Monday, July 30, 2018

More of the Same

It’s hot. We’re sleeping in the basement where it's cool and quiet. No dogs barking or kingbirds squawking at 4:30 am. By fall we’ll move back upstairs, but for now it’s a mini-getaway for us.

This morning we watched a colorful tanager feed on the berries of the chokecherry out our living room window. I told the numerous robins that perhaps they could feed elsewhere. I like them, but they’re a bit mundane, choose another bush please.

We’re moving cattle every 10 days or so in the mountains, which is a big switch for us. We’re following the advice we heard a smart rancher give one day: “shorten your graze periods and lengthen your recovery periods.” It’s stressing us in ways we didn’t anticipate and it’s not perfect, but things seldom are. We’ve had a few pleasant overnight stays in the mountains. Being in the high country early in the morning and late at night means spotting elk, mule deer, sage grouse, and listening to the nighthawks boom.

I’ve enjoyed some time away from the ranch rummaging through boxes of memorabilia with my sisters. It’s taken us years to tackle what our grandmother and uncle left behind in their home built by my great grandparents. We hate to disturb some of the drawers and shelves that have remained untouched since the last occupation over 20 years ago. My uncle saved everything. I hauled box after box down the steep attic stairs one very hot day. One curious find was a large box filled with crepe paper streamers, all a faded green. Their household was staunchly democrat and there was a stash of John Kennedy campaign materials and articles written after his assassination. There were piles of books and magazines, and the occasional handwritten letter to keep us interested.

We have a box labeled for each branch of the family, file folders for each individual, a box to take to the local historical society, totes for scrapbooks to deal with later, and piles of items with some value that we need to think about. It’s a labor of love, and with my dear sisters, what I would do just for fun.

Summer is cruising along at warp speed. Oh, to hold on to these evenings! We watched the July full moon, the buck moon, rise at dusk on my birthday. We christened the new redwood deck and made merry as I tried to forget how surprising the number on the cake was.

All of it - aging, the intoxicating days of summer, the cool breeze coming through the windows when I can’t sleep - take on a special poignancy when I’m immersed in the lives of my ancestors. We are the same. Especially so since our livelihood is the land, and we cherish country living as they did. My grandma talks about beet harvest, flood irrigating, and the first killdeer of spring as the important events they were. An optimist, nearly every diary entry begins with, “Lovely, lovely day.” She also wrote in a letter, “We lived through the depression and two world wars and loved every minute of it.”

I promise today to be more like her. 

moving heifers at home
 Anna and Clyde

moving the herd in the mountains
Tin Cup Spring
Seth and Dot

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Shift in Baseline

Previously printed as commentary in the Post Register, Idaho Falls, Idaho, July 22, 2018

My Dad, born in 1919, worried in his later years that we were losing monarch butterflies.  He’s gone now, but he was right. According to science the monarch population has plunged. When I was a kid we always had a few jars of milkweed leaves to feed our captive caterpillars for the fun of watching them turn into butterflies. It’s just darn hard to find them anymore, even though our ranch is rich with milkweed, their sole food.

But here’s the thing, kids these days don’t regret not having the experience of watching a caterpillar hang upside down, morph into a cocoon and emerge as the delicate and wondrous monarch, because it just isn’t part of their normal. Their normal has more to do with organized sports and screen time. There’s a name for this phenomenon, it’s called the shifting baseline syndrome.

The term was coined in 1995 by fisheries biologist, Daniel Pauly, who used it to describe how each generation is blind to the loss of species diversity and abundance because they never experienced it differently. His focus was the ocean and the breathtaking mass of species present when we first started to study the sea, and how subsequent marine biologists missed it because they only saw changes related to what they themselves encountered in their own career.  

This hits close to home when you work the land as we do. My uncles, during the homesteading era, lived year around in the mountains where we now graze cattle in the summer. They trapped the creeks every winter and the number of pelts they collected sound like fiction. And by then there were only remnant beaver populations from the staggering numbers present prior to European discovery of the West. Shifting baseline.

My ranching father fought the troublesome weed, burdock, in his day. It is especially annoying to livestock owners because it produces burrs that cling to the coats of cattle and sheep. Burdock is still here and we still fight it, but Dad would be horrified at the new adversaries that have made their way to the ranch in 2018. This is the current generation’s new normal.

Shifting baselines are all around us. One I’ve watched over my lifetime is the growth of homes in the country owned by folks that commute to municipalities for work. It used to be that if you lived out of town you had a farm. Not so anymore. The newcomers are friendly people and mostly good neighbors, but if the trend continues, as it surely will, our ranch won’t fit here in the future. Shifting baselines sneak up on us and lull us into complacency.  

As I watch young people behave, even ranch kids, I’ve developed the sobering suspicion that they don’t have the same land ethic as their forefathers. Some jump on this or that environmental cause, but they lack a basic understanding of how the whole ecosystem works. Some just don’t seem to care. But perhaps it’s not that at all, perhaps they just don’t know what they’re missing. 

taken in 2013, I haven't seen any this year. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Scrapbook

June is slipping away. June always does that.

We had a major move over the last mountain with the cattle. The route is convoluted. It includes a blind corner and a steep grade. It’s a trick to execute with a big herd, so we determined to cut them in half. We were able to make a clean sweep and not separate any cows from their calves and got the first herd well along their way before dropping three riders to gather the remaining bunch. When the first herd topped the mountain, Anna and I fell back as well and left five riders to get them the rest of the way.

We found Mark and his skeleton crew with the second herd gathered and just about to attempt a creek crossing. They were glad to have us and our three border collies. 

When the first cows crossed the creek, they immediately headed for home instead of climbing the hill. It was hidden to us and being otherwise occupied with the tail end, we didn’t see their escape. We had to gallop around the lead and get them turned around before we could attempt the climb. After much ado we got them lined out just in time to face two side-by-sides with flags fluttering on each side of the machines. This caused an about-face with the lead which we aggressively mauled back to face the right direction.   

The last excitement for the day was doling out the stash of yellow slickers we have stowed in the horse trailer just before the rain started. The day ended well, but I suffered the last two hours thinking I could forego my biking shorts hidden under my jeans. I won’t do that again.

Since then we’ve had the disappointing experience of a thief in the mountains that not only stole from us, but left a gate open and let the cows into a neighboring field. We hate to lock things up, but that’s our only recourse.  

At home we’re moving yearling heifers around, fighting weeds, irrigating and more irrigating.

It’s lovely weather, we’ve received lots of rain and the ranch is exploding with growth. We sup on the terrace every evening and make a point to soak in the beauty that surrounds us. But we’re tired and behind as usual. We have to bolster one another up to let some of it go and quit worrying. I asked Mark what it was like to be him and he said with a smile, “I’m not bored.”   

I don’t have any cow pictures, just wildflower pictures from a rare day of quiet on the range.     


blue flax

sticky geranium

a type of arnica  (I think)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Visit from Down Under

Anna and Gus are ranchers from New South Wales, Australia. They’re on a five week visit to the U.S. to see their daughter who is working here in her gap year following high school graduation. They're friends of friends. They visited the ranch over a couple of days and got a feel for how we do things in the West.   

We took them to the mountains to check cattle. They got to handle a lariat, a tool the beef industry never developed on their continent. Because of this, their saddles have no horn to dally a rope to - and nothing to hang on to as far as I can tell. We found a sick bull which Mark roped to give him a shot of antibiotics. He was a young bull, but uncooperative, and Gus got the challenging job of giving the injection and then, the riskiest part, taking the rope off his neck when we were done. A bit of excitement for sure!

We talked at length about the differences between ranching there and ranching here. They can’t use temporary fence because the overpopulated kangaroos knock it down. Their squeeze chute is called a “crush.” They use motorcycles; we use horses. We’re called ranchers; they’re called graziers. They graze year 'round; we only wish we could graze year 'round. They rely on highly variable rainfall. We irrigate and can usually count on rangeland moisture. They shared the heartbreak of having to sell cattle to deal with drought. We talked of the challenges of grazing in a cooperative and pleasing the public on public land.    

But it’s our common values we enjoyed sharing the most. We both raised our kids immersed in the business, fed them home-cooked meals, and didn't let them drink pop (fizzy drinks). We both share the feeling that we’re running a ranch on land that is too valuable to put cows on, but do it anyway. We're both confused by our respective governments and the idiocy that sometimes accompanies agriculture policy. We love grass and species diversity and deeply respect soils and all the organisms that live there. Cattle are not only our livelihood, they’re our hope to enhance the land we manage. We run cows through dry and wet, hot and cold, high prices and low prices.   

We had fun sharing stories of what it's like when your spouse is your business partner - and the challenges thereof. I'm adopting the title Gus gave Anna on their farm, Minister of War and Finance! Anna is the first woman rancher I've met, who, like me, has photos on her phone of grass before and after grazing. Ya gotta love that.    

Anna on Alice, Gus on Sly, Mark on Jane

wildflower season

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Word of the Day - Sylvan

Mark took a couple of days to get the fences pulled up on our mountain ground. He left me with only one stream of water to change so that makes me happy and I feel a bit of freedom with him gone overnight. That is until I wake up and feel unease at my aloneness. He took the mosquito net. I hope he uses it because the little buggers are fierce this year.

It’s lovely to have the cattle in the mountains. They take constant tending, but it’s a different kind of tending than winter-time feeding. Mark knows each animal even on the range, but to me it’s as if they take on different characteristics in the wild. He might say, “there’s the cow you blogged about in the calving barn with the twin.” Really? I don't even recognize her. She’s just another slick hereford out enjoying the foraging season.   

It’s snowing cotton at our house from the giant cottonwoods that grace the northwest corner of our sylvan homestead. I like the sound of "sylvan." It means wooded, only more poetic. It is associated with an idyllic or pastoral setting, disconnected from the modern world. And we are, that is, we do . . . live in the woods. No, not a majestic hardwood or pine forest. Our trees are common black willows, box elders, elms, Russian olives and cottonwoods. They’re fast growing. Some might call them trashy. We call them beautiful, stately, comforting.

I’ve learned there can be too much of a good thing, however. I’m trying to convince Mark that we need to take some trees out to address the “how many ever” board feet of lumber that is produced every year on our ranch. The leaves cover and choke the grass in the pasture, the base of the trunks provide hiding places for weeds, and most of all, with too many neighbors, the lovely silhouette of each tree is blurred and crowded out. Then there are the limbs, upon limbs, which need to be picked up and hauled away or burned. If I feel old, it’s after a day of dealing with weeds or tree limbs.

Not to mention the cotton! Every seed on the cottonwoods has a halo of white stuff that coats the lawn and garden and piles in the corner of the porch. Sometimes as the breeze swirls on the pavement, balls are formed - neat little spheres that dance a dos-a-dos on the sidewalk. Working in the garden means a nose full of cotton. The seed-making indicates that we’ve had a wet spring and our trees are making the most of it. Nature is cool like that. We’re not complaining. Mark says it’s a reminder that we’re not in charge. How true, like the mosquitoes.   

a man-made flood irrigating pond

they're loaded this spring

another sign of a wet spring: expanses of camas lillies

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The End of the Trail

The spring cattle drive is done for another season. A “drive” is the traditional name for moving cows long distances. We call it “the trail,” as in “going up the trail.” There is a subtle but important difference of semantics between trailing cows and driving cows. We still end up pushing the back end, but endeavor to let them “trail” because they know the way and for the most part walk along agreeably.

Trailing days can be beautiful, peaceful days, especially first thing in the morning. And they can be stressful, mind blowing days, maneuvering hundreds of cow-calf pairs past a multitude of obstacles. The first difficulty this year was the temporary three-strand electric fence the department of agriculture installed to keep the herd off a potato field infected with pale cyst nematode. They were afraid the hooves, even along the edge of the road, would transport the pest to neighboring fields. They had five staff persons stationed to divert traffic during that portion of the route. Only a few calves got through the fence, so it was a success. I asked if we could hire them for the rest of the trail!

Other obstacles include yards and gardens in our community. We’ve learned to put up a twine string across driveways. How we appreciate the conscientious country dweller that provides a gate for us to close. Mark found a couple of orange traffic cones in the canal that we used as obstacles this year too. Cows will avoid a seemingly benign roadblock if given the chance. One yard was so vulnerable that I stopped one day and got the cell number of the owner so I could text her before we came by. She and her kids stood guard and helped tremendously.

One morning as we crested the final push out of our farming community heading to range ground, I sat on my horse and visited with a farmer sitting in his pickup. A tractor was working the field behind him. We talked about the challenges of producing food in the fastest growing state in the nation. He said drivers don't like him moving farming equipment on the road any more than they like to encounter our herd. He said he liked the cow scene, even though they were walking on, and grazing, the edge of his farm. We agreed that those of us in agriculture need to stick together.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to trail cattle to the mountains. It’s an old, old human tradition, taking livestock to grass. The symbiotic relationship between humans, grass and ruminants has been known to cultures for thousands of years. It’s so old that most people don’t even recognize what they’re witnessing. I tell whoever will listen that cows and horses and herding dogs don’t walk any faster than they ever have, even though the pace of technology zooms past us. Whether we as a people can value that, slow down and learn how cows fit in our communities and in the environment remains a question.   

photos by Anita Pratt
finally arrived and letting them "mother up"

mountains are other obstacles

we got wet and were glad to be so

beating the rain through the night cattleguard at Boosies

Thursday, May 10, 2018

When May Happens

We’re staging the cows to leave for the hills, putting groups back together since calving and branding, and moving them to green grass on pastures around the home ranch. We’ll open the gates and start walking towards our mountain range next week.

Staging is not to be confused with “shaping them up,” which is the term my Mom used to describe going through the cows and sorting off those that weren't trail ready. The herd will walk fifty miles before they reach the high country. We will walk or ride with them and it’s not for the unfit.

But unfit I am. The older I get the more pain is endured when spending hours on a horse when one has been too long out of the saddle. Yesterday I wore biking shorts under my jeans to go with the rough-out leather pad on my saddle, wore my chaps for extra protection, took two ibuprofen, and I’m still bruised and sore this morning. It was a beautiful day though and so good for my well-being to see luscious grass instead of tightly grazed feed ground.

Mark put an electric string around the house and let the pairs in to graze areas that they usually don’t get to. I had a hard time getting any work done because I wanted to simply sit on the terrace and watch cows eat. Andre Voisin, author of the classic Grass Productivity called the process, poetically, “the cow at grass.”  

The birds are back! How I love the familiar two-note song of the chickadee and the flash of an oriole in his pumpkin-colored plumage. I got in trouble with Mark because I took the good binoculars out of his calving pickup and moved them to the kitchen for bird watching. But not too much trouble because we both enjoy the birds so much.    

I planted the early garden vegies, kale, lettuce, swiss chard, carrots and beets. And we’re getting asparagus! Our humble sandhill ranch grows wild asparagus by the armful. Only a few choice individuals know where my asparagus “gardens” are. My favorite way to prepare the little darlings is browned in butter on the stove, with garlic. 

I helped Mark start water at our farm we bought when the kids were little. The ditch originates at “the Hornet’s Nest,” so named because of the arguments over water rights conducted by two or more farmers at the three-way split. Starting water requires burning the ditch first and then frenzied pitching when the water is first turned in. The canal company has helped Mark for a few years with a bucket on a backhoe. We trade labor. We burn the ditch and they provide the equipment when it's flushed. How did we ever do it with just a pitchfork? 

The glory of spring never pales. Or rather, it only strengthens as we age and learn what glory really means. The work never ends, but there is loveliness all around. The fragrance of the plum tree blossoms in the windbreak, the nest of duck eggs saved from the fire along the ditch bank, the munching of cows gathering grass - and let’s not forget asparagus – are balm for the soul.

Rollah and Dot at the end of a long day
grass at last!

grazing close to the house

this ditch cleaned by grazing

Mark gets a welcome hand