Sunday, July 26, 2020

Covid Gardening

I’ve been practicing - learning to change the things I can, and to accept the things I can’t. I’m also reminding myself that other people get to choose how they spend their days. I get to choose how I spend mine. We all need to practice personal responsibility of course and work in teams, especially a marriage, but there’s plenty of margin around the edges to choose.

Why that particular thought belongs with covid gardening, I’m not sure. I’ve always had a garden, but in a pandemic it’s stylish again. Oh, so that’s why I ought to learn how to grow my own food! It's one of the silver linings to our current situation. Apparently covid gardens can go by other names more like the victory gardens of WWI and II - hope gardens, good news gardens. I like the term solace garden.

Planting and tending a vegetable garden, then harvesting and preparing food for the table is as real as real gets. I’m lucky that Mark appreciates my home-grown produce. He tells me he can eat all the swiss chard I can grow. He also loves beet greens with little beets attached to the end. We eat it all, right down to the roots. Bitter on top, then almost sweet at the end. Summer itself.

I like to include flowers with the vegies as well. This season it’s a row of sunflowers. They were doing wonderfully until yesterday when one stout, glorious fellow just fell over. When I investigated, I found insects had bored through the stem right at ground level. Now my perfect row has a hole in the middle of it. Mark said what he always says, “things are seldom ideal.”

Speaking of less than ideal circumstances, I took a drink from Mark’s water jug he had left in the front seat of the pickup. I felt something slide in my mouth and swallowed it; thought I was imagining things and took another swig only to have more slip down my throat. When I tipped the jug back an earwig was crawling by the mouthpiece. Yuck. The neighbor lady overheard me calling Mark to complain and suggested I call a nurse because the earwigs might burrow into my intestines. Not likely. I’m still alive and feeling fine. So - lesson learned. A word comes to mind when speaking of earwigs – interminable – and they are, so I’m sure many people have ingested them in their drinking water by mistake and lived to tell about it. When I went to bed last night I envisioned them crawling up my throat in my prone position.

Other July adventures included camping with my extended family. We reserved a large campground and arrived with a variety of tents (pup and family), campers (rented, old, new, deluxe), and a repurposed school bus (take away the s and h and it reads cool bus). We do like most families I suppose. Young adults bike and hike and tend kids, little kids explore and play in the dirt. Oldsters, of which I’m a member, prepare food and sit around the campfire telling stories. I broke ranks by going on a mountain bike ride with Seth, but I do love the campfire conversations. My niece said that’s why she goes camping with the family – for the stories. Bless her.

Like I said, I'm practicing - practicing gratitude most of all. And though the swallows are staging a good fight to use the porch for nesting, bugs are crawling and chewing, the heat has slowed grass regrowth to a crawl and the weeds are calling my name, I still walk around in awe of the headiness of mid-summer. We all know it won't last. I have a Buddhist saying near my keyboard, the trouble is you think you have time. July is like that. 

my solace garden

its been a great year for wild primrose 

Thinnings for supper

I counted a dozen ladybugs feasting on ragweed aphid

climbing cucumber tendrils,
 so delicate yet so strong

Callie enjoying Rich's cowboy coffee

this cow pasture is pollinator paradise

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Classifying July 2020

We have a pair of cedar waxwings nesting in the quakie outside our office window. They were building the nest one day while we watched. The male, we assume, held on to his beakfull of cotton from the cottonwood trees while the female got hers safely secured in the nest. Then they put beaks together as he transferred his bundle to her for proper placement. We’ve always loved waxwings - so velvety, so creamy - and to have them nest right under our nose is a treat. 

After a cold spell it’s turned off hot again for Independence Day. It’s been wet, and all around us plant life is exploding. We live in the middle of chaos. There’s a willow-lined canal on one end, a cottonwood forest on the other, brushy dry sandhills, irrigated pastures, and lots of weeds and grasses. In simplified terms, with a variety and abundance of plant life (flora which get their energy from the sun) comes a variety and abundance of animals (fauna which breathe and forage for nutrition). In the middle of manicured farms, cattle fill the big animal niche and birds and insects thrive. On our end table is a grass book, a bird book, one on wildflowers, and a well-worn one on weeds.

Cotton is floating on the air again today. I’m pretty tired of it getting in my nose. As we walk around the ranch, putting up and taking down temporary fence, changing water and moving yearlings, different fragrances waft in and out of our awareness. The perfume from the tiny yellow blooms of the Russian Olive trees is especially pungent right now. The mountains have their own plethora of scents. When Mark got home from the range last night he said it smelled like an Avon commercial.   

We’ve been grazing the yearlings around the house. It’s one of my favorite times of the year - two weeks of watching them forage for nutrition from wherever I am around the house, the porch, the deck, or the kitchen with my morning coffee. They’re tromping around the perimeter of my vegetable garden right now, kept out by a single strand of electrified string - nerve wracking!

When the cattle change paddocks they eat the forbs first, those weedy/wildflower-like plants. They also like tree leaves, and of course grass, of which we have a multitude of varieties, quack, orchard, brome, timothy, etc. Fred Provenza, author of Nourishment, What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom, talks about the value of diversity in our diet and in the diet of grazing animals. Animals are hard wired to pick and choose a diet that is healthiest for them. We have the same ability, but it has mostly been lost in our hyper processed/over analyzed food culture.

We celebrated the 4th by sitting on the deck and watching the full moon rise above the cattle at work. Out of the blue Mark asked me, "what pleases you about your life right now?" I enjoyed exploring that one, and then asked him the same question. His response: "times like these."  

Sometimes I get comments from readers about our way of life. They're very nice and complementary, as if what we do is something to cherish - and I suppose it is. But, truly, it is just life – with all its beauty and all its imperfections. The pandemic has brought this fact front and center - if one has enough to eat, health, and a home with a dose of freedom and security, we’re all in the same boat. I can be as unhappy (or happy) as anyone. 

Mark reminded me about Willie's song, Good Times. The last verse goes like this:

Here I sit with a drink and a memory,
But I'm not cold, I'm not wet, and I'm not hungry,
So, classify these as good times.
Good times.

a string protects my butterfly garden

. . . . and my vegetables

build it (let it grow) and they will come

Monday, June 15, 2020


The Trail, as it’s called here on Pratt Ranch, went fine this year. Well, except for that first morning when the calves decided to head back home en masse, tails in the air, sure that Mom was back in the pasture we’d left an hour before. We tried and tried to get them to keep walking ahead, but more calves kept looking back and joining the group that was challenging us, then some cows joined in. We finally had to admit defeat and let them fall back to where Seth and Gus had thrown up some panels against a fence to head them off. We stopped, got them settled, and started again. Whew, that hasn’t happened in a while.

Seth and Anna were with us every mile of the drive. There’s nothing like home-grown help. There’s one section of the route that is especially challenging. We crest a mountain, tumble down to a creek on the other side, then follow a narrow lane through a steep-sided canyon. At the end is a field with lots of grass and a good rest for the herd, but the route is fraught with obstacles, a rushing creek to dive in and out of, cedars and rocks to hide behind, and no easy way to keep the cattle from slipping back past us. As Seth and Anna and I were bringing up the rear on that final leg, knowing the worst was behind us, Anna commented how “bad ass” the event was. I’m not really sure what that means but I think we done good.   

With cattle delivered to the mountains, summer can commence. Only now we’ll wear the road out going back and forth tending them. Mark has been back almost every day since. He and Seth are up there today. They had a couple of bulls with sore feet to bring home and they’ll ride through the calves for sickness.

Before the cows could arrive, the fences needed repaired. Last winter was a heavy snow year leaving our fence in shambles with many broken wires. Mark and I, knowing we weren't much of a threat, asked our kids for help. We made a plan for Memorial Day Weekend. They had helped us tuck the cattle in to a pasture mid-route for just long enough to get the holiday campers in and out before our final push to the range.

I gathered up all the fencing supplies I could find - wire stretchers, pliers, staple buckets and splice wire for everyone, and made ground beef soup to reheat for lunch. There was a skiff of snow on the ground.  Callie even came from Boise and we finished before day's end. These young adults get along well and are a joy to work with. 

We don’t know how our kids and their spouses will fit into the future of the ranch. Making it work for them and maintaining our livelihood is top priority. We know it will look different from how we did it and that’s okay. The kids have a wide breadth of education and experience and a big world that needs them too. Their love of the land and animals isn’t under debate, however. They’ve assured us that caring for the land will endure past our short time here and for that I say a prayer of thanks. 

women at work

many, many bluebells

Anna and her Dad
Anna and her Dad

Anna on Sis, with Stella (in training)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Looking for Like Minds (and grass)

I’ve been searching for a word to describe the switch from winter to spring on a ranch. In the best sense “thrilling” fits the bill. That’s how it felt about two weeks ago, anyway. I was full of energy, bird-watching and following each tree species in the leafing-out competition. I was enjoying helping Mark burn ditches and pitch the debris as they fill with water for the first time. I was cutting rogue olives and burning limb deadfall with abandon. It was all such fun. Now, not so much, “overwhelming” is a better description. A sore neck and an hour-long nap two days in a row told me I had over extended my thrill. And I haven't even started on my vegetable garden.

It feels good knowing the irrigation water is flowing. I took my binoculars one afternoon to visit a pond that the ibis had found. A big group were feeding, picking their way along with their long legs, sticking their curved bills into the water over and over. Others were sleeping, standing on one leg, their heads turned backwards resting along their backs. I have never noticed the iridescent colors of their wings before. Ibis are otherworldy, a friend told me. With a dearth of natural wetlands, ibis take advantage of flood irrigation and we're tickled to oblige.

We’re starting with the cows out of the valley tomorrow and heading for grass in the mountains. Even though we have good help lined up, the 45-mile walk feels daunting. I’ll feel better when we get a day or two under our belts. It has always been thus, the anticipation is worse than the event itself.

In other news, Seth announced his job had been downsized due to the pandemic and he would be taking a break from the professional world to be a full time rancher for a month or more. His comment was, "their timing couldn't be better." We’ve all heard about silver linings to the virus and this is one for us.

We beef growers are learning a lot about our supply chain through "these trying times.” The hourglass shape of our industry - cow-calf producers on the front side, consumers on the end side, and the meatpacking plants in the middle - makes for vulnerabilities we haven’t tested before. Turns out those valiant souls that harvest our animals are especially vulnerable to the virus. They are the essential workers in our world. 

An interesting coincidence to the beef supply shake-up is that this spring our kids launched their Pratt Family Beef direct sales business. Mark has always had a few grass-fed cattle that stay home in the summer for customers interested in an alternative to our mainstream outlet through Country Natural Beef. Pratt Family Beef is a stepped-up version of that, and is reaching folks outside our usual circle. It amazes me that people send deposits to hold a product which is months away from their freezer. That's where social media comes in, including this 10-yr old blog, to introduce our family to potential customers.

Resiliency, partnerships, stability and sustainability – these are the attributes we’ve been students of for a long time now. It’s what we need to focus on world-wide instead of bickering and blaming. Well, actually it’s only some people that bicker and blame. Most of us are in the grand middle, the unflappable middle that buy their toilet paper one large package at a time. Unfortunately it’s the bickerers and blamers that get all the attention.

See you on the other side of grass.

photo by Anita
white-eyed ibis at work 

starting irrigation water, our lifeblood here on the home ranch 

Seth, Dave, Leah and Anna, branding as low- stress as we can muster

Callie and Anna, a last feeding day

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Working from Home

Caring for cows during a pandemic looks a lot like caring for cows any other time. I’m feeling blessed to do what we do. We get to go outside and work with animals that know nothing about ventilators or face masks. They don’t worry about falling markets, social distancing or zoom calls. They've got "working from home" down pat. They look for the feed truck every morning, trusting that tomorrow will be the same as today. Mark and I are as concerned about this virus as anyone, but the weather has more to do with what happens on the ranch than anything else.

Calving numbers have peaked and we’re on the back side of the curve. But - “there’s always something." It’s a phrase we use often. Yesterday it was another set of twins and two babies that were born and didn’t suck. We walked them in and got them suckled and going. Most days the cattle calve like clockwork, on their own as nature planned, but not so yesterday.  

One day, just at dusk, a cow that Mark knew was preparing to calve had not made any headway all day. Seth tried to get her in on foot, but she was having none of it. Mark was tending a heifer, so Seth called me to bring a horse, and said he would stay with the cow so he wouldn’t lose her in the dark. I put Seth's saddle on Jane and rode her with my toes just barely touching the stirrups until I found him. He got the cow in and checked her out. Sure enough, the calf was upside down, meaning the head, which was below the legs, would never have entered the birth canal - a sobering outlook for the pair if we had waited until morning.

We've been moving the cow-calf pairs away from the "drys" every few days. It's social distancing for cows so they don't pass any sickness to one another. Yes, there's good reason to cancel our human gatherings for a while.  

I looked at seed catalogs today. Should I try some eggplant this year? How about a row of sunflowers on the edge of the garden? A rainbow blend of carrots would be fun, and there’s a cylindrical beet that’s good for canning. We have a wedding in our future, so a row of Queen Anne’s lace would lend a nice touch to bouquets.

I felt so much like my Mom today, not only about the seed catalogs, but for the hardy noon meal I fixed - fried pork chops, red spuds from the garden (yes, they’re still good), flour gravy and creamed corn, which I had picked and frozen last summer. The only thing missing was Mom’s homemade bread, which left a pretty big hole if you think about it. I felt like her again this afternoon piling limbs to burn out under the big cottonwoods. She loved to work outside like I do.

Seth said this pandemic is likely the most globally disruptive event of his lifetime. I hope so, but I'm afraid we may be challenged again and some more. The loss of species across the globe isn't as front and center as coronavirus, but it's more deadly long run. The human race has always seen times of hardship, but now we experience those hardships globally. We depend on one another so much. It is our strength - and our weakness.

I believe our kids, and their young peers across the planet, are up to the task. I found a phrase in my daily reader that's very fitting. It said to switch from fear and uncertainty to faith and confidence. We can do that, right? The younger generation is talented, ambitious and courageous. They think collectively and believe we’re better together. Let's help them.     

Leah coaxing some babies across a ditch

a neophyte mom pretty excited with her baby

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Riding the Edge

I took the day off one Sunday before calving got in full swing and spent the whole day reading a book my brother brought me. It’s called, Riding the Edge of an Era, Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail by Diana Allen Kouris. I knew I had to read it when I saw Rich’s words scrawled inside the front cover, “Really good author, very sad story. I can’t talk about it without crying.”

It was sad indeed. But happy, too, as the author described her childhood in the 1950’s on the Brown’s Park Livestock Ranch in the three corners region of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. The ranch was remote. Winters were spent in Rock Springs where the kids went to school, summers in glorious freedom on the ranch.   

The author speaks of her Mom, a great cook and homemaker, and who could ride horses with the best of the men. She talks of the warmth that her mom “forever lit inside” her daughter - just by loving her and making her know how much she was wanted. So simple and so important. Gifts my parents gave me unequivocally, and that I thought every kid got.

She talks of the animals she grew up with, Phillychich, the pet rooster that attacked Grandma on the way to the outhouse, Comet, the buckskin that liked to rub off his unsuspecting rider on the nearest low-hanging branch, and Hobo, the genteel gelding, that became a favorite mount when Diana returned to the ranch every year to help her brother with the fall roundup.

The story settled in my chest just as it did for my brother Rich. It was close to home, almost too close. Memories of our own Mom and Dad come to mind. Mom wasn’t a horsewoman, but she shared many characteristics with the matriarch in the story - faithful and steadfast, they both turned to preserving history in their later years. Our Dad was softer than the father in the story, but both men were defined by the ranches they operated.

The author’s childhood was more rough and tumble than mine. We’re both the youngest of our siblings, but her brother kept her in trouble, my sisters were easy on me. We kids spent all our time outside, though, as she did. We explored the ranch, rode horses and moved irrigation pipe. We swam in the irrigation ditch every day, running back to the house to drop on the warm sidewalk for a sunbath, our wet suits leaving a bikini smudge on the cement.

Diana and her sister kept riding with their ranching brother even though the girls were women now and had husbands and children in town. These stories are so familiar! Riding in the cold until your bottom half is numb. Rain snaking down the seams of your slicker. Facing your fears on a spirited horse and coming out the others side unscathed. Long, challenging days where you test the limits of personal exhaustion. And the exhilaration of getting to the end of your task for the day, the cattle gathered, sorted, processed, or shipped. 

Bob, the brother, who follows their Dad on the property, is the quintessential rancher. On those miserably frigid days on horseback, everyone took a turn in the warm pickup but him. Doing the impossible on a horse, fighting and figuring and putting up with the muck and misery. He reminds me of my brother and Mark, old-fashioned ranchers for sure, always willing to do what the business requires of them.
But ranchers get old and fortunes change. Sometimes the government comes for your land as it did the Allen family. They persevered through this and more, but time kept ticking for the ranch they loved.

Ranches don’t have to last. In fact only 3% make it past the 4th generation. We’re on number four ourselves. Our story is still being written.   

Rich as a young man

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Soils R Us

If one soils workshop during the off-season is good, two is even better, right? So we went to Idaho Falls and then Burley to learn and question and scratch our heads. Now we talk about soil health over coffee in the morning while it’s too dark to feed cows.

Who knew there’s a whole teeming world of microbes below our feet, and they have the power to create, maintain and regenerate above-ground health. Not only for plants, but animals that depend on plants - including humans.

The five elements of soil health are easy to understand and should be familiar to all of us that have a yard, enjoy the landscape, like clean air and water, and eat food:

1 – Keep the soil covered with dead or living plants

2 – Minimize disturbance to the soil, like tilling

3 – Promote a diverse variety of plants

4 – Keep a living root in the soil year round

5 – Graze with livestock responsibly  

But wait, Anna says we talk too much about soils so I’ll change the topic.

We’re taking a class this winter put on by the University of Idaho on ranch transition planning. Our first assignment is to individually write a legacy statement. Basically what you hope to leave to succeeding generations. How you want to be remembered. What values did you live your life by?

Mark and I had a half-hour to kill in town so we stopped by a sunny window and put pen to paper. It’s not easy to sum up a life, even for a writer like me, so I can imagine the other ranchers in the class struggling with the composition.

One thing I thought of was my intention that Mark and I be a good role model of partnership to our children. We both are “all in” for this ranch, which is good, but it leads to arguments about how to manage it. I like to talk things through, be pragmatic. When expenses come up I often ask, can we afford it? He prefers to figure it out on his own and gets annoyed with my questions.  

But he is kind to me. When it's really cold, one of the sweetest things he does is put his gloves on the pickup heater while I feed my load of hay every morning. Then we swap gloves when I'm half-way through so my hands stay cozy and warm. What a difference this small gesture makes. It makes me feel loved and cared for. Happy Valentines Day!

A shovelful of good stuff from the Back Forty