Thursday, February 13, 2020

Soils R Us

If one soils workshop during the off-season is good, two is even better, right? So we went to Idaho Falls and then Burley to learn and question and scratch our heads. Now we talk about soil health over coffee in the morning while it’s too dark to feed cows.

Who knew there’s a whole teeming world of microbes below our feet, and they have the power to create, maintain and regenerate above-ground health. Not only for plants, but animals that depend on plants - including humans.

The five elements of soil health are easy to understand and should be familiar to all of us that have a yard, enjoy the landscape, like clean air and water, and eat food:

1 – Keep the soil covered with dead or living plants

2 – Minimize disturbance to the soil, like tilling

3 – Promote a diverse variety of plants

4 – Keep a living root in the soil year round

5 – Graze with livestock responsibly  

But wait, Anna says we talk too much about soils so I’ll change the topic.

We’re taking a class this winter put on by the University of Idaho on ranch transition planning. Our first assignment is to individually write a legacy statement. Basically what you hope to leave to succeeding generations. How you want to be remembered. What values did you live your life by?

Mark and I had a half-hour to kill in town so we stopped by a sunny window and put pen to paper. It’s not easy to sum up a life, even for a writer like me, so I can imagine the other ranchers in the class struggling with the composition.

One thing I thought of was my intention that Mark and I be a good role model of partnership to our children. We both are “all in” for this ranch, which is good, but it leads to arguments about how to manage it. I like to talk things through, be pragmatic. When expenses come up I often ask, can we afford it? He prefers to figure it out on his own and gets annoyed with my questions.  

But he is kind to me. When it's really cold, one of the sweetest things he does is put his gloves on the pickup heater while I feed my load of hay every morning. Then we swap gloves when I'm half-way through so my hands stay cozy and warm. What a difference this small gesture makes. It makes me feel loved and cared for. Happy Valentines Day!

A shovelful of good stuff from the Back Forty

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Mid-Winter Rant

When the Holidays are done, and grazing is left behind, we nestle into a quiet routine of feeding cows every morning. If the weather cooperates, we get to do a few other things besides ranching, like go to a movie or take a drive. We took the afternoon off yesterday and drove north towards the Tetons. We hoped the weather would lift, but it spit slush at us the whole way. Then of course we couldn't see the mountains. Plus the snow sculptures in Driggs were well past their beauty. Oh well, it was a diversion from ranch duties and we had a nice supper out.

I’m feeding one big load of hay per day to the young cows who are expecting their first or second calf. I call it my “feeding practice,” like a yoga or meditation “practice.” The bales can be challenging to get off the truck one slice at a time. One must keep calm, use your body intentionally and resist the urge to fight. I really love the work. Mark drives for me so it’s time together and I get fresh air and exercise. The best part is walking home from ranch headquarters when that first load is done. Mark and the rest of our crew finish up without me. As I walk along in the quiet, I see our home up ahead and feel a rush of pleasure at the day stretching out ahead of me, the lusciousness of winter with time to do indoor jobs. Spring can take her time, if you ask me.

The snow came and then the wind blew it into big drifts. Now it’s warmed up and everything is soft. You can tell what temperature it is outside just by the look of it. Warm-up means the colors deepen. Tree trunks are dark against a white winter sky. Grasses show golden as they poke through the snow. Calves in the pasture lot spread out across the field, chewing their cud and laying in the snow. Magpies and dark-eyed juncos flit about.

Winter also gives us time to read, follow the news, take some rat trails on the internet, listen to podcasts, etc. There’s some crazy stuff out there. I think as more and more people live detached from the natural world they start to go a little nuts.     

There’s a billboard on a highway close-by which features a forlorn looking dog, and in bold letters these words, “bring me inside.” Well, it depends on the breed of course, but a dog house filled with straw and positioned out of the wind suits our dogs just fine. It's really about feed, water and shelter. The billboard is communicating in sound bites, an infuriating habit we’ve become accustomed to. Where is nuance and the ability to think something through logically?

Because of my choices over time, my Facebook feed sends me a lot of stuff on regenerative agriculture which I appreciate. I also get the anti-meat stories. The Golden Globes banned meat from their pre-show dinner for the first time ever this year. Not that one meal would make a difference, they said, but to send a message about climate change. What they don't know is that this isn't about plant vs. animal foods. Both processes CYCLE carbon. Tell me how the food is produced, the soils, the biodiversity, the community it sustains, and then we can have the conversation about climate. The Golden Globe event, along with vegan dishes, served bottled water - from Iceland. But wait, in the spirit of climate consciousness, it was in glass bottles instead of single-use plastic like the company normally sells. And they’re going to reuse the red carpet this year. Did I say the world has gone crazy?

We're popular to some

Early January

Cycling local carbon

Sunday, January 5, 2020

A 2020 Welcome

After we fed cows this morning, the snow started. It’s falling heavily now, and with it, the quiet that accompanies this familiar winter scene has enveloped the ranch. Now it looks like Christmas.

Any self-respecting ranch blog should mention a game we played over the holidays. It’s called The Game of Things. Each card is a prompt: “things that are bumpy,” “things you never told your parents,” “things you don’t want to find under the couch,” etc. Then everyone writes a secret response and we try to guess who wrote what. We laughed a lot. One prompt said, “things you don’t want to hear in the middle of the night.” Three of us answered, “the cows are out.” Interestingly it was from three women, one from each generation, Anita, me and Anna. Hmmmm.

I love the clean slate of a new year. What will 2020 hold? Last year, 2019, was a big year for our family. Seth got married, Anna got engaged and finished her master's degree, Callie’s restorative exercise business took off. Mark and I took on interests on and off the ranch. These years are precious – as is every year, but turning 60 in 2019 brought the passage of time into focus for me and I’m more stingy of how I spend it. Well, maybe stingy is a poor way to describe it. Let’s say I’m more “generous” to the efforts I value the most, and more “mindful” of the rest.  

Winter is the only chance we get to dig into our ranch finances. We’re trying to figure costs per cow right now. A large whiteboard leans against the piano in our living room with expense categories on the left and dollars on the right. The board stares at us as we linger over coffee in the morning. I’m very visual, and looking at the figures over a few days helps me grasp the total picture. Plus, these costs aren't straightforward. They take focused thinking to analyze.

We’ve been moving and sorting cows and calves, getting them set up for winter feeding. We fed our first load of hay on New Year’s Day. Of course we’d rather graze year round, but there’s something comforting about knowing feed for the herd comes from the stackyard for awhile. The chores don't change much from day to day until calving starts. Unless we get severe weather and Mark needs to push snow, this time of year gives us some mental bandwidth to consider other ranch parameters.  

Anna brought a friend to visit the ranch who was taking her Christmas break from the military. Taylor flies helicopters which sounds pretty exciting, but she thought a ranch stay might be an interesting interlude. After feeding three loads of hay one morning, the young women stopped by the corral to give Penny a pet. Penny was born prematurely and we had to help her stand and nurse for several weeks. She didn't have enough hair to keep her warm so she wore a second hand sweater. She's all grown up now with a calf of her own, but she’s still as gentle as can be. We call her “Old Pen.”

When we feed, Mark shows me cows that I’ve featured in my blog. I’ve forgotten them but he remembers each one. The one that calved early as a heifer over to the Pease place in 2013, number X14, stands out because she’s always in the lead and likes to scratch on the big bales on the truck as we enter the feed ground. V7 is a Hereford that I blogged about when Mark was tagging calves one spring. Apparently I engraved the tag on the wrong side because it’s backwards now. You can tell who she is, just get behind her!

The rhythm of a ranch goes on. Past the first snowfall and the last snowfall. Past Christmas festivities, and on into future planning. Cows that cycle through our herd bearing calves year after year and then aging out.  A brand new year reminds me of what Gary says about ranching, "it’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”

101 year old barn 

Taylor and "Old Pen"

Too funny

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Patina of Life

We walked the young cows home from cropland grazing in a neighborhood about 9 miles from here. I was happy to see that lots of homes, the older ones anyway, still have fences protecting their yards. One couple came out to watch the herd go by and I thanked them for their fences. It’s a happy thing when people enjoy watching the cattle instead of being annoyed with us.

I brought the pickup and trailer along and let Dot bring the back end. Such a cushy job.

This is a sumptuous time of year. The dead of winter has a different feel and a different beauty. For now the damp grass lays over in swells and the cattle pull up big mouthfuls. Before the lovely snowscapes of winter are upon us, we enjoy this - a subtle grown-up beauty, laden with leaves and summer’s refuse.

I had a fun week hosting my sisters who visited from Montana and Maryland. We, along with my 3 local sisters, spent a week reconnecting and sistering (a word my computer redlines). We attended a Christmas symphony, but otherwise entertained ourselves by visiting and reminiscing with each other and some close cousins. We visited our ancestral home and discussed the attributes of replacing vs restoring the 132-year-old windows. Donna, experienced in old houses from her time living in the Eastern U.S., discussed the value of patina when assessing old things.

Patina is an Italian word that originally referred to the greenish film that grows on aging metal items, but it’s been expanded to include the warm, worn look of leather, etc. acquired through regular use and the passage of time. It’s a respectful word, honoring the change a surface acquires through weathering and experience. Donna said we ladies showed patina as well. The beauty and wisdom of worry lines and laugh lines, of gray hair and weathered skin. We spread our hands in front of us and remembered our parents’ hands, bulbous with lifetimes of hard work.

My photos for the last couple of weeks show the patina of a year at its end. Crop aftermath, bare trees, yellow grasses, even the winter coats on the horses and cows mimicking the browns and buckskins of our natural world.

Sis, Pard, Jane, Alice

Such a beautiful day from inside the pickup!

Dot keeps them coming

Kit, Becky, Rich, Merle, me, Donna, Janene

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Cow Trails

We brought the young cows out of the mountains, those expecting their first and second calves. We’ll keep them separate for the winter. They do better if they don’t have to compete for feed with the mature cows. But when we put them on the road, they were lost without the older cows to show them the way. It took extra nudging to convince them they needed to walk home.   

There were only three of us to put them up and over the steep grade at Rawlins Creek, with Alan, our longtime helper, on foot at that. When we finally came out on top, He and Dave went back to help the rest of the crew who were putting the older cows through the chute for their fall vaccinations. I stayed with the young cows on my favorite horse, Jane, and with my border collie, Dot. We took the herd along the old stock trail that follows the river. Gary brought me lunch after a while and checked the lead cows before he headed back to the main herd.  

I’ve ridden this route many times. I rode it as a kid, begrudgingly taking turns with my sisters because we didn’t have enough horses to go around. And after I grew up and took a detour with the wrong man, I married Mark and came back to my roots. Mark was raised just like me on a neighboring ranch who summered cattle on the same range. He traveled the same route spring and fall - only he had his own horse and didn’t have to share! But there’s more.  

My Mom was raised in these mountains; her love of the land and the river lives on in me. The cabin built by my great-grandparents can be seen over the bluff along the Trail, safe from vandals, but victim to the passage of time and the river that erodes toward its foundation. When my folks married, Mom moved downstream, but never really left the mountains because of their herd’s annual transhumance. She didn’t ride horses, but was vital to the ranch in other ways. And every year, when she drove past the site of her childhood home, she paused.

Times are different today. I worry about the Trail in ways she never had to. There are more and more fences every year crowding our cows into a narrower and narrower lane. The county widens and “improves” the road annually. More off-road travel, 4-wheelers and side-by-sides, mean more two-tracks taking off in every direction. Invasive plants are moving in on our beloved sagebrush sea and we imagine no way to stop their advance – the weeds or the people.

But for some reason, perhaps I was busy moving the herd, perhaps it was the solitude. In any case, I took the day off from worrying. When the herd arrived at our destination, I waited. I tied Jane to a cedar, sat on the bluff and thought about my Mom and Dad. Thankfully I dressed warm that day. I told Mark I would've been in tears if I hadn’t. I soaked up the evening, the sunset, and finally darkness, trusting that the pickup and trailer, studded with lights, would show up eventually. And he did.

My Mom, Alma, on the Trail

heading home


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Balancing Act

We rode in the hills yesterday putting cows on the mountain, encouraging them to graze up high where the feed is good. After a record-breaking cold spell in October, this weather feels sublime. And with the calves weaned, the cows have a carefree attitude. They move off the dogs with agreeable, obedient movement. Gosh it was fun. The hunters are gone and we had the place to ourselves except for a traveling band of sheep.  

There’s a quietude in the mountains. An expectancy of what's to come. Soon - very soon - the snow will fall and keep falling and push us to lower elevations. We have one more pasture downriver that we’ll move to soon. There the grass lays waiting, a deep tan color, hardened off with maturity and frost, but luscious feed for dry cows.

Jesse, Mark and I made good use of another warm day today. We wound the calves from pasture to pasture and into the working corrals to sort by sex. We walked them by us in an alley to the sorting gate, the heifers “by” and the steers “in,” then turned them back out onto grass. Jesse ran the gate expertly, with smooth, methodical movements to avoid scaring the calves. They’re anxious enough just being in close proximity to us, so we move carefully to teach them that we won’t crowd them, won’t jump in front of them, and will give them time to think.

I carried my walking stick that I got at an auction this summer. It has sections wrapped in leather complete with beads and feathers. You know the look. A family member built it at scout camp. It feels good in my hand and is versatile enough to not only work as a walking prop, but can direct a dog or block the movement of a calf. Jesse and Mark drummed a beat on the corral boards for me, but I still didn’t break into war song. That would be silly.

I forgot and left Dot in the barn, so I rode my bike back later to get her. It was just before dark and the new house being built on a side road stood out in the fading light. Seems there are lots of people who want a country view. I don’t blame them, but if they keep coming (which they will) with new neighbors all around us, how do we keep the country in the view? For now, I just hope the newcomers slow down for my dog when they pass us on their way to town.   

I spent a couple of days in Boise with the grouse/grazing research planning team. We're on the sixth year of a ten year project studying the effects of spring grazing on sage grouse. I love the stimulating conversations, and after this much time involved in the study, can keep up with the research discussion. I got to spend two evenings with Callie which was a bonus.

Anna and Cole, who had a stint in Nebraska, have made their way back to Southern Idaho. We now have all our kids within 4 hours of home and I’m feeling very blessed.   

With so much to be grateful for, I wonder why I have this nagging anxiety. I’m thinking back to the weaning process of a few weeks ago. All of my worrying beforehand yielded a big fat NADA. Well, that's not entirely true, the weather turned on us five days after the calves got home. Adding to the stress, the ditch froze, and some may have not found the trough. Despite our best efforts two calves died of pneumonia. The point is, worrying did nothing to help.

I’m determined to face my emotional failings at this stage of life. Mark deserves that much. . . . On the other hand, sometimes my concerns are valid and acknowledging them is OK too. It’s the balancing act that makes a marriage, makes a ranch, makes a life.   

good calves on good feed

the new brace looks sturdy

kicking through the leaves in Boise's north end
tomorrow is Halloween!

research planning team retreat
photo by Dave Meusil

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Two Less Chores

Each morning when I look out my kitchen window, the landscape gets a little more muted. The winds of late are working on the leaves and the pasture grass is fading to golden from the tops down. Mark turned off his last stream of water. The canal that flows along our driveway will soon dry up adding to the melancholy I feel about the end of summer.    

The ranch has had two passages to mark the season. My border collie Kate had to be put down from a progressive neurological disorder. She was thriving after her midsummer maggot episode, but within a two-day period developed symptoms that the vet said would only worsen. She was 14 years old and her best herding days were behind her. We were all caught up; I say goodbye with thanks and no regrets.

Kate followed Beauty, my first border collie, and like her, tagged along whenever I worked cattle on foot or horseback. Kate, though being close to the ground, could always keep track of me, no matter how many zigzaggy turns my horse made through a maze of sagebrush. Collie’s have super powers. Wherever I paused, there was Kate. Always ready to read my position and keep the cattle together, headed in the right direction. Both of my female dogs had barrels of stamina. I always considered them good role models.

The second passage was taking our standby quarter horse, Sly, to a retirement home. He was getting thin, and being in a corral with other horses, it was hard to feed him enough to keep him in good condition. Our friend Lonna, animal lover through and through, took him under her wing. He’ll be close by for her grandson to ride. Max loves Sly too, calls him “Swy.” Mark has been worried about his equine friend, but the worry is gone now knowing Sly can enjoy some well-deserved senior care.

Sly has tended many an inexperienced rider, of which there have been many over the years. And he’s tended the current cow boss, Mark, as well, who could get more out of Sly than anyone. Sly could turn a cow hard if you were skilled enough to ask him. We left him on Marsh Creek, nibbling hay and nickering to the neighbor’s horses, close enough to socialize, but far enough away that they're not competition for feed.  

I can’t even imagine how many cattle Kate and Sly have herded. All over the home ranch, up and down the trail to the mountains, winding through quakies, fording creeks, navigating slippery side hills, doing our bidding and making the impossible, possible with their help. They and a long line of others just like them have been companions and helpmates since the beginning of this centennial ranch. They round out who we are. Seeing our life as a mini diorama, there’s the red and white cows, barns, houses, tractors and corrals, tree-lined canals and haystacks in a row, all with the enduring land as a backdrop. Then there’s the people, growing up, growing older. And in the margins are our helper animals, our invaluable colleagues: Rocker, Susie, Woodrow, Moses, Mater . . . . . The scene is only complete with them at our side.     

We've never owned one more beautiful
photos by Anita:
Max on Swy

me and Kate