Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dirty Jobs

July is about used up. It’s hot. We don’t have air-conditioning, but the house stays cool if we open the windows at night and close them tight by 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. It’s one of the best parts of living in Idaho – cool nights.

Mark has been fencing in the hills, which is a never ending job if you’re a rancher. We acquired property 4 years ago whose interior and exterior fence lines are totally electric. It’s been a constant chore getting them to stay charged. The voltage is erratic and it takes multiple chargers being moved from one section of fence to another throughout the season. Mark and Colton came home from an extended stay in the mountains and said they finally got 5,000 volts in the whole thing with one charger!

It’s weed fighting season. Weeds make me think of my great aunt Elsie’s line, “there’s always something to take the joy out of living.” Our land is diverse: dry sandhills intermingled with irrigated pastures, canals, and timbered areas. It’s great for wildlife, but unhandy to keep weeds out of. We’re judicious with herbicides, preferring to manage weeds with cultural methods, but find ourselves spraying to have a chance against their onslaught. I discovered a different kind of thistle while changing water one day. It was huge - as wide as my outstretched arms and taller than me, with stout, leathery leaves. I hacked at the stem with my shovel and it made a cracking sound as it fell to the ground. Ack! I felt like I was in some horror movie where weeds appear overnight and gobble up the children.

Mark tried something different with the heifers. We took the bulls out after 40 days with plans to draw blood from each animal and have it tested for pregnancy proteins. This allows for a tighter birthing window and opens up marketing options for the heifers that didn’t “settle” within the breeding period. Our crew included Callie, Anna, and my sister Becky, a retired vet technician, who drew the blood. She brought her grandkids who hung out in the heat with us, alternately tracking wild kittens in the barn and helping sort blood vials.

After I put the last three head in the chute, I took the kids down the lane to Great Grandma’s for Fresca and donut holes. It’s the best part of ranching, working with family. And unlike much of largescale agriculture today, ranching is still hands-on and family friendly. You have to be intentional about it, though. Callie and Anna, kids once themselves who learned the ropes underfoot the working adults, knew to keep the little kids busy with “jobs” of their own.

Callie, especially, as a kid, wasn’t happy if she had “none jobs.” We laugh about the time when she was 5 years old and helping Gary with some ranch project. When grandpa Eldro arrived, she said he could go home because, as she put it, “Gary already has help!” For children, this learning to do and seeing the results of one's efforts, is critical parenting, and so beneficial as to deserve a line of its own on the profit section of the ranch’s income statement.     

Anna and Mark repairing fence

So mad to find houndstongue here!

working heifers
Clancy and Clara have jobs

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Citizen Science

It’s mid-July and we've had some pleasant, coolish days. To make it even better, the mosquitoes and flies are taking a bit of a hiatus. Wait, what?

We’re heading into the crunch season of irrigation and our streams are already losing their springtime exuberance. The late afternoon wilt can be seen across the hay fields waiting for water.
I’m having fun in my garden. We have beets galore and a variety of greens. I’m planning on surprising Mark tonight with creamed new potatoes and peas!

I’ve had two “citizen scientist” escapades lately. It's apparently an old (ala' Ben Franklin), now new movement to empower the public in natural resource management based not on regulatory actions but on education and volunteerism. 

First I attended a workshop by Tim Ekins, University of Idaho Extension Water Educator, to learn how to monitor parameters of stream health including dissolved oxygen level, velocity and turbidity (cloudiness from suspended particles), pH, temperature, and bank characteristics. The best part was using a screen to collect organisms that live on the bottom of the stream. We sorted through debris with tweezers and transferred any bugs to an ice cube tray for identification. Seth’s fly fishing talk of caddis and stoneflies came alive to me during this exercise. So that's what he was talking about!

The second science lesson was hosting Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition who returned to the ranch to revisit a carbon plot on one of our pastures. Peter educates as he monitors. At one point he pulled out two loupes, small 5X magnifying glasses that fit in your eye socket, and invited me and Colton, a young man working on the ranch this summer, to lie down in the grass and observe the soil surface. Worm castings rose up like boulders and giant ants scuttled around the grass stems. Later we looked at seed heads and tiny bugs on flowers with the loupes. It blows your mind and makes you know how little we grasp of the natural world.  

We ranchers and farmers need to try harder to mix it up with the scientific community. I’ve learned both parties can be skeptical of the other. We cowboys can be intimidated by the scientist’s unfamiliar names of our common plants and their sometimes superior attitude. Likewise, I'm guessing biologists are suspicious of the cowboy culture and don't think they can relate to us. Truth is, a richness comes to the conversation when both disciplines are included. And in my opinion our resource issues will only be successfully addressed when the two “sides” come together.   

Resource management aside, the citizen scientist in me is a perfect fit with the artist in me. Knowing their contribution to the ecosystem only makes the species that live here on the ranch more beautiful.  

They're not endangered around here

fighting over who gets to collect bottom dwelling macroinvertebrates!

Peter eyeing soil life with a loupe

the loveliest grass of all, Indian Rice 

 mules ear and quakies

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Toast to Grass

Summer is in full swing, which means most evenings we eat outside. Tonight we’ll watch and wait for the June full moon, the strawberry moon, which just happens to fall on the summer solstice, a rare occurrence. Mark and I talked about the northernmost sunrise this morning and how the sun will now head back south along the rim of the mountains until its about-face in mid December.   

The garden is up and hitting its stride. The peas will be blooming soon. I've stymied the cabbage moths by putting mesh around the cabbage plants and thinned the kale, a new/old favorite I planted for the first time this spring.

We’ve been enjoying bird traffic around the house, bobbing goldfinches, regal cedar waxwings in pairs, and the occasional flash of an oriole. We don’t cotton to bird feeders, but provide currants, serviceberries and chokecherry bushes for au naturel dining.  

Anna is spending the summer with us, weighing fall employment options and taking some much needed downtime to reflect on her college career and dive into ranch work. She’s been Mark’s right-hand cowboy all spring. We lost her horse, Mater, last fall so she’s been riding 21-year-old Birdie, who’s as light and lively and high-strung as ever. Birdie and I don’t exactly mesh, but easygoing Anna is getting along well with her.

The cattle walked their way to the high country and are happily settled in a sea of grass. Oh, how Mark and I love grass. So much so that at a restaurant for dinner yesterday, on the terrace on a perfect evening, we raised our glasses; "to grass!” I said.

It was written eloquently about grass in the late 1800’s: “Grass is the forgiveness of nature, her constant benediction.” I’ve memorized the words from the 1948 Yearbook of Agriculture, a large green tome entitled, Grass, which Mark’s grandpa gave me 25 years ago. An essay by Kansas senator, John James Ingalls, extols the “enduring blessings” of grass which captures my love for this, a most inconspicuous but essential family of plants. Grass moderates soil temperatures, diminishes floods and droughts, feeds life in the soil, sinks carbon, and through the gut of an herbivore, provides nutrients to the food chain long past its short green season. 

It is this last function, the joining of cow and grass, that is the principle job of a rancher and that which we take most joy in. 

Anna on Birdie

Kate working the flank

it was a long walk

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A New York Minute

We’ve been moving cows to grass. May is rushing by. But I’m not ready to leave April until I write about my trip to see Callie in New York City.  Words and photos, this is how I deal with the passage of time and events, and my children turning into adults. I’ve never understood how other mothers can stand it if they’re not doing the same thing.  

I don’t know if Callie even knows what a “New York Minute” is, but she can probably guess. The expression attempts to describe the fast pace of the city. Johnny Carson explained it once as that instant between when the light turns green in Manhattan and the car behind you honks the horn.

It was the first time for me flying and traveling such a distance alone. Callie’s sweet face greeted me at LaGuardia and we shared an indulgent late night taxi ride back to her apartment. Just grabbing a taxi from the line in front of the airport was an adventure. The rest of the trip was the same, me tagging along as she lived her life. We strolled through the cherry trees in full bloom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and dodged Sunday morning traffic on our bikes to brunch and back. We experienced the quiet awe of the 9-11 memorial and hoofed it though the east side and the west village. It was a treat to watch Callie at two dance rehearsals and see her in her element, cussing and discussing artistic expression.

Callie’s Crown Heights community of Brooklyn is predominantly West Indian/African-American and Orthodox Jews. It was a bit unsettling the first time we visited, but by now I feel at ease walking the streets.

Callie commutes everywhere by subway. She does it by rote, glancing at her phone from time to time checking routes as the stations whiz by. I enjoyed following her lead, free to observe the other travelers who avoid eye contact with you. One night a large black man with a beautiful booming bass voice was playing guitar on the platform. A middle aged white woman with boots and a long skirt got off a train and when she heard him, broke into song, harmonizing for a single verse and one chorus, and then stepping back on the train with a big smile. The guitarist, who had been looking down, raised his head and grinned as the wind hit us from the departing train. All in a New York minute. 

Callie dances with a company that performs outdoors, often in public spaces where the “public” might be in the midst of the performers. The venue is very much an element of the art.

The diversity of the city was evident at one rehearsal in particular in Battery Park on New York Harbor. Juxtaposed against the dancers were the local Hasidic Jews out celebrating Passover. The Jewish men were clad in black cloaks and hats and side curls, the women in wigs and modest skirts. They have large families and many young mothers were pushing a baby stroller. The tourists were there as well speaking unintelligible languages, as were the ubiquitous joggers, huffing and puffing and weaving their way through the strolling masses. They all watched Callie and the other performers with interest, but not surprise, as it was just another day in this city of contrasts.     

The highlight of my trip was the evening performance by her dance company, Kinesis Project, as part of their annual fundraising gala. We guests watched from an overhead balcony as the dancers performed on a perfect harbor evening with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

Sometimes when I lie in bed at night, I think of my daughter and imagine myself above the U.S. landscape whizzing across the countryside following a meandering route eastwardly to the Atlantic Coast. I picture the Rocky Mountains, the plains, the cities and farm ground, the Mississippi River, the homesteads and traffic, until I arrive at her Brooklyn brownstone. It is a surreal feeling and is comforting and unsettling at the same time.

She went to New York for the opportunities of the dance world. She didn’t realize it would instead be a coming of age, a reckoning with herself, and more difficult than she could have imagined. She now has the city and its challenges firmly under her belt and is ready to slow down, get back to nature and closer to home, but she’s having a hard time leaving her friends and artistic community. She repeatedly sets a departure date and then moves it back. She seems a little more determined this summer to make the move and I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but in the end I just want her to be happy. 


the performance
 photo by Stephen Delas Heras

the fabulous cherry trees at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Sunday, April 17, 2016

'Tis Better to Prune

We were gone for two days and came home to find water flowing in the canal and a green haze smudged across the willows. The quakie out my office window has the tiniest, shiniest light green leaves. There is life all around us in a rush to birth, bud, nest, bloom, leaf and grow.

We got several hundred calves branded over three days. Seth and Anna were home to help and Anita brought a yummy lunch every day. It’s a family affair, along with some extra good help. Our friend Alan, a highschool teacher in Boise, drives 4 hours each way to help us. He’s castrated thousands of calves over the years. Let’s see . . . several thousand x 2, since there are two testicles per calf . . . . .    

Besides making steers out of bulls, we give them vaccinations and a hot iron brand for identification. They don’t like it, of course, and lay around for a couple of days, a little shell-shocked that life isn't as carefree as they'd come to believe. Still, by day three they’re up and running in packs across the pasture again. I liken it to immunizing a human infant. Yes, they squall when they get the shots, but in a day or so they’re fine and don’t think about it again.

I took a turn at putting calves in the chute. I like to put my hands on their bodies and feel their thick, luxuriant coats. I make a game out of seeing how gentle I can touch them and how gently they respond. Of course, don't kid yourself about their gentleness; come armed with boots and chaps because they can eat your lunch whenever they want!

Every spring I get the pruning bug. This year I spoiled myself with a new set of pruners and a handy folding saw. I’ve been having a ball cleaning up along our canal. I worked for 4 days, sawing, snipping, hauling, piling - and then Mark arrived with a truck and tractor and took it all away. 

And as I prune, I think of how analogous this activity is to a life well lived. How many of us clutter our lives with endless “stuff” that, frankly, needs hauled away to the burn pile? We’re like the unkempt kid at supper with his shirt sleeves dragging in the soup that needs a comb put through his hair and his shirt tucked in. We need to cut back the dead, whack away the wayward suckers and the cluttered lines, and reveal the graceful and uncluttered arcs of our life. 

tough customers

the '77 Ford can handle it

oh, that our minds were this peaceful

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Spring Signage

Spring is here in a big way. I pruned the chokecherries and cleaned out the front flower bed today. It was 60 degrees in the shade by noon. Mark is still doctoring a few calves and eyeing the ditches to get ready for the irrigation season. The Slough is due to start running water tomorrow. So soon?

We have a strange phenomenon this spring – no tumbleweeds. They usually blow against the fences and into the ditches during spring winds. They’re a real nuisance, clogging waterways, filling open sheds and covering fences. If nothing else the piles are unsightly, so we gather them together and burn every spring. For some strange reason they’re absent this year. What circumstance of weather kept their numbers down? Did weeks of heavy snowpack flatten them? 

About ten years ago we had a particularly bad year that we named, “the year of the tumbleweed.” The weeds filled the alleyway in the corrals and rolled down the lane into the yard blocking the driveway. We manned pitchforks and worked as a family to get them gathered and burned. But tumbleweeds aren’t the worst thing. Bare ground is. And the weeds do a great job of covering bare spots, grow with little moisture and provide seeds for songbirds and cover for all kinds of varmints. 

We’re on the downhill side of calving. Yesterday Mark was surveying the heifers out our picture window with the binoculars. At one point he abruptly put down the glasses and headed out the door. He doesn’t often leave in such a hurry, so I was anxious to hear what had happened. When he returned, he explained that he was watching a heifer calve and saw the calf plop to the ground, just over a rise and out of his view. He saw the cow looking back at her calf and, as he said it, “giving him the hairy eyeball.” A new mother doesn’t stand and look at her baby curiously. Normal behavior is the anxious lowering of her head, sniffing and licking excitedly. Mark knew something was wrong. Sure enough when he arrived on the 4-wheeler, he found the calf folded in half, making snuffling noises. He flopped him upright so he could get a breath and at that moment the mother’s instincts kicked in and she started tending her calf.

It reminds me of the admonishment Mark’s grandpa used to tell us. “Think,” he would say. “The signs are there, you just need to read them.” 

the preemie that was in the barn, still friendly and wanting a scratch

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Business of March

We’ve had rain and snow and wind. The feed truck got stuck three days in a row.

We love the moisture, but know that too much wet on baby calves makes them susceptible to disease. Mark has our hay tested and provides supplementation to ensure a healthy diet for the cows, the first order for strong calves. We put out straw to give them a dry place to lay and provide sandhills and windbreaks for protection. Still, in the middle of the night when the wind howls and we hear the smattering of drops against the house, we worry.

Today there’s a brisk wind, but the rain has held off all morning and the sand is drying out. It’s challenging to raise crops in sand but our farm is wonderful this time of year for cattle.

It was calm last evening. I walked into the yard and told Anna I was going to sit on the porch and listen to the robins go to bed. She grabbed a big quilt and joined me. Within ten minutes the red-breasted party quieted down until the last robin gave one last chirp . . .  and then silence. A couple of owls, perched in the willows, their silhouettes against what was left of the day, hooted their ghostly goodnight.

It is familiar - this wet, windy, sloppy March. The killdeers are flirting; well, doing more than flirting I suppose. There’s a green pop in the meadow. No serious growing yet, just a “heads up” awakening.

Every year in March the water meetings commence. I keep books for a couple of canals and each year we meet to discuss the upcoming irrigation season. What condition is the ditch in? How much excavation work should we budget for? Who’s paid up and who’s behind? Snowpack levels are discussed and board members elected. Large farmers and backyard irrigators rub shoulders and hope for full ditches.  

We’ve had a string of fetal mal-presentations in the cow herd. The most unusual is the “backwards, standing up” position. The calf attempts to come out butt first, pretty much impossible without assistance. One spring a few years ago, we had several and Mark got very good at spotting them. So good in fact that when driving to town one day, he spied a cow in a pasture along the road and knew she was in peril from just such a birth complication. He crossed the fence, walked her behind a gate, pushed the calf back inside far enough to get hold of the legs and pulled it out. He was too late to save the calf but the cow survived. He said about the cow’s owner, “I don’t think he ever knew who stopped and pulled that calf!”

I’m sure when Mark closes his eyes at night he sees pregnant cows in varying stages of labor and calves, calves, calves.