Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Big Thaw and Gem goes Home

The thaw is on. And it’s raining to make matters sloppier. There's a big lake at ranch headquarters, but we live in rolling sandhills and are avoiding the flooding our neighbors are having to deal with. We finally wised up and put chains on before we entered the feed ground this morning because we knew we’d be falling through the snow. Oh, but the warm temperatures feel good and the hay bales come apart much easier.

My ranch of origin, just up river from us, has been feeding Fish and Game hay to the 600 elk that were hanging around until the thaw moved in and dissipated the herd. Here at home we only had 4 big bulls visit the haystack for a couple of weeks before moving on.

The deep snow has been tough on wildlife and makes me know that our efforts to leave tall standing weeds, flower heads, and brushy wooded areas are appreciated by all the organisms that share our space. The year round resident birds are singing again; things are looking up!  

Nan’s eight puppies are finding homes now that they’re 8 weeks old. This morning “Gem” went home to an Oregon cattle ranch in the arms of the ranch wife. The ranch has both sheep and cows, and from what we know of this couple, Gem is sure to have a happy life.  

We usually let Anita do the dog breeding, but we had our own batch of puppies at Christmastime. Anna’s male, Clyde, and our female, Nan, managed a liaison despite our not so thorough efforts to keep them apart. It was fun to have the puppies over the holidays so the kids could enjoy them. Nan was a rock star neophyte, birthing eight pups successfully and nursing and caring for them with aplomb.

Border collies are a big part of the Pratt ranch culture. We can’t imagine doing this without them. We follow several hundred cows with baby calves 50 miles to summer pasture every spring. Call us crazy, but we make it work because of our animal helpers, the horses and dogs.  

From selective breeding for many generations, the border collie knows that livestock should be kept together and headed in the same direction. When a calf turns back, which they are hard wired to do in search of their mother, the dog follows until they face off. At this the collie does a quick maneuver to head them back to the herd. They’re so much better at it than we are! A horse and rider mostly succeed in chasing a calf further away from the herd.

I remember the first time I used a dog on the ranch. Mark was on a rotary exchange trip to England and I was left with his two dogs, Jack and Queen. Because Mark was gone, I was second best and they followed my horse and herded cattle for me! I was hooked and got my own puppy, Beauty, shortly thereafter. Kate followed Beauty, and now she and I make a good team. I can hold my own with the guys no matter their skill at riding and roping because I have my dog with me.

We’re happy with the great homes the puppies have gone to so far. There’s only one male left. I call him “Slack” and he’s an engaging little guy just looking for a friend and a job.

the crew at play

today's shelter pet looking for a home

Gem with Jack and Teresa

Thursday, January 19, 2017

What a Winter . . .

It warmed up enough to snow again. We woke to three more inches and it’s been coming down all morning. Mark will be piling it up with the tractor once more and putting chains back on the feed truck. It’s getting old.

Oh, but wait, we need the moisture, so scratch that.

We had a lot of rain this fall which soaked into the hay and straw stacks. Now, any exposed bales are frozen solid and it makes for miserable feeding conditions. Each ton bale has six strings that have to be yanked off through a couple inches of ice. Then they're chopped into hunks with an axe or a pry bar. It’s bicep jarring work.

Once they’re to this stage they still have to be kicked off the trailer. I’ve been feeding one load and one is enough. I keep telling myself it’s great - a total body workout! But it’s also a total mind workout – stay calm, don’t fight the bale. 

Mid-winter can be a lovely time of year on the ranch. Feeding cows has a methodical rhythm to it, and we usually do some much needed hibernating during this phase of the ranching year. Not so this winter. The extreme temperatures, deep snow and icy conditions are taking a toll on Mark and Jesse who bear the brunt of it. They bow their necks, brace themselves under a pile of winter “laundry,” (as Gary calls it) and doggedly care for the cattle every day.

To make matters worse, the subzero temperatures mean that watering facilities are at risk. Tanks have to be chopped daily and are susceptible to freezing underground. The pump at "Frank's," where the older cows live, went out this week and Mark and the hired electrician worked all afternoon to get it going again. That meant thirsty cows pushing their way to the water. Mark had to stand guard 'til after dark to make sure they didn't damage the trough and the float.    

We try to do office work in the evenings, but there’s a special kind of tired when you’ve been out in the cold all day and finally get warm. Instead, we indulge in West Wing reruns on Netflix and soak up the woodstove heat.

This morning I caught a fun photo of Mark scratching a gentle bull as we were feeding. I made a short video and sent it to the kids via text message. They're scattered to the winds, but like getting ranch updates. Thank goodness for interludes that put a bit of fun back in the mix. 

Working together, practicing patience and resolve, accepting factors we can’t control and staying calm. It’s good karma on a ranch. And as we change the guard in Washington, it's good karma for a nation. Happy New Year!

a gentle fellow

yes, it's that slick

spreading hay as best we can

 heifers taking their daily bread

ice build up outside the trough

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Gone Far and Grazin'

Grandma Bonnie left us as 2016 was winding down. She got what she wanted for Christmas so we’re feeling blessed. The empty house at ranch headquarters will take some getting used to because she was the one constant in a changeable world.   

She grew up in the Depression with a selfless Mother and an absent Father. That combination meant service to others and a desire to make those around her feel loved was her mantra. Her homemaking skills were top notch, her work ethic unmatchable, and her warm, welcoming nature ever present.   

She was really good at giving, but found it difficult to receive. She got better at it in the end, but was as feisty as ever with her good humor in full display. We lucky ones on the caregiving crew laughed a lot. 

I am her grandson’s wife, but I was also her neighbor and friend. We shared a ranch wife’s view of the world. That doesn’t sound very modern does it? She knew what it meant to compete with cows for a husband’s attention. There are no better men than the Pratt men, but it’s easier for them to figure out a cow than it is to figure out their wives.  

She tried not to ask what was happening on the ranch, but we knew how much she cared and that she was always thinking about us and wondering if we were safe. Trips to the mountains had her wringing her hands until we called to let her know we were home. The standing joke was none of us needed to worry because Grandma was doing it for us!     

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting facing her, her hands in mine. I was comparing my nails, hastily cut short with fingernail clippers, to hers which she kept carefully filed in a graceful arc. I never knew that about her. We were alike but different in many ways. I asked her if I could take a picture of her hands because I thought them beautiful. “No,” she said, to her they were old and wrinkled.

In the month preceding her death, as I spent more time at her house, I learned to open the curtains first thing in the morning. It was her habit to rise early and pull the curtains. She not only wanted to let the first light in, but wanted to reassure Gary, or whoever would be driving through ranch headquarters, that she was fine and had arisen as usual. At dusk the curtains were snugly closed. It was part of her ordered world.

The night before she died, Anna and Seth had a good visit with her. She sat in her chair under a lamp opposite Anna. Seth stretched on the floor at her side. She talked about her mother working for the Works Project Administration and how her Mom had to be convinced that it was “not a handout!” We looked at her 1918 Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. She told us how thrilled she was when she got them and didn’t have to go down the street to the library to do school reports. 

That our kids grew up next door to her is the rarest of gifts. When they left that night and I was helping her to bed, she said what a lovely evening it had been. She was using a walker and took a spin around the living room for good measure.

I went back to her empty home to do some laundry this week and sat in her favorite mauve chair for a while. It’s a surreal feeling. The recent memories of her decline are fading fast and those of the last 26 years since I came to the ranch coming to the surface. I opened the curtains when I arrived and closed them at dusk when I left.

Eldro and Bonnie

Friday, December 23, 2016

Attending a Lowly Birth

Commentary in the Idaho Falls Post Register, published Christmas Eve, 2016

One of our fondest memories of Christmas is our son, Seth, helping set up the nativity scene and carefully placing the baby “Genius” in the manger. Every year the scene is the same. Mary and Joseph are placed either side of the child and gaze down at him lovingly. At a reverent distance are three distinguished men in ornate cloaks and two lowly shepherds in crude clothing and sandals. An angel looks on.  
Surrounding the scene are the animals that play an important role in the story of that first Christmas: the donkey that carried Mary across the sands to Bethlehem, a few sheep to represent the flocks being watched by shepherds who would follow a star in the night sky, the camels that bore three wise men and carried gifts to the child.

And in this re-creation, we learn the lesson of humility, and honor a stable warmed slightly by the animals that sheltered there, where a young couple found a place to rest for the night. And where a baby was born. Who better to attend this humble birth than the beasts who have no need to judge?

It’s not a stretch for us here on the ranch to relate to this scene. Outside our dining room window, the horses paw through snow to graze. Down the lane the cattle wait for the hay crew to arrive. Tethered outside in straw-filled houses are the herding dogs, and in the basement of our house is a surprise winter batch of puppies. We hear them whimper in the middle of the night.

It’s what we do, this living with animals. We may be a remnant of the population now, but all humankind owes great swaths of our history to domesticated animals. The dog was first at around 10,000 B.C. followed by sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. Oxen, camels and horses would follow and be helpmeets well before the birth of Christ.

The benefits these animals brought to man were many. Meat and milk top the list, but manure for fertilizer, and brawn to pull a plow meant that food was no longer a hunt and gather activity. Leather and wool for clothing, horn and bone for tools, tallow for candles and strong backs for transport advanced human welfare immeasurably. Perhaps Christmas is a time to contemplate that welfare . . . lest we forget.

At calving time we get a chance to tend our own stable. We take a few cows to the barn for assistance every year, and when the stalls are bedded with straw and the mama and her calf lie in the quiet, we feel a certain reverence there. We speak with hushed tones to keep the cattle calm. And yes, we hear the cows lowing to their babies, the sweetest of murmurs, and can imagine a human baby stirring but not crying from that sound.

ranch horses in winter

cattle grazing stockpiled feed

we're living in a snow globe


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Keeping Vigil

The snow keeps coming – and there’s more in the forecast. It’s Christmasy; so much so that even Scrooges like me are feeling the vibe.

We got the cows home from the mountains, but not before we had a bit of excitement when my brother’s cattle mixed with ours on the trail home. Rich stopped his herd for the night with only a cattleguard between them and us. He was afraid that the pressure of the herd would crowd an animal into the guard, a series of metal slats over a wide gap in the road, so finally let them through the gate. When he got home he called Mark. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Mark could guess what he would say next. “The good news is nothing got in the cattleguard; the bad news is we’re mixed!”

No worries. Mark said he would have done the same thing. It meant extra work on horseback letting their black cows walk by our mostly red and white cows, but they all got to their home fields in fine order. The last sort was on a bitter morning with a dusting of snow on the cattle’s backs. It was a good photo op until my I-phone powered off because of the cold.

We put all the cows through the chute yesterday for processing. To “process” a cow means we have the local veterinarian check to see that she’s pregnant, then we give her an annual vaccination and a dose of insecticide. Mark checks teeth and the general health of the oldest cows to see if they’ll stay in the herd or be sorted off to sell. It’s like taking year-end inventory. We’re making a list and checking it twice.

There's more going on in the background than you can tell from my photos, however. As we drive through ranch headquarters, we pass by the modest white home that houses our ranch matriarch with renewed concern. Mark’s grandma, at 97, who has enjoyed good health up until a couple of weeks ago, is declining. She would really prefer to move on, find her husband, and do some dancing. He passed away in 2000 after 62 years together. She wonders why he's left her alone for so long.

So we’re keeping vigil over Grandma. "Vigil" is a word that sounds just like its meaning. It is defined as “a period of time when a person or group stays in a place and quietly waits, to keep awake when sleep is customary.” Very apropos for this wintery December when we watch and worry with a gamut of emotions – gratitude, awe, sadness, joy - surrounding this petite dynamo who, when the dancing finally begins, will leave a big hole in the human side of this ranch.  

my brother Rich holding herd


the processing crew

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Facing up to an Imperiled Aquifer

published as commentary in the Post Register, November 27, 2016

I come from a long line of flood irrigators. My great grandfather acquired one of the first water rights out of the Blackfoot River in 1871. Now my husband, who is an artist with a shovel, carefully maneuvers our own 1904 right across our ranch using the power of gravity.

This spreading of river water (surface water) worked to raise the level of the aquifer beneath us right up until the 1950’s, when groundwater pumping began in earnest. This new method of irrigation was efficient and brought many more acres under cultivation than could have been reached by gravity alone. Approximately one million acres are now irrigated by the water-soaked basalt of the Snake River Aquifer. And some 300,000 of us draw our drinking water from the aquifer as well.

At nearly 11,000 square miles in area, it is one of the largest and most productive aquifers in the world. There’s no doubting the economic prosperity it has brought to Southeast Idaho. But we now face the real threat of aquifer declines lower than the benchmark levels of the early 1900’s.

The specter of climate change and the likelihood of receiving more of our annual precipitation as rain instead of snow, further complicates the picture. Snowpack acts as storage and ensures a long seasonal flow of water as temperatures warm throughout the summer.    

On our ranch, we have always believed that too many deep well irrigation pumps had a negative effect on the water table, so we welcomed the recent efforts of local groundwater pumpers to curtail use for this very reason. This voluntary 2015 effort is a great start to realizing that hydrology of surface and ground waters are inextricably linked.    

But the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) has gone a step further. Because the Snake River Aquifer is approaching critical status they have ordered the designation of an Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Ground Water Management Area. I attended one of the town hall meetings conducted by IDWR this summer to take comments on the plan. Our groundwater pumping neighbors voiced their anger and their concerns. They’ve already agreed to voluntary cutbacks and see this effort as government overreach. They’re afraid they’ll be asked to give up more water in the future when, by agreeing to curtailments in the existing agreement, they were promised “safe harbor” from that threat.

Their argument is valid and I understand their fears. But from a gravity irrigator’s standpoint, who is at the mercy of river flows, I endorse the management area creation. I believe IDWR director Spackman when he says that the Ground Water Management Area gives us a chance to get ahead of aquifer declines and allows for proactive efforts on the wet years as well as the dry. The best thing we as irrigators can do is stay engaged and help with defining the terms of the agreement.

As Judith Schwartz, author of Water in Plain Sight, who looks at the water cycle from a soil management perspective says, “water connects us all.” Here in southeastern Idaho, we see water as our birthright. But change is upon us. And it’s not just an agricultural problem. Societies have always gone the way of their food producing fortunes. At mealtime we’re all agriculturalists. 

Springtime delivery of surface water, our lifeblood

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Soliloquy for Fall

November dawned still as stone today. The forecast says snow and single digits by Tuesday. The canals are quiet again and the long mornings mean an extra cup of coffee and some quiet conversation for me and Mark.   

We’re still finishing up fall chores. I cleaned the various ranch outbuildings – the warming room in the barn, the scale house and the pump house. The mouse droppings have been vacuumed and the windows washed.  

Mark is draining water troughs. He draws the water out with an irrigation siphon tube and/or garden hose. Some years he’s been caught off-guard and has to chop the whole thing out because it freezes solid. A “make work” task for sure.

He helped me dig the red spuds, and to further fill the larder, I picked up the meat we had processed at the local butcher shop. The Mickelson family was hard at work packaging ground beef when I arrived. How thankful we are that this family business is close by. While I was there a Hispanic mother and son picked up a cow’s head in a plastic bag. I don’t know how they prepare that, but am glad to know their culture helps us use the whole carcass. The value of diversity!

After 16 years in our home I finally got a circle drive! What was once a weedy eyesore that attracted ranch paraphernalia like a magnet, is now a graceful, graveled loop. Men with large tractors don’t realize how easy it is to make a wife happy.

We moved the cattle down to the first stair-step towards home. It was a clear, warm day, and with the calves off, the "drys" were quiet and agreeable and moved off the dogs in a fluid motion. We dumped the herd in the Brush Creek field and took them to water before coaxing them up the mountain to where Mark had delivered salt and lick tub treats. This supplement will help them process dry mature grasses, plus reward them for making the climb. They’re lazy and would prefer staying down on the creek.   

2016 has been a tumultuous year across our planet, and with all the strife, I’m feeling very grateful for our bulging freezer, a generous wood pile, and the fact that we go to bed each night without fear of our own countrymen. 

Mark handed me a poem this morning by Bernard J. Patrick, A Thanksgiving Soliloquy, and suggested that with all I could write about, perhaps I could end with this: . . . for every pennyweight of bad, I have found a ton of good. . . good in Nature, in People, in the World. And I’m thankful I belong. 

the way home

the monochromatic beauty of quakies in November

someone's long ago great idea

Kate and me on top of the world