My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Who Knew?!

I moved to Amish Indiana from suburban Chicago five years ago, after retiring from administrative assistant work at a law firm, and before that, two decades of classroom teaching.  (My backstory can be found here and here.)  One thing I’ve learned since I moved here is this:  My childhood visits to Grandpa and Grandma Erickson’s farm, and 30 years of being a tourist over here, didn’t teach me everything there was to know about country life!

Here are ten City Girl things I believed until embarrassingly recently.  Feel free to laugh at me—I can’t hear you!  Or, feel free to learn something, if you’re a City Slicker too.

1.    There are two types of corn.  Some corn is “field corn,” which is used for silage (animal feed—the entire plant while still green), or seed corn, or ethanol production, or it’s ground up for corn meal.  Other corn is “sweet corn,” and that’s the kind that becomes corn on the cob.  Don’t try to boil up field corn and eat it with butter!

2.     Corn stalks usually have only one ear of corn per stalk.  This is not how we drew corn when I was in elementary school!  There was always an ear on the left, right, and left again.  But no…  One ear of corn per stalk is the norm.  A couple of my Amish friends had a laugh over this one. 

Apparently, if corn is spaced out when it’s planted (which it isn’t these days), a plant may send up a second stalk with a second ear of corn, but that’s not seen as much anymore.  An Amish friend told me that, these days, the Amish plant their rows 30 inches apart with between 28,000 and 32,000 kernels (seeds) per acre.  Wow!  And commercial “English” farms often plant them twice that dense!

3.     Hay vs. straw.  I’m really embarrassed about this one. But if I can give my Amish friends a laugh, then it’s not all bad!  “Hay” is one of a number of plants, mostly grasses, that are harvested while still green and baled up for animals to eat.  “Straw” is typically leftover dried-out wheat or oak stalks after the grain is harvested, and it is used for animal “bedding”—under their feet in the stalls to keep things absorbed and cleaner.  So, you might say hay vs. straw is like the difference between food vs. toilet paper!

1.     Commercial laying hens don’t live long enough to retire and move in with their kids.  There are dozens of free-range egg houses around here these days.  I should write about that—it’s a recent development.  Each egg barn can hold as many as 20,000 laying hens, as this one does—these long, narrow buildings are huge!  My friend Glen told me that the hens (his are Lohman Browns) start laying at about 4 months old, quickly working up to about one egg a day.  At about 21 months old their egg production tapers off sharply, and so after an egg-laying career of less than two years, it’s off to the meat packing plant to be “repurposed,” sometimes for stewing meat but usually for pet food.  Backyard hen enthusiasts can keep their laying hens for many years, in spite of lower egg production, but for commercial egg producers, it’s not economically feasible to do so.

5.     Not all sheep are the same.  I talked about this in a recent post, linked here.  Some sheep are bred to have wool, and others, called “hair sheep,” are bred for their meat (lamb or mutton).  They’re not the same.  You can’t get good wool from a hair sheep, nor good meat from a wool sheep.

6.     Stallions are rare, geldings are not.  I always figured horses came in two varieties, mares and stallions.  But it turns out that, in this horse-and-buggy culture where virtually everyone owns at least a few horses, stallions are rare and the vast majority are gelded (neutered).  I asked an Amish friend of mine with a lot of horse expertise about this, and he said that for buggy horses, work horses, and ponies alike, the rate of neutering is about 90%.  He said that stallions are “unruly in the barn,” and the only reason to have one is for stud purposes. 

The same holds true for cattle—very few males are kept as bulls for breeding—bulls are far too dangerous to keep around unless absolutely necessary.  A couple of years ago, a local Amish farm wife was killed by their bull for no worse offense than just being in his pasture when he was in a bad mood.

7.     Horses get hit by lightning.  Both buggy horses and draft horses have the habit of heading for the biggest tree when a thunderstorm hits, to try to stay dry.  Consequently, they sometimes can get hit (and killed) by lightning.  My friend Glenn has lost one this way, and he once told me about a friend of his who lost four at one time, when they huddled under a tall tree that was struck. 

8.     Horses also get West Nile Virus.  Mosquitoes can bite horses and infect them with West Nile, just like they can do with people.  There’s a vaccine, but it’s prohibitively expensive as compared to the risk, so it isn’t widely used.  A few years ago, my friend Glenn lost his favorite horse to West Nile.  I wrote about that here.

9.     Heating a home with a wood-burning furnace is still common around here, and it doesn’t take tons of wood.  Many older Amish homes are still heated by means of a wood furnace in the basement.  I saw my Amish friend Sam with a hay wagon load of wood a while back, and asked him about this.  He said that he can heat his large farmhouse for a typical winter with about 7 wagons of wood—and firewood is plentiful around here.  It keeps a house quite cozy, actually, and the furnace has to be stoked only twice a day—morning and evening—unless it’s bitterly cold.

10  Being a dairy cow isn’t exactly a full time job.  Or rather, it is a two-part job—producing milk and producing calves.  A dairy cow (mostly Holsteins around here, or Jerseys) don’t give milk 365 days a year.  Rather, they “freshen” for about six to eight weeks every year, when they don’t give milk at all.  Incredibly to me, about six to eight weeks before a cow is due to have a calf, the way they “dry them out” is by simply not milking them for a few days!

So, I hope you learned something today!  And I hope I keep learning!