Thursday, May 10, 2018

When May Happens

We’re staging the cows to leave for the hills, putting groups back together since calving and branding, and moving them to green grass on pastures around the home ranch. We’ll open the gates and start walking towards our mountain range next week.

Staging is not to be confused with “shaping them up,” which is the term my Mom used to describe going through the cows and sorting off those that weren't trail ready. The herd will walk fifty miles before they reach the high country. We will walk or ride with them and it’s not for the unfit.

But unfit I am. The older I get the more pain is endured when spending hours on a horse when one has been too long out of the saddle. Yesterday I wore biking shorts under my jeans to go with the rough-out leather pad on my saddle, wore my chaps for extra protection, took two ibuprofen, and I’m still bruised and sore this morning. It was a beautiful day though and so good for my well-being to see luscious grass instead of tightly grazed feed ground.

Mark put an electric string around the house and let the pairs in to graze areas that they usually don’t get to. I had a hard time getting any work done because I wanted to simply sit on the terrace and watch cows eat. Andre Voisin, author of the classic Grass Productivity called the process, poetically, “the cow at grass.”  

The birds are back! How I love the familiar two-note song of the chickadee and the flash of an oriole in his pumpkin-colored plumage. I got in trouble with Mark because I took the good binoculars out of his calving pickup and moved them to the kitchen for bird watching. But not too much trouble because we both enjoy the birds so much.    

I planted the early garden vegies, kale, lettuce, swiss chard, carrots and beets. And we’re getting asparagus! Our humble sandhill ranch grows wild asparagus by the armful. Only a few choice individuals know where my asparagus “gardens” are. My favorite way to prepare the little darlings is browned in butter on the stove, with garlic. 

I helped Mark start water at our farm we bought when the kids were little. The ditch originates at “the Hornet’s Nest,” so named because of the arguments over water rights conducted by two or more farmers at the three-way split. Starting water requires burning the ditch first and then frenzied pitching when the water is first turned in. The canal company has helped Mark for a few years with a bucket on a backhoe. We trade labor. We burn the ditch and they provide the equipment when it's flushed. How did we ever do it with just a pitchfork? 

The glory of spring never pales. Or rather, it only strengthens as we age and learn what glory really means. The work never ends, but there is loveliness all around. The fragrance of the plum tree blossoms in the windbreak, the nest of duck eggs saved from the fire along the ditch bank, the munching of cows gathering grass - and let’s not forget asparagus – are balm for the soul.

Rollah and Dot at the end of a long day
grass at last!

grazing close to the house

this ditch cleaned by grazing

Mark gets a welcome hand

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Springtime Warrior

We finished our third day of branding yesterday. Thank goodness for good friends that like to come help. Now it can blow and rain for a few days. 

We recently added new livestock to the ranch – honeybees. A local producer parks his hives on our property every year in early spring. They love the willows and box elder trees that live on our ranch. The box elder, a short lived maple regarded as a nuisance to many, is full of drooping blossoms and the tree canopy over the dog houses is alive with buzzing. Box elder wood is weak and the tree harbors the rust colored bugs that gather every fall to launch an attack to come inside our homes. But hearing and seeing how the bees use the trees, I have a new appreciation for them. Our bees, whether farmed or wild, need food as they emerge from hibernation and we’re happy to oblige.  

We've been burning piles of Russian olive trees that we cut last year. The tree is invasive and covered in thorns. My arms are scratched up from handling them. We have finally learned that you cannot cut down an olive without applying an herbicide to kill it. It can be done very strategically just inside the bark around the cambium layer. As it says on a youtube video put out by the extension service - cutting the trunk just makes them mad - because they re-sprout in a thorny fanfare of growth that makes it nearly impossible to get close to them. Lesson learned.

We also use fire to burn old growth and tumbling weeds out of our irrigation ditches to get ready for water. We're careful to burn only what’s necessary because we know the value of plant life, old and new, to stabilize banks and provide cover for wildlife. Still in some places it’s impossible to control entirely and it travels out of the ditch bank. The other evening at dusk, we noticed a dead tree smoking behind us and knew that it was burning inside. I went home and got the chain saw and a weed sprayer filled with water. Mark cut down the tree and wet it thoroughly so we could sleep that night.

In the midst of all this, the herd is still calving and Mark is still watching for sick calves. We had another set of twins that needed brought in to bond as a threesome. We laid the babies on the 4-wheeler rack and coaxed the mama to follow them in to the barn on an especially cold and windy morning.

At the end of each day I get tired and discouraged because of all the work to do on a ranch in the spring. Then by the next morning I’m ready to go again. There’s a yellow sticky note on my bulletin board that reads, “oh, crap, she’s up.” It’s supposedly what the devil says when good women arise each day to do battle. Good to keep in mind.

see the bee?

ours is a burning affair

olive control

one twin under a blanket to keep him from getting up

one twin needs colostrum supplementation 

The Critical Role of Ruminants

Previously  published as commentary in the Idaho Falls Post Register, April 27, 2018.

As cattle ranchers we’re accustomed to criticism. Grazing is seen as an extractive industry even though grass grows back and thrives when properly grazed. Beef is seen as unhealthy, when it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat. Animal rights advocates want our heads and fake meat aims to fill the protein case.  

But still we were shocked to read a New York Times Opinion piece promoting a carbon tax on beef. So climate change is our fault as well? What the reader doesn’t realize, however, is the breathtaking reductionist thinking of this premise.  
Ruminants emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but ruminants are on earth for a reason and have played a critical role in the cycling of plants for eons. In brittle environments - those with seasonal moisture - grazing animals have a symbiotic relationship with grass. And grass is the most ubiquitous, life giving, soil anchoring protector of the planet we have.

Grass needs periodic removal. The growth point is near the soil surface and the plant needs a grazing animal or other disturbance to remove old growth.

Tragically, for many thousands of acres annually worldwide, that disturbance is fire, used to provide a clean slate for new growth. Instead of using grazing animals which provide an economic return, the land is burned, releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere needlessly. Of course, closer to home in the West, wildfire is the greatest threat to healthy ranges and grazing is a readily available tool to reduce the fuel load.       

Grazing by hooved ruminants affect the soil surface positively as well. The chipping of soil makes a seedbed, old growth is pushed down as litter to moderate temperatures and slow erosion, and dung and urine are deposited.  

Taking the long view, herbivores’ unique niche provides for other living beings in an ingenious way. Most of the world is like Idaho and has a short growing season. In these climates, herds of herbivores take the bounty of that green season, convert it into muscle (and milk) and make the energy and nutrients produced by plants available to meat eaters the rest of the year.

It’s estimated that 60% of the earth’s landmass is unsuitable for cultivation – a perfect job for ruminants. Alarmingly this land is turning to desert in the U.S. and around the world partially because of the lack of periodic grazing and hoof action. Desertification releases carbon, therefore climate change and degraded landscapes are tightly linked.

Can the modern beef industry do better? Of course. We need to educate ourselves and do all we can to cycle carbon through smart, time-controlled grazing. We need to promote biodiversity in our pastures and refine and rethink the feedlot model.

I suspect I share a similar worldview with the author of the piece in the Times. We both care about our fragile planet. But those who vilify beef walk a dangerous line. We are intimately dependent on natural cycles, despite the breadth of modern technology. Removing a ruminant actively managed by man that can regenerate degraded landscapes is foolhardy. 

turning what we can't digest into nutritious food

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Wind for Sale

We’ve been pummeled for days by high winds, which get to Mark more than any other weather extreme. For one thing he wears contacts and he’s always fighting his eyes. And a cold wind - which it always is - is hard on calves. Mark is doctoring a few for scours right now. He hasn’t lost any, but it’s only because he monitors them constantly (and luck he tells me). He treats them with liquids and usually after a couple of treatments they’re back to healthy. The constant tending and worrying is stressful. I tell Mark he can’t save every calf, but he doesn’t hear me.  

Feeding the cows their daily ration in the wind is miserable too. Anna and I fed the last two Sundays to give the regular crew a break and oh, how I appreciate that regular crew! Anna had straw drilled into every pore and every crease in her clothing.

Mark has put a million miles on the 4-wheeler this spring. It’s really good for checking cows and for tagging babies. He can park in the midst of the herd, turn off the machine and walk from calf to calf in the quiet, putting a tag in one ear and administering a couple of vitamin/mineral shots with little stress on the calves. He has honed his methods so that the mother cow accepts him and the whole herd stays calm. The 4-wheeler doesn’t need saddled and doesn’t leave him when he dismounts.

That’s all fine and good, but the 4-wheeler will be the death of the saddle horse. Horses need to be ridden just like the ranch wife needs to ride - to be in shape for the long days of trailing cattle ahead. We need to be needed. Mark and I ride a little this time of year, but not enough to get around the 4 head of horses that need ridden. I tell Mark it’s okay. He’s got too much work to do to beat himself up for not checking cattle on a horse. We just need to face facts and figure out how to get the horses handled enough to be safe when we need them. 

Today has a slow motion feel. The grass is green, budding is well under way and my one clump of daffodils is in bloom. But at only 38 degrees we all wait. I saw in my diary that it was 78 degrees on this date last year and we were in a hot-weather frenzy. But for today, 2018, spring is on hold. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Anna takes a Break

Anna is working on a graduate degree in agricultural education and has been home this week on spring break. She’s an enthusiastic ranch helper, so it’s been great having her here for such a busy time on the ranch.

Each morning we walk to headquarters to tend the barn. Today we emptied three stalls, one with a set of twins, one pair with a calf that had been grafted on to another mother, and the third, a neophyte heifer that needed some help delivering her baby. It’s fun to see the calves haltingly follow their moms out into the big wide world.

The mother of the twins kept them both nearby, turning and humming to the one on the left, then turning and humming to the one on the right. The graft mother who had delivered a dead calf a day ago was thrilled with her new charge. The calf, a twin, had been sucking surrogate moms for a few days and was content to finally have a full belly.

This afternoon Anna helped Seth with newborns from another species – a batch of kittens! We had examined the mama cat, Roxy, a few days ago and held our hands around her belly and felt the kittens move. We knew their arrival was imminent. Sure enough she had them under an old fuel tank the next day. She moved them once before we got them collected and put on Seth’s porch for safe-watching. Another neophyte, this little gal had six kittens.  

Besides calving it’s also shipping time for the first batch of last year’s calves. Anna and Mark sorted and weighed steers yesterday and then loaded them on a truck bound for Oregon for finishing. As one set of calves leaves the ranch, the next generation hits the ground.

As we were working together on her last day here, and the dread of going back to school stalked her, Anna talked about the particular predicament of a rancher’s daughter. Yes, the sons have the burden of deciding whether to take on the mantle of ownership to the next generation. And for some of them, when outside opportunities call, it’s a difficult decision. But what about the daughters? They love the home place too and want a future there. But if she expects to find a partner and raise her own family and doesn’t see herself as taking over for her father, where does that leave her?

I get it. As one of six daughters raised on a family ranch who all hoped they could find a similar life, I feel her pain. Some of us ended up on ranches, some did not. It’s just complicated and there aren’t easy answers.   

All I can tell her is that the ranch isn’t going anywhere. We’ll work to make room for our kids, male or female, and in whatever configuration that might be. Part-time or full time, just visiting or with homes on the ranch, the barn door is always open.   

cleaning stalls while the twin calf goes for a run

following mom

shipping steers

Roxy and her brood

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cover Crops make a Comeback

Previously published as commentary in the Post Register on March 8, 2018

There’s a groundswell rising up in the world of agriculture, and Southeastern Idaho is ripe for the new “technology.” It’s actually an old practice that’s come back around in new ways – cover crops, defined as those grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. And it’s not just farmers who will benefit, but everyone who’s concerned with soil health and making the best use of our precious water resources. In other words, all of us. 

I’ve been reading Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery, which chronicles the demise of societies throughout history due to a loss of soil fertility. It’s a disturbing treatise knowing that we rely on fertilizer which is a finite resource and considering the direct link between healthy soil, full of organic material, and the capacity of the earth to capture and hold moisture. Droughts and floods happen naturally, but their severity is directly tied to how well the ground holds water.     

Besides capturing water, cover crops anchor soil. Wind erosion in our area is a serious problem. We consider it a natural consequence of wind on exposed, bare soil. But must the ground be bare? For our ranch, sand drifting in to our fence lines and irrigation ditches means constant maintenance. What if road closures due to blowing dirt were a thing of the past? Some events you can see and feel with your own eyes. But for the most part erosion is a silent marauder. Montgomery’s line “It seems that the slower the emergency, the less motivated we are to do anything about it” is haunting.       

My husband’s grandfather planted cover crops in our sandy soil, which he would then plow under to enhance soil fertility. This was a good start, but now we know to use no-till methods so as not to disturb the millions of microorganisms that live in the soil providing a web of life so critical to soil health. We know to leave plant litter on the soil to act as armor, and to leave living roots in the soil for as many days as possible throughout the year. To jump start the process, we’re relearning the old practice of using grazing animals to cycle plants and return 85% - 95% of the nutrients back to the soil through manure and urine. The savviest cover-crop farmers also know to sow a seed mix of different species, grasses and grains, root crops and leafy crops, etc. each with a specific attribute for increasing soil enrichment.

This winter, Soil Conservation Districts throughout Southern Idaho have hosted workshops to learn more about cover crops and no-till. These events are eagerly attended by young farmers ready to look at soil with fresh perspectives. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has funding help and good information to share. It’s not a quick fix for sure, but long term, regenerative actions rarely are.

It will take foresight, new knowledge and willing growers, but the future is bright for innovative farmers to make a positive difference in our community.  

We visited a neighbor's beautiful cover crop on Halloween 2017 - ready for grazing

Thursday, March 8, 2018


We’re getting calves and old man winter is having his way with us. Ranchers who calve their herds in January and February are feeling mighty smug this year because the weather was so warm and dry in mid-winter. But now? Try several inches of snow and an icy wind to blow it into drifts.

It was an “all hands on deck” morning today. Luckily Seth was available on a Sunday and Jesse is vested enough to work on his day off. We got the cold ones brought in and suckled at first light. Then we fed the herd and now I’m sitting in luxury, typing, while the sun shines on this beautiful white stuff and the guys are out making the rounds again.

Thank goodness for Jesse. He’s been with us for over ten years and has become a real hand in the barn. He’s patient with the cows and goes about his tasks with a methodical manner that calms the mothers. It’s a quality that only those of us with long years of experience handling large animals can truly appreciate.

Both Seth and I tried to milk out a cow with what Mark calls anvil teats. When milking such a cow he likes to say, “whoever said a cow ‘gives’ milk has never tried it.” No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get anything to flow. Enter Jesse with his big strong hands and easy manner and soon there was a pitcher full of colostrum, the first milk that a baby calf or a baby human needs to consume within a few hours of birth to thrive.

It’s familiar, this annual ritual of calving. I’m not like some ranch wives, however, who say this is their favorite time of year. Mark works too hard and I’m getting less willing to go out in the cold to help him. I do like to tend the barn though. Cleaning stalls and helping the babies in the quietude of the space is pleasant.

We’ve been watching the PBS series, Call the Midwife, this winter. It’s so wonderful and poignant as it details the birth process and the various situations babies are born into. The agony of those who lose a child or can’t conceive. The ecstasy of holding a newborn with no thought of the pain it brought and the immediate love that flows to this new being.

We don’t celebrate and honor mothering as we should anymore, but a rancher never forgets. It’s all about the mothers in our business. A cow that jumps up after calving, licks her newborn, coaxing, standing to allow nursing, ever watchful, is a miracle and a wonder. 

tending her first calf and doing a beautiful job