Friday, October 18, 2019

For the Birds

October sunshine is coming through the quakie out our front door. My Dad brought me the tree from the Blackfoot River Mountains where they grow in abundance. The tree feeds my soul. It brings my Dad - and the mountains I love - close in. The quakie is in full yellow brilliance, but most of the color in our trees has been squelched by a super hard frost. The box elder and cottonwood leaves are brown and crunchy. Dang it, I hate it when that happens.  

We've enjoyed watching dark eyed juncos foraging on the ground and we identified a ruby crowned kinglet in the bushes. Audubon says these species may migrate further south or stay and overwinter here. We left them plenty of standing seedheads on weeds and flowers, trees and brush for shelter, and leaves and plant litter to hide wintering insects for the occasional protein meal. Our place looks messy at first glance. Well, second glance too, but I have a new term for it. We had a young woman staying with us that called our ranch an “ark,” a stopover for wildlife in a sea of harvested farm ground. One of the definitions of ark, expanding on the biblical one, is something that affords protection and safety. I like the sound of that. We’re not messy, we’re an ark!

It reminds me of another visitor years ago that gazed off our porch and said, “Looks like you have a good mix of native and introduced species!” He was right and we’ve laughed about that over the years.

Mark has been stockpiling pasture, leaving lots of growth for fall and winter cow feed. He found me lying in the deep grass along our driveway last night. I could smell its pungent aroma and when I pulled the plants apart, the soil surface was covered with worm castings.

Winter is staging her descent, but life abounds all around us if we pay attention. It's cozy-up time. We've dug the potatoes and laid in the firewood. Hay is in the stack and the pastures are brimming with feed. Weaning calves is on the docket for next week. Time to dally the loop and draw in the harvest.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

This Side of Sixty

We rode Brush Creek yesterday looking for strays. A stray is someone else’s cattle. We have them coming in on our fall grass from several different directions, in several different fields, which is not unusual for this time of year. It’s no one’s fault, for we share fence maintenance and work together to get things sorted out. The cattle are thinking of their own fall fields now, and the renegades are walking the fence lines looking for weaknesses. We knew the strays were there, but we rode the field without finding them until we climbed to a lookout point near Gremlin Ridge. Then we saw them, three cow-calf pairs far below us, lounging behind a cluster of willows along the creek.

Mark rode Pard and I rode Alice. I was thinking of describing them as “young,” but actually they’re 7 and 12 respectively - just a couple of horses that for one reason or another have matured without having been ridden much. It’s more correct to call them inexperienced. In any case, it was just what they needed, saddled and trailered to the mountains, ridden across a bridge, up a mountain and through soggy bottomlands. All under a golden Septemberesque sun.

At one point I asked Mark to hold my horse so I could check out a different species of willow, taller than the rest, growing in the thicket that crowds the creek. As I ducked under the canopy and came out the other side, I was delighted to see a sunny glen of marshy grass banked by a sea of cattails, which is not visible when you ride by. It is in such stark contrast to the dry sagebrush mountains that surround it, I wished I could plop down in the grass and memorize the view. That wouldn't work, of course, but for the guy on the opposite side of the willows accommodating my curiosity.

Days in the hills, after the weather has cooled and the flies have vanished, are precious. One day we repaired fence along a ridgeline, waist deep in serviceberry and snowberry bushes and bordered by quaking aspen. After we were almost done, we took a rare diversion and hiked to a lookout point just for the view. It was a respite we don’t usually take, but did because September allows it. The month offers an ever so slight slowdown, so welcome and so brief.

I wish I could bottle up September and dole it out in magical doses, careful to soak up every drop. I turned 60 this summer (wait, what?) and finally have to admit I’m in the September of my life. No wonder I’m looking at its beauties, its richness, and ignoring what lies ahead. 

resting on a cairn most likely built by a sheepherder

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Signs of September

The hot weather finally broke. We’ve had rain all morning and a cool breeze. It feels lovely and it's so good for the range.

My garden is finally bearing. Oh, how we love fresh vegetables. Mark says they taste like what they are. A cucumber tastes like a cucumber. Crisp-tender and so delicious!

If you read my stuff much, you know that weeds often intrude on my writing. This time of year it’s goatheads that, well, get our goat. We know there's other weeds knocking at our door as well, some worse than what we've got. Mark came in the other day and asked if I knew what the yellow-blossomed plant was growing down in the corner pasture. He grumbled about a new noxious invader to deal with. I checked it out and didn't recognize the plant either, so I took a photo and emailed it to our county weed supervisor. Imagine my surprise when the email was returned with these pleasant words: “the plant is a native wildflower important for pollinators.” I was so happy. I told Mark, after all our weed worries, that it was a good omen.

We had a big herd move in the mountains. We had to go through the neighbor's cows in an adjacent pasture and over a mountain. There were creeks to ford and gates to thread the herd through. We had plenty of riders and the move went well except for the wind. The range was dry and several hundred hooves kick up a lot of dust. We were coated with dirt by the end of the day. I had put on sunscreen and chapstick which only attracted the dirt and turned my features black. Mark studied me, then handed me his handkerchief to wipe my face. I told him I was fine, I wasn’t far from water, but he insisted. “It’s awful,” he said.

Mark and I stayed overnight to clean up any pairs that got separated and came back to find each other. We heard bawling in the night and knew they were walking back individually and hopefully finding one another in the dark. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning and a 4-wheeler ride to check grass in the fields behind us, we had 12 pairs and one calf to take back. The air was still and it was a nice ride. I asked Mark if I could come next year for clean-up day only. “No,” he said, clean-up day is the reward for helping with the move.

It's a grasshopper year and one of the worst we've seen in the mountains. We witnessed a strange phenomenon when we came upon an especially heavy area and decided they were mating en masse. They were in clumps of one female and one or more males. The males are small and yellow, the females larger and brown. Their eggs will lay in the ground and hatch next year. Not something we welcome, but with the bad is always the good. About a week later, I was changing water at home and saw two monarch butterflies in a mating embrace. Another omen!

photo by Anita
it  only got windier as the day progressed 

yellow bee plant

everyone should grow a vegetable or two

lots of milkweed but no caterpillars

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

An Eight-Thousand Mile Handshake

Ben was a long ways from home, but in his element. He was visiting the Western U.S. from his home in the Falkland Islands, and came to spend a day on an Idaho cattle ranch. Mark saddled Gary's solid horse, Joker, and though Ben hadn’t been on a horse in years (he uses a quad, 4-wheeler, at home) after about 15 minutes he settled in and became just another member of our crew. The day’s task was moving the herd of cows and calves onto fresh grass in an adjoining pasture, while separating the bulls as they went through the gate.

Ben raises sheep and cattle in East Falkland and deals with similar issues as ours: keeping electric fences hot, overgrazing/overresting of plants, stock density, grazing timing, invasive plants, erosion, isolation, effects of weather, and the list goes on. When he arrived at our home and we settled on the deck to visit, we wasted zero time with pleasantries and went right to the heart of the challenges and opportunities of raising livestock on the planet today.

He stayed the night with us and said he woke up at 2 a.m. and wrote an email to himself, and to us, with, “the answer,” he called it. The email talked about the hurdles we face in applying the powerful tool of grazing to the best of our abilities, and how we need to “get it right in our inner world, in order to get it right in our outer world.” We know exactly what he means. Like us, he has one foot in traditional methods and one foot in the new/old world of holistic grazing. There are many blocks to advancing our best practices, some real and some we just think are real.

Ben is the same age as Mark and this was his first visit to the States. After a few hours of gathering cattle under a gorgeous Idaho sky, the heady scent of sage all around us, he said if he had come as a young man he might never have gone home. I rather doubt that after hearing the deep love in his voice when describing his homeland.

He showed us photos of beautifully restored grasslands after addressing decades of overgrazing by sheep. One photo showed a sea lion lounging amongst giant tussock grass plants along the shoreline - with cattle in the background! Turns out that grazing, if done at the right time of year and then allowing the plants to regrow, can complement the use of the same habitat by sea lions. Other seashore users are penguins, who prepare a kind of seedbed with their nesting activity. Ben and a group of volunteers then follow up by planting plugs of tussock grass thereby restoring a healthy coastline.   

We were surprised to see that the cattle grazing Ben's land were of the same hereford based breeding as ours. One photo showed a group of yearlings walking off a barge onto Ben’s farm, and they could have been our own.    

We are joined with Ben by an ethic, a philosophy, a love of land and animals. We’re joined by a thirst to find better ways to enhance soil fertility, grass vigor and ecosystem diversity, while improving the carbon cycle and ultimately helping to address climate change. The path is rocky. Ben and I have both read the timely book, Call of the Reed Warbler, by Charles Massy, and I found a line that I wish I had shared with Ben. Massy quotes Wes Jackson who founded The Land Institute in Kansas. "If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” The words resonate with us and I'm sure they would for our new visitor as well. Ben, if you're out there, let me know what you think. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Dot makes the Grade, and other News

We’ve been moving cattle around – as usual. Here at home the heifers have been seesawing through irrigated pastures. We blood tested the group of possible replacement heifers for pregnancy, and then, armed with the results, gave each one a new identification tag to join the breeding herd. We appreciate the new processing chute even more each time we use it. It’s quiet, safe and functional. A good design makes such a difference.  

The other heifers will head to a final feeding phase before being turned into nutritious food. The flow of energy from the sun, to plants, to animals, will be completed as nature intended. But as Seth told me, “Mom, it’s not by some grand design or intention. It’s what worked!” What he means is that ruminants cycling cellulose created from the sun’s energy - while moving frequently - worked throughout evolutionary time to provide for multitudes of species. Many folks, especially the fake meat crowd, are blind to this simple process.

I’ve been having fun with my young border collie, Dot. She’s really pulling her weight now after a slow start. She excels at fording streams and canals to gather cattle on the other side. She’s gaining confidence and following my cues to stay where she’s needed.  She’s finally learning to move off a steady stare and to commence “herding,” which is, after all, her job. I’m no expert trainer. We just stumble along and somehow get the cattle where we want them, learning as we go. Sure is fun with a helper.

Mark and I spent a night in the mountains to fix fence and move cattle. After fencing for several hours, we quit early, well 7:00 pm or so, and tried out our new solar shower before fixing supper. It was great, even though we added hot water to please Mark for his turn. The next morning I woke up with a sick headache and still had to get on Jane and ride for several hours moving cattle. I had forgotten my meds, but hoped if I ignored it, my headache would go away. And it seemed to do just that while in the midst of herding a bunch of cows that didn't know where they were going. But when we finished, and had to ride the hour back to the cabin, I was miserable.

Summer moves quickly at high elevation. The wrens are already gone from around the cabin. They had a nest at the outhouse and scolded us continuously on our last trip. It's getting quiet too soon for me.  

The other summertime constant at home, besides moving cattle, is moving water. Mark heads to the ditches every morning. He keeps a plastic tub in the bed of his pickup to collect refuse that shows up in the waterways. It’s easy to understand how trash ends up in the ocean because water intercepts objects which then make their way downstream. Most of it is single-use plastic drink containers. What an unnecessary crutch we’re teaching our kids to expect. And even if you don’t throw it on the roadside, it ends up somewhere. We can do better.  

cooling off and getting a drink

early morning gather

the power of a good design

tools of the trade

what the canals (and Mark) gather up

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Playing our Part

Well, that’s how July went. It’s been hot, like July is supposed to be. But oh, our Idaho nights! We don’t have an air conditioner, just let the morning breezes do the job. We’ve been sleeping in the basement where it’s cool and quiet. I tell Mark it's a mini-vacation. Why does it feel so good to snuggle under blankets even in mid-summer?

We identified a new bird (to us) this year, a western wood pewee. It’s nondescript in looks, gray/brown with a touch of a topknot on its head. Its song is a somewhat annoying screech. Kind of like a nighthawk with a blurb in the front. They start calling before dawn and are the last to bed at night. Different birds seem to dominate our homestead each year, or maybe we just turn our attention to them. For a couple of years it was the kingbirds squawking us awake each morning. Last summer, I imagined that all I heard was the two-tone monotonous call of the chickadee. We love them all, of course.

We will remember this July as when my dog, Kate, had the maggot episode. Flies took advantage of a hot, moist spot on her, maybe where a cheat grass awn had embedded in her skin, and thought it a good spot to lay eggs. What a harrowing event it was! We knew something wasn't quite right with her when we left for a day of cutting weeds. When we returned that evening we found her in a sorry state. I made a quick run to Walmart for hydrogen peroxide and examination gloves and we worked together on her, getting rid of the vermin, until 11:30 pm. Maggot work is not a job you want to tackle alone. The next day I took her to the vet for hydration and a partial body shave, only to find after we brought her home, that the professionals had missed two more nests under her collar! The sight of wriggling masses of maggots kept coming to my mind for the next few days. Yuck.

Kate is feeling much better now. Today she followed along to change water and was wagging her tail and digging up gophers with the rest of the dogs.

Other than maggots, weeds have been a morning conversation staple this July. I tell you what, they take the joy out of ranching! We concentrate on burr-producing invasives since they collect on our animals, but there are others that concern us too. I regularly monitor musk thistle for the presence of seed-eating weevils. Bio-control offers the best hope for the future. It may not be a clean sweep, but it’s cheap, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. The irony was not lost on me to find that the musk thistle weevil looks a lot like a maggot.

Insects in all their life cycle activities contribute to our world in many ways, maggots by decomposing and recycling animal carcasses, others for feeding songbirds, pollinating crops, and in general adding to the biodiversity that makes the whole thing function. We don’t notice or appreciate their work enough, but we wouldn’t last long without them.

Nature works in strange and wonderful ways. Finding our place and guarding our niche, while studying her mysteries, will be our life’s work. It will be imperfect, disappointing, exhilarating and amazing. We call ourselves ranchers, but during the growing season, students of the ecosystem is a better title.

lovely blossoms of penstemon in the mountains

musk thistle seed weevil
not sure what the adult interloper is

a second bio-control agent, the crown weevil, stunted this thistle stand

my cheery front porch

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A Ranch Wedding

Seth and Leah were married here at the ranch in June. I had anticipated the event for so long, and it was such a big undertaking that I admit to being a bit discombobulated in the aftermath. Just three short days after the wedding, hardly time to catch our breath, we took a trip to Oregon. Upon our return, irrigation water was ponding on the site of the ceremony, and the net wire fence that had been folded back to accommodate the wedding procession had been spliced and closed. Did it really ever happen at all?

A ranch doesn't easily lend itself to formal festivities. Me in heels and Mark in a suit – to stay home? We don’t have a showplace for sure, but our sturdy, native trees are wonderful, and a pasture of grass with the Blackfoot River hills in the distance was just right. We were pleased that California-raised Leah chose the ranch for the event. Getting to know her close-knit, fun-loving family, and giving them a taste of Leah’s new life was a total pleasure.

In anticipation of hosting guests, we took the opportunity to clean up around the ranch headquarters where Seth and Leah live, as well as our home where the wedding would be held. Various objects that we’ve walked and driven by for years suddenly looked out of place and had to go. I moved the dog houses, planted grass here and there and trimmed trees. A new coat of paint on the hitching rail and the propane tank, fresh oil on the saddle shed, along with a generously wet spring helped a lot.

Weather was always the wild card. It has been cold and rainy this spring, and with wind in the forecast, Seth and Leah made a last minute decision to move the reception venue to Gary and Anita’s new dog working arena. Our lumber cousins provided wood chips to cover the dirt floor, which, along with a sod encircled dance floor and drapes and lights strung thru the rafters, transformed the space. I fashioned a wreath of rusted barbed wire rolled up from a long forgotten fence and adorned with greenery. Add formal tables and chairs, a handmade drink bar, straw bales to soften the sounds, and we had us a party.

Friends and family made it a homemade event in lots of ways. Many hands went to work to pull the whole thing off. My sister, niece and cousin created the meal. The Blackfoot FFA Floral club did a great job with the flowers. More high school students helped with set-up and parking to fund FFA travel in the coming year. And the most important part, the ceremony, was beautifully written by Leah’s Aunt Rachel. Rachel, who is Jewish, shared three Hebrew words with us, Baruch atah Adonai, which I learned later essentially means, “Thank you, God.” The words began each of seven blessings for the couple which were full of rejoicing for the unity of all, for peaceful and harmonious relationships with one another and the world, for inspiration, abundance and love. Seth and Leah followed the blessings with their own handwritten vows which were perfect in every way.

We couples in the audience were moved (as is usual at weddings) to remember our own vows. For me and Mark, our vows were shared 29 years ago and don’t exactly roll off the tongue these days. We were reminded to practice patience and compassion, kindness and forgiveness. To communicate always, and then communicate some more. To provide a safe place for our spouse. To focus on the important things and to let go of the rest. 

Mark and I wish we could do the kids' wedding all over again. If we could, we’d take the time to thank each person who helped raise our son. I would slow down and let the experience soak in a bit. Images and stories keep coming to mind. The fragrance of freshly laid wood chips filling the arena and Anna asking, "Does anyone feel like they're at the 4-H fair?" My carefully tended Olive below the house and how naturally it sheltered guests at tables covered in white linen. A last minute bridal shower the day before the wedding to accommodate traveling guests, a brilliant idea by young people who take on more than we adults ever would. And then, the sweet, supremely happy faces of Seth and Leah as they cemented a love they’ve shared for over 5 years now.

In the end, it was one more exceptional experience we’ve had in our role as parents. This ride of a lifetime. Holding tight, opening our arms a bit wider, wrapping up Leah for good.

photo by Anita Pratt

photos by Kendra Elise

Alpha Gamma Roe fraternity serenade

photo by Anna Pratt
heifers in on the planning