Well, the hay was free and the cows were fat! The droughts last year threw all kinds of curve balls to the cattle and other agricultural industries. Our mature cows went into the fall in pretty good shape in southeast Alabama. Though we were dry in the spring and early summer, we were blessed to have a lot of big rains in mid-July through August. By mid-September, we were dry enough that we mowed the leftover crabgrass and begin disking the 45 acres where we plant our winter grazing – but when the rain stopped it stopped!
October is typically dry for us, although rains normally return in November and December. We try to get our winter grazing planted at least by early October so we can turn the cattle in on it around Thanksgiving or shortly after. Last year, however, because we were so dry and no rain was in the forecast, we waited until late October to plant – and then we planted in powder knowing the seed would not germinate until we got some moisture. As it turned out, November was just as dry as October and, for over 45 days, the seed just sat in the dust.
Hay was plentiful during the spring and summer, but, as the drought conditions worsened in the fall and winter, supplies began to tighten as cattlemen realized the winter-grazing period, if the seed even came up, would be very limited. Many of our neighbors did not even attempt to plant grazing because it was becoming apparent the available grazing time was not going to pay for the seed and fertilizer cost.
Without the winter grazing, hay and other supplements were going to be needed. Hay (the most common and affordable source of stored, long-stemmed fiber) is the one food source absolutely necessary for cattle when grazing is limited. In a normal year, good quality hay and a liquid or tub protein supplement will keep a mature cow in pretty good shape through the winter, but it was not a normal year!
As I mentioned earlier, when we started feeding hay last fall, our mature cows were in good shape. We first fed our leftover good hay from 2015 and then we fed some 2016 hay a friend had donated to help us out. He told us the hay was low quality and should only be used as filler when he gave it to us; but it looked decent, so we did not pay much attention to his warning.
Once the mature cows started calving in October, they lost a little weight as they normally do, but not enough that I was concerned. During the month of December when Jack started feeding the donated hay, I was busy in the office and rarely went to the back pasture where the mature cows were. Though Jack had expressed his concern over their condition, I assumed they were just a little more thin than normal because average hay and the liquid supplement is normally adequate for cows their age.
In January, I finally got back to the mature cow pasture and could not believe how much weight they had lost. Even the two that still had not calved were thin! Jack had seen them every day, twice a day, all fall and winter and had never let them go without hay. Though he had told me they were getting too thin, I was caught off guard. This hay was not only low quality, but was indeed little more than filler. It was filling their bellies, but was not meeting their nutritional needs, even with the liquid supplement.
As I thought about it, even though the hay was poor quality, there was still something that just did not add up. Even without the winter grazing, feeding low-quality hay with a liquid protein supplement should have kept them in better shape than they were in. A couple of days later, I was going back through my cattle records to see what vaccines and other pharmaceuticals we would need for 2017 when I noticed we had not dewormed the mature herd since May 2016. We had dewormed all the other cattle, but had somehow neglected to treat the mature cows; probably because they were the easiest to maintain and were our last priority. In a normal year, this probably would not have been an issue, but, with a spring drought followed by a very wet summer and then severe fall and winter droughts, everything was different.
When it was wet in the summer, conditions were right for internal parasites to flourish. The cattle had good grazing, so the impact of the parasites on the cows was not noticeable. However, when the drought hit, the cows grazed down to the dirt and picked up every parasite and larva on the ground. Because we did not deal with the worm infestation, what few nutrients the low-quality hay was providing were being negated by the parasites. On good hay, they would have gotten by in better shape, but low-quality intake along with the parasites had very detrimental effects.
It hit me this week about the spiritual parallels to this illustration. I thought about the times in my walk with the Lord that I have found myself spiritually malnourished and unable to help myself. Just like with these cows, the anemia and weakened state usually happened gradually and not because of a sudden, specific sin drastically changing my direction but because I let my guard down on the daily basics required to "stay fresh in Jesus," as my old friend Grady Watson would say. I did not quit eating and I was not idle, I just quit feeding on what provided the nutrition I needed to stay healthy spiritually. When we are spiritually malnourished, it affects all other aspects of our lives: physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally. Looking back, I never planned it that way nor would I have ever intentionally allowed it to happen, but when I let what was essential to my spiritual health be replaced with other things (good or bad), I was settling for what was only filler and filler will never sustain us – it just satisfies us for a time.
Most of these times when I found myself spiritually malnourished I was feeding on the work of the Lord instead of the Lord of the work. I was feeding on all the needs around me and around the world, but not on the One who could meet those needs. I was not necessarily feeding on bad things: it is just that I was not feeding on what was needed to keep me spiritually healthy. When we get spiritually malnourished we open the doors for Satan’s temptations and are more susceptible to allowing sin (like the internal parasites in the cattle) to enter our lives. It may or may not be sins of commission (things we do), but it will certainly lead to sins of omission (what we did not do that we should have done). When we get spiritually malnourished and parasite-ridden (anything distracting us from a right relationship with the living Christ), it will always lead to sin and, when we get weak enough, anything can happen no matter who you are and no matter how spiritually strong and healthy you once were!
When we get so busy or distracted that we quit feeding daily on the Word of God and spending the quiet time alone with Him essential to give us the spiritual nutrition and strength we need just to survive, much less to thrive, we are feeding on filler and we will not stay healthy in any aspect of our life. We may get by for a little while, but, eventually, it will catch up with us and we will find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness wondering how we got there! The ONLY way out of the wilderness is confession and repentance, putting Christ back on the throne of our life.
Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35 NIV). Why settle for what is just filler with no lasting value and cannot sustain life when we can feast on the Bread of Life? "Let everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear and your soul shall live." (Isaiah 55:1-3a)