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How many cows can you feed in half an hour?

Jenny Schlecht's daughter Kennedy feeds bottle calf Barbara Ann. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek1 / 2
Jenny Schlecht2 / 2

I made an observation the other morning: It takes me and my daughters as long to feed three calves as it takes my husband and father-in-law to feed 70 bred heifers.

I've written before about our bottle calves. We ended up with three this year for various reasons. One had an abusive mother and a navel infection that meant he needed special care. One was a twin left behind by her mother. And the third had a mother get sick and quit milking.

Some years, we probably would have sold the calves by now to someone who needed to "spike" a calf onto a cow that lost a calf. But since we have a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old who like to help, the calves instead became their chores for the summer. Which means they also became my chores for the summer.

The oldest two calves have been weaned from milk, but the youngest is a couple months younger and still gets two bottles a day. Every morning, we bottle feed Barbara Ann (my 6-year-old really likes the Beach Boys). Then we give a pile of creep pellets to Rosie and Norman and some pellets and sweet feed to Barbara Ann.

We fill 5-gallon buckets with water to haul to their water pails. And we take a pitchfork outside, where my husband mowed some long grass and left it lay for us, and carry piles of grass into the barn.

Then we do it all again in the evening.

So, the other morning, my 6-year-old got on the school bus, and my 2-year-old and I filled a bottle just as my husband and father-in-law were firing up the feed truck and loader to fill the 70 bred heifers they are custom feeding in the feedlot. Just as I tossed the last bit of hay into the pen — since I'm not crazy enough to let a 2-year-old operate a pitchfork — I realized I didn't hear any more machinery driving around.

In the time it took us to feed three little calves, they had fed a full pen of yearling heifers.

I know there are people who would say the way we feed those calves is the way agriculture should be. They'll think of hay put up in piles and of pumping water from the well and milking cows by hand and say, isn't that better?

And to that, I will say, nope!

The fact that more than 20 times as many animals could be fed using modern machinery and modern techniques than by hand in the barn shows the efficiencies of embracing modern agriculture.

If we were to all of the sudden go back in time and do everything the "old-fashioned way," I don't know how we'd do it. Feeding those 70 heifers would take all day instead of half an hour.

Even feeding those three calves would be more difficult if we didn't have milk replacer and purchased feeds to give them. I suppose we'd be milking cows instead of mixing the replacer out of a bag.

I'll remember this the next time I hear someone complain about "factory farms." Though I find that a dumb phrase, I'll remember that factory lines were embraced because they got manufacturing done better and faster than old ways.

The way things are done today may not be perfect. But they are a vast improvement over the way things were done in the past. And until every person is willing to take the time, effort and expense to raise their own animals or their own food, we need to continue to embrace technologies that allow us to efficiently and effectively care for our animals and land.