Friday, February 9, 2018

Grandpa's Steel Pile

It’s been a mild winter. Before the calves start coming, we’re taking advantage of the lack of snow and ice by cleaning up around ranch headquarters. This land has been in Pratt hands since 1904. That’s a long time to accumulate stuff or what Gary would call “treasures.”

I agree with the treasure part. I’m as sentimental as anyone about past generations and the way things used to be done. I love running upon an old piece of farm equipment that was pulled by draft horses, parked once during a busy time, never meaning to be left out in the sagebrush, and now a gentle reminder of how grandpa did it. But time stands still for no one and the present and future trump the past every time. Mark said he could feel the yard “free up” as we cleaned.

There was a pile of steel odds and ends behind grandpa’s garage. Every farm needs one. It was slowly being buried by sand and leaves from the elms and box elders that line the yard. We sorted most of it to take to the scrap dealer, tossing the keepers another direction. Angle iron over six inches long, steel plate over a foot square, solid steel tubing, etc. will be stored in a central location for repairs or the odd job that needs a piece of scrap. The other goes to town.

Mark put the sides on our old 1977 Ford truck and took a couple of loads into the metal recyclers. He got a nice check and found out we’d need the money to pay the county to recycle our used tire collection!

We thought more than once as we worked about the burden of ownership when operating a farm that’s been around for a hundred years. If our place were ever sold, the old stuff would be pushed in a pile and hauled away or burned. For us, each item is handled and carefully considered. We don’t take this lightly.  

During an open winter like this one, Mark’s grandpa would have been scraping sand with a Ford 5000 tractor, enlarging the irrigable land between the sandhills for planting crops. The 5000 replaced the tiny 8N Ford which back then looked pretty big compared to a team of horses. Winter also meant Eldro and a younger Gary would be repairing farm equipment for summer-time work. They did what they had to. They made do. Repair, reuse, recycle wasn’t a catch phrase for them. It was life.

Things have changed. We don’t farm much anymore and we hire most of our large equipment work done by others. Farm machinery has gotten too big and expensive for a small operation to own anymore. The custom hire operators specialize, and when they arrive they make quick work of what grandpa would have taken a month to achieve.  

We may clean up behind them, but our forebears are not forgotten. We appreciate the same view of the mountains out the front door. We tend our livestock with the same careful eye. The winds that blew our sand in from the Snake River many eons ago still blow. They still rattle the house at night when sleep won’t come and thoughts of the future roll around in our heads.   

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Back to School

We’re on vacation. Well, not really. The weather is so mild it just feels like a vacation. Last year during January we were chaining up to feed in the morning and pushing snow most afternoons. The bales on the outside of the stack were frozen and had to be chopped apart by hand. This year the sun is out and the days are beautiful. Too beautiful if your summer depends on snowpack in the mountains, but we’ll worry about that in due time.   

A rancher deserves to hibernate for a few weeks in the dead of winter. It’s nice to get a break when the grass isn’t growing; the weeds aren’t rushing to set seed. No sprinkling the lawn. The garden is asleep. The canals are empty and the calves are nestled snugly inside the cows.

It’s the time of year when a rancher goes to school. We’ve been attending a few gatherings to sharpen our skills in range management and cattle handling, and we’ll meet with our beef marketing cooperative, Country Natural Beef, next week in the big city of Portland.

Today we attended a dog clinic taught by Jack Knox, originally from Scotland, and now living in Butler, Missouri. He taught his first clinic on the ranch when Seth was only 3 years old so his methods have influenced the way we handle dogs for over 20 years. Jack still speaks with a heavy Scot brogue and admonishes us, “let your dog work!” He says we're too busy trying to control our dogs. “Don’t look for what she does right, look for what she needs help with and help her. This is how you build trust in a dog.”

Jack is a master stockman. His voice, brogue or not, connects with the dogs immediately and they respond to him one by one throughout the two day clinic as we owner-handlers struggle to understand and emulate. I try, but sometimes the connection he has with the dogs is so deep, so enigmatic, I just sit back in wonder.

Jack emphasizes the livestock, which is great to hear if your livelihood comes from cows. Yes, the training is all about the dogs, but livestock are the reason. Keeping stock calm, using position rather than “bite” to guide them where we want them to go is the goal. Lots of people train to win dog trial competitions instead of training dogs to work livestock calmly. Jack says we can all be winners if we apply his principles.

According to Jack, the typical rancher gets about 30% out of his or her dog’s potential. What could we do with the other 70%? It’s fun to think about and with six ranch dogs in the clinic, we’ll have a fresh start at it in the spring. 

Leah with Dot doling out hay

Seth and Jack with Elsa and Dot

Learning to ride hay bales and building confidence

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Year at a Time

And so the New Year begins.

We’re feeding cows every morning and finding a kind of reassurance in it. We know how to do this. Spread the bales out so everyone gets their share, include lots of straw for energy when it’s cold, break the ice on the troughs so the cows get a good drink, then reload for morning. 

The New Year always brings up reflections of where we stand, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s time to take a breath and reevaluate our lives. Big questions like estate planning and how to provide for a multigenerational family business always come up this time of year.

Family businesses can be the most difficult to navigate. Is it really a business if you gather up the kids who’ve come home for the holidays and feed cows on Christmas morning?

I composed a set of questions to give to all the members of our family ranch. Easy questions – well most of them were easy. I meant them for personal reflection, but to hopefully share with our spouses or with other family members if we choose. What gives me joy as I go about my daily life? What did my parents do that I want to emulate? What role do I play on the ranch today and what are my fears regarding my role here in the future?

The last question was the tough one. Tough for all three generations. For each person or couple, much of the answer depends on what the other two generations decide. We’re intertwined in many ways so unraveling it is a challenge.

My hope is that whatever we do, we do with clear intention. I trust the intent of each one of us, and to be diligent in our actions to meet that intent is all we can really offer to one another. And that’s enough.

The cows are in two bunches, older and younger

the ranch in holiday dressing

lots of New Years since this was used

a practically perfect Christmas morning

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Growing Old(er) Together

My faraway sisters visited at Christmas time this year. Four of the six of us live close by, but the other two travelled from Montana and Maryland. We get together every year on what we’ve come to call “sister retreat.” This was the first time we tried a winter trip and the weather cooperated as we took turns visiting each other’s homes. One day we sorted boxes from an ancestor’s attic; one day we did crafts which involved a sewing machine, old buttons and a frog pattern. We cooked and ate, worked on puzzles, reminisced, laughed, and laughed some more. We stopped at Mom and Dad’s grave, brushed the snow aside and resituated the evergreen wreath Merle had made to grace the site.

One day Mark and I took the visiting sisters to cut Christmas trees. We wandered around in what must surely be a conifer encroachment area and found the perfect tree, cone shaped and loaded with gray/green berries. The site is home to our family’s cattle in the fall of the year and where we spent many happy days tending the herd and picnicking as kids. It was a perfect evening above the Blackfoot River, the iconic backdrop to Mom and Dad’s lives and Mom’s love of her life, next to Dad of course. The trip turned out to be the last possible day to navigate the high country without chains.

One evening we attended the annual small town production of A Christmas Carol. Donna suggested we sit on the front row of the Virginia Theatre, the oldest operating venue of its kind in Idaho. Being up close and personal means cheering on the cast and celebrating intimately with them when Ebenezer overcomes his Scroogeness.

As we get older, time together as siblings is more cherished and poignant than ever. The twelve years separating me, the youngest, from Janene, the oldest, is a hair’s width difference now and one of the best parts of growing older, sharing a past in different timelines, but being comrades as adults. Their visit was the best Christmas gift I can think of.  

Donna helped select Seth and Leah's first Christmas tree

that's me and my comrade, Janene

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Then Winter Came

The first snow with cold, cold temperatures is a sea change on the ranch. We were busy doing something . . . and now we switch gears and do something entirely different.  

The change in weather means the cows had to come home. We always think we might get a few more days of grazing in the mountains, but old man winter has his way. Our fall pasture is on the other side of steep mountain grades, so when the weather turns, we go for the cows. Mark’s tripping back and forth to the mountains is over until spring. Time to hunker down and tend things close to home.

We worked cows yesterday. They needed their annual shots so each one had to be put through the working facility. We had a wood stove blazing near the chute, but it was still bitter cold. This particular set of corrals hadn’t been used in a while so we had to iron out a few kinks as the day progressed. Ten head escaped out the back of the corral and another cow jumped out and bent a steel section. We gathered up a couple of panels, a long pole and a broken wooden gate and jimmied up a temporary fix. On top of that, the cows didn’t want to load in the crowding pen nor leave through the working chute. We coaxed every one through and finished just at dusk. I was so ready to be done!   

Despite the difficulties, everyone stayed agreeable and we eventually (as Gary likes to say) “wore them out.” It’s one characteristic of many I appreciate about our ranch. We don't argue while working cattle because we know we need each other's help. We may disagree on some business elements, but we’re diligent about keeping a positive working environment and for that I thank the previous generations. It’s one tradition we’re determined to keep.

Before the snow came, I took a photo of Anna and Mark catching horses and planned on using it in my blog. It’s a good one of a father and daughter starting the day. Then November got away from me and now the scene has changed so much it doesn’t seem to fit anymore. Mark assured me it didn't matter. I could write about the changing seasons he said. I guess a last, longing look-back is okay.

As we wrap up another production year, we take stock. We add up inventories, divvy expenses, balance the accounts and count our blessings. Among our blessings has been Seth and Leah living close by and helping us on the weekends.  

Leah, California raised, is spending her first Christmas in Idaho. She has a sense of joy and wonder about the snow. I found her a pair of gently used overalls on the high shelf in the mudroom. They were just her size and kept her warm working cattle. When I said she could take them home, she smiled and said, “a Christmas miracle!” Kind of sheds a whole new light on winter.   

Jane, Anna, Sis, Mark

the crew

a good calf crop on processing day

Kate bringing them home while I drive the (warm) pickup

waiting their turn
(photo by Seth)

one more to go
(photo by Seth)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Left Messy for Wintering Wildlife

Originally published as Commentary in the Post Register on October 18, 2017

I saw three wooly caterpillars on my walk today. They were rushing across the paved road, determined to find the perfect overwintering spot, a pile of leaves or a bit of dried grass to hide under. In the spring they’ll turn into tiger moths and be part of the web of life we enjoy during the summer months.

I’m cheering for them because in our world it’s fall clean-up time. For farmers tidying post-harvest and homeowners hoping to improve the look of frost beleaguered floral beds, we rush to rake, pile, till and otherwise rid the landscape of organic refuse. Or is it refuse after all?

Not if you’re a worm, a goldfinch, a partridge or a ladybug. That goldfinch will thank you for leaving seedheads standing on your long-past brilliant patches of black-eyed susans. Partridges will make use of any standing brush, weeds and grasses as food and shelter, not only from winter winds, but from the jaws of a coyote. Ladybugs and other beneficial insects need rough organic material to overwinter. A few limbs left in the corner of your yard or a pile of leaves at the base of a tree might be home to adults or eggs that will hatch in the spring.

Driving the roads this fall, look for signs of fellow citizens making a difference for living organisms that can’t come indoors for the winter. Thank a farmer for standing crops, the pivot corner planted to perennials, or a windbreak at the edge of his field. Thank a rancher for deep pastures and for keeping open spaces, “open.”  Thank the irrigation company for trees, grasses and weeds that line the canals in our community.  

And it’s not just for wildlife in the traditional sense. I mean “wild” life, including organisms that live in the soil. Some above ground protection and roots left intact below ground mean homes for the millions of microorganisms so vital to healthy soils. Don’t till the garden and kick them out just when the weather gets nasty.  

If that isn’t reason enough, consider that standing perennials catch snow, adding beauty and definition to the winter landscape. And who doesn’t love bird watching in the winter?      

But I have it easy you say. I live in the country and no one cares if I leave my flowerbeds and garden in disarray. What if you live in the city? What will the neighbors think? How about we all get lazy and stick a yard sign out front, “Left messy for wintering wildlife.”

But if you insist, we always welcome lawn clippings and bagged leaves to our ranch in the sandhills. It’s much better than the landfill. Contact me at I”ll meet you at the gate. 

still beautiful

Monday, October 23, 2017


We spent four days at the mountain ranch weaning calves. Everybody but Mark and I went home after we separated the herd. Early the next morning and every day thereafter, we rode the 4-wheeler out to a fence to make sure the wire was energized between the two groups of cattle. Then we walked a fair distance, crossing the creek at a path of rocks, then climbing towards the ridge line, winding our way through brush and lichen covered rocks and dormant bunch grasses. As we neared the ridge, the bawling of the cows and calves grew louder. From the top we could see the herd stretching out along the fence line and Mark could check the whole expanse through binoculars.

It was an impressive sight, but no rancher likes weaning and seeing his cattle in distress, even if only for the 3-4 day weaning process. Yes, they were walking the fence, but the calves looked healthy and full. Fresh grass and clean, plentiful water are paramount in keeping the calves from getting sick.  

There’s a tiny cabin at the ranch with a front porch and a swinging bench, but we never have time to stop and take in our surroundings. Imagine my surprise when Mark agreed to sit with me wrapped in a sleeping bag as the sun set, watching the horses graze out to the east, the view reaching clear to Wyoming. We hardly talked, just sat.

The nights were long. We had a propane lantern, and standing under it, I read aloud to Mark a book by Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home. A ranch girl, Jordan made her way from Cheyenne to Colorado State to Yale, and never returned to the ranch, but she loved it always. Her words hit home with us. Words about loss . . . of ranches, of rural communities, of people we love.

I took an empty journal to keep at the cabin. Well, almost empty. It had one entry written by Mark in November of 1997, 20 years ago. I see the book as part guestbook, part a record of happenings at the ranch, part Wendy’s musings (imagine that). I wrote the second entry about the previous owner and how we came to purchase the property after 30+ years of renting. The owner was a gentle soul who didn't fit the image of a traditional cowboy. We never saw him in a Stetson hat or cowboy boots. He wore lace up shoes and rode a horse like a farmer, but he could get more done with cattle on a horse than many men who looked the part.

I’m trying to figure out why the march of time comes to mind so often when we’re up at the cabin. Maybe it’s thinking about the generations of stockmen who have ridden, wrangled, and hunkered out a living on these windy vistas. Maybe it’s because I keep imagining a future when our grandchildren will occupy the now empty top-bunk in the rafters of the cabin. Maybe it's the quiet. 

On our last night I had a dream that Callie was a baby again and I had the chance for a “do-over” raising her. I wanted to, but knew that I was too old and I never saw anyone else getting a “do-over” so doubted that I could pull it off. I told Mark about the dream in the dark of the morning as we put off getting out of the covers.

I said, “I don’t think the passage of time weighs on you as heavily as it does on me.”

His reply was somehow comforting. “It does, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The darn thing just keeps on moving. All you can do is change the way you do it while you’re living it.” 

early morning catch

A good roll follows a day under saddle

day four, spectacular skies