Thursday, June 15, 2017

Making Connections

Mark and I spent another day in the hills repairing fence. This time the deer flies and mosquitoes nearly drove us mad. Well, actually, you can’t let your mind go there, just slather on the repellant and try to ignore them. It works for the first few hours.

This is a good spring for camas lilies. Their pale periwinkle blossoms, so delicate and lovely, are abundant across the soggy meadows.  

We dug up a plant to see what the bulb looked like. They were a Native American food staple, high in protein and carbohydrates. The bulbs were baked in an earthen pit for a long, long time to bring out the sugars and prepare them for storage. Camas lilies were so plentiful that non-natives sometimes confused the fields of blue with standing water.

There’s a tiny cabin in the mountains with a porch that looks out to the east. There's a bench to sit on, side by side. I looked at it wistfully; seems we never take time to sit there. We’re always in a hurry to finish up and get home. Well, there was that one time . . . 

The following weekend we flew to Seattle to do “in-stores” for our marketing cooperative, Oregon Country Beef, a sister line to Country Natural Beef. We’ve been members for a dozen years now, but standing in a grocery store cooking burgers on a tiny grill, talking to city dwellers is an eye opener and not within the scope of our comfort zone.

Seth and Anna joined us, as well as my sister and her husband from my ranch of origin, so we could handle three stores at a time. The question I ponder is this: "who learns more, the rancher or the consumer?"  

Quite a few vegetarians declined our offer, of course. But the meat eaters loved it.  

Getting to know the meat staff is one of the funnest parts of the job. They treated us well and even brought us a cushy mat to stand on. The store manager of the Bothell PCC Natural Market brought us a big serving of scrumptious gluten-free chocolate cake!   

Many shoppers have a connection to a farm or ranch somewhere in their past and like to tell us about it. One woman in spandex shorts told us about her granddad’s place that was for sale, “the end of a legacy.” 

It’s fun to visit the city, and Mark’s cowboy hat always garners a few stares and a few handshakes. “Are you from Texas?”

We toured Pike’s Place Market, ate expensive seafood, and explored the locks at Chittendon on Salmon Bay. It’s a long ways from deer flies and camas lilies to Seattle, but good clean food crosses boundaries and we found lots of like-minded folks that made us feel at home.  


Monday, May 29, 2017

A Dog's Life

The cattle are delivered to the mountains. Now it's hours of beating the road up and down, back and forth, tending them. By winter we’ll be sick of that and ready to have them home again, but for now it feels good to have them out from underfoot and in the high country. 

I still thrill at the green grass in the mountains. Against a crystalline blue sky, it’s the prettiest thing you ever saw.  

My dog Kate was a trooper going up the Trail. She’s showing some age and that makes me sad, but she hung tough and herded with her familiar intensity. And on the last day I still had to call her back from the herd as they settled in for the summer. Having her with me is like having a great big arm that extends way out, first to the right and then to the left, sweeping in a big arc moving cattle. Rocks, fences, creeks, trees - grain fields - she's got them covered. A border collie’s work ethic is a thing of beauty and enviable to anyone with a lick of sense. Anita says I need to break down and start another pup while Kate can still teach her the ropes. If I do, that will make four new dogs on the crew next year. I guess the veterans could use some help.

It seems like an accident that my dog and I do as well as we do. I don’t really train. We just start working cattle together and somehow figure it out. Gary says you just need to spend time with a dog and they’ll start to understand you, all your verbal and non-verbal ways of communication. The best advice Anita gives is to get your dog hooked on you as a first step. Then they’ll stay with you and figure out how to please you. I can ride by myself for long periods and I never feel alone, because I’m not alone.  

They’re so loyal. I remember the day we were coming back from taking cattle to a far-off pasture. The memory has faded and was during the lifetime of my only other dog, Beauty. I must have left my horse with the cattle, because I was riding double with Mark for some reason. Beauty, who was accustomed to staying with my horse, hadn't realized I had switched mounts. As soon as I noticed she wasn’t with us, I called and called and was quite worried that I had lost her. Then she showed up. That tugged at my heart. And I don’t deserve it. It’s not as if my dog sleeps at the foot of our bed. She’s my working companion and I don’t do a lot of fussing over her. But I let her work, and what fun we have - her most favorite thing in the world. 

Martha, Clyde, Kate and Jill, pros all

Seth and Cassie holding herd

lead cows in the distance
Katie tucking them in

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Passing Grade

We’ve been starting irrigation water and staging the cows to leave for the mountains. We group them in two herds and put them on fresh grass so their bellies are full of green feed before we turn them out on the road and walk them by people’s lawns and farmers’ fields. No one likes to fence anymore, so we spend the first two days convincing the cows they can walk right by succulent green grain.  

Before the cows arrive in the high country we have to get the fence put up, so we spent a day in the mountains. It was lovely and we rode the 4-wheeler along a ridgeline with a majestic view. I took my little saw and pruners to cut back the quakies that crowd the line. I overdid it in the heat, and at the end of the day was completely used up. And as I thought about the work ahead of us getting the cattle to the hills . . . I just flat didn’t feel up to any of it!

I moped around for the rest of the day, which is hard on Mark. I really am “all in” when it comes to the ranch, but dang, this part is hard. Getting the cattle to the mountains is the classic love/hate affair. I love the land and the stock and working my dog with the herd. But the overload of stimuli, cows and calves milling and bawling and trying to go back, horses and riders and dogs of every skill level, a constant stream of vehicles trying to get by us - not to mention trying to protect my neighbor’s flowers and trees! It's hard for a self-diagnosed HSP (highly sensitive person). 

By the next day I was feeling better. We had moved another herd, and as I was walking back through the woods near our home, I ran across an apple tree in full glorious bloom. It was growing next to a cottonwood, and its trunk ran up the side of the larger tree, making it long and leggy, not like a fruit tree at all. It was so lovely and unexpected - a tender mercy to cheer me up. A line which is totally made up; the mercy part is all in my head, the rest is just the wonder of nature.

Two more things helped. I went to pick wild asparagus before the late frost that was forecasted bent their heads, and found an armload. I told Mark, "I found the mother lode!” Then I had a fun text conversation with Anna as I was waiting behind one more herd of cows. I had told her I was feeling overwhelmed about making the cattle drive this year without her, and that I knew I needed to relax, and not get anxious and push myself too hard. She responded in her university mindset: “We all try so hard to get an “A+” in AG 515 (moving cattle to the mountains), but a “C” is still a good grade.

Wise words. 

nature's way

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Sheltering Place

It continues to be cool and damp. I planted peas, onions, kale and beets in the garden. To my surprise, I ran into some potatoes I hadn’t found last fall and they were perfect. I just rubbed off the new sprouts and gathered them up for supper. And to top it off, the kale and collard greens left from last summer started growing again and we had yummy greens on the first of May. Who knew?

I cleaned our little rental home one more time to house extra summer-time help. It’s not fit for full-time living, but works for young guys learning the ranching trade for a few months during the heavy workload of summer. Before it was a “bunkhouse,” it sheltered a lot of families, including ours.  

I still get nostalgic working there by myself. It’s where we spent the first 10 years of our marriage, so the memories are close by.

There was the morning Callie locked herself in the bathroom after we informed her that her 4-H steer wasn’t coming home from the State Fair after all. “But I loved that steer!”

And the phase, years really, where Seth always had the piano bench pulled out because it provided a flat surface at just the right height to set up his farm. Often a stuffed animal was lassoed with his little lariat and hitched to the leg of the bench.  

It’s where I found a swollen tick in Anna’s hair and called Mark in a panic to come home from school to help me deal with it. And where she cried at the stranger in the bathroom after he’d shaved off his mustache to dress-up as a woman on Halloween. 

The house was small enough that if the kids woke up at night, they only had a short ways to go to get to our bedroom. I always felt like I was awake a minute or two before they were. They would stir quietly, then walk in for a hug before being escorted back to bed.

Oh and there was lots of “dog piling.” Mark would lie on one kid, and the other two would leap on top of him, with much tickling, laughing and squealing. I always thought someone would get a bloody nose or get squished. I needn’t have worried.    

The house was safe and cozy even though it was right on a busy paved road. The kids learned to be careful of the road on one side and the canal on the other. And most of all, they learned to get along with each other sharing one bedroom, to make do, and to put off a purchase until they could afford it.

As much as we love our new home, we all have a soft spot for the small quarters where we got to know each other and thereby know ourselves. Those first tender years that went by in a flash. 

the living room is just big enough for a "dog pile"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Power of a Good Design

We made it all the way to 78 degrees last week, and today a soft rain is falling. The green and the beauty in our world has exploded. Mount Putnam in the distance never looks more beautiful than this time of year when it's still white, but framed in the foreground with the greens of spring.    

The quakie leaves out our office window are the size of a dime, which is significant only because Grandpa Eldro used to say that when the quakies in the mountains had dime-sized leaves, it was time to turn out the cows. My biologist friends would call it phenology, nature's calendar, in rancher-speak.

The barn is empty at the moment. I was thinking about my last two blogs and how readers might assume we have lots of calving trouble. Not so. What I don’t write about are the “invisible” cows - all those hundreds that calve on their own unassisted. They’re our favorite cows and the ones that make our business sustainable. 

We shipped yearlings out of the new loading facility. Our new “Bud Box,” named for Bud Williams, the now deceased guru of animal handling from Bowie, Texas, worked like a charm. It’s designed in a square with the exit to the chute at a right angle to where the cattle enter. This funnels cattle back to where they came from, so that in their natural inclination to return to familiar surroundings, they load into the stock trailer with little pressure. Our old chute is like most traditional facilities in that cattle go straight into a smaller loading alley and into the truck, with the handler having to get right behind them in their blind spot, which cattle don’t like. In the new scenario, we work them from their side where they can see us and remain calm.

And the new chute is safe - for livestock and their human handlers. I’m forever campaigning (not complaining, campaigning) for our equipment and cattle handling facilities to be safe enough for anyone to use - young and old, male and female, experienced or not.

I have always believed in and appreciated the power of a good design. The Bud Box is one example; it lubricates, simplifies, even beautifies the art of cattle handling. 

thanks Bud

coming off the scales, Gary and Seth

what remains of the old chute to the left . . . and the new

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Must be April

Two days ago we woke to a couple inches of fluffy snow. Yuck. Today looks much better. The willows are greening, the most delicate of chartreuse. Catkins are drooping along the poplar branches and the grass has pushed up their solar collectors waiting for sunshine. I must get the pruners out and work on the dogwood at the porch. Left to its own proclivities, the bush would obliterate my office window.  

The calving goes along in fits and starts. We’ve had a premature calf dubbed “Penny” that we’ve been tending. She’s a limp rag, like her muscles and skeleton aren’t fully developed. She sucks a bottle eagerly and then falls into a deep womb-like sleep. She was skinny and chilled so I bought her a children’s size LG sweater at the thrift store. I kept trying to get a good photo of her in her sweater, but she looked pathetic in all of them and that just wouldn’t do. We milked her cranky mother for a while and then finally gave her a calf whose mom was sick and not able to produce milk. They were both glad to find a partner and join the herd in the great out-of-doors.  

We have three sets of twins that need supplementation and monitoring. One mother wasn’t sure the second one was hers. And neither was Mark, after he found him alone and made a calculated guess as to which cow he belonged to. We had to put the cow in the barn and stand over her to get her to nurse the interloper. But shortly, another cow birthed a dead calf, so we grafted the rejected twin on the mother cow and now we have two happy couples! Can anyone follow this? I know I get confused!

In the midst of it all, Jesse said the barn looked like a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). It’s been five years since he and Milee welcomed their own set of twins, so he would know. I remember the year they were born as feeling thankful for their new family, but missing Jesse during calving as he spent time in the NICU.  

The latest problem is a calf that was born too big. His head was swollen and he couldn’t stand to suck. His legs buckled under him and he kept falling to one side. Mark managed to suckle him on day three and by that night he was sucking on his own, albeit in a kneeling fashion. He and Penny have the will to live, and if that’s in place, we’ll do what we can to help them. Without it, it’s only frustration for the rancher.    

Jesse took little Penny home for his twins to tend yesterday. Well, Milee will do the tending, but they’ll be in on it. And they’ll learn some lessons along the way.

My other springtime activity is burning dead-fall in the wooded areas around our home. There’s a window of opportunity when the wood is dry enough to burn, but the ground is wet and the air cold. The work is addictive - just one more limb! I love the look when the floor is cleared and the grass can grow. For a few days I came in to the house in the evening looking spent, red-faced, but satisfied. The pups liked going with me. They played, and as the sun fell to the west, the fires were lovely

I think I’m done burning for this year, now where’s my pruners?   

and none too happy about it!

moving drys to the last calving pasture

time to quit adding and watch it burn down

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Kodi gets a Calf

Kodi has sheep. And a pony and goats. She hardly needed a calf, but she was game, or rather her parents and grandparents were game, so she got another animal to add to her menagerie.

Mark brought a little heifer calf in to the barn ten days ago saying perhaps he should have mercifully ended her life because she wasn’t likely to live. If she did live, she would just be another chore for us with so many other chores to tend.

I’ve written about these kinds of instances before. “Remember my line for that?” I asked him. I had described it in my blog like this: “Mark ranches with his heart as well as his head." Of course we would give the calf a chance.

Her head is a little cockeyed, which makes her muzzle slightly offset causing her tongue to slip out the side. She learned to stand on her own, but one hoof turns under and she’s unsteady at best. She can suck a bottle fine, but she can't seem to get the hang of a teat. I've contorted myself morning and evening with the cow in the head-catch trying to get the calf to suck. Holding her up while closing my hand around her muzzle to get the suction required to draw milk is an exhausting affair. Not getting the milk flowing to suit her she would keep pulling off. And not being solid on all fours, she kept collapsing. Plus, her mother has what we call "anvil tits" meaning they're tough to milk. We kept trying, but she never made progress. It would take two of us to suckle her and we'd still have to milk the cow out and give the rest to her in a bottle.  

Maybe we could find a family who would want a pet for the kids to tend? Call cousin Dennis!

The phone call to Dennis yielded his wife Teresa, who brought granddaughter Kodi out the next morning. Teresa happily loaded the calf in the back of her SUV. She even thanked us! Wait, what?

Our Pratt cousins know the value of tending animals. They're 4-H enthusiasts and have helped raise a bunch of community kids through sheep projects for umpteen years. Dennis and Teresa are exemplary grandparents, immersing the grandkids in the life of . . . well. . . living.

They know that through the magic of domestic animals, children learn how to give, how to care for a living being, and about compassion and tenacity. These kids learn to say goodbye, and to accept the sometimes bitter realities of the cycle of life. These lessons will serve them well in the myriad of life situations they’ll face in the future. 

Happy National Ag Day everyone!

p.s. we even had a twin to graft on the cow, gotta love that

Kodi and Bestie