Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Clean Slate

Our ranch is in a deep freeze. On the first day of 2019 we woke to a very stiff 10 degrees below zero. Everything creaks at that temperature, including me in my coveralls. On the feed truck I have to periodically pull the fingers of one hand inside my glove and make a fist to thaw them out. If the bales are compliant you can handle them with one hand using your body as a wedge to maneuver them off the truck bed.

The cows do fine in the cold as long as they get their ample daily ration of feed and a good drink of water. We put out lots of straw which provides energy and a dry place to lay. Feeding straw, which is readily available as a by-product of grain grown by our neighbors, is one “unfair advantage” we enjoy in our area. Ranchers in other regions will have a different advantage. The trick is to recognize yours and act on it.

I love the feel of a new year. I always go back through my diary and write down the significant events of the past year with the idea of generating a list of thoughts to strive for in the coming year. I stay away from anything resembling a resolution! Trouble is, my thoughts for a better new year look the same as last year, and the year before that: write more, move more, drink more water, eat less sugar, be a better wife, etc. They’re good goals, but I wish they would firmly entrench themselves in my psyche so that I could finally plan something a little more exciting.

We enjoyed our kids at home over the holidays. We fed cows before we opened gifts on Christmas day, which worked fine except that it got late and the prime rib was done before I’d even started the salad. The kids helped with other projects as well. We worked two days taking out some rogue trees below the house. Callie and Seth both ran a chainsaw and Anna and I hauled limbs. It was fun to work alongside my kids and the new view looks great. 

The kids are all back to their lives now, and it’s time to look down, regroup, and tackle those indoor jobs that lie in wait each year for the dead of winter.

One job we’ve been putting off is a thorough inventory of horse tack. I put a plastic cover on the dining table and hauled in all the leather head gear for horses. It’s quite a pile. I’m hoping it will inspire some quality couple-time, sorting and cleaning of an evening. Mark got a record player for Christmas and we might play some Johnny Overstreet, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or Roger Miller to go with the project.

Christmas has its own charm, but it’s a cluttered, fattening, excessive time of year. It’s maneuvering around the Christmas tree and looking back at traditions and trotting out old family recipes no matter how heavy they are. I love the comforting nostalgia of Christmas. But the New Year - ahh – it’s about the future, and creating something wonderful out of the blank slate that is 2019.

Friday, December 21, 2018

December's Gifts

December happened, and the slide to Christmas is in full swing. We started the cows home from the range on the first day of the month. We grazed the valley ground initially, but by now the herd looks to us to feed them by hand each day. It’s nice when we have additional grazing in the valley and don’t have to feed on Christmas morning. This won’t be one of those years.

We had some fun grazing the first and second calvers on farm ground around the community. These young cows marched dutifully along the county roads to their destinations. First stop was a field of cover crops, those crops planted after harvest primarily to enhance soil fertility. The cows do their part by turning the mix of grain, kale, turnips and radishes into manure, setting the stage for farming again in the spring.

Then we went to a field of barley that had been harvested and regrown. Mark set up a water tank and ran a hose, but they hardly used it. The snow was soft and I imagine they took a lot of water in that way, plus the feed was lush and moist. We walked them back today. Though this is an agricultural community, cows aren’t generally part of traffic in the countryside. I claim it's good for motorists to come upon us. Slow down along your hurried way and watch a cow.

Our Christmas tree is a cedar we cut in the mountains as we were bringing the cows home. It’s a big one, adorned very simply with ornaments I’ve had since the kids were little. I have a box of nests I've collected over the years and some tiny eggs from the craft store to put in the bottom. My favorite ornaments are the ones the kids made in grade school. I still appreciate those teachers! 

After snow cover for a couple of weeks, we’ve had a nice thaw; not very Christmasy but it sure feels good. Today is the winter solstice. It’s extra special because it coincides with the December full moon, aptly called the long night moon.

I finally, just six days before Christmas, got a wreath made for the front door. The greens are cut from the yard and the vine that forms the base grows wild in the fence lines. Christmas can come now.

The morning we rode to the cows

one for Seth and Leah, one for us 

back in the valley, grazing cover crops

after the thaw and before the haystack

Merry Christmas!


My sisters have been here. We had non-stop fun for almost a week. We thought of a new word to describe the activity - sistering. To spend time with one’s sisters – visiting, supporting, traveling, laughing, reminiscing, cooking, etc.

There are four local sisters (and a local brother), one Montana sister, and one we call the faraway sister who lives in Maryland.

We spent a day at each one of our local homes. My house was the first day where we got the first wave of visiting underway. At brother Rich’s we talked about his service in Vietnam and watched California quail feed on the lawn at dusk. Merle’s day featured a wagon ride with the Clydesdales, Honey and Liz. Kit fed us roast pork by candlelight. On Becky’s day (she lives on the ranch where we grew up) we visited our ancestral home at dusk and approved our niece’s remodel of our own childhood home next door.

We pulled out Mom’s photo albums and had a great time reminiscing. We dug out some hand made vintage clothing, Becky and Donna’s wedding dresses, Janene’s maid-of-honor dress and a prom dress or two. We laughed and carried on about fabric and bygone styles. We marveled at how Mom sewed four dresses in the two-weeks AFTER our house burned down in May 1969 and BEFORE Janene got married in June of that same summer. Whose sewing machine did she borrow? She didn’t even have a kitchen and with seven kids to manage, how did she pull it off?

We argued back and forth about who was who in some of the photos. Becky can usually figure it out, but even she was stumped by the person in the coonskin hat helping clean up on the morning after our house burned down. He/she is leaning over, examining one of the many fire damaged items that were strewn across the lawn. Before our discussion was over, some of the sisters even second-guessed that it was a coonskin hat after all! It was.  

I know outsiders see we six sisters as very similar. I see our differences. We live varied lives. We have different opinions and different challenges. We have the same history, but remember different details about the same events. We’re on the other side of lots of life’s decisions. We've had our share of missteps and disappointments, and have learned to find beauty in the imperfections that make up our lives. For some reason I’m reminded of the lines of a poem Donna sent me back when I got divorced from my first husband. It's by Veronica Shoftsall and the passage I'm thinking of goes, "So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to leave you flowers." It's a grown-up way of looking at happiness, and grown ups we are.   

six sisters plus Howdy and Cole

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Friendly Persuasion

Mark and I made an afternoon drive to the cows. Sometimes they need to be reminded where the grass is. They’re still in the mountains and there’s a few inches of snow on the ground. That’s enough to make them look towards home. Seems crazy that they stand at the gate waiting for us. They're just SURE that today is the day, even though deep grass is just a short walk away. This day especially they needed us. We crossed a bridge and persuaded them to climb the mountain where the grazing was superb.  

Mark led them and I brought up the rear on foot. After the movement was started they traveled nicely, crowding each other across the bridge because they thought it was such a good idea. They trust us that we’re doing this for a reason. We left them at dusk, climbing up through the bitterbrush and seemingly content.

We’re getting fall chores behind us one by one. We tested the bulls for trichomoniasis, a venereal disease that causes abortions in the cows and can wreak havoc if left undiscovered. The bulls are home and had to be gathered off a nearby pasture and taken to the corrals for their annual meeting with our local veterinarian. Herding bulls is a totally different dynamic than handling cows. To pick them up and ask them to move seems to tell them it’s time to challenge each other and fight. It’s the strangest thing. They will be contentedly grazing, the picture of comradery, and when my dogs and I enter the picture, all hell breaks loose. Running and bellering, side swiping, facing off. It can be exciting and dangerous if you get too close. They move quicker than their size suggests, especially if they’re making a quick get away.

The quiet of November has set in. Mature and steady, no-nonsense and nuanced, November is the perfect illustration of Leonardo DaVinci’s words: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Last night when I let the dogs loose for their evening run, we walked out to the bare cottonwoods where the starlings were massing before their nightly roost. What a racket! They clatter and squawk, and then in one huge swoop they cease talking and the sound changes to the flutter of thousands of wings as they shift to a new location. Not one bird was left behind in that one grand swell. What a thrill, and pretty darned sophisticated for a bunch of scraggly commoners. 


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