Friday, July 19, 2019

Sales Gymnastics

Sometimes surprises drop in on you at the most inopportune times.  It happens at home, in business and life in general.  Just when you think everything is under control something pops up that says, "Nope.  It ain't that easy!"

A few years back I was clearing some brush away from a barbed-wire fence that kept the cattle from wandering down into a creek that crossed our place.  The creek was deep and had steep banks, but there were places where the cattle could get down into it and find their way out a watergap to the neighbors.  I don't really like cattle standing in the creek -- I don't think it is the best way to treat our water resources -- and I certainly don't like them straying, so we put in a fence to keep them out.

The creek was bordered by a band of trees and brush that acted as a filter zone for water running into it and served as a wildlife sanctuary.  Many times I flushed a number of deer from there.  We made sure the fence was deer friendly.  Keeping the Greenbriar, honeysuckle and other vines from climbing on the wires required regular attention.

Growing up in the Plains country of the southern Texas Panhandle, I was unfamiliar with some of the denizens of the woods of northeast Texas.  One of them that I never imagined existed was a little tree-climbing snake called the Rough Greensnake (Opheodrys aestivus).  They blend in splendidly with the vines and leaves and are rarely seen -- unless they happen to drop down on your shoulder as you are clearing vines off of a fence.  Fortunately, my heart was in good enough shape to take the shock.  My gymnastic response was enough to send him flying onto the nearby wire where he silently wrapped himself and looked at me like, "What's the big deal?"

Once my heart had slowed back to normal and I realized it was just a harmless critter whose abode I was disturbing, I went on about the business of clearing the fence.  I left our little green friend to find his way back to a more comfortable shady spot.  My level of vigilance for his kin was raised considerably after the encounter.

For some reason, this morning, I relate that encounter to things that happen in sales.  It seems to never fail that even with deep preparation and planning, the unexpected has a way of showing up at the worst possible time.  It tends to throw less seasoned sales people off of their stride and causes them to falter and fumble.  There really is no way to plan for such things, it is a matter of learning to control our reaction.

Me jumping around like I was being attacked by Ninjas wasn't the right reaction for the slender green visitor to my shoulder; calmness would have been better.  They are harmless reptiles and all I had to do was gently pick it up and place it back in a more suitable location.  That is also the best response to the surprises that jump up in a sales call.  Take them calmly, smile if appropriate, or commiserate if necessary and then set them into their proper place.

Sometimes it means you start over, but usually it is just another obstacle that needs handled.  Controlling ones own reaction to surprises is something that comes with experience.  It comes faster, though, when you go in expecting something unplanned.  Part of mental preparation is to expect the unexpected.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Dust-covered Memories

Flour-fine dust floats in the air from my quiet footsteps into this space where the smell of horses and manure once dominated.  The glory days are gone and the stalls are empty.  Dried clumps scattered along the way indicate a bovine presence has recently partaken of the shade which once sheltered more stately beasts.

My mind drifts to sweat-soaked saddle blankets and creaking leather sliding off the slick back of a four-legged friend in need of a curry comb scratching to ease the itching hide after hours under a heavy load bent on searching out the cows who didn't want to be found.  The gentle nicker conveys impatience to be rolling in the dust instead of standing patiently while the necessary is accomplished.  It is the same dust.  The same smell.

Gnawed ancient pine, sagging hinges, the faint scent of mouse droppings and loose feathers from the sparrows and swallows and pigeons that nest in the rafters steal the image and turn it to regret for days past and unfilled dreams.  A yellow jacket, walking circles around some invisible attraction, draws my attention and remembered burning, swelling, reddened welts in times past bid caution against the gold and yellow winged demons of childhood nightmares.

Allergies -- to the dust and dander and pollen and yes, the venom of the yellow jacket were my nemesis, yet still I pursued.  Love and passion overcomes all enemies.

A cockle burr, ungerminated and half covered by the fine dust, brings memories of hoof knives cutting into the tangled mats while a stamping hoof signaled it was time to be done with this.  Slack reins, lowered head, thumps in time to my steps and the rattle of the chain against the rock-hard wood of the gate signals the day is done.

The stiffened skeleton of an old set of reins hangs from a nail -- spliced together with a couple of slits and end-through-end ran through each other -- a cowboy patch in a pinch. Dried and cracked.  No longer useful.  Age and white speckles of bird droppings turned Appaloosa instead of the supple, weak coffee and fresh smell of their working days.  More sadness.

I think of Grandpa and his horses.  Bugger Red.  Bonnie B.  Ginger.  Joe.  A dusty barn and a wall of tack.  I was a wanna be, he was the real deal.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Do You Hear the Grasshopper?

I wonder how many miles I ran as a kid chasing grasshoppers, trying to catch them?  It was like a sport to me.  Maybe that's a little crazy, but I was fascinated with them and enjoyed the challenge.

I've baited quite a few fish hooks with grasshoppers.  There are different theories as to the best way to hook them; do you slide it under the pronotum, that shield-looking thing on their neck or, do you stab them through the thorax just in front of the back legs?  Then, do you let them float on the surface, or do you use a weight that causes them to sink?  I've caught fish with every one of those techniques.

My grandchildren like to chase them too.  Usually, it is for the purpose of baiting a hook, but one granddaughter in particular just likes to catch them and might come up with a handful.  I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't end up in some biological field some day.  If it isn't bugs in her hands it is flowers.

I remember a television show from many years ago called Kung Fu*, starring David Carradine.  In the series, Caine has flashbacks to his childhood training where Master Po calls him "Grasshopper."  That is what I remember most about the series.  I searched the Internet and found why -- it comes from a scene in the pilot series of a conversation between Master and student:

Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

Now, as a rancher, grasshoppers are a nuisance.  They eat the grass that I want available for the cows.  I wonder how many grasshoppers it takes to eat as much as a cow?  Grandpa always told me 5 jackrabbits ate as much as a cow.  Oh, well.  I just know they can swarm across a pasture and strip the leaves from the grass, leaving hard stems which are not particularly palatable or, nutritious.

There is much to be learned about the role of grasshoppers in the environment.  Historically, we have looked at them simply as a pest because our primary concern is with massive outbreaks that devastate large swaths of plant life.  Now, we are learning they play a critical part in nutrient cycling and the control of certain plant species that might take over an area otherwise.  They also are an important food source for wildlife.  Some folks even think they could be a food source for people.  I have eaten chocolate-covered grasshopper before; I wasn't impressed.  It was a little crunchy and reminded me too much of it being a, well, grasshopper.  In spite of their nuisance value, they fit into an ecological system in ways that we don't fully understand.  

Chemical control has been the primary way we combat major outbreaks of the flying hoppers.  It apparently isn't very effective or, we wouldn't have to repeat the process every few years.  Monoculture agriculture may be one factor that contributes to those outbreaks.  Strip-cropping might help to break the continuity of plant species and mitigate some of the impact.  Deny the food source and break the outbreak.  Most things have management solutions rather than the more drastic reactive measures normally taken.  Prevention is always preferred over dealing with crisis.

It reminds me of Franklin-Covey Time Management -- spend time on the "important" and much of the "critical" goes away....

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Little Cow Science in a Poem

There are some things in nature
That are marvelous to see;
When you truly think of them
Astounded you will be.

Take a cow for instance,
How she wanders on four feet,
Just harvesting the grasses
When she wants something to eat.

Her tongue is long and rough
And perfect for the chore
Of gathering her sustenance
And going back for more.

It passes to her rumen
Where it is broken down
In a place so full of microbes
That really go to town

Breaking down the fibers
In this fermentation vat,
Releasing fatty acids
Where the nutrients are at.

And she has this strange reticulum
That looks like honey-comb
Where heavy objects lodge
Instead of passing on.

If you've seen her chew her cud
As she lies there in rest
It's because she's breaking up the lumps
And then she'll re-ingest.

And yes, microbial action
That is breaking down the grass
Produces lots of methane
And carbon dioxide she must pass.

Then passing from the rumen
The feed just marches on
Into what's called Omassum
Named for its many folds

That provides surface for extraction
Of the nutrient-laden juice.
Then into the Abomassum
Where it finds further use

From what is found in what once
Was grasses, leaves and weeds
And maybe here and there
The grains of all ripening seeds.

In the Abomassum, like your stomach,
There are acids and enzymes
That further break the feed right down
And I'm running out of rhymes

But, we'll keep going 'cause
It's interesting to see
How this mobile fermentation vat
Is made especially

For taking energy that's captured
In the leaves of growing plants
That came from the sunshine
Which excited chloroplasts

Which manufactured sugars
And other carbohydrates
From molecules within the air and soil
That end up on our plate

As something quite nutritious
And more tasty than a leaf;
And nothing beats the smell and taste
Of freshly grilled beef!

Monday, July 15, 2019

Chemical Trails, Snakes and Agriculture

The photo is of a Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis holbrooki) taken in one of our pastures a few years ago.  Most people have a strong aversion to snakes.  Their immediate reaction is to kill them without thought about how they are often beneficial.  The Speckled Kingsnake is known for killing and feeding on other snakes and their eggs.  They are best known for attacking and eating Rattlesnakes.

After the posts of the last few days, I thought snakes would be a great followup, since I have been talking about chemical signals in nature.  Snakes tongues are used to gather chemical signals from the air around them.  They flick in-and-out gathering air samples which are laden with the chemical trails of plants and animals in the vicinity.  The chemicals are deposited onto the floor of the mouth.  From there they are sensed by the Jacobson's Organ in the roof of the mouth which converts the different chemicals into electrical signals that are then transmitted to the brain.  Those signals identify the source of the chemicals and allow the snake to follow them to prey, or to avoid things such as humans.

The fact that the snake's tongue is forked is important.  Each of the tips gathers chemicals from the air and deposits them in separate areas of the mouth.  By quantifying the amount of chemical sampled by each tip, the snake can determine direction of the source of the signal based on which tip carried the greater or, lesser amount.  It allows them to zero in quickly on their target.

Chemical processes -- reactions -- cause electrons to move.  The movement of electrons is what we call electricity.  Nature uses electrochemistry continuously as a means of communicating various signals and processes from one point to another.

As technology allows us to become better at sensing the chemical and electrical processes occurring constantly in nature, we will be able to target areas needing fertilizer, or water, or help fighting insect, bacterial, or fungal infection with very high specificity.  Imagine a "mechanical" snake wandering through the field of ripening tomatoes.  It's "tongue" is flicking in-and-out, sampling the air when suddenly it detects an early infection of tomato blight in a few plants.  It converts those signals into an electrical impulse which informs its "brain" of the problem which it then relays to a computer designed to monitor for such alarms.  The computer then dispatches a robot to the area where it scans the diseased plants and is able to either remove the few infected leaves, or take more drastic action depending on a set of decision parameters programmed into it.

Science is kind of cool if you ask me....

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Birds, Agriculture and Chemical Signals

Yesterday, it was butterflies, today, it is birds.  I enjoy watching birds.  The photo above is of a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus).  It was taken in our backyard a few years back.

Wrens are insectivores -- they eat bugs.  They are beneficial to us because of that fact.  They are common throughout the eastern part of Texas and across the southeastern United States.  Notice the long beak with the slight curve; it is built specially for taking it's prey.

Birds that feed primarily on seeds usually have a short, thick beak that is better able to crack open the hard kernels.  They are beneficial too because they spread seeds -- those that require passage through the alimentary canal which scarifies them and breaks the outer layer so they can germinate and grow.  But, seed-eating (granivory) birds also are often seen as a nuisance.  Starlings are a prime example in that they are often seen in huge flocks that land in fields of ripening grain and take a share of the harvest.  They will also raid feed troughs to eat the grains that are part of many livestock feeds and leave behind their feces which may contain harmful pathogens that infect the animals.  One of those diseases is coccidiosis which can cause internal hemorrhaging and death.

In agriculture we have a love/hate relationship with birds.  The methods used to control some of the nuisance species are detrimental to the beneficial species.

A couple of days ago when I wrote about The IoT and the IoN, I mentioned chemical signals being passed through the mycellium of fungi.  Yesterday, when talking about butterflies, I mentioned chemicals being passed into the butterfly from the flowers on which it fed.  The anti-GMO folks won't like this approach, but perhaps there is a way to add a chemical signal to feed grains that would make them repellent to the granivory birds which can be so destructive.  It might alleviate the need for chemical controls.  Just thinking....

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Just Butterflies....

I've always been attracted to butterflies.  It probably says something about my nature.  When I was a kid I spent time chasing butterflies with a net one of my uncles had made for a high school insect collection.  I learned how to mount them on a board for display and at one time had quite a few.  I used to be able to identify a large number of the ones common to the area where I grew up.  The one in the photo is a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae).  The photo was taken at our home in northeast Texas a few years ago.

At that age -- maybe 6 or 7 years old -- I wasn't aware of their role as pollinators; no one had given me the speech about the birds and the bees.

Sometimes I find myself distracted by a butterfly flitting across my vision.  On our small piece of the countrside we have a hay meadow bordered by woods.  Along the edge (a very important area for wildlife) there are wildflowers and flowering trees/shrubs that attract pollinators.  We also have allowed the milkweed to grow, relatively unchecked, as an attraction to the Monarchs which we find are using our meadow as a resource.  (I posted about them last year - link here.)  There have been many times I stopped my work and paused to watch a butterfly dancing among the flowers nearby.  Whatever noise I was making didn't seem to deter them from their task.

Photo of a Monarch cocoon I spotted in the meadow last year.

Did you know that some butterflies are attracted only to a single species of plant?  They have evolved a symbiotic relationship in which the chemicals in the flower of the plant create a scent that attracts the pollinator.  The butterfly absorbs those chemicals into its body and it may make them bitter tasting, or some other flavor that repels predators which might otherwise attack them.

Think about it; a bright, showy flower is just saying, "come to me" -- like a siren song -- so it will be pollinated.  The bright, showy butterfly pollinates the flower and floats off toward the next opportunity.  Why are they bright and attractive colors?  If I wanted to be unobtrusive to predators I would be wearing camouflage.  The secret to their sauce is that they taste bad and their bright colors quickly signal potential predators to leave them alone.  Being easily identifiable as tasting bad can have advantages.

The Monarch and the milkweed are complementary symbiotes (I'm not sure that's the correct scientific term used by wildlife biologists, but it conveys the thought).  What it means is that both species benefit from the relationship.

Obviously, I find all this stuff fascinating....

Friday, July 12, 2019

The IoT and the IoN

It is easy to be a bit overwhelmed by what is being called the Internet of Things (IoT).  Computing power has enabled engineers to design virtually any type of equipment to include tiny computers that allow us to program the device but, also for the device to collect information about how we use it and to relay that information elsewhere.  That connectedness allows us to change the programming remotely such as from an application on our cell phone.  It is truly amazing once you get past the fear that your machines are watching you -- which they are in a way.

The natural world already does something similar to the IoT.  It happens to a large extent beneath the soil.  The mushrooms in the photo are a good example.  Beneath the soil is a network of something called mycelium, thin threads that are part of the mushrooms.  When you dig into soil in an area where there are mushrooms have you ever noticed white fibers (not roots of plants) running through it?  Those are the mycelia of mushrooms and they interact with the roots of plants such as trees and shrubs or forbs.  They share nutrients drawn from the soil and in the process, transport chemical signals between plants.

The fungi (mushrooms) draw carbohydrates from the roots of the plants to which they are connected and in exchange, transport key nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen from the soil to the plants.  It is something of a fair-exchange trading system -- an "underground economy" if you will.  Interestingly enough, in spite of this mutually beneficial relationship, when the fungi "attack" the plants roots it triggers an immune response, just like your own body would fight off a bacterial infection.  That response bolsters the plants ability to fight off other more nefarious enemies.

The connections, through the mycelium, between plants also allows the passage of chemical signals from one tree to another if, for instance, there is an infestation of insects attacking. The tree will release chemicals in response which are transported through the network of fungi to other trees and act as a "warning" that those particular insects are back and they should prepare to defend themselves.  Essentially, the "scout" discovers the enemies and sends a message back to its comrades that the enemy is coming.

This type of plant/fungi interaction creates interesting possibilities for agriculture.  Can you imagine tapping into that information network as a source of "intelligence" that is then communicated to robots that can respond to whatever situation is sending ripples through the network?  We could respond almost immediately to insect or bacterial infestations, nutrient shortages, etc. on a highly targeted basis -- to the specific plant in trouble.

Just imagine, an IoT connected to the IoN (Internet of Nature).

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Treating Symptoms, Finding Cures

One of the things that attracted us to the house in which we currently live was a huge Willow Oak tree that filled the backyard.  I've no idea how tall it was, but its canopy spread over the yard in such a way that there was very little area not shaded.  It made a tremendous difference in the temperatures during the summer and there were few days that were not bearable in the backyard simply because of that tree.

Shortly after moving into the house we began to experience falling tree limbs.  I'm not talking about the small bits and pieces you find on the lawn that simply require picking up and disposal, I'm referring to fairly large limbs that require cutting up with a chain saw before they can be moved.  The photo above is of the first one that did any real damage.  It is difficult to estimate from the photo, but it was about 4 inches in diameter at the base and around 10 to 12 feet in length.  When it fell, we were sitting in the living room and it sounded like someone had lobbed a grenade at us.

There was no apparent reason for the limb to break off and fall.  It appeared to be perfectly healthy.

As time went on, more limbs fell; some larger and some smaller.  The worst was a massive piece, larger than most trees, which fell onto the garage, punching half a dozen holes through the roof.  To give some perspective, at the base of it, my 16" bar chain saw would not reach across it to cut it up.  I measured the longest piece protruding into the work room at the back of the garage and it was over 10 feet long -- that was after the smaller pieces were stripped off as it went through the roof!

Again, there was no apparent reason for the limb to fall.  I decided it was a combination of old age, a few minor spots of disease, but most of all, the tree was so massive that when filled with water, the limbs became too heavy to maintain structural integrity and simply broke from their own weight.  I became tired of patching roofs and decided the tree must come down -- which it did -- several thousand dollars later.

For some reason, I woke up thinking about that tree.  In a way, it symbolizes how we spend lots of time, energy and money addressing symptoms while ignoring the root causes of a problem.  We put bandaids on the cut, but fail to wear protective clothing the next time we are dealing with thorns.  We don't find a cure for the headaches, we just take aspirin to alleviate the immediate pain.  Okay, I've belabored that point a bit, but you get the picture.  We treat the symptom and avoid the cure.

Sometimes the cure is expensive.  It requires taking out the beautiful tree that provides shade and cooler temperatures to the back yard.  The cost is real.  The question I had to face was one of a slow trickle of expense and labor over years with the risk of a catastrophic event such as a limb crashing down and taking out a large portion of the roof, or the sizable, but manageable, expense of removing the tree.

It was a hard choice and I miss that tree.  Did I mention that if I stood and embraced the tree, my arms would not reach half way around it at chest height?  When removed, the stump was over 5 feet in diameter and the rings indicated the tree was about 120 years old.  It was a sad day, but I haven't had to patch the roof a single time since.

This post goes back to some of the time management commentaries I have made previously.  The urgent issue was dealing with a limb when it fell.  The important issue was figuring out why they were falling and addressing that problem.  Once the cause was determined and a cure effected, the urgent issue of falling limbs was no longer adding to my "to do" list.  I suspect we all have similar things in our lives that need a cure.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Storm Trooper Weather Forecasting

Yesterday morning we went out to check cattle before the heat became unbearable.  It was actually quite pleasant and a few unexpected clouds were popping up to produce brief showers.  The one in the photograph was blossoming to the west and reminded me of a Storm trooper from Star Wars.  As I look at it though, it might have been a white gorilla -- hmmm...I suppose in some minds that would be the same thing.

I have always been fascinated with clouds and weather.  Where I grew up on the southern edge of the Texas Panhandle, watching the weather was sometimes a matter of survival.  Thunderstorms there often produce large hail, high winds and tornadoes.  The advantage there over many other places is that you can see the clouds coming for miles -- some might say, for days.

Weather is critical to agriculture.  I frequently find myself looking at weather app's on my cell phone to see what the local temperature might be, or whether a shower is expected.  Radar images are just a click away.  Some app's show rainfall totals, soil reflectivity and many other things useful to agriculture.  Weather satellites circle the earth and provide a tremendous amount of data that makes forecasting much more accurate each and every year.  The availability of those forecasts and other information gleaned by those "eyes-in-the-sky" is becoming increasingly important in precision farming.

Beyond things like rainfall, heat stress and weather risk, some app's even provide tools to help evaluate the likelihood of disease based on weather conditions and patterns.  If the outbreak of a disease is unlikely, spraying is probably not necessary or, conversely, if the risk is high, timely application of fungicides can prevent heavy losses or damage to a crop.

In my part of the world it would be helpful if we had something to predict an outbreak of army worms!  Last year they came just as the grass was recovering from a drought-stressed summer.  The new growth was quickly reduced to leafless stems.  Hope turned to dust overnight and hay became an extremely precious commodity.

After thinking about it, maybe that wasn't a Storm Trooper in the cloud yesterday morning.  Perhaps it was the weather guy taking a look to see what could be expected.  I was just thankful for the brief coolness before the heat began to bake us.  On a similar front (pun intended), we suddenly went from no rain in the 2-week forecast to a good chance, starting on Sunday, for a few days.  It will probably change again between now and then.  That's one of the frustrations of all of this new weather information being so readily available -- there are lots of different models designed to predict what will happen and as conditions change, the forecast changes -- sometimes multiple times a day.  In spite of all of these new tools, the "storm trooper" in the sky doesn't always get it right.  Storm Trooper just seems to be such an appropriate name for the weather guy....