Thursday, November 8, 2018

Not Exactly Fishing

Mark and Seth and I spent a day letting down and loosening the fences in the mountains. It’s the last thing we do before winter so the snow doesn't break the wires. Seth took his fly rod because we knew there were brook trout spawners (adults laying and fertilizing eggs) in the creek this time of year. Seth is usually working at his day job, so this was a rare opportunity to combine ranch work and his first love, fly fishing.  

When we had loosened the fences for a while, we made it to the creek. I held the dogs back as Seth crawled along the bank, strategizing. He selected a lure that would look like a little minnow under the water. He snagged three trout in short order, one a big one as brookies go. I have only gone fishing with him once and that day he didn’t catch any fish, so I was happy to get in on the fun and witness his expert handling of the line. Then, with more fence to tend, Seth packed up his gear for the day. 

But before we left the creek, we walked a tiny tributary which lead to a spring nearby. The closer we got to the spring, the larger the spawners got. Seth ran back for his net and stood straddle of the creek and scooped up several copper hued beauties for us to examine up close. The creek had good flow and a clean gravel bottom with lots of weeds and bank to hide under. They’re so quick, just a flash in the water. What fun!    

Brook trout are native to the Eastern U.S. and have proliferated here in the West since they were transplanted in the mid 1800’s. They can be quite competitive with our native cutthroat and rainbow trout. However, they spawn in the fall while the other two natives spawn in the high melt water of spring, so they don’t compete for the same spawning sites. Brookies may live all their lives in the creek, spawning in habitats that are suitable, like our spring, and living the rest of the time in deeper waters. Interestingly, their numbers are in trouble in the East because of habitat destruction and competition from introduced brown trout.   

When we got back to the pickup and were eating our soup, I told Seth about the time when he was a little guy and brought his fishing pole along when we we went to the hills. He was just learning to fish and had never caught one, but he was confident enough to say, “Mom, you don’t need to bring lunch because we can eat fish.” I brought one just in case!

Mark and I have lived and worked in this country all our lives. We love seeing wildlife of all kinds, but we have never fully appreciated the fish story happening all around us. It took our cowboy-naturalist son to educate us. We now work towards protecting habitat along the streams in our pastures. We promised ourselves to head to the tiny creek early next spring to look for cutthroat.

On the way home, we stopped at another property to work on a crowding alley that Mark and Jesse had started. We planted some stout railroad ties and hung a gate to the Bud Box which is at a right angle to the alley leading up to the headcatch designed to hold individual animals. Before we were done, we were treated to a lovely sunset and Seth made good use of his headlamp.

Days like these are precious. I loved the company and the views - and the fish.  

nice brookie

Seth and Elsa

my guys

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Final Lap

The starlings have started their fall time murmurations, those lovely flock formations that swoosh across the landscape as one fluid being. They gather in the evening before roosting and mass and twirl in flight to confuse predators. 

There’s a lovely layer of leaves on the ground where the dogs are tied under the cottonwoods. At chore time I’ve had to search around in the leaves to find the dog food dishes.

Mark announced yesterday that he was done irrigating for the year. One by one the canals have shut down. The water slows, then stands, then sinks. It’s sad and it’s beautiful with the leaves layered on top and settling to the canal floor as the water goes away. In a few more days the dogs will have to go to the hydrant for a drink instead of plunging into the canal.

Mark and Jesse have been working in the hills installing and repairing water facilities, fixing fence and upgrading a set of corrals with a crowding alley. I’m so glad they’ve had a chance to do some fall projects that Mark had in mind. He’s got such stamina for the steadiness of ranch work. I’m still hoping he’ll make time for some projects I had on my list, but the calendar is filling and snow is in the forecast.

The calves got to the other side of weaning in fine shape. Thankfully our drinking water foible didn’t bring on any sickness. Anna’s roommate was taken aback when Anna described the weaning process to her. I reminded her that the calves are pretty grown-up kids by now. It’s rather like sending them off to college. It still hurts but we get over it pretty quickly.

I had a fun project visiting some local cover crop farmers and writing news stories about them. The planting of cover crops to enrich the soil after the harvest of the main cash crop is an age-old practice that’s cool again. My friend Sam in Springfield has a lovely crop of turnips, radishes, phacelia (for pollinators), kale and barley. It makes wonderful fall and winter cattle feed and in mid-October was still buzzing with bees.

We have hope that more farmers in our area will adopt the practice and stop the blowing sand that is so aggravating every spring. I look forward to that April day when the wind is crisp and clean and pure. It could happen.

the black willows are extra pretty this year

doing well

Sam showing off  his giant radishes and turnips

bees are loving it


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Weaning Trial

The sun is out today and filtering through the golden quakie out my office window. We have a week of sunny weather in the forecast. It’s now or never for those last minute autumn chores.

We had a hard frost a couple of days ago. I gathered the last of the garden produce just in time. I was sad to find green spots on my potatoes. My fault for not getting the young plants hilled up or covered thoroughly with mulch. I brought in the last of the tomatoes to ripen indoors and gathered the few remaining cabbages, beets and onions.

We’re trying a new weaning method this fall. We set up a portable corral and chute on the range and put nose flaps in the calves to prevent them from sucking. They hang out with Mom but can’t suck so the weaning process is gradual. We’ll truck the calves home after 4 days and leave the cows in the high country. The calves will go right out on stockpiled feed in the green pastures here at home and not miss Mom so much. At least that’s the plan.

We had a big crew to gather the herd, sort the calves off, weigh each one and install the flaps. Every single person had a job. Seth and Alan worked the chute. Leah and Jessica worked the alley. Amy ran the gate to the scales. Mark, Jesse and I kept them coming from the back end. Dave, Gary and Gus gathered and sorted. Danielle recorded the weight of each calf, perching an umbrella over her paperwork during the snow storm.

We took turns eating sandwiches so we could keep the flow going and finished with the calves about 4:30 pm. From there we took the corral apart, loading the 16’ panels one by one in the stock trailer, folding up the portable system and hauling the chute down to where we set the whole thing up again to load out in a few days. By the time we were done it was dark, 8:00 pm, very cold and very windy. I think we froze some of our help. None of us were ready for that. 

I like to get a photo at the end of a day of working cattle. Our morale was pretty low at one point when we thought the snow storm might last all day. But when the clouds broke and we got a couple hours of sun we all felt better. And of course when the job is done everyone can relax and smile for the camera.

Mark has been back to the range every day since. The herd got a gate down one day and had to be put back. The water we were depending on is scant. Strays are coming in on us. I saw one calf who had figured out how to nurse around the nose apparatus. We’ll know in a couple of weeks whether we got them weaned without any sickness.  

Mark and I talk about this a lot. One just has to accept that things are seldom ideal. It’s hard for things to go smoothly. It happens once in a while but usually we have a hiccup, or more commonly a stumble, along the way. We need to remember that it's a good ranch and we do our best for our cows. 

Seth texted me a link to an article from Harvard University. A professor of psychology, Daniel Gilbert, has been researching our changing perception of problems. He says, “when problems become rare, we count more things as problems . . .  when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it.” Oh, how true this is.  

It’s like the advice a rancher in our marketing cooperative gave the other day. He was talking about cowboys who dreaded going to the city to hand out beef samples to our customers. “Lower your expectations,” he said. Good advice for all kinds of ranching endeavors.

in good spirits

 Leah keeps them coming 

a new squeeze chute finally made the top spot in ranch improvements

only slightly annoyed

Monday, October 1, 2018

Picking Pairs

It’s the first of October and I’m none too happy about it. September lasted only a minute. I resolve to be lazy in October because I hear that’s how you stretch time.

The fruit trees are bearing heavily this year. The old apple tree in the pasture was loaded with handful sized fruit that made into applesauce in a jiffy. The apples were so big they didn’t fit in my handy dandy apple slicer/corer. We have pears as well from a tree out by an irrigation ditch. There must have been an old orchard there. Usually Mark comes home with a few fruit barely big enough to bother with. This year he picked two 5-gallon buckets of grocery store quality pears.

I rode with Mark to the hills today to deliver our portable corral and check on a heifer that was separated from her calf and in the wrong place when he left yesterday. He didn’t get home until 9:30 last night. He’s traveled that road, up and down and up and down this summer, until he has every washboard memorized.

Seth and Leah have finally set a wedding date after 5 years of varying degrees of togetherness. We’re all pleased as punch. We took a quick trip to the Tetons to take engagement photos. What a spectacular backdrop! Leah turned her phone camera on Mark and me, and after eight years of writing, our photo finally made the ranch blog.

Eight years of herding cows, pulling weeds, feeding dogs, gardening, saddling horses, making meals, making amends and making do. I lost my Mom and Dad in those eight years. Our kids turned into adults. Mark and I got older.

I used to write almost weekly, now it’s once or twice a month. The blog might be losing some of its zest for me, might peter out completely. But for now it still compels me to sit (drawing blood Mark says) and attempt this coalescing of a life. I don’t know why really, other than to help me process the passage of time. I’m supposed to have a higher purpose, inform consumers, promote the beef industry, etc., but in the end my main audience is my husband. He suggested the title to this piece. A play on words I guess. He proofreads every post. Once in a while I catch him listening to Pandora and paging through old entries. If he ever stops reading, I quit.

one of my favorites

we only got one pose so it had to be good

picking pears

apples and stockpiled grass, yum

the range in fall

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Best Part

We spent two days serving beef samples to shoppers at New Seasons Market in Portland. It was a fun trip, but I was sad to find the birds had all left town when we got home. I took a drink to the deck that evening and all I heard was one lone owl. I complained to Mark about it. He told me that before we left he had seen the swallows all lined up on a power line with their bags packed.  

I’ve been saving some of summer’s bounty for the winter - bread and butter pickles, pickled beets, apple pie filling and peaches. The peaches were beautiful – they practically climbed in the jars on their own. I also froze 8 dozen ears of corn from the local truck garden where you pick it yourself and pay in the box with a slot in the top.

There must be something deep in our DNA that tells us to preserve fresh food for later even though modern commerce has eliminated the need for it.   

I drove to the local farmer’s market today. On the way, I noticed fall decorations on a few of the homes and one Halloween display. I totally understand autumnal enthusiasm after a hot summer, but here’s the deal. Don’t rush this part! These poignantly perfect days of late summer! It can still be hot, hot midday. We still sweat. But we pack a sweater because it’s chilly in the margin. The tomatoes can ripen now. The grass is growing again, those shiny, deep green leaves of regrowth, a grazier’s delight. The garden is overflowing, fruit is at peak flavor, and every day without a killing frost is a Godsend.

I found five monarch caterpillars today. They were on the fresh green leaves of milkweed that had regrown since being grazed earlier in the summer. Cattle love the leaves and had stripped every plant in their paddock, but the plants bounce back quickly and are now playing host to the yellow and black lovelies. The old plants that weren't grazed are yellowed and dry. We need both stages of plants. The old ones have spread their seed. The young ones are feeding caterpillars and won’t make it to seed ripe. One example, among many, of the synergies within nature.

Mark and I took a walk-about on the ranch last evening. We observed the wild paddock that had not been grazed since last winter. There were lovely perennials to go with the cheat grass, and lots of plant litter to cover and protect the soil. Curiously, grasshoppers are more plentiful here than any other place on the ranch. What’s up with that?

Then we pulled puncturevine plants, one of the nastiest weeds known to man, and which would happily invade any disturbed bare areas, like driveways and corrals, around the ranch. We use a claw hammer to pry up the base of the plant and avoid the spiny burrs that pierce fingers and tires.

Oh, the agony and the ecstasy of September.  

referring to Betty Crocker


a Septemberesque evening

so happy to find these!

these plants are fresh and green

these plants have seeded out

Friday, August 24, 2018

Late Summer Bouquet

We spent the last five days in the mountains moving the herd. It was a route we hadn’t taken before and I had worried about it for weeks. I should have saved the stress because it all turned out fine. The cows were very obedient and went exactly where we guided them. We took them in two bunches and had enough cowboy help which made all the difference.

When the cattle were delivered safely and all the help went home, Mark and I stayed overnight in the mountains to make sure the herd stayed put. We had a lovely, quiet evening. The horseflies and deer flies are done for the season and we didn’t encounter one mosquito! I went for a walk and found a bunch of plump serviceberries (or sarviceberries as my Mom would say). And even though my dogs, Dot and Kate, were totally spent after three days of herding, they went with me and lay in the undergrowth while I ate berries and filled a chest pocket for Mark. 

As I walked back to the cabin I think I saw September sliding in. The plant life is looking a little haggard and the snowberry bushes have a sprinkling of gold.       

By morning, three pairs of cows and calves had come back and found each other. Mark saddled up and took them part way back to the new field. After we loaded the horses, we stopped to make a phone call where we knew we could get service, and saw a biker in the distance pedaling toward us. It wasn’t a young man as we expected, but a “mature" woman all by herself. She asked us if we had any water. She didn’t take much, just topped off her water bottle. We talked about her route (which was crazy difficult) and how far she had come – and how far she still had to go. “And I’m an old woman!” she said. Old, maybe, but most 30-year-olds would love to be so fit.   

We convinced her that she was taking the long way around, loaded up her bike and drove her a short distance to the top of the next grade saving her several miles of uphill toil.

When we drove home later we kept expecting to come upon her. I couldn’t believe she made it so far. She showered thanks on us when we finally passed her. She was very tired by then and knew how important the short cut had been to her.

We felt an immediate kinship with this stranger. She envies our horseback rides and our cowboy life. I envy her courage and tenacity - and her glutes! As off-road vehicle use skyrockets, we doubly appreciate a recreationist on a pedal bike. Oh, if only more people could enjoy the magnificent outdoors by natural propulsion.

I brought home a bouquet of dried wildflowers. The ones I enjoyed so much this summer have dropped their blossoms and are in full seed-bearing mode. Flesh colored buckwheat, golden yarrow and tan geranium. As a woman who’s working on my 60th year - and keeping the biker lady in mind - I like the analogy of maturity in nature, more subtle than the flowering season, but equally as beautiful.      

more in common than you might think

from the range:
sticky geranium, buckwheat, yarrow

from my garden:
celosia, dill, black-eyed Susans
atop Drunkard's Knowle
trailing like they knew where they were going (the old girls did)

Monday, July 30, 2018

More of the Same

It’s hot. We’re sleeping in the basement where it's cool and quiet. No dogs barking or kingbirds squawking at 4:30 am. By fall we’ll move back upstairs, but for now it’s a mini-getaway for us.

This morning we watched a colorful tanager feed on the berries of the chokecherry out our living room window. I told the numerous robins that perhaps they could feed elsewhere. I like them, but they’re a bit mundane, choose another bush please.

We’re moving cattle every 10 days or so in the mountains, which is a big switch for us. We’re following the advice we heard a smart rancher give one day: “shorten your graze periods and lengthen your recovery periods.” It’s stressing us in ways we didn’t anticipate and it’s not perfect, but things seldom are. We’ve had a few pleasant overnight stays in the mountains. Being in the high country early in the morning and late at night means spotting elk, mule deer, sage grouse, and listening to the nighthawks boom.

I’ve enjoyed some time away from the ranch rummaging through boxes of memorabilia with my sisters. It’s taken us years to tackle what our grandmother and uncle left behind in their home built by my great grandparents. We hate to disturb some of the drawers and shelves that have remained untouched since the last occupation over 20 years ago. My uncle saved everything. I hauled box after box down the steep attic stairs one very hot day. One curious find was a large box filled with crepe paper streamers, all a faded green. Their household was staunchly democrat and there was a stash of John Kennedy campaign materials and articles written after his assassination. There were piles of books and magazines, and the occasional handwritten letter to keep us interested.

We have a box labeled for each branch of the family, file folders for each individual, a box to take to the local historical society, totes for scrapbooks to deal with later, and piles of items with some value that we need to think about. It’s a labor of love, and with my dear sisters, what I would do just for fun.

Summer is cruising along at warp speed. Oh, to hold on to these evenings! We watched the July full moon, the buck moon, rise at dusk on my birthday. We christened the new redwood deck and made merry as I tried to forget how surprising the number on the cake was.

All of it - aging, the intoxicating days of summer, the cool breeze coming through the windows when I can’t sleep - take on a special poignancy when I’m immersed in the lives of my ancestors. We are the same. Especially so since our livelihood is the land, and we cherish country living as they did. My grandma talks about beet harvest, flood irrigating, and the first killdeer of spring as the important events they were. An optimist, nearly every diary entry begins with, “Lovely, lovely day.” She also wrote in a letter, “We lived through the depression and two world wars and loved every minute of it.”

I promise today to be more like her. 

moving heifers at home
 Anna and Clyde

moving the herd in the mountains
Tin Cup Spring
Seth and Dot