"There's no such thing as a typical day in the life of a farmer," said Dean Bagwell of Shady Grove Farm. "No two days are ever the same and things never seem to go as planned."
Sitting on 150 acres on Cass-White Road, Shady Grove Farm is the work of five generations of the Bagwell family now operated by Dean Bagwell and his youngest son, Bentley, with help from elder brother Tyler and their grandfather Harris.
Shady Grove Farm has seen a fair amount of success in their field, including the recognition of Harris and Dean as Georgia Cattlemen of the Year in 2009.
Working cattle and a few crops on rented land totaling 800 acres across north Bartow, Shady Grove Farm is a family affair with mothers, wives and sisters pitching in as needed.
Thursday was much like every other day at Shady Grove Farm -- unpredictable. Before work began, word made it to the Bagwells that a neighbor's cattle had gotten loose the night before. Altering plans to help a friend, Dean and Bentley aided in the effort to round up the herd.
With a hectic start to the day, the weighing and sorting of cattle began later than expected. In the midst of weaning calves from their mothers, the Bagwells weigh their commercial beef cattle to measure progress and better market the herd when it comes time to sell.
"When you wean them, that just gives them that much longer on feed. If we just took them off their momma and sold them right then, it's going to hurt the buyer more because they're going to shrink down," Bentley said. "Mainly, we weigh them when we wean so we kind of have an idea where they are and how much they weigh as they come off their momma. So when we sell them, to market them, we can tell [the buyer], 'This is where they're at, this is how much they're gaining a day on feed.' That way the buyer knows what they're getting."
Georgia cattlemen are about to enter a busy season on the farm. With the last of the weaning done Saturday, their herd of more than 300 cattle will need more attention and a lot more food.
From weaning time to the time the herd is sold in late August and shipped in September, feed costs will skyrocket for this family farm. With calves coming off their mothers' milk, the separation will cause some temporary weight loss, which must be replaced before they are sold.
For the next month, Shady Grove Farm will go through almost 24 tons of feed every two weeks. The feed is shipped in by tractor trailer and administered through feeders refilled daily at the grain silos.
This is where global weather and market concerns affect life on a Bartow County cattle operation. With drought conditions persisting in the Midwest and worsening at home, feed prices will rise with the diminishing corn crop.
"In a drought, feed prices go up and cattle goes down," Bentley said. "Corn don't grow and folks have to sell off cattle they can't feed. Last year was worse though, it seemed everybody was selling out, but just about anyone that didn't sell off last year is selling this year."
Bentley, along with his brother Tyler who works as a research technician at the University of Georgia Northwest Georgia Research and Education Center, are the fifth generation to continue the work begun by their great-grandfather. Their grandfather, Harris Bagwell partnered with his son Dean to bring Shady Grove Farm into the next generation. They have survived by adapting to changing technology and market needs.
"My granddaddy bought it in 1925, then my daddy had it, now I've got it and then Dean and the two boys," Harris said. "If it's where we can and they're interested, I'd like them to keep going. ... They're talking new terms and I'm still in the old terms. They've got computers and cellphones and what not.
"At one time there was four families lived off this farm. There was my daddy, his mother -- he paid her rent -- and then we had two tenant farmers. We used two mules and one tractor, but then it got to where you couldn't raise enough to afford to get more equipment. You had to be bigger or smaller, so he went with more cattle."
In the farm's infancy, it was a diversified operation with cotton, corn, wheat and oats. As time progressed and things changed, farming methods were automated, and as Harris described, labor was hard to find. Cash flow shrank as the world grew smaller and competition heightened. Amidst these challenges, the Bagwells moved away from row crops and into cattle.
On the farm each day is Bentley, the next generation. He graduated last May from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and married in June. With a Bachelor of Science in diversified agriculture, Bentley has returned to work on the family farm doing what he loves rather than chasing a paycheck.
"I'd much rather be working out here making what I make than sitting in an office," Bentley said.
Bentley, his dad and his brother have again helped the farm move forward. The 53 weights taken Thursday were automatically recorded on an internal memory on board the digital scale. A digital screen displays the weight from a pad in the cattle chute. From the display, able to hold up to 10,000 weights, the user can access weights by day or tag number -- an identifying number on a tag in the cow's ear. Weights are automatically sorted and gives an average, heaviest and lightest weight -- all measures of marking growth.
All of this data can be transferred to a computer and printed off in an Excel spreadsheet. Taking a weight every three seconds, the digital scales now in use differ greatly from manual sliding-weight scales, which were difficult to read with an uncooperative cow.
"Everybody says agriculture is dead in Bartow County, but it's just changed," Dean said. "Here's a young person just back from college trying to make it."
After cows were weighed, the Bagwells took a late lunch Thursday. The heat of the day is apparent stepping into the air conditioned farm house and a tall glass of well water hits the spot before a lunch of fresh tomato sandwiches. Bushels of tomatoes line the back porch wall steps away from where Harris Bagwell peels and splits peaches to can.
The Bagwells use as much as they can from their farm. Each year, a few of the smallest cows to be sold are kept and slaughtered for family members. The meat is frozen and will be used throughout much of the year.
Around the table after lunch, Bentley remembers back to when he and his brother began working regularly. He remembers it being hard work, but doesn't feel the same way today. Now, the hardest thing to deal with is the heat.
"It was hard work, a lot of responsibility," Bentley said. "[I started] when I was about 10 or so, been working ever since -- since I could tote a bale of hay pretty much"
After lunch, it's time to feed. Taking a rust-colored Allis Chalmers tractor, Bentley travels to a feeder in the steer pen, attaches the large double-sided gravity-fed feeder and returns to the barn. Between the barn and the house, two silos lift feed up a grain auger and into the feeder parked underneath.
Hauling the full feeder down Cass-White Road, a line of vehicles wait patiently behind the plodding tractor until it turns into the heifer pen where the full feeder is placed and another feeder is taken back to the silos to be filled.
The process is repeated until each feeder has been refilled. This job will become a much more common occurrence in coming weeks after weaning is complete and hungry calves put on more weight.
Although this chore rounds out the day around 4:30 p.m., as the Bagwells try to limit working in the afternoon heat, they again remind me there is no such thing as a typical day on the farm.
Other summer days may be spent cutting or baling hay, but soon the selling process will begin and a beef marketer will help video tape the herd for an online auction system, which the Bagwells have been using for nearly 10 years. Posting their cattle on the Internet exposes Shady Grove Farm to a far larger market.
After the calves are sold in late August and shipped in September, the Bagwells will have about a month of relative respite -- just long enough to fix fences and catch up on other maintenance that needs to be done.
In October, the cattle will begin calving, or giving birth, every day through the winter Bentley and Dean will count cattle, looking for new calves and checking for trouble.
In the spring, a bull will be introduced to the heifers and as Bentley puts it, "to do his job." The bull will be pulled out three months later. Soon after, summer will begin and it will again be time to cut hay and wean calves.
The job description changes every day, but it transforms with each passing season and it continuously evolves.
No one knows quite what the future holds for family farms in America, the Southeast or even Bartow County, but whatever that may be, families like the Bagwells will continue to fight for their livelihood and their legacy.