’s led to the development of cleaner, more efficient engines and fuel formulations, and today, modern gasoline is actually a remarkably clean burning fuel.

Gasoline is such a good fuel, however, that enormous quantities are used around the world (390 million gallons per day in the U.S. alone). At this scale of use, a great deal of carbon is released to the atmosphere, and in recent years concerns have grown as to the effect this atmospheric carbon load has on climate change. Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, tends to retain heat in the atmosphere in what is commonly called the greenhouse effect. Carbon monoxide emissions also became a concern in urban areas with many automobiles and heavy traffic, where smog and high carbon monoxide levels were a health risk

The combination of environmental concerns and a desire to “free” the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil prompted, in large part, congress to mandate the RFS. The ethanol produced under the RFS is required to be added to, or “blended” with gasoline.

The mandated introduction of ethanol into the gasoline stream means consumers now have a choice between regular gasoline and a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, sometimes called E-10. Nearly every gasoline retailer in the country offers both choices. Standard engines can burn up to a 10 percent ethanol blend without modification.

An alternative is E-85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Engines capable of burning this blend are specially modified and equip vehicles known as flex-fuel models. Of the roughly 250 million passenger vehicles in the U.S, about 6 million are flex fuel powered.

With the stated purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil, we must now ask whether the RFS has been or will be successful in doing so, and if successful, at what cost to U.S. consumers?

Let’s look first at emissions.

Unlike the hydrocarbon gasoline, made up of hydrogen and carbon, ethanol is an alcohol, composed of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Because alcohols have higher octane, or anti-knock ratings than gasoline, ethanol was considered as a replacement when lead anti-knock additives were banned from gasoline in the early 1970’s. While lead was eventually replaced by safer compounds, ethanol was shown to reduce carbon monoxide (CO) emissions, and ethanol additives began to be used in urban areas in the late 1970’s.

Ethanol is able to reduce CO emissions because it features oxygen in each molecule, and when combusted, that oxygen combines with carbon monoxide in the exhaust (carbon plus one oxygen, CO) to form carbon dioxide (carbon plus two oxygen, CO2), a less toxic gas, but one that is said to be a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Now let’s look at the economics of blending ethanol with gasoline.

 What’s the real story on fuel prices? It's more than price per gallon.
At most filling stations, regular and 10 percent ethanol blend (often called premium) gasolines are offered side by side, and the per-gallon price of the ethanol blend is usually, but not always, less than the per-gallon price of regular gasoline. Blended gas appears at first glance to be a less expensive alternative. Is this true? Unfortunately, it is almost always not true.

Ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline. Each gallon of gasoline contains 115,000 Btu (British thermal unit) of energy, compared to 75,700 Btu for ethanol. Therefore, ethanol has only 66 percent the energy of gasoline. The ratio of energy input to work output is constant in an engine. You can think of it as 1:1; for each energy unit you put in, you get one work unit out. Put in less energy, you get less work out. If your car goes 10 miles on one quart of gasoline, it’ll only go 6.6 miles on one quart of ethanol.

Blending gasoline with ethanol dilutes the energy content of the fuel. A 10 percent blend has only .966 (96.6 percent) the energy of regular gasoline. Now that’s not a large energy reduction, only 3.4 percent, but it is significant and adds up over time.

Ethanol blend prices typically run 5-10 cents lower than regular gasoline prices. On Monday in Kimball, Neb., for instance, regular gas was $3.11 per gallon, while the ethanol blend was $3.04. To break even, or to pay the same price per unit of energy, the ethanol blend price would have to be $3.00 (.966 x $3.71). The ethanol blend costs more and yields less energy. Less energy means reduced mileage and range.

To break even, or to get the same bang for the buck, the ethanol blend price has to be the same as the energy ratio, .966. To reduce the price at the pump, the ethanol blend price has to be less than .966 of the cost of regular gas. Ethanol blending doesn’t save the consumer money at the pump unless it beats the energy spread.

The environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently approved a 15 percent blending rate, so soon consumers might be getting even less while paying more. A 15 percent blend has only .949 (94.9 percent) the energy of regular gas. To calculate the breakeven price, multiply the regular gas price by .949. Using our previous example, $3.11 times 0.949 equals $2.95. Therefore, a 15 percent ethanol blend should cost $2.95 per gallon, simply to provide the same energy for the same price. We'll have to see how the 15 percent blend is priced, but if history is our guide, the new blend is unlikely to meet or beat breakeven price.

The news is even worse for E-85, which has an energy ratio of .711. E-85 was priced at $2.85 per gallon on Monday, 22 cents above the breakeven price of $2.63.

At today’s prices, corn ethanol costs consumers more, and provides less. Is corn ethanol economically sustainable for consumers? It seems not.

Is the RFS mandate of producing 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol sustainable? You be the judge. It might be. But the prospect is looking rather shaky at the moment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


January is a hard time for funerals. As if there’s an easy time.

We buried our Great-Aunt last week. The weather, after four days of sub-zero temperatures, cooperated. The skies were clear and the sun was bright. But a cold January wind swept through the cemetery.

She was 83 years old when she passed, and had been married to my Great-Uncle since 1946. The two had been inseparable since meeting in high school. They had three daughters and many grand- and great-grandchildren.

They grew up during the Great Depression, living a life I can only imagine, never understand.

Consider this – consider hoeing beets every day from planting to harvest, starting in the fields as soon as you were able to pick up a hoe. All day, every day, except when school was in session, when you worked the fields before and after school. And except for a few hours on Sunday when you went to church.

Before heading to the fields in the morning there were chores to do – a cow or two to milk, horses to feed, hogs to slop, chickens to feed and eggs to gather. And the same chores in the evening, after a day in the fields and at school.

Consider living in a one-room shack with your parents and a dozen siblings. A home where German was the tongue, but where the children were expected to master flawless English.

Where there was no indoor plumbing, just a hand well and a privy. A single cast iron stove for warmth. Consider spending the daylight winter hours gathering coal along the railroad tracks, one lump at a time, to burn in that stove, to stave off the killing cold.

Consider the deep terror caused by a winter sniffle when there was no money for a doctor and the doctors had no antibiotics.

Consider living and working in those conditions and being expected to be neat, clean and polite, to show and live your family pride and thrift and honesty and integrity.

No computer. No I-Pod. No television. No Radio. No refrigerator, microwave, toaster (let alone toaster oven!), no range. Just a wood stove. No car. No bus to ride to school.

Yet they were clean and neat and polite and well fed and didn’t see the hardship of walking to school and to the fields.

Consider the courage and the deep and abiding love it took to get married in 1946. Consider the scrimping and saving and the hard physical labor it took to acquire land and machinery and start to farm while raising a family. Consider the delight and the warm glow of success at being able to purchase your very own radio.

Consider building, with the labor of your family alone, a modest but successful farm and ranch. Building your own barn. Your own home. Hiring laborers. Putting in one of the first pivots in the county. Watching your daughters grow and marry and start families of their own.

Consider working hard and building every day throughout the long but oh-so-brief years. Feeding the county, and the state, and the nation, and the world. Building and keeping an honored and honorable name.

By the time I came on the scene killing labor was a thing of the past, the depression only a word. But the reality of those things remained in the weathered skin and strong, ropy muscles of those who had lived it. And in the stories they told of “hard times.” Stories told with honest laughter and verisimilitude only those who’ve lived it can bring.

I am blessed with countless sweet, loving memories of these people and the way they lived their lives, working hard and without complaint. Clean, neat, well dressed, honest, forthright, giving. Loving.

Today when I work hard and the sweat runs heavy and muscles strain and heart pounds and the breath rasps in and out like a steam engine, I am blessed in knowing that I’ve never worked as hard as my grandparents and great uncles and great aunts did. I’m blessed that I never knew the terror of illness or the numbing cold of coal picking. Blessed that I never hoed a row of beets beneath the hammering sun. But blessed most of all that I knew those who did, knew their strength and character and love. And that today I am in some way a small fulfillment of their love and their courage and their dream.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


At 7 a.m. the temperature is zero and heading lower. As I drive through the pasture an inch or so of new snow crunches and squeals beneath the pickup tires. All around me the world is gray and white and just a little bit gloomy looking. The only real color I can see is the dark-green of juniper windbreaks and just a smudge of lightness on the southeast horizon where the sun is scheduled to make its tenth appearance of the new year.
Overhead the sky is fluffed with dirty cotton clouds, a nearly uniform overcast with a few bulging fat cloud bellies here and there on the horizon. I’m snug and dry in the pickup cab with the heater fan providing a welcome rush of warm air and holding the frost at bay as it fights for purchase on the windshield. The pickup thermometer tells me it’s now –2 F.

I pull up to a stock tank, abandon the warmth of the pickup cab and grab my trusty short axe from the back seat. I look at the thick, marbled ice adorning the surface of the tank, where on warmer days cool water would ripple. The ice is puffed up a bit in the center of the tank, like a dome of frosting on a cupcake. It’s slightly translucent, a light milky gray color, and on closer inspection looks to be shot through with millions of tiny bubbles. Nevertheless, it looks hard. A third of the way in from the north rim of the tank the cylindrical aluminum float is frozen fast at a crazy angle, one end up at about 45 degrees, the other frozen solid in the mass of ice.

Free at last, a stock tank float bobs on the ice-choked surface Monday on a ranch south of Kimball.
The tank stands alone on the prairie, at the high point of a 50 acre depression, surrounded by a ring of frozen, dusty dirt where hundreds of sharp cattle hooves tread daily. The ring of dirt is surrounded by a larger ring of snow-covered grass. There’s buffalo grass there, and blue grama, and wheatgrass and needlegrass and even some little bluestem. But the grasses are hidden beneath a thin blanket of fresh, clean snow. Little creature tracks meander across the new snow, vole tracks and mouse tracks and rabbit tracks and even the paw prints of a feral cat.

My immediate chore is to chop drinking holes in the ice so the cattle can water. Even in the depths of winter mature cows need eight or more gallons of water every day. But I pause for a moment to take in the cold but beautiful scene. The air is cold and bites at the exposed skin of my face. There’s only a light breeze from the north, for which I am profoundly grateful. With my back to the touch of breeze a sweatshirt hood provides enough protection to keep my ears from stinging. It’s a nearly silent morning, crisp and fresh and new. The only sounds are the ones I make – the crunch of snow beneath my feet, the ghostly inrush and outrush of air as I breathe, the clink of the axe head as I tap the ice to test its hardness.

I begin by carefully chopping the float free of the ice’s glacier grip. As the axe head opens a first hole, water flows out onto the surface of the ice. The thick layer of ice has gripped the rolled rim of the tank, expanding as it froze, pushing down on the liquid below. For a moment at least, the hole becomes an artesian well as pressure forces water up and out. With the float free, I begin chopping in earnest, opening and widening yesterday’s drinking holes. As I chop, newly freed liquid water splashes back into my face and onto my jacket and jeans, freezing instantly. The splashback is irritating, but only a little, and only part of the job.

As I chop away the ice, my muscles warm up and my heart sends warm blood coursing through veins and arteries, making the cold feel less cold. My breathing rate increases and clouds of vapor puff about my head with each exhalation. The sound of axe on ice carries south on the breeze, and from a half-mile away I can see ears flicker in the lightly bunched cow herd. Within moments a leader strikes off in my direction, suddenly thirsty. The rest of the cows string out behind her, and they soon become a dark line moving across the whitened plain.

Holes opened and chopping done, I take a minute to watch the cows approach. Near the back of the line a pair of bulls start a pushing match, heads low and pressed together, muscles straining, hooves splayed and searching for grip on snowy ground.

The sun finally makes an appearance, spilling over the southeast horizon in a brilliant, golden show of fusing hydrogen. I feel the warmth of the light on my face, marveling, as always, at the enormous power of the sun, able to warm me from 93 million miles on even the coldest morn.

The moment is fleeting, though, and the sun soon disappears behind a steel-gray overcast. The cold returns to my face as the cows near the tank to drink. The lead cow looks at me, pauses, then thrusts her nose into the frigid mixture of water and ice in a drinking hole. Slurping noisily, she drinks deeply, watching me all the while.

Time to go, time to get on with morning chores. Hungry calves and horses await their morning corn and hay, and there’ll be thick ice in their stock tanks as well. As I drive on through the arctic dawn, with heavy work ahead of me, I think about how lucky I am to see and do these things, how fortunate I am to be here, and not trapped in a city or town with only a desk and computer to look forward to.