I was rather tinny last week. I had half a dozen, six-month-old, Angus heifers that I was contemplating selling if the market looked right. My thought was to take a risk and to hold onto them if the prices were dipping or to 'grab the money and run' if things were very buoyant. I avidly read the local sale reports when they appear in the newspaper each week and I'm always asking people who have been to the sales about the prices, sizes and general condition of the stock and, if the neighbour has sold something recently I will steer the conversation in that direction hoping to glean some prices and then to be able to match the neighbour's results (and their animals) with the stock I have. Over a period of time, I have developed an understanding of how the sale season is going and what the approximate value of my herd is. You could, of course, religiously attend the sales each week and stand there for hours watching, but that is not something I have time for or would enjoy - I hate the whole aspect of the saleyard scenario. By monitoring the prices and keeping an eye on the quality of the cattle in the district I had come to the conclusion that, if I timed the weather right, I was sitting on a little gold mine.
February is not usually a good time to sell the stock because of drought concerns but this season has been quite different with the huge amounts of rain ensuring plenty of grass. Even so, I dithered for a bit as there had been two weeks without rain and a lot of paddocks were starting to brown off. I checked the long-range weather forecast. I checked the barometer. I checked with the elderly farmer up the road who has the canny knack of looking at the colour of the ranges and predicting the week's weather with remarkable accuracy. I made my decision based on the calculated predictions of rain Mon/Tues/Wed, clearing Thursday and a wonderfully fine day for the sale on Friday. With the rain dispelling any fears of an imminent drought the buyers would be panicking slightly with, once more, an oversupply of grass. With a sunny day on Friday, everyone would be feeling good and, with a shortage of heifers being presented for sale this season, I figured I wouldn't have a better chance of gaining top dollar. Once your animals are loaded onto the truck there is no turning back - it's useless even thinking about a reserve. Once they are under the hammer, that's the price and if that price is going to be your income for the next few months, of course, you weigh up the odds very carefully. Even an extra ten cents a kilo can make a big difference to your bank balance and careful attention to sale management will maximise your chances of a higher return. It's part of the job. I phoned the trucking company, I phoned the stock agent and I phoned the farmer where the heifers were grazing to arrange a closer paddock to the farmyards to facilitate a shorter loading time on Friday. On Tuesday morning, the phone rang - it was the grazing farmer's neighbour. He had heard I was selling the heifers. Did I have a price? He might be interested. As my fingers raced around the calculator, quickly doing some sums, I chatted about the lovely rain and the abundance of grass. He chatted about the stock agent fees and the sale yard levies. I chatted about the cost of transport and how close the heifers were to his place. And we agreed on a price.
I couldn't believe my luck, as I hate sending my stock to the sales. No matter how proud and elegant they look in the paddock, once they are in the pens, all dignity is stripped from them as they either huddle miserably together in the pouring rain or languish dejectedly in the oppressive heat. Being a 'small farmer' your animals are not usually given much priority. You can guarantee the truckie will want to pick yours up first and the auctioneer will want to leave yours until last, giving them a very long day without food or water. I learnt this lesson the very first time I sent some beautifully grown weaners to market. I was shocked at how they deteriorated during the day. The next time I was better prepared. I gave the stock a very big feed before they were put on the truck and I took a couple of buckets with me to the sales for water. I was stopped, once, by one of the yarders who objected to me taking water into a pen of yearlings but, with the fiercest glare I could muster and with a rather loud verbal threat of the SPCA if he dared to deny my thirsty animals water, he decided I was too much trouble (especially as I was a woman and would probably throw a tantrum if he continued to block my path). You may have to put a little of your own dignity aside at these times and be prepared to make a fuss, but it is worth it - especially as every litre of water drunk will convert to another kilo as they cross the scales!
With the added bonus of a good price and no selling costs, my thoughts have wandered across the possibility of a holiday later in the year and, if I am going to head for some R and R, preparations for Middelmost need to be made now. What to do when you want to have a break from the 'Ponderosa' is a prickly problem and I treat it as two separate issues. Firstly there is the house and the cat/dog/budgie etc, and that is easy to solve - any house-proud Jo Blogg with a common sense approach will do. Secondly, there is the menagerie, which needs a reliable, honest and practical person versed in the local knowledge of vets, farriers, and the neighbour-with-the-handy-heading-dog. I have a local secondary school lad whom I have carefully trained over a period. He knows every animal, every feeding routine, every safety check, and every oddity about the property (as in, how to prime the pump after a power cut) and he has, during this period of training, developed a good understanding of my standards - he knows how my animals are feeling and how they should look. He is excellent and I treasure him. Even though it was me who taught him this expertise for Middelmost, I never hesitate to encourage him further by paying him well when he is here, looking at it as an insurance policy if I go upside down somewhere. I consider him the most important "staff member" and I give him work on a fairly regular basis, whether I really need him or not, to keep him primed and ready for that unexpected emergency or for that shopping spree in Paris! I know he has support and can yell for help if there is a problem because, being a local lad, the neighbours (and his Dad) will always pop in to check that he's coping.
I'm quite happy to leave him in charge for a day or two but if I am going away for a longer than usual period I put the word out to see who wants to spend a week in the country, and I try to time my holiday with the annual holiday of some city friends who would like to spend some time sitting on the veranda or taking rustic sojourns across the countryside playing Farmer Browns, or who would feel very important twice a day by lending a hand when the lad arrives. I look carefully at the calendar to calculate what animals will be where and doing what, at which time (it's no good heading off just as Mrs Pig is about to farrow). Can I arrange for Mr Pig to be elsewhere? Will the winter wheat crop manage without attendance? Would I have all of the autumn calves off the place by then? Will the lad be sitting any exams/going on camp/playing in a tournament? And so on, and so on, and with some precise organisation everything will line up and I will be able to take some time out. The only problem is that, in the annual farming calendar, the middle of winter seems the only probable time this will happen. It's just as well I like snow!