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Articles from 2007 In December

Livestock Management is More than Just Fencing!

Livestock Management is More than Just Fencing!

Sponsored Content by Gallagher Animal Management Systems

It is no secret that a constant supply of clean, fresh water will greatly improve livestock production. Studies have shown higher rates of average daily gain and improved overall animal health when a clean and reliable water source is available.

Sometimes a picture says a thousand words. These photos were taken early one January morning in South Dakota. The outside temperature was -12 and the water temperature was 53!

When purchasing a watering system, make sure to choose one that is appropriate for the type of livestock you have, will accommodate the number of head, and is suitable for your climate.

Many systems today, are energy-free and made from rugged, high-impact resistant polyurethane.

Find a system that will provide consistent water temperature throughout the year and energy efficient with an enclosed baffle design that protects valve from freezing.

Written By: Dwain Christophersen
Photos Courtesy of Rural Manufacturing
Freeman, SD

Twelve Tricks For A More Effective 2008

Have you ever reached the end of a day, month or year, and set back and asked where all the time went? I'm guessing you started out with a definite "to-do" list and despite the fact you were busy and productive all day, your list was essentially the same size at day's end. You spent your time, you just didn't spend it on accomplishing your projects.

Life has many distractions. While some are unavoidable, a good number can be reduced. Experts say that identifying the most frequent sources of distractions in your day is the start of lowering their impact on your daily life.

Here's a list you might find helpful in focusing your attention and accomplishing your resolutions in 2008.

  1. Do the important things first.
  2. Don't start a job without a plan on how to accomplish it. Planning pays.
  3. Don't move to another job before completing the last one.
  4. Embrace delegation.
  5. Delegate things to technology. Doing things the way they've always been done is almost a religion to most folks. And while we've all heard it preached to avoid steel, avoid expenses, etc., time is our most precious commodity and using it properly is by far the number-one way to both reduce costs and increase revenue. If you're getting the return on management that you should be, then things that save you time usually make you money, lots of it!
  6. Avoid things that aren't part of your job. Delegate and focus.
  7. Collect the necessary records in a usable form. Having records that overlap or are too complicated to use is inefficient to a waste of time.
  8. There is a limit to what you can do well. Tom Peters talks about outsourcing everything that is non-essential or that you aren't good enough at.
  9. Don't allow interruptions during critical projects. Even better is building barriers to interruptions. Do you always answer the phone, immediately respond to all e-mail, or set aside everything every time someone drives into your yard?
  10. Don't allow conversations to wander. This is a tricky one, because people and relationships are an essential part of anyone's success, but it must be monitored.
  11. You don't need all the information. The main facts are usually the key. While the more trivial info can be useful, the time chasing it down usually can't be justified.
  12. Stay cool. Getting worked up by distractions to the point that you're stressed and fixated on the problems rather than the solutions is counterproductive.
Everyone probably can pinpoint another 3-5 items that hinder their effective time utilization. The key is to identify and address them. Good luck in achieving your 2008 goals.

2008 Looks To Be Much The Same As 2007

The year 2007 will be logged as a year of high cattle prices marinated in uncertainty. And 2008 looks to be much the same.

If you measure success by the kind of song you whistle when it comes time to market your calves, 2007 was most likely a happy tune. Success in '08 may have you whistling a similar melody, albeit with a sour note or two along the way.

With beef demand still strong, packers fighting for market share, and the chance for higher exports, analysts project strong cattle prices to continue in all sectors in 2008. But producers and feeders can't expect a peaceful drive to market without some juggling to offset volatile cattle and grain markets.

"Margins will remain tight (for fed cattle) even with higher cattle prices, so managing risk will be important at these price levels," says Randy Blach, Cattle-Fax executive vice president.

Projections by Blach and other analysts peg fed-cattle prices averaging in the low- to mid-$90s/cwt. range -- similar to '07 -- with peaks and valleys throughout the year.

Blach sees fed-cattle prices in the $92-$94 range in '08, virtually the same as 2007's $92-$93. "There's still a lot of volatility, so we could see $1 cattle ($100/cwt.) this spring, but in the mid-$80s in large supply periods."

John Anderson, Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension livestock marketing specialist in Starkville, sees a $6-$7 range in fed-cattle prices every quarter of '08. He projects first-quarter prices in the $92-$99 range, $91-$97 the second quarter, $88-$96 the third quarter and $91-$98 the fourth.

That's similar to projections by Dave Anderson, Texas A&M University (TAMU) Extension livestock marketing economist in College Station, but he expects fed cattle to trade in a tighter range throughout the year. "I believe first-quarter fed markets will be $97-$99," he says, compared with $95-$99 the second quarter, $88-$99 the third and $94-$99 the final quarter.

Chris Hurt, Purdue University Extension economist in West Lafayette, IN, projects first-quarter prices of $92-$98, with the second quarter $1 higher. For the entire year, he expects cattle prices to make record highs, averaging $1 or so above 2007's $92 average.

Jim Gill, Texas Cattle Feeders Association market director, is more bullish about first-quarter fed prices. "I see $96-$102 in the first quarter," he says, "because tight numbers seen in November and December will remain tight the first of the year."

He forecasts $92-$98 the second quarter, $88-$92 the third, and $94-$98 in 2008's last quarter.

Feeder and calf prices -- Blach points out that, despite high fed-cattle prices, cattle feeders have averaged only a small return. "There's been only a $5/head feeding profit on average during the last decade," he says, adding that cow-calf and stocker operators continue to earn better profits due to tight supplies.

MSU's John Anderson sees 700- to 800-lb. feeder-cattle prices in the first quarter at $105-$110/cwt., $107-$112 in the second quarter, $107-$114 in the third, and $105-$112 in the fourth.

No. 1 steers (700-800 lbs.) in Texas will likely bring an average of $103-$106/cwt. in the first quarter, says TAMU's Dave Anderson, with $103-$107 likely in the second quarter. He expects third-quarter prices in the $104-$108 range, with the fourth quarter at $100-$105.

Meanwhile, prices for 500- to 600-lb. calves will likely average $110-$114/cwt. the first quarter, $114-$119 the second, $113-$116 the third, and $105-$111 the fourth.

Gill sees similar prices for feeder cattle, noting that drought in the Southeast could pressure prices because producers won't have pasture for their calves and can't rebuild herds.

Corn outlook -- The reasons behind the projected prices for all production phases are many, but high corn prices are at the top. Higher corn will continue, Blach says, though ethanol's expansion may not be as explosive in '08 due to tightening margins for the fuel. That could temper corn prices.

John Anderson sees a good possibility of a break in corn prices in early '08. "Corn supplies appear to be more than adequate to meet current demand from ethanol production. Of course, ethanol demand can change rather quickly.

"Crude-oil prices sustained at levels over $90/barrel (they had surpassed $97 in early November) could provide a significant boost for ethanol production and would likely allow ethanol producers to keep paying up for corn," he says.

Another factor supporting corn prices in latter 2007 was the weaker U.S. dollar. "If the dollar strengthens from its current near-historic lows, this could dampen what has been very strong export demand for corn (and all grains, in fact)," he says.

Gill doesn't see much relief in high corn prices. Though demand might be tempered, "ethanol's bubble hasn't burst," he says.

Dave Anderson expects corn to trade a bit higher than 2007 on an annual average basis. "Given the price relationship to soybeans, I'm expecting fewer corn acres," he says.

That creates a lot of risk for cattle producers, he adds. "We may find that corn prices are higher in March to get a last-minute push to increase acres. Weather will become even more important if we plant fewer acres."

John Anderson notes 2007 corn prices were more manageable than some expected a year ago. "This helped to encourage growth in pork and broiler production, with large supplies of both showing up at the end of '07. The bottom line is the grain market remains a key source of uncertainty in the cattle market for '08," he says.

Lack of herd expansion -- The lack of herd expansion will continue to support prices for all industry segments in '08. Fewer calves mean tighter feeder supplies, and feedyards likely will be willing to bid up prices for them.

"Drought in the Southeast, an area holding 25% of the nation's cow herd, is one reason why expansion isn't taking place," Blach says. Despite Texas and other areas having pulled out of droughts two years ago, herd buildup doesn't happen overnight, he adds.

He sees beef-cow numbers down slightly in early '08, but projects beef production to be up 0.5% -- thanks to a 12-lb. increase in slaughter weights (784 lbs./carcass). Carcass weights for '07 were off 3-4 lbs., but could have been much lower after the hard winter in much of the feeding area early in the year.

Hurt says herd expansion could begin in late '08. "Higher prices will eventually encourage cow-herd expansion," he says, but not until at least mid 2008 or even 2009.

Exports up! -- Phil Seng, U.S. Meat Export Federation president and CEO, projects U.S. beef exports to reach pre-BSE 2003 levels in '09 or '10. "A lot of it depends on how (export customers) open and when they open up to full bone-in and 30 months and beyond, or World Organization for Animal Health consistency," he says.

Seng expects Japan and South Korea to be heavy in the U.S. beef market once more, joining Mexico, the top foreign buyer of U.S. beef at 400,000 mt in purchases, at some point after 2010. Exports to Canada also are up, he says, and are expected to top 120,000 mt in '07 "and gradually increase over the years."

Blach says exports could top 1.8 billion lbs. in '08, "and it could be more with the value of the U.S. dollar and new opportunities in Asia and other countries."

Packers are paying -- The fact packers are willing to pay stout prices for feds has certainly been a plus and an indication consumer demand is there. Blach says the carcass cutout value has reached a much higher plateau in recent years.

From '78 to '02, Choice cutout values were $102-$115/cwt., but have averaged $145-$150 the last five years and were $151 in '07. "The growth in demand we saw in '99 and beyond has helped that happen," he says.

Gill says packers were willing to pay the higher prices despite slimmer margins seen in late '07. "If they hadn't bid this much the last few months, we could have seen prices $6-$10/cwt. cheaper," he says.

Blach points out that "branded" products have added about $19/head to cattle prices, an extra $500 million-$600 million for producers and feeders since '02.

"We'll see this trend increase in '08 and beyond," he says.

It Feels Like The Late 1970s

The other day in my travels, I was sharing a thought with a group that it feels a lot like the late 1970s all over again. We're not going retro on you with disco, and "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge, but this era has some of the same economic characteristics.

Yes, land is booming in appreciation in many areas of North America, spurred by alternative energy, low value of the dollar and an increasing standard of living in emerging countries. Some agri-lenders are aggressive in lending standards designed to increase market share, with little attention to cash flow and profits. As with the 1970s, this era is full of millionaires on paper who have never earned a dollar profit wise but have the urge to increase value of assets based upon recent sales in the area. Commodity prices are high for most enterprises but there may be fools gold in perspectives because higher input cost may result in margins similar to eras of the past.

Here are some million-dollar questions for the short-term to consider:

  1. Will the housing crisis and credit crunch spill over into a recession in the U.S. and globally causing a decrease demand for food, fiber and fuel?
  2. Will the housing crisis and credit crunch expand to Europe, Asia and other regions of the world?
  3. Will the dollar rise in value reducing the demand for export ag products?
This is a period when it pays to plan to put more stretch in your budgeting numbers and build a backup reserve for downside risk and opportunity. This is also a time to objectively plan and not be caught in emotional decision-making.
--- Dave Kohl ([email protected]) is an ag economist specializing in business management and ag finance. Read more Kohl articles at

Order Your Forage Seeds Early

Spring frost, summer drought and competition for land have reduced the supply of many forage seeds for next spring. So if you expect to plant new pasture, hay, or even ornamental forages next year, order your seeds early because many types are in short supply, recommends Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension forage specialist.

Alfalfa should have enough seed to meet demand but some varieties will be in very short supply.

"You'll also find much less so-called 'cheap' seed available, and this cheap seed will be closer in price to the premium varieties than it has been in a long time. Since savings might be small, consider buying the very best varieties available," he says.

Other legumes, like clovers and birdsfoot trefoil, as well as native legumes, are in short supply so if you're planning any pasture renovation, get your seed early. Native warm-season grass supply also is tight, but most species should be able to meet demand. Specific varieties though, are very short so if variety selection is important to you, and it should be, check out your options soon, he says.

Meanwhile, summer annual grasses like millets and forage sorghum will be tight but there should be enough seed to meet average demand. Possibly the tightest market will be for cool-season grasses, especially orchardgrass, but also bromegrass and some wheatgrasses.

"The bottom line is simply this -- if you want to be sure to get the specific variety or even the exact species of seed you want, order early. Don't expect to walk into your seedsman's office to purchase and pick up seed next spring or summer. By then, it might be all gone," Anderson says.
-- Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension forage specialist

Pain Control In Food Animals Is A Growing Issue

I can guarantee you that many in the 98% of society with no direct ties to agriculture see prevention or treatment of pain in farm animals as a moral issue. In fact, it's possible that within the next 5-10 years, some type of analgesia will be required for castration of bull calves more than 60 days of age, and for dehorning.

This prediction may or may not be accurate, but will such an eventuality -- if it comes -- be at the design of the industry, or mandated by uninformed outside parties?

Granted, a lot of people pushing the issue tend to tick us all off.

Maybe they watched too many animated movies and missed the point that the talking lion in this movie ate the little deer from the last movie for breakfast. They have grown up in a culture of anthropomorphism, the practice of assigning humanlike qualities and feelings to animals.

But dismissing the idea that cows and lions communicate through spoken language is much different from dismissing that the animals in our care feel pain just as we do.

As a livestock industry, we can't expect the heightened awareness of the welfare of animals to decline any time soon. And one particularly charged topic is how we deal with pain in cattle, whether from castration and dehorning, or a broken leg or bad foot.

Is our decision concerning whether we will administer drugs a dilemma?

An ethical dilemma implies there are two "right" choices. These choices conflict in such as way as to prevent satisfying the conditions of both choices; we have to pick one or the other.

In the book, "How Good People Make Tough Choices" (Fireside, New York, NY), Rushworth Kidder presents four common recognizable patterns in ethical dilemmas. They are:

  • individual vs. community,
  • short term vs. long term,
  • justice vs. mercy and
  • truth vs. loyalty.
If you think ahead on how you would side in these dilemmas, you have a head start on dealing with many of life's thorny issues.

So, are there two "right" choices when it comes to dealing with pain in cattle? If we look at it as a dilemma between your rights as a producer (the individual) vs. the opinion of the consumer (the community), we lose that argument by definition, since consumers can vote with their pocketbooks.

Maybe it isn't a dilemma at all; perhaps it's a moral issue -- a difference between right and wrong. It's wrong to take your neighbors' hay bales without paying for them. It is right to pay your neighbors for what they produce.

Our society has codified moral judgments against stealing in the form of laws. But just because there isn't a law against something doesn't mean society doesn't have an opinion on the moral status of a practice.

It's true that we don't have convenient drugs -- both fast and long acting -- for control of pain in food animals. Something that requires twice-daily administration over several days just isn't likely to get done.

We can throw up our hands as being helpless, yet somehow the UK has six products labeled for pain in food animals, while the U.S. has none. Let's let our pharmaceutical industry partners know that this is a priority for us.

Those of us in research have much work to do in defining fact and fiction when it comes to pain in food animals. That includes developing more definitive methods for evaluating pain.

The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM) states in guidance document 123 that "validated methods of pain assessment must be used in order for a drug to be indicated for pain relief in the target species."

One researcher working toward satisfying this FDA/CVM requirement is Hans Coetzee, a Kansas State University DVM. He's evaluating the use of Substance P in cattle to quantify pain induced by stimuli such as castration. When combined with other criteria such as cortisol response and behavioral observations, we may be approaching the point where pain-relief drugs can be truly evaluated, and therefore approved for use in the U.S. for food animals.

Let's make sure that pain-control research in food animals is a priority in both academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Let's handle pain control in food animals in a practical, logical sense before a moral judgment by the community, whether well informed or not, is foisted upon us in the form of a law.
-- Mike Apley, DVM, Ph.D., Kansas State University

Food recalls dominate top stories of 2007

When asked to recall the top food stories of the year, food editors overwhelmingly responded that 2007 will be remembered as the Year of the Recall, according to a report by PRNewswire.

In a recent survey of the country’s top food editors, the national recall of more than 90 brands of popular pet food topped the charts as the No. 1 food-related story of 2007, followed closely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recall of over 21 million pounds of ground beef and the peanut butter recall by ConAgra Foods, Inc.

The fifth annual year-end survey was conducted by Hunter Public Relations, one of the nation's leading public relations agencies serving the food and beverage industry. Based in New York, Hunter Public Relations reached out to more than 900 magazine and newspaper food editors across the country and asked them to pick the top ten food-related stories of 2007.

The government was involved with more than just recalls in the food industry this year. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempts to change the way New Yorkers eat ranked as the No. 4 story of 2007. Since his appointment to office, Bloomberg has not only attempted to get rid of trans fat and to force large restaurant chains to post calorie counts; his most recent initiative seeks to assist those New Yorkers who need the most help. Bloomberg's recent efforts involve working with the City Council to get more low-income residents to sign up for food stamps and finding ways to get healthy food to people who live in neighborhoods with no grocery stores.

There was something fishy about the No. 5 story of the year. The Food and Drug Administration's decision to restrict imports of five kinds of farm- raised seafood from China raised concerns about the overall safety of imported foods. Investigators found that popular imported seafood -- including shrimp, catfish and eel -- was contaminated by low levels of a powerful antibiotic called chloramphenicol. Chinese exporters were given the task of proving that their products were not contaminated with any residues of the drugs used in fish farming, while the FDA stepped up the sampling of imported shrimp and crawfish products in response to consumer wariness.

Food editors were intrigued by Americans' growing desire to drink their vitamins and beverage companies' quick responses to make the dream a reality. Coming in at No. 6 was the proliferation of nutrient-fortified sodas, juice, teas and flavored waters on store shelves.

In addition to already existing fortified products like Diet Coke Plus, Coca-Cola Co. is planning on adding vitamins and fiber to its bottled water brand Dasani, and PepsiCo Inc. is already offering SoBe Life Water (enhanced with four B vitamins) and is planning on launching its zero-calorie sparkling Tava drink - infused with vitamins and chromium -- in 2008.

The rash of recalls in 2007 left Americans wondering about the source of the food at their local supermarket. Despite a law stating that all food products must carry labels that clearly state the country of origin, the meat, produce and nuts at most local stores quite often lack this information. Americans' concern for this topic led the country-of-origin labeling controversy to come in at No. 7. This dilemma will likely be resolved in the coming months as Congress rewrites the farm policy and deals with the more widespread concern that, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, more than 98 percent of imported food is never inspected by the USDA or FDA.

An interactive partnership between the FDA and the Cartoon Network left parents grinning. Coming in at No. 8 is the online-based program on the Cartoon Network's website that teaches kids ages 9 to 13 how to read food labels. In addition to offering information on serving sizes and calories, this program educates children on foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar and encourages kids to consume more foods with potassium, fiber, iron, and calcium. The FDA is planning on expanding this initiative and launching a campaign next year geared at reinforcing the same messages for parents.

The bottled water controversy, fueled by environmentally conscious consumers and awareness groups, splashed into the No. 9 slot. The $15 billion business is under fire for the negative impact its 38 million plastic bottles (which are made with 1.5 million barrels of oil annually) have on the environment. The media attention has led some to question the need for a convenience product that is both costly to the consumer and the environment and, in many cases, is just purified municipal tap water.

Finally, wrapping up the list at No. 10 is news that food in McDonald's wrappers wins with kids. A study had youngsters sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test. Even vegetables placed in the McDonald's wrapper consistently scored higher than those placed in plain packaging.

In addition to picking the top ten food stories of 2007, those surveyed were asked what they believed food companies should make their number one priority for the coming year. A whopping 59 percent of respondents wished to see food companies reduce the amount of sodium content in their products. Using more local ingredients was also a highly ranked priority.

Slabside, Jess and Old Dog Shep

Floyd is owner of Country Mile Farm on the old Drovers Trail Scenic Byway at Belmont, OH. He shares this writing with us that he penned a few years back and says, “Events described here were true. Only the names were changed to save the embarrassment of the poet.” For more about Floyd visit

Was calvin’ time at the F Lazy S,
‘Ole Shep, happy see’n as hows,
He got to ride the truck with cowhand Jess,
As they bounced along to check the cows.

To Shep it was more than just the ride,
Or to see the calves and smell the air,
Cow dogs are privileged to ride outside,
And enjoy the fun of being there.

Jess found old Slabside, a cow with bovine flair,
She had a disposition, feisty and wild,
Flat ribs that showed through winter hair,
Jess stopped the truck and smiled.

He saw the calf, so new and wobbly now,
Still wet from birth, he’d be movin’ slow.
Jess got the truck between the calf and cow,
Got out the eartags, 7 Way, and Barlow.

Slabside saw Shep in the back of the truck,
Made a charge on the nearest fender,
Jess was doin’ his thing, vaccinate, tag and cut,
Sharp old Barlow just changed the gender!

As the job was just about at hand,
The cow got wild eyed and dangerous,
Shep leapt the cab and hit the sand,
His only refuge was to get to Jess.

All cows hate dogs at calvin’ time, its said,
She charged them both, snortin’ and bellerin’.
And ran them down with hoof and head,
Dog, cow, and man, all tangled and hollerin’.

Dust, Bellerin’, yippin’ and hollerin’ went on,
‘Til Jess and Shep rolled under the truck,
Waited ‘til Slabside left with her altered son,
Ranch life is full of such good luck!

New Year’s Resolution: Develop a grazing plan

With a new year upon us, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson suggests that looking ahead and planning out your grazing needs is an essential ingredient to a successful grazing season. He says, “If you have cows, ewes, or other livestock that can graze year-around, one of your goals should be to graze for as many days during the year as possible. But no matter where you are, no single pasture can meet that objective.”

Anderson explains that warm-season range grasses provide good summer grazing in some areas, but more green grass would be nice in early spring and for late fall grazing. For lots of livestock producers in many other places, though, smooth bromegrass, wheatgrass, needlegrass, orchardgrass, fescue, and other cool-season grasses grow well in spring and fall but mid-summer pasture often is limiting.

To overcome these pasture shortages, you need to have several different types of pasture available. For example, warm-season grasses like the bluestems, indiangrass, blue grama, and switchgrass provide excellent summer pasture. Match them up with other, separate, pastures or meadows that contain cool-season grasses for spring and fall grazing and you will have a good, long grazing season.

To extend grazing even further, plant winter wheat, rye, or triticale next fall to get pasture as early as late March. And oats planted in late July or August can be grazed through November, while turnips often provide pasture into December or even January. Don’t forget that alfalfa and corn also can be grazed effectively throughout much of the year, giving you even more options for timely pasture, says Anderson.

He concludes, “Start looking at your pasture gaps. Maybe next year you can extend your grazing season with new and varied pastures.”

A Couple Of Holiday Gifts For You

I would have loved to write something for you all that would make this holiday season more special, but I find myself sorely lacking in divine inspiration. Instead, I'll share two stories that are among the required reading -- along with the Christmas story -- for my family each Christmas, and which wonderfully capture some of the meaning of the season. They are "Marvin The Cobbler" and "My Christmas Rifle."

The first story was written by Tolstoy and originally was called "Where God Is." It's since acquired the politically correct title of "Marvin the Cobbler."

"In a certain town there lived a cobbler, Martin Avdeitch by name. He lived in a small basement room whose one window looked out onto the street, and all he could see were the feet of people passing by. But since there was hardly a pair of boots that had not been in his hands at one time for repair, Martin recognized each person by his shoes.

Day after day, he would work in his shop watching boots pass by. One day he found himself consumed with the hope of a dream that he would find the Lord's feet outside his window. Instead, he found a lingering pair of worn boots belonging to an old soldier.

Though at first disappointed, Martin realized the old man might be hungry and invited him inside to a warm fire and some tea. He had other visitors that evening, and though sadly none were Christ, he let them in also.

Sitting down at the end of day, Martin heard a voice whisper his name as he read the words: "I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in. Inasmuch as you did for the least of these, you did unto me."

This second story is "My Christmas Rifle" and was written by Rian Anderson:

"Pa never had much compassion for the lazy or those who squandered their means and then never had enough for the necessities. But for those who were genuinely in need, his heart was as big as all outdoors. It was from him that I learned the greatest joy in life comes from giving, not from receiving.

It was Christmas Eve, 1881. I was 15 years old and feeling like the world had caved in on me because there just hadn't been enough money to buy me the rifle that I'd wanted so bad that year for Christmas.

We did the chores early that night for some reason. I just figured Pa wanted a little extra time so we could read in the Bible. So after supper was over I took my boots off and stretched out in front of the fireplace and waited for Pa to get down the old Bible. I was still feeling sorry for myself and, to be honest, I wasn't in much of a mood to read the Scriptures.

But Pa didn't get the Bible. Instead he bundled up and went outside. I couldn't figure it out because we had already done all the chores. I didn't worry about it long though; I was too busy wallowing in self-pity.

Soon Pa came back in. It was a cold, clear night out and there was ice in his beard. "Come on, Matt," he said. "Bundle up good, it's cold out tonight."

I was really upset then. Not only was I not getting the rifle for Christmas, but now Pa was dragging me out in the cold, and for no earthly reason that I could see. We'd already done all the chores, and I couldn't think of anything else that needed doing, especially not on a night like this.

But I knew Pa was not very patient at one dragging one's feet when he'd told them to do something, so I got up and put my boots back on and got my cap, coat, and mittens. Ma gave me a mysterious smile as I opened the door to leave the house. Something was up, but I didn't know what.

Outside, I became even more dismayed. There in front of the house was the work team, already hitched to the big sled. Whatever it was we were going to do wasn't going to be a short, quick, little job. I could tell. We never hitched up the big sled unless we were going to haul a big load. Pa was already up on the seat, reins in hand. I reluctantly climbed up beside him. The cold was already biting at me. I wasn't happy.

When I was on, Pa pulled the sled around the house and stopped in front of the woodshed. He got off and I followed. "I think we'll put on the high sideboards," he said. "Here, help me." The high sideboards! It had been a bigger job than I wanted to do with just the low sideboards on, but whatever it was we were going to do would be a lot bigger with the high sideboards on.

When we had exchanged the sideboards, Pa went into the woodshed and came out with an armload of wood -- the wood I'd spent all summer hauling down from the mountain, and then all fall sawing into blocks and splitting. What was he doing? Finally I said something. "Pa," I asked, "what are you doing?"

"You been by the Widow Jensen's lately?" he asked.

The Widow Jensen lived about two miles down the road. Her husband had died a year or so before and left her with three children, the oldest being eight. Sure, I'd been by, but so what?

"Yeah," I said, "why?"

"I rode by just today," Pa said. "Little Jakey was out digging around in the woodpile trying to find a few chips. They're out of wood, Matt."

That was all he said. Then he turned and went back into the woodshed for another armload of wood. I followed him. We loaded the sled so high that I began to wonder if the horses would be able to pull it. Finally, Pa called a halt to our loading.

Then we went to the smokehouse and Pa took down a big ham and a side of bacon. He handed them to me and told me to put them in the sled and wait. When he returned he was carrying a sack of flour over his right shoulder and a smaller sack of something in his left hand.

"What's in the little sack"? I asked.

"Shoes. They're out of shoes. Little Jakey just had gunnysacks wrapped around his feet when he was out in the woodpile this morning. I got the children a few treats, too. It just wouldn't be Christmas without a few treats."

We rode the two miles to Widow Jensen's pretty much in silence. I tried to think through what Pa was doing. We didn't have much by worldly standards. Of course, we did have a big woodpile, though most of what was left now was still in the form of logs that I would have to saw into blocks and split before we could use it. We also had meat and flour, so we could spare that, but I knew we didn't have any money, so why was Pa buying them shoes and candy? Really, why was he doing any of this? Widow Jensen had closer neighbors than us. It shouldn't have been our concern.

We came in from the blind side of the Jensen house and unloaded the wood as quietly as possible, then we took the meat and flour and shoes to the door. We knocked. The door opened a crack and a timid voice said, "Who is it?"

"Lucas Miles, ma'am, and my son, Matt. Could we come in for a bit?"
Widow Jensen opened the door and let us in. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The children were wrapped in another and were sitting in front of the fireplace by a very small fire that hardly gave off any heat at all. Widow Jensen fumbled with a match and finally lit the lamp.

"We brought you a few things, ma'am," Pa said, and set down the sack of flour. I put the meat on the table. Then Pa handed her the sack that had the shoes in it. She opened it hesitantly and took the shoes out one pair at a time. There was a pair for her and one for each of the children -- sturdy shoes, the best, shoes that would last.

I watched her carefully. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and then tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks. She looked up at Pa like she wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out.

"We brought a load of wood, too, ma'am," Pa said. Then he turned to me and said, "Matt, go bring enough in to last for awhile. Let's get that fire up to size and heat this place up."

I wasn't the same person when I went back out to bring in the wood. I had a big lump in my throat and, much as I hate to admit it, there were tears in my eyes, too. In my mind I kept seeing those three kids huddled around the fireplace and their mother standing there with tears running down her cheeks and so much gratitude in her heart that she couldn't speak.

My heart swelled within me and a joy filled my soul that I'd never known before. I had given at Christmas many times before, but never when it had made so much difference. I could see we were literally saving the lives of these people.

I soon had the fire blazing and everyone's spirits soared. The kids started giggling when Pa handed them each a cookie and Widow Jensen looked on with a smile that probably hadn't crossed her face for a long time.

She finally turned to us. "God bless you," she said. "I know the Lord Himself has sent you. The children and I have been praying that He would send one of His angels to spare us."

In spite of myself, the lump returned to my throat and the tears welled up in my eyes again. I'd never thought of Pa in those exact terms before, but after Widow Jensen mentioned it, I could see that it was probably true. I was sure that a better man than Pa had never walked the earth. I started remembering all the times he had gone out of his way for Ma and me, and many others. The list seemed endless as I thought on it.

Pa insisted that everyone try on the shoes before we left. I was amazed when they all fit and I wondered how he had known what sizes to get. Then I guessed that if he was on an errand for the Lord that the Lord would make sure he got the right sizes.

Tears were running down Widow Jensen's face again when we stood up to leave. Pa took each of the kids in his big arms and gave them a hug. They clung to him and didn't want us to go. I could see that they missed their father, and I was glad that I still had mine.

At the door, Pa turned to Widow Jensen and said, "The missus wanted me to invite you and the children over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The turkey will be more than the three of us can eat, and a man can get cantankerous if he has to eat turkey for too many meals. We'll be by to get you about eleven. It'll be nice to have some little ones around again. Matt here hasn't been little for quite a spell." I was the youngest. My two older brothers and two older sisters were all married and had moved away.

Widow Jensen nodded and said, "Thank you, Brother Miles. I don't have to say, 'May the Lord bless you.' I know for certain that He will."

Out on the sled I felt a warmth that came from deep within and I didn't even notice the cold. When we had gone a ways, Pa turned to me and said, "Matt, I want you to know something. Your ma and me have been tucking a little money away here and there all year so we could buy that rifle for you, but we didn't have quite enough. Then yesterday a man who owed me a little money from years back came by to make things square. Your ma and me were real excited, thinking that now we could get you that rifle, and I started into town this morning to do just that. But on the way I saw little Jakey out scratching in the woodpile with his feet wrapped in those gunnysacks and I knew what I had to do. So, Son, I spent the money for shoes and a few sweets for those children. I hope you understand."

I understood, and my eyes became wet with tears again. I understood very well, and I was so glad Pa had done it. Just then the rifle seemed very low on my list of priorities. Pa had given me a lot more. He had given me the look on Widow Jensen's face and the radiant smiles of her three children.

For the rest of my life, whenever I saw any of the Jensens, or split a block of wood, I remembered. And remembering brought back that same joy I felt riding home beside Pa that night. Pa had given me much more than a rifle that night; he had given me the best Christmas of my life."