Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July Notebook

The first week of August is the beginning of the end of summer. July cruises along, day after hot and sweaty day, with no end in sight. Then, all of a sudden, it’s August, and the morning air has a new snap to it and you know summer is winding down.

We’re sleeping in the cool of the basement. We sleep in the green room, which was Callie's bedroom and then Anna's. There’s a window just above our heads and we listen to the crickets and feel the cool night air. It’s a mini-getaway that we retreat to each evening.

Mark and I took a day to ride through the Portneuf Wildlife Management Area. What a change to load the horses, drive on the interstate, have lunch in town, and then unload the horses - with no cows in sight! We’re always interested in what “rested” from domestic grazers looks like. If you look across the grass, it appears tall and abundant. If you look down you see a scant stand, old grass from years past, and too much bare ground. We talked about whether it could be improved by strategic grazing. It’s steep and water would be a challenge, but it would be fun to try. One thing is for sure, even rested land has weeds.

Considering all the bottom land we humans have taken from wintering wildlife, it's good to know this 3,000+ acres is reserved for them. I'm glad Idaho Fish and Game had the means to acquire it.     

The garden has exploded. Every year I tell Mark my garden is kind of sad. His response is, “yeah, you always say that and it always turns out.” And he’s right. By August the rows are growing on top of each other and we can’t keep up with the vegetables. I love ignoring the produce section of the supermarket - except for the blueberries and melons, of course.

I’ve been doing battle with barn swallows over who’s in charge of our front porch. We watched them fledge their first five babies from a nest right over the front door, which we enjoyed. I cleaned that all up and thought that was the end of it, but no! We then had a week-long power tussle when they wanted to re-nest. First I put up a big ladder and a mop with a hat on it stuck on top. When that didn't work I anchored grocery sacks to the beams. Then a colorful kite with a long tail. I finally compromised - or got tired - and let them use the south-facing crosspiece where the mess they made would end up in the bushes. Talk about determined!

We had a good morning collecting blood samples from the heifers with help from my sister Becky, a retired vet technician. We started at 6:00 am and were done by 9:30, so avoided the heat. We sent the samples to my niece who has a home-based lab in Emmett, Sage Labs, for analysis. Seth took the morning off to help us as well, so it was a family affair all the way around. Sage sent the results today and now we know who’s pregnant and who’s not and can make marketing decisions based on that information. 

July is good for lots of things. The calves are blooming. The garden is bearing. It’s the only full month I paint my toenails and wear shorts. I hate to see it slip away. 

the mesh cover provides organic pest control - and beauty - after sprinkling


for sitting of an evening in July 

 Wildlife Management Area 

musk thistle
it looks like the rest of the county

a good crew

grass in the mountains
checking to see if the fence is hot

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


We’ve been hauling hay. The first days were hot, miserable and sticky. The final day was perfect, with wonderful clouds rolling by and a brisk breeze. It felt almost cool. Mark called it a vacation.

We haul hay to the stackyard in hot air, and haul it back to the cows in cold air. Ranching is nothing if not living in extremes.     

I’m on a cleaning and organizing jag. I hit my pantry then went on to bigger projects. I’ve made attempts at grandpa’s big steel shop in the past, but finally made some real headway last week. And I got help! It was grand: Seth was sweeping, Mark was running the Hotsy on his horse trailer, Amy was cleaning grease guns and Alan was hauling the mega sorting bin out of doors to clean it up. I know there’s a ton of other stuff that needs done, but creating a clean and organized work space sure feels good.    

Our veteran Sly spent a few days with long time family friends who needed a gentle horse for their grandson to ride. Max is only three and fell in love with Sly when his Mom brought him up for an afternoon ride while we were moving cattle two springs ago. Anita got some good photos of the two of them. Look at the expression on Max's face!

Sly is a one-in-a-million horse. Mark would just as soon saddle him up for any job he has in mind, but knows the other horses in our remuda need the experienceSly is as “cowy” as any of them, but he’s also just lazy enough to be “dog gentle” and can tend the most inexperienced rider. He’s big and tall and has a long lumbering stride. He’s a looker too, with horseshow-quality confirmation and should be on the cover of Quarter Horse magazine.

We got him when he was six years old. He was so spoiled that when he got tired of hauling someone around, he would drop to his knees and try to roll! Mark got him over that in a hurry. Our kids 4-H’d on him. He squared up nicely in halter class, but didn’t lead very well. The kids would pull and he would stretch his neck waaaay out before moving his feet ahead. His gentle way kept them safe, and his disposition taught the kids to be active riders, cuing correctly with determination or he would fall asleep!

Sly is getting up in years. We’re not sure what we’ll do without him. Besides Max, he also tended Clara and Clancy, my neice and nephew, on their cattle drive, and sponsored a couple of out-of-town visitors this year as well. Ash from England and Bud from upstate New York got along well with Sly. And today Mark loaded him up to carry a rider on the Governor’s Trail Ride. The call went out for “bomb proof” horses and Sly fits the bill.

I still remember the feeling that winter day when Anna was a little girl and we needed to gather the Brush Creek field. We legged her up on Sly and away we went, knowing he would take good care of her. He’ll go down in the ranch history book as one of the greats.    

one happy kid

he makes a pretty picture

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Always Something

My Great Aunt Elsie said it: “There’s always something to take the joy out of living.” I never knew her, but my Mom repeated the saying quite often. I don’t think she was referring to the really big tragedies, death, divorce, disability, but common place miseries, a leaky roof, a failed crop, a body’s aches and pains - and weeds. For Mom and Dad, it was their twin nemeses, quack grass and gophers. Mom was a fastidious gardener and quack was always lurking at her shoulder, ready to invade her beauty spots. Dad was a farmer and rancher, so gopher hills in the hay crop were a constant annoyance.

Mark cusses gophers and I battle quack grass, but their threats pale compared to the hardy invasives pounding on the door to our ranch in the twenty-first century. Houndstongue, burdock, puncturevine, knapweed and musk thistle top our list.  

I picked up 1,000 tiny gall wasps from the local weed supervisor to put on Russian knapweed. The bug isn’t proven yet, but the hope is that it weakens the weed allowing other plants to compete and bring balance back into an ecosystem. The fly lays eggs on the plant, and a gall forms around the larvae. It’s not a quick fix, but offers hope over time.

So we’ve added biocontrol to our list of weapons: mowing, spraying, cutting with a shovel, grazing, mulching, and, I might add, coexisting, which in the end might be our only option.

We visited our mountain property to cut houndstongue and check fences. The diversity of life made me so happy! Butterflies flitting about and a constant hum of insects greeted us. Golden cinquefoil and pink veined sticky geranium dominate the wildflower scene with lupine, potentilla, buckwheat, and the delicate violets and blues of penstemon rounding out the colorful meadows and sagebrush uplands.

A nighthawk screeched above us, dive bombing and booming for our benefit. We found a nest of baby doves and lay spots in the deep grass where deer had spent time. We saw a dozen cow elk and their calves. And the morning was filled with birdsong. A wren had nested under the eve of the cabin and we watched a tree swallow sort through debris to shore up his nest.     

And the grass! Mark said he’d roll in it if his nose could stand it.

So, yes, we cut a million houndstongue burrs, but we soaked in all the rest of it. All the strange and wonderful organisms that call our mountain ground home.

It’s kind of like this blog. I look over and past the messy parts, to see the joy in the expanse around me. Or move aside an annoyance and look really close, to the delicate folds of a penstemon blossom.   

And Mark? He’s a guy and all about cows. He gets excited about wildlife and can spot houndstongue almost as good as me, but he kept saying over and over, “have I told you how happy I am that the fence is hot?”  

Mark found the mourning doves

sticky geranium, buckwheat and lupine 

gall wasp flies 

the villainous Russian knapweed

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"