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Cows need some love, too

By Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 12, 2014 at 12:48 AM

There were cows spotted driving cars, cows walking upright and especially cows eating chicken sandwiches Friday. 

And anyone who missed partaking in Cow Appreciation Day missed out and will have to wait another year. 

The official, unofficial day was apparently started by the Chick-fil-A chain of restaurants and celebrated its 10th anniversary Friday. It’s a day where folks dress up as cows, go to any Chick-fil-A restaurant and get free food. 

“This is a national campaign,” said Lebanon Chick-fil-A operator Carlton Beall. “From my perspective, all of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chains across the nation participate in Cow Appreciation Day. 

“It’s a campaign where guests can partially or fully dress as a Chick-fil-A cow. Someone partially dressed as a cow can get a Chick-fil-A sandwich, and someone fully dressed can get a meal.  

“It generates a lot of buzz for us. It’s just a fun day for us and our guests.”

And Beall said it continues to grow larger each year. 

“It continues to build from a participation standpoint every year,” he said. “With the introduction of social media, it has really gained traction. What started as an individual coming in has turned into a daycare group coming in or an entire family coming in dressed up. It really has evolved from a participation standpoint.”

Then, there are the real cows – the bulls, heifers and steers that are used for a lot of things we know and enjoy. There are shoes, belts, milk, burgers and especially steaks – and the list goes on. 

Ricky and Kathy Haskins are 100-percent fully vested beef cattle farmers. On any given day, somewhere around 225 head of cows and about a dozen herd bulls can be found on their Lebanon farm. 

And the business isn’t easy, according to Ricky Haskins. 

“So many people hear nowadays cattle are high, and they are higher than they ever have been in history,” Haskins said. “So are fertilizer, feed and other things needed to raise cows. 

“We are not making any more money than we did 25 years ago. There’s just more money involved in it. If I didn’t spend any money on fertilizer, I’d have an extra $75,000. But I do.”

Haskins said an old Extension agent named Melvin Arnette got him started in the business. He said Arnette was looking for someone to plow for him and gave Haskins an old tractor. 

“I was running around Lebanon at 10-11 years old on a tractor,” Haskins said. “You don’t have to have a driver’s license to operate farm machinery.

“It must have been more in my blood than it did any of my other kinfolk. I just love the old tractors and tooling around.”

Haskins said when he got to be about 14, he started renting an old farm. Not too many years later, he found himself renting as many as a dozen at one time. 

“It’s just something I wanted to do,” he said. “It was fun.”

At 61, Haskins said he has quite a bit invested in the business, and he doesn’t have plans to quit anytime soon. 

“You think, if I do this or this, next year will be better,” he said. “That’s the way we look at the cattle business. You have to stick in with the good and the bad.”

Through it all, Haskins said the price of cattle has changed quite a bit. A cow that would bring around 28 cents a pound five or six decades ago now could go for around $3 a pound or even more. 

He said he’s found the secret to quality cows, and it’s more scientific than instinct. 

“My cows will hit 600 pounds or better in 205 days,” he said. “It’s all in the genetics. It’s like a lot of things; you get what you pay for. It doesn’t cost a whole lot more to raise a good one than a sorry one. They all eat about the same. The difference is in the genetics. 

“You’ve got fat mommas and daddies, and you’ve got skinny mommas and daddies. This embryo transplant, you can pretty much tell what you’ve got before you get it.”

But there’s one variable Haskins said he has no answer. 

“We are depending on Mother Nature; that’s for sure,” he said. “The drought was bad four or five years ago. We started running out of hay. I was fortunate enough I had some hay leftover from the winter before, and that got me through. But I had some friends who had to sell a whole bunch of cows. 

“If we don’t get some rain starting now, I won’t have enough hay this year.”

Just down the road a bit in Lebanon, Roy Major and his wife, Diane, operate a cattle farm of another sort. It’s rare – one of only two in Wilson County and 370 statewide. And apparently it’s beginning to see better times than in the recent past. 

“The dairy industry right now is going through a profitable period, and it’s coming from a very unprofitable period, which started in about 2009,” Major said. “It looks like we are going to have a good run. We are looking at feed costs going down significantly, which is going to be a good thing. 

“In 2012, we had a significant drought, and we had the big flood in 2010, which made things difficult.”

Major said he was raised on a small dairy farm, where he learned the business. From there, he bought a farm 37 years ago and has been invested ever since. 

“I love it,” Major said. “It’s a challenge, but I’ve done it all my life. We are ready to things to get a little easier. It’s a business we’ve spent 35-plus years building, and it’s hard to walk away from that.”

Major said he’s currently milking about 108 head of cows. The farm also has a number of calves, heifers and steers. 

In Watertown, another cattle farmer has seen his share of ups and downs on a farm Gary Thorne describes as more of a hobby than a way of life. Thorne also owns an excavating company, so his cattle farming is more part time. 

“My daddy was a cattle farmer,” Thorne said. “He started ranching and cattle farming. Through the years, we started raising calves for the family to eat. As the years went by, I kind of took it over. We started off just feeding them for the family. Then we started giving beef to employees in the business. From there, we started selling the beef. That’s what we do now.”

Thorne said even though his farm isn’t the sole provider for his family, the business still isn’t any easier. 

“There are just so many things that play in the market,” Thorne said. “There’s the weather. For me in selling freezer beef, it’s finding people who want to buy it. 

“There are just business decisions we just have to make. There are just so many unknowns.”

For the three Wilson County cattle farmers, each had quite a different take on the Chick-fil-A cow campaign and Cow Appreciation Day in general. 

“I just think it’s funny,” Thorne said. “As a Christian, I’ve tried to keep up with that company and their beliefs. That’s probably why I go there and buy a chicken sandwich.” 

Haskins’ view was also in favor of the humorous cows and their antics. 

“I think it helps advertise for beef,” he said. “It seems like you hear more about the Chick-fil-A cow than you do the Chick-fil-A sandwich.”

As for Major, he said he knows cow appreciation all too well. 

“I’m not in the chicken business; I’m in the beef business, so I kind of take it with a grain of salt,” Major said. “But I’m not offended by it either. 

“There’s no one in the world who appreciates cows more than dairymen. We try to maintain them and keep them as healthy as we possibly can.”

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