Saturday, May 28, 2022

Fresh Help

Anna and Cole moved home to the ranch this month. They’ll keep their day jobs and help on the ranch when they can. Cole needed a chance to participate in the multifaceted daily-goings-on of this business we call a cattle ranch - to sort out options for the future.

He took off work to help us make the 5-day trek to the mountains with the cattle, and we’re sure glad to have his help. He and his dog, Roy, were everywhere, working the drag, the flanks, and the lead as needed as we walked the herd past a myriad of obstacles, lawns and wheat fields, steep mountain grades, through creeks and brush, past campsites and fisherman. Cole makes an excellent team member. He’s ready and willing; he pays attention and is eager to learn.

The annual move to the mountains is a deep cultural part of our ranch. Mark and I grew up on parallel operations and both of us made memories as children driving cattle to summer range every spring. This mountain trail, every bend in the road, each river overlook, has a memory for each of us. Our kids grew up the same way and have their own memories tucked away. For Cole and Leah it’s all new.

The first day of the trail, we were just getting lined out, when who should appear on the road behind us, but Leah with Emma in a stroller! Well, not a “stroller,” more like an all-terrain baby buggy. Leah worked her dog, Ruby, and hustled a content Emma behind the herd, dodging this way and that to keep the calves coming ahead. At lunch time, Emma, at just over one year old, protested when we wouldn’t let her walk up to the cows and calves. She would kiss them if she could, like she does the horses and dogs. What a joy to have the sixth generation learning to love the land and animals as we do.

At the end of one long trailing day, just as we were about to tuck the herd into the field where they would spend the night, a calf jumped sideways and fell over the lava bluff that borders the road. Luckily he landed on a grassy ledge not too far below. We could see his tag number; he looked okay. Cole and Seth were able to find the cow, and with great difficulty, convince her to leave the herd and take a circular path through a gate and down into the ravine to circle back to where the calf was. The calf stood up and they looked quizzingly at each other from a distance, but it wasn’t until Seth and Cole gently nudged her closer in, and Seth bellered at them, that the cow finally realized the calf was hers and started talking to him. Straight away the calf scaled down the incline and picked his way through the fallen rocks to her side. At that point we all breathed a sigh of relief. As Seth said, “the only place for a scared calf is with his momma.”

It was a fine end to a long day. Watching these two young men work together, bantering back and forth on their walkie talkies, I was reassured. It is my sincere faith that this shared commitment to the task in front of them, this same comradery, will serve them successfully in the years ahead. The mix of aggressive action when needed (getting the cow separated and down in the canyon) and patient finesse (getting her to relax and look for her calf) were spot on. Just the type of skills needed to run a ranch and raise a family. And the women they married are just as intelligent and dedicated, just as true in their friendship and mutual support.

Who knows how it will all sort out. There will be challenges because family businesses are hard and ranching is hard. You just keep doing the work and hope for the next sublime moment when the calf is okay and he finds his mom, when lunch miraculously appears at noon, the payments get made and we keep talking to each other.  

Cole and Roy at The Three Sisters 
photos by Anita:

doin' Work

"stay back Emma Jo"

love this shot Anita took

the last creek crossing

we need old help too

Friday, April 29, 2022

Counting Blessings and Votes

It’s raining - and raining some more. We can’t imagine our good fortune. Drought still ranges across the West, but our situation here is improving. Our friend Alan travels to the ranch every year to help us brand. We were talking about the moist dirt and cool temps that made branding pleasant and dust free. “Which one of us is living right?” I asked.

The bees have found the early flowering of the box elder trees. The trees can be a nuisance because of the box elder bugs that go with them, but we can thank them for early and important bee food. 

I was reading back in my diary two years ago on the 27th of April. I wrote, “so green it hurts.” It was wet then too. We were getting ready for Seth and Leah’s wedding on the ranch in June and the rain made things beautiful. I love my diary so much and can’t imagine how anyone who doesn’t record their lives can stand the passage of time. I know the day we branded calves and who was on the crew. I know the yearly date of the first asparagus harvest. I know when the garden went in and how bad the wind blew that spring. I’m kind of a mess, though. I also do free writing in various tablets scattered around the house. And this blog. And the occasional newspaper article. I’m not sure why, it just compels me. 

The primary election is about two weeks away. This one is an important one. Since the Republican party is so divided, it’s imperative that common-sense Idahoans turn out in big numbers to counteract those on the fringe right who are attempting a takeover. Too much emphasis on social issues and slamming public education for me. Too much out-of-state interests sparking fear in our residents. Fear might be the great motivator, but it only makes people hunker down and become close minded. 

If you’re concerned about extreme measures on the left, the best way to counteract them is to unite as conservatives. Working together with common-sense Democrats has never been more important, because in most cases they’re not in favor of extremism from their party any more than we are. 

Have we talked to our teachers and evaluated their curriculum? Or did we jump on the critical race theory bandwagon because someone tried to scare us? I told one such candidate who asked if I was concerned about school curriculum, that yes, I was concerned! I want kids to learn how food is grown and that the photosynthetic process drives life on earth. I want them to understand we have “one water” and it needs to be revered, shared, conserved, and cared for. But I certainly wasn’t concerned about students being indoctrinated with CRT. 

See you at the polls.

putting them away after a day of branding
Mt. Putnam in the distance

Wednesday, March 30, 2022


We had our first warm day, and the annual flip-flop in attention  - and clothing - has arrived. I took off my long johns and switched to unlined leather gloves. We’ve been so focused on calving, and now it’s turned warm and the calves born each day has fallen so we can look at everything else that needs done. 

The catkins on the quakie out our front window are drooping in the breeze. They started on the south side of the tree and gradually covered its circumference as time passed. The quaking aspens are the first to turn yellow in the fall and the first to come alive in the spring. I ran my fingers across the silken surface of the caterpillar-like catkins just for good measure.

The springtime birdsong is back and so familiar. Meadowlarks, robins, killdeers, all singing their welcome.

My sister Becky started trapping gophers again, a sure sign of spring. Her morning route yielded 9 varmints today so she was feeling gratified. She’s channeling our Mom, who in later years got a bit obsessed with lowering the gopher numbers on the ranch. Dad and Mom fought gophers all their lives (and quackgrass and burdock) but after all that work, the varmints always win out don’t they?

We’ve had the first bonfire of the season hosted by my brother Rich. He had parked his flatbed trailer some ways away from the fire to hold all the side dishes folks brought. He provided the hotdog fixings and a smaller fire to roast them because it’s impossible to get close enough to the bonfire with your weinie stick. It was the first warm evening of the season and it felt good to stay out after dark with our backs to the fire.

My Dad liked to host bonfires too. He spent a lot of time in his semi-retired years running a tractor piling downed timber from trees planted by my great grandfather to acquire land under the Timber Culture Act of 1873. That reminds me of what Mark’s grandpa used to say. He modified the proverb of “one generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade” to “one generation plants the trees and the next generation (or the one after that) cleans them up.”

I’m trying to be energized by spring, not overburdened, but it’s taking some doing. Along with the thrill of a new season comes the worry, about water shortages, high fuel prices, escalating feed costs and uncertain markets. We need to keep our wits about us and proceed with caution. But we have our health and that makes us very grateful. The calves will get branded, the ditches will run water for however long they last, the herd will make it to the mountains. And as Mark says when I ask him how we’ll get by in another dry year, “we’ll adjust.” 

our friend Dave helping move pairs

love me some catkins


Monday, February 28, 2022

Art in Function

Calving is in full swing and it's been piercingly cold. So cold we want to leave the bulls out a little longer this next breeding season to bypass the worst of the weather next year.

I heard my first red-wing blackbird on the 18th. We were walking the cows home and as the herd crossed the hand-built bridge across the slough, I heard the welcome call. Next to the bridge is an elm tree that Gary had protected as a seedling by putting an upright concrete culvert around it. The culvert is broken now so the tree is free to grow big and strong. Good thing, for that bird needed a perch. It’s always a happy affair to hear the first red-wing every spring. 

We spotted six bald eagles hanging around the calving grounds. They perch in the tall willows or cottonwoods and watch for the “after birth,” the placenta, which is dropped soon after the calf is born. As long as they stay away from the baby calves, we’re good with contributing to the eagles' health as the placenta is rich in nutrients. Cows will eat the after birth as well, but some don’t, hence the raptor presence. Once spring arrives, and the return of other foodstuffs, the eagles dissipate.

Not very many of the eagles actually have the distinctive white head. We read that it takes 4-5 years before the adult birds acquire the white headed plumage; the juveniles have dark heads and splotchy  breasts. Their high-pitched chipping call, not at all what you would expect from this mighty bird, carries readily across the pasture.

I’ve been tending the old calving barn every morning. It’s the best job on the ranch this time of year. It’s quiet. You get to put your hands on calves. It’s slightly warmer than outside. And you can slip in and out of the “warm room," or the "technology lab” as the sign on the door says, to get warm. I help babies suck that need a hand, prepare a bottle for the orphan, carry hay to a cow or two that stay for longer than a few hours, but mostly I clean up after them when they leave. The barn is old-timey, nothing modern about it at all, but it’s functional.

And when the sun comes through the wall slats in the morning, and steam from the cows’ breath is illuminated in the bars of sunshine, it’s nigh on artsy. 


Monday, January 31, 2022

Full Enough

 As ranchers, our lives are starkly different as the seasons change. It is the quiet of mid-winter. We’re sticking close to home. The cattle look for us each morning, their watches set for their daily bread from the haystack. We fed early one day before daylight and surprised them from their beds. It’s comforting in a way - their trust in us.

A stellars jay has been hanging around the house this winter. He’s found the table scraps I throw in the garden. When the sun catches his feathers, a green sheen flashes. From time to time he finds the cat food Mark sets out for Maude.

We’ve had some spectacular sunsets and sunrises this winter. Frosted trees on foggy days, and crisp blue-skied mornings when the thermometer dips below zero. On those days the snow crunches loudly under the hooves of the cattle as they crowd around the feed truck.

It’s also the season we scrape and sculpt this thing called “ranch succession.” It’s a gnarly subject. Ask any family farm or ranch. They’re either in the middle of transition, beginning the conversation or finishing one generation and starting on the next. It never ends, really, if you want the outfit to continue past the founders.

Our kitchen table has been strewn since Christmas with “this ‘n that" files borrowed from the office: Current Year, Timeline, Acreages, Property Taxes, Tax Scenarios, etc. Where’s the figures we went thru with the accountant? Cow inventories by owner? Did we keep the timeline of land purchases?

We talk about it with that first cup of coffee in the morning, move the files aside for lunch, and discuss another round after supper.

I had a vision last night. You know the schematic put out by the water supply folks showing the reservoirs in the Snake River system? Each reservoir is a bucket with a percent filled figure. Watching them fill (or not) is on everyone’s mind in the agriculture world. Full buckets mean the system is flush. Natural flows in the rivers and canals will be supplemented by storage, and fish and farmers will get their quota for a healthy season ahead.

What if we looked at our family operations the same way? What if each generation, employees as well, considered the storage in their household bucket? What would it look like to have a full bucket? How much savings? How much workload, with the corresponding time to pursue other interests? If our bucket was full, what happens in our daily lives? How does service to our community and/or industry play into the picture? Each generation has an ever unfolding list of concerns. For Mark’s parents a full bucket means different things than ours, which is different than the kids just starting their families. Figuring out how to keep those buckets full while keeping the ranch profitable is key.

Our buckets are connected of course. If one fills, it slops over to help fill the ones around us. Our ecosystem of families needs to be well hydrated to ensure this land continues on as a cattle ranch, which is important for all of us. Not for housing, not for real estate investors hovering like hawks, not even for raising potatoes or corn by the ever larger consolidation of tillage farmers - but for cattle in granddad’s tradition. With bottle calves and slow poke horses for the grandkids, winding acequias delivering water to pastures, and cows doing what herbivores have always done, harvesting grass.


Friday, December 31, 2021

On to 2022

The wind chill tomorrow is supposed to push temperatures to a minus 21. Mark said I would need to put on every piece of winter clothing I had. He doesn’t know I’ve already been doing that. There’s only so much you can put on and still move.

The cattle are on full feed now from the haystack. I enjoy feeding my one load of hay each day with Mark driving. We go to the young cows who are expecting their first or second calf. They gather to greet us every morning. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years and we’ve found ways to make it doable for a gal my age. The best thing was trading a COLD feed truck with no heater and the road visible through the floor boards, for a heated pickup pulling a flat bed trailer. I get the best bales, not those that have been on top of the stack and have frozen strings (thank you Jesse and Milee for taking the frozen bales to the main cow herd). Mark has learned his lesson and loads the bales with room around them so I can get my body behind the slices and save my back. He opens and shuts all the gates. And best of all, when it’s really cold (like tomorrow) he’ll put his gloves on the heater and swap mine out midway through the load. Ahhhhhh. I call it social justice for ranchers.

We had a nice holiday mostly sitting around being entertained by the babies. Since the parties ended, we’ve been looking at finances at night and in the morning before the sun comes up. High hay costs make us sharpen our pencil and then sharpen it again. I told Mark if we hadn’t watched our balance sheet over the years, I’d have never made it on the ranch. A business like this is short on cash, so keeping track of a growing cow herd, and counting calves in the feedlot and hay in the stackyard as assets, make me know we continue to be solvent. We have money borrowed at the bank to finance these future sales and that’s just how it works. Get used to it.

It keeps snowing, every day since the 23rd of December. We need it so I’m not complaining. Besides, we have tractors that can blow and pile snow. We have beef in the freezer and wood for the stove. We’ll be fine. Many folks are not fairing so well, so we feel blessed. 

We regret the current headlines claiming that beef leads the way in an escalating grocery bill. We want our product to be affordable to everyone. Beef is nutrient dense and still a good value for the dollar if you compare it to many processed foods like breakfast cereal. Even vegetables can’t compare with the complete nutritional profile of beef. Look for economical roasts to put with root vegetables in the crock pot, and ground beef to add to soups and other winter-ready meals. And please remember we ranchers aren’t getting rich, just paying the bills with enough left over to cover living expenses. We’ll do our part to keep costs down if you all keep eating beef!  


little Freya with Grandpa
feeding the herd

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Winter Walk

We moved the cows to a new pasture on a calm, overcast morning. Mark was gone, so I took his dog Rollah along with me and my dog Dot. Rollah is an old family name pronounced rolley. Rollah was Grandma Bonnie’s bachelor uncle. Doesn't every family have a bachelor uncle? Rollah, the dog, works further out than my dog so I had to keep a close eye on him.

We worked the lead and I could only keep up walking because the dogs kept the cows in check when they started to jog. Jogging leads to trouble, a nice crisp walk is perfect. I only had to holler at Rollah once when he went too far around the lead and bent the cattle off course. Jesse, who was riding on the other side of the herd, got them back on track. 

The cattle dumped into the Frank Pratt Place and immediately dropped their heads to graze. There's enough grass to last until after Christmas, which is nice.

We added the Frank Pratt place to the Pratt Ranch holdings when the kids were little. I remember Anna getting into the prickly pear cactus that first spring when we were starting the irrigation water. It was getting dark and her little fuzzy blue gloves were full of spines. That's a long time ago now. Anna is married now and lives two hours away. She helps us on big cattle moves. She rides beautifully, fluidly, and seems to be everywhere you need her to be on those difficult days.

We’ve been at this a long time. Now my hair is gray and Mark’s scalp is growing through his red hair. It’s been a good life. Christmas and the end of another year makes one think back and remember just how good.

The kids and grandkids will be here for Christmas. It's our first holiday with the two new grandbabies. They make me and Mark act like fools - so fun. They're young enough they don't need presents, just ribbons and boxes please. There's plenty of time to make them little consumers next year.  

Wherever you are tonight, whatever challenges you’re facing, we wish you courage and calm. May your herd stay healthy, your haystack last ‘til spring, and may you keep your family and friends close. Merry Christmas!