Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Power of a Good Design

We made it all the way to 78 degrees last week, and today a soft rain is falling. The green and the beauty in our world has exploded. Mount Putnam in the distance never looks more beautiful than this time of year when it's still white, but framed in the foreground with the greens of spring.    

The quakie leaves out our office window are the size of a dime, which is significant only because Grandpa Eldro used to say that when the quakies in the mountains had dime-sized leaves, it was time to turn out the cows. My biologist friends would call it phenology, nature's calendar, in rancher-speak.

The barn is empty at the moment. I was thinking about my last two blogs and how readers might assume we have lots of calving trouble. Not so. What I don’t write about are the “invisible” cows - all those hundreds that calve on their own unassisted. They’re our favorite cows and the ones that make our business sustainable. 

We shipped yearlings out of the new loading facility. Our new “Bud Box,” named for Bud Williams, the now deceased guru of animal handling from Bowie, Texas, worked like a charm. It’s designed in a square with the exit to the chute at a right angle to where the cattle enter. This funnels cattle back to where they came from, so that in their natural inclination to return to familiar surroundings, they load into the stock trailer with little pressure. Our old chute is like most traditional facilities in that cattle go straight into a smaller loading alley and into the truck, with the handler having to get right behind them in their blind spot, which cattle don’t like. In the new scenario, we work them from their side where they can see us and remain calm.

And the new chute is safe - for livestock and their human handlers. I’m forever campaigning (not complaining, campaigning) for our equipment and cattle handling facilities to be safe enough for anyone to use - young and old, male and female, experienced or not.

I have always believed in and appreciated the power of a good design. The Bud Box is one example; it lubricates, simplifies, even beautifies the art of cattle handling. 

thanks Bud

coming off the scales, Gary and Seth

what remains of the old chute to the left . . . and the new

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Must be April

Two days ago we woke to a couple inches of fluffy snow. Yuck. Today looks much better. The willows are greening, the most delicate of chartreuse. Catkins are drooping along the poplar branches and the grass has pushed up their solar collectors waiting for sunshine. I must get the pruners out and work on the dogwood at the porch. Left to its own proclivities, the bush would obliterate my office window.  

The calving goes along in fits and starts. We’ve had a premature calf dubbed “Penny” that we’ve been tending. She’s a limp rag, like her muscles and skeleton aren’t fully developed. She sucks a bottle eagerly and then falls into a deep womb-like sleep. She was skinny and chilled so I bought her a children’s size LG sweater at the thrift store. I kept trying to get a good photo of her in her sweater, but she looked pathetic in all of them and that just wouldn’t do. We milked her cranky mother for a while and then finally gave her a calf whose mom was sick and not able to produce milk. They were both glad to find a partner and join the herd in the great out-of-doors.  

We have three sets of twins that need supplementation and monitoring. One mother wasn’t sure the second one was hers. And neither was Mark, after he found him alone and made a calculated guess as to which cow he belonged to. We had to put the cow in the barn and stand over her to get her to nurse the interloper. But shortly, another cow birthed a dead calf, so we grafted the rejected twin on the mother cow and now we have two happy couples! Can anyone follow this? I know I get confused!

In the midst of it all, Jesse said the barn looked like a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). It’s been five years since he and Milee welcomed their own set of twins, so he would know. I remember the year they were born as feeling thankful for their new family, but missing Jesse during calving as he spent time in the NICU.  

The latest problem is a calf that was born too big. His head was swollen and he couldn’t stand to suck. His legs buckled under him and he kept falling to one side. Mark managed to suckle him on day three and by that night he was sucking on his own, albeit in a kneeling fashion. He and Penny have the will to live, and if that’s in place, we’ll do what we can to help them. Without it, it’s only frustration for the rancher.    

Jesse took little Penny home for his twins to tend yesterday. Well, Milee will do the tending, but they’ll be in on it. And they’ll learn some lessons along the way.

My other springtime activity is burning dead-fall in the wooded areas around our home. There’s a window of opportunity when the wood is dry enough to burn, but the ground is wet and the air cold. The work is addictive - just one more limb! I love the look when the floor is cleared and the grass can grow. For a few days I came in to the house in the evening looking spent, red-faced, but satisfied. The pups liked going with me. They played, and as the sun fell to the west, the fires were lovely

I think I’m done burning for this year, now where’s my pruners?   



and none too happy about it!


moving drys to the last calving pasture


time to quit adding and watch it burn down




Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Kodi gets a Calf

Kodi has sheep. And a pony and goats. She hardly needed a calf, but she was game, or rather her parents and grandparents were game, so she got another animal to add to her menagerie.

Mark brought a little heifer calf in to the barn ten days ago saying perhaps he should have mercifully ended her life because she wasn’t likely to live. If she did live, she would just be another chore for us with so many other chores to tend.

I’ve written about these kinds of instances before. “Remember my line for that?” I asked him. I had described it in my blog like this: “Mark ranches with his heart as well as his head." Of course we would give the calf a chance.

Her head is a little cockeyed, which makes her muzzle slightly offset causing her tongue to slip out the side. She learned to stand on her own, but one hoof turns under and she’s unsteady at best. She can suck a bottle fine, but she can't seem to get the hang of a teat. I've contorted myself morning and evening with the cow in the head-catch trying to get the calf to suck. Holding her up while closing my hand around her muzzle to get the suction required to draw milk is an exhausting affair. Not getting the milk flowing to suit her she would keep pulling off. And not being solid on all fours, she kept collapsing. Plus, her mother has what we call "anvil tits" meaning they're tough to milk. We kept trying, but she never made progress. It would take two of us to suckle her and we'd still have to milk the cow out and give the rest to her in a bottle.  

Maybe we could find a family who would want a pet for the kids to tend? Call cousin Dennis!

The phone call to Dennis yielded his wife Teresa, who brought granddaughter Kodi out the next morning. Teresa happily loaded the calf in the back of her SUV. She even thanked us! Wait, what?

Our Pratt cousins know the value of tending animals. They're 4-H enthusiasts and have helped raise a bunch of community kids through sheep projects for umpteen years. Dennis and Teresa are exemplary grandparents, immersing the grandkids in the life of . . . well. . . living.

They know that through the magic of domestic animals, children learn how to give, how to care for a living being, and about compassion and tenacity. These kids learn to say goodbye, and to accept the sometimes bitter realities of the cycle of life. These lessons will serve them well in the myriad of life situations they’ll face in the future. 

Happy National Ag Day everyone!

p.s. we even had a twin to graft on the cow, gotta love that

Kodi and Bestie









Monday, March 13, 2017

New Neighbors

We’ve had a glorious spring day. It’s been warming, but today the sun came out for the first time without wind since . . . forever. A choir of birds welcomed me on my morning walk to ranch headquarters – red wing blackbirds, meadowlarks, killdeers, robins of course, and a lone chickadee with his two tone lyric. 

We moved the drys (cows that haven’t calved) away from the main herd to a neighboring pasture. That’s always nice for Mark to not have to look through a couple hundred calves to see the new ones.

Seth rode our Muggins horse, and it was such fun to see him out in the herd with his Dad. He and Leah are here for a few months trying out the ranching life. They set up housekeeping in Grandma Bonnie’s home and it’s been grand to see new life there in that sacred space. The future is a big question mark. These kids both work remotely for agriculture firms and have the world by the tail. None of us know just yet how big a role the ranch will play in their future. We’ll just do this one day at a time, knowing that ranching is about relationships after all. Cattle and grass, horses and dogs, water and soil, older generations and younger generations.     

Leah fixed pork loin and seasoned red spuds the other night for their debut dinner party. We had a lovely time visiting and headed home about 9:00 pm. Mark then took his nightly drive through the heifers and called the rest of us back out to tend a prolapse. He had lightly assisted a heifer, a first timer, a few hours earlier. She had gotten up and tended her calf, but for some reason kept pushing and expelled her uterus. The calf was walking around out in the dark looking for his Mom who was in no shape to get him nursed. Leah took off with a flashlight looking for him, a newborn red calf with a brocle face and no mother. Sure enough, she found him and she and I loaded him in the pickup while Seth and Mark put the heifer back together.

Once in a while a cow will prolapse after giving birth; in this case we have no idea why because it was not a difficult delivery. The quickest remedy is to get the tractor and loader and put a tow strap around the cow’s back legs and lift her so that her hindquarters are upside down, which allows gravity to help with the procedure. Seth cleaned the appendage with soap and water and pushed it back inside, and then took a few stitches in the vulva for good measure. (Too much information?) Anyway, it’s messy business, but needs done, and done quickly and cleanly.

It was a mild, still, night. We got both the cow and calf back to the barn and I knelt in the straw to help the calf to his first suckle. A good ending. I’m not sure what Leah, not being raised on a ranch, thought of the whole affair, but it made for a memorable night for her first dinner party on the ranch. 

at the original 1904 homestead ranch headquarters

newly born about two hours after the move

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A New Calf Crop

It’s calving time. Gone are the long winter evenings with time to read and to fall asleep in front of the wood stove. I must like winter because I hate to see February fade to March. March is too close to spring and I don't feel ready for all the work that spring brings to the ranch.       

The weather has been brutal. In my twenty-six years on the ranch, I’ve had a newborn calf in my bathtub only twice, and once was this week. The little fellow came on a particularly bitter night and Mark found him just in time to get him back to the house and a warm tub for a quick thaw. He was fine and sucking the cow by early afternoon.

Usually if a calf needs help, a visit to the barn is all that’s needed. Our calving barn is the oldest building on the ranch still in use. It’s got a lot of character, but could use an upgrade. Sand sifts through the window over the sink, and the heavy sliding door opens and closes only if you really mean it. The door knob into the warm room won’t catch and the carpet remnants on the floor need replaced. This year’s maintenance consisted of a new recycled rope release on the head catch and a new recycled hose reaching from the sink to the corral outside. Those two repairs and a load of straw in the straw room and we were good to go.

But the barn feels good. It’s functional. The warm room is warm. There’s a fridge for extra milk and hot water for washing up. It’s soothingly quiet and dimly lit. The wind can be howling, but inside the cattle are cozy in their freshly strawed stalls. Underfoot are three half-wild barn cats.

We do all we can to promote our momma cows calving naturally outside, but if they need help, the barn is a life saver.   

There's always the occasional dystocia problem, but weather, mostly wind, is a concern. We’re trying out a new weather app that shows wind speed, temperature, and precipitation chance and accumulation by the hour. It said it was going to snow at 11:00 and sure enough it started snowing at 10:55. Tonight we loved to see it was 29 degrees and “felt like” 29 degrees, which meant no wind!   

I posted a photo of the barn on my new Instagram account. It’s like a blog, only none of that annoying stuff to read - just a photo with a line or two of caption. We went to an agriculture seminar where the speaker urged us to reach out to consumers to tell the story of ranching. Who better to combat the anti-agriculture misinformation presented through social media? It's what I'm attempting with this blog but it's always been more about my artistic proclivities.

I can show you reach out. If you want real food you can't beat nutrient dense beef. If you're concerned about industrial agriculture, let me show you a 5th generation tradition. If you think ranchers don't embrace animal welfare, follow Mark around during calving season. 


coaxing him out of the barn


more coaxing


shelter for cats and cows


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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