Saturday, May 18, 2019

Spring 2019 Recall

Whenever I wait too long to write a blog, so much has happened that I don’t know where to start. And we’re so busy that sitting down to write seems like a total waste of time. I know Mark doesn’t think that, though. He always encourages me to write. Some winter evening he’ll page back to spring 2019 and want to remember how it all played out.

Spring comes on like a freight train. The calving routine just starts to let up when the irrigation water needs turned on, the cows need put on grass, fences need fixing; the list grows each day. Just as the grass was looking good, we had a couple of nights of hard frost that burned it back. You can see it as golden flecks across the pasture and it especially stressed the plants because they were dry. It directly affected the feed bank in front of the cows.

With Jesse and Milee's help, we managed a fun, final visit to the University of Idaho as parents. Anna and Cole graduated together and we had a lovely celebration to mark the occasion. It was bittersweet packing Anna up for another move. I don’t think many folks leave the idyllic setting of the Palouse without some melancholy.  

Like every spring, we’ve had fun watching birds out our kitchen window. There are some brilliantly colored western tanager and lazuli bunting pairs making their homes here. We had fun going through the bird book and learning to identify a western wood pe-wee and a yellow-rumped warbler. 

Though Mark won’t like this memory, this was the spring the older calves got sick just before we headed to the hills. We were bouncing around the pasture one evening just before it got dark. I was driving and Mark was on the passenger side with the door open and his lariat poised. We were trying to sneak up on some sick calves to give them a shot. We treated a few, but found more sick than we could get hold of. We went to bed that night with a sick feeling.

This was the spring we started using a new irrigation tool, a pitchfork with tines that curve downward and is handy for collecting debris that piles up as the first water runs down the ditches. I found it in an old pile this winter and it didn't have a handle, but that was easily fixed. Mark thinks someone modified a regular pitchfork. How many generations of Pratts have been flood irrigating here and never used this tool? (Which reminds me that I left it someplace and need to retrace my steps!)

It’s stressful - this spring weather, as much as we love it. And this life, as much as we love it. In the middle of the night when we’re both awake, worrying, we hold hands silently, hoping that with joint concentration we might reassure one another and fall back asleep. And every morning things look better and we start again.

We’re thankful to have kids here to help, at least for a few more days. We’re thankful the weather has cooled, a blessing for trailing cattle. Tomorrow the herd starts for the mountains and things are what they are. Wishing safety for the crew, health for the herd, and that all the rain in the forecast materializes.   

evening on the Palouse

the graduates and newly engaged couple

my Dad would call it a "man needer"

Dot is not much help

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

When Green Comes

I made a fire in the woodstove this morning and it sure feels good. With all that wonderful green outside, it’s a blow to the system to step out and find it’s actually cold and windy. We even saw some snowflakes dancing around.

Mark and I have had such fun with my TEDx talk on grazing. We check periodically to see how many views the video has garnered. And Facebook shares are international – Denmark, Kenya, Nova Scotia. There’s a worldwide community of folks that agree with us on the necessary role of grazing animals and they want to be heard. But is anyone viewing who thinks cows are the problem? Am I changing any minds? I hope so. On second thought, I don’t really expect to change minds, just crack them open.

The water has returned to the canal that runs through our property. Now, when the dogs come off their tether, they run to it to get a drink instead of following the trail to the hydrant and waiting for me to lift the spigot.

I’ve been tidying up the willows that line the canal in our driveway. Pruning and picking up limbs, revealing the breathtaking beauty of trees, is addicting. Seth taught me to operate Grandpa’s little chainsaw and I’m having such fun! I only need a man with a tractor for final clean up, which suits Mark just fine. I am now a force to be reckoned with on my own.

The bees are loving the first flower on our willows and box elders, and we’re happy to oblige their early spring pollen needs. And out our office window, the leaves are filling out on the quakie (quaking aspen). They’re the happiest, shiniest, chartreuse green-iest leaves you can imagine. Mark’s grandpa said when the quakie leaves are dime-sized it was time to turn out the cows. It’s a cowboy’s way of describing plant life phenophase!

I went to a workshop last week full of passionate people from conservation collaboratives across the West. Group after group talked about the value of working landscapes and keeping farmers and ranchers on the land. They even talked about the benefits of flood irrigation and how the pulsing wet and dry provide for birds, and how the system mimics an old-style flood plain. It was like getting a deep massage to hear positive messages about our way of life.

When I took my turn at the microphone, I shared a little bit of my world. I finished by saying, “if you get a chance to talk to a rancher, ask them a question.” I think they heard me. As the workshop continued, several people made a point to ask me a question. One fellow said, “How are you? That’s a question!” Indeed it is.

Here's that link:

Wendy's TEDx talk

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Through Lauren's Eyes

First the red-wing blackbirds arrive in February. Then the killdeers. Then the meadowlarks. At first their familiar songs don’t register in my brain, but then . . . oh, it’s spring! And just now, while I’m writing, five goldfinches have discovered the seed heads I left on the flowers in my front bed all winter.   

To welcome the birds, the plants are waking up. I drove into the yard last night when the sun was just starting its slide to the horizon. There it was – a change in the willows. No, they’re not turning green yet, but there’s a new clarity, a fullness. The buds are swelling! And across the pasture the grass blades are popping their heads out, and the tiniest of forbs have pushed up some tentative leaves.

Lauren from Boise State came to stay for a few days and added a little excitement to this busy time of year. She’s working on a doctorate and wanted to experience life on a ranch to help inform her questions around humans, agriculture and ecology. Spring Break is the perfect time because it coincides with our heaviest calving period.  

She rode Sly moving cow-calf pairs into a neighboring pasture. She helped sort and weigh the yearling steers. She cleaned stalls and fed the bottle calf. She bucked hay bales into the calving barn. She fed a few loads of hay and straw to the heifers. Skinny jeans and a long braid aren’t the best for feeding and I’m sure she had straw in every crevice, but she was a good sport. She even helped Mark deliver two calves that needed assistance.

The evening before she left, we had finished our work just as the full moon was rising. We stopped to watch it from the corral outside the calving barn. It was a perfect evening with cold, clear skies. I told her I wanted to experience every full moon I could until I died. She reminded me that not everyone has that chance unless they live in the country. Oh. 

She mostly soaked up a way of living she had never experienced. One evening we went through her formal questions. How do we measure success? What are our plans for the future of the ranch? Are we unique? How has the environment changed over our lifetimes? The queries made us think, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve had some experience working with university researchers, and it’s me that asks the questions. Rarely do they seem very curious about what we ranchers know, so to have the questions directed to us was a welcome change.

She had supper at Seth and Leah’s one night, and spent the last morning with Gary and Anita, going through her questions - and going through their art collection. After meeting individually with all three generations living on the ranch, I wonder what insights she saw that we can’t.

She lost her cell phone in the melee somewhere and spent a day and a half sure it was gone for good. She and Mark had been buzzing around on the 4-wheeler and the battery was dead, so it seemed hopeless. The loss put a damper on her visit. I told her to keep the faith and keep looking for it. And then the next day there it was, half buried in the sand where I was feeding the bottle calf. It was bent in an arc but worked fine! I told her good things happen.

checking out the calving barn               (Lauren Hunt)

                               moving pairs on Sly                                 

not as easy as it looks

the worm moon                             (Lauren Hunt)

feeding time                                    (Lauren Hunt)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Stall Six

It’s raining calves on the ranch. Today we moved another set of cow-calf pairs away from the drys (those that haven’t calved yet). It’s probably the most nuanced move we make on the ranch. The trick is to leave the drys settled, while pressuring the pairs just enough to peel them away from the others. If you’ve never felt the razor edge of a bovine flight zone, this is excellent practice.

We're well into calving now, and I'm just getting to the blog I intended to write about the occupants of stall six. Mark had brought in a baby that couldn’t get the hang of sucking. His tongue leaked out the side of his mouth so he couldn’t get a good drag. And he looked a little lopsided otherwise. Maybe he had laid in the womb wrong. Mark prepared a stall with fresh straw and walked the cow and calf inside. He knelt next to the cow and guided the hungry calf close to her flank. If Mark cupped the teat just right, the calf could suck. After a couple of days the baby figured it out and the happy couple went back outside to the herd.

Tending the pair was my first stint in the old calving barn this spring, and it seemed good to be back inside its cozy walls. It’s the oldest working building on the ranch, so familiar and functional. It’s warm and quiet during severe weather. And in late morning when I clean stalls alone, and sunshine flows through the gaps in the wood siding, it has a timeless feel that makes me think of Grandpa and Grandma and how happy they must have been when the barn was new.  

Calving is serious business, but you can tell the Pratts have had fun in the barn over the years. There's a neon "Lucky On Tap" sign hanging from the ceiling that dates to long before my time. I tried plugging in the cord and, no, it doesn't work anymore. There's a Hereford sign on the back wall, two cowboy portraits in the straw room, and a scratchy transistor radio on the shelf. 

And though I love the old building, I’m campaigning for some upgrades. Maybe a blog will get Mark's attention! The sliding door across the front is temperamental and Jesse got locked inside one day when it wouldn’t track. It’s heavy and requires both hands and my whole weight put into it to get it closed. There’s an inside door that leads to the warm room, or "technology lab" as the sign on the door reads. It needs replaced as well. It doesn’t shut and stay closed easily, you have to twist it towards the interior of the door and then push solidly. We go in and out of the warm room continually. Inside is a relic refrigerator which holds extra milk, a deep sink with hot running water, clean towels, syringes and treatment bottles, various tools for the task at hand, and a heater on the wall to warm up a cold calf if needed.

So, yeah, it would be nice to absentmindedly shut the door. It’s not like we have any extra attention or time during calving season.   

mother and baby cozied up

Pratt Calving Barn

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Winter Happens

I guess it’s pretty. . . . but by mid-February I’m ready for mild weather. It’s snowing and blowing and is supposed to continue throughout the afternoon. The baby calves are safe inside their mothers for now, but the dam is filling.   

Mark put a bale of hay behind the house where the horses could get out of the wind. Yesterday he rode by the front window on Sly, bareback, with no bridle. The others were following behind as if they knew they were heading to better quarters.

We have a window of time during the winter to do something besides taking care of the land and cows. We had two aging gift cards for the theater, so we went to the movies twice in one week! It’s great to splurge on popcorn, sit in the dark and be swept away by the screen.

We’ve been playing with ranch finance figures for a month. It’s time to renew the operating line at the bank, create a budget for 2019, and figure out how to tighten our belts to fit in new expenses we’ve forecasted for the coming year. Mark doesn’t need to see it all on paper, but I do. He says I’m “literal.” Ok, but he learns too when it’s all down in black and white.  

I’ve been trying to declutter the house and various ranch out-buildings this winter. It’s very fun for me, but it makes Mark nervous. He’s just sure I’m going to recycle (or God forbid throw away) something that still has some use. Yesterday I found a 5-gallon bucket full of old nails sitting on the ground in the snow. The nails had been pulled from old poles that were replaced during a recent repair job. I took the bucket home to thaw, planning to sort the good from the bad. Mark was immediately suspicious and said to me, “Have you priced nails lately?” He assumed I was going to throw it in the recycle bin. I responded that if I was going to do that I would have already chucked it, snow and all!

He needn’t worry. I’ve collected containers, and into them sorted every size and shape of fastener: washers, nails, bolts, screws, fencing staples, etc. - many rusty, some bent. I still think when a project comes along he'll go to CAL Store.   

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The TEDx Blues

I’m in a happy place of late. It's the margin between Christmas and calving. A cold margin yes, but it has a rhythm and solitude I love.

I get to feed one load of hay per day to the heifers living a short drive away. Mark drives and opens and shuts the gate as we go in and out of the field. The only thing I have to do is feed the bales. It can be a mental and physical challenge on some mornings. I hate when the slice you’re trying to maneuver off the trailer breaks in the middle and you’re left with having to claw it away from the rest of the bale. Yesterday Mark came back to see what had happened to the flow of hay and found me in a heap, luckily not in tears, just laughing. I used to get mad, but after a decade or so of that, I finally figured out it didn’t help.

When we’re done, Mark drops me off at home before he goes back to headquarters to feed the older cows with Jesse and Milee. Today I said to him, “thanks for the workout!”

So I’m happy except for this nagging TEDx talk to prepare. Seth and Leah talked me into applying to speak at a locally organized event in Idaho Falls in March. I applied as an afterthought and ended up getting a space on the docket. Now the hard part.

I’ve written and rewritten the talk. And rewritten. It’s not done yet and progress is so slow as to be undetectable. I have a sign on my computer written by J. Heller that says it all: Every writer I know has trouble writing.

I wanted to write that meat is a nutrient dense health food. I wanted to write that well-managed cows can help with a host of environmental ills: climate change, floods, droughts, wildfires, desertification, etc. I wanted to write how ranchers love and respect their cows and that a happy life and pain free death for them is our ultimate goal. I wanted to say how private ranches are the buffer between town and wild spaces and that wildlife and cows can coexist quite comfortably. I wanted to write so many things. But the TEDx committee keeps telling me, “No, No, what’s your big idea?” Seems it can’t be all of these things. The audience can’t follow all those tracks. I need to develop one idea and figure out how to appeal to a theater full of city folks. Groan.

I know it's a great opportunity. Seth tells me it's not everyone that gets to face their fears! He also said he had endured years of 4-H and FFA speaking "opportunities" and didn't feel a bit sorry for me. I didn't know it would be this hard.

Even after I narrowed the scope it confounds me. How does one describe soil health to someone who lives in town? Or why desertification is a threat, and how good grazing might address that insidious intruder? Do they even care to learn about ruminants?

Just sayin, it’s nothing like a blog where I can skip around, go from one little mundane ranching episode to the next, and no one cares at all. The only person I need to please is my proofreader Mark and he’s easily satisfied. Once in a while he catches a misspelling. I like that kind of editor.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Clean Slate

Our ranch is in a deep freeze. On the first day of 2019 we woke to a very stiff 10 degrees below zero. Everything creaks at that temperature, including me in my coveralls. On the feed truck I have to periodically pull the fingers of one hand inside my glove and make a fist to thaw them out. If the bales are compliant you can handle them with one hand using your body as a wedge to maneuver them off the truck bed.

The cows do fine in the cold as long as they get their ample daily ration of feed and a good drink of water. We put out lots of straw which provides energy and a dry place to lay. Feeding straw, which is readily available as a by-product of grain grown by our neighbors, is one “unfair advantage” we enjoy in our area. Ranchers in other regions will have a different advantage. The trick is to recognize yours and act on it.

I love the feel of a new year. I always go back through my diary and write down the significant events of the past year with the idea of generating a list of thoughts to strive for in the coming year. I stay away from anything resembling a resolution! Trouble is, my thoughts for a better new year look the same as last year, and the year before that: write more, move more, drink more water, eat less sugar, be a better wife, etc. They’re good goals, but I wish they would firmly entrench themselves in my psyche so that I could finally plan something a little more exciting.

We enjoyed our kids at home over the holidays. We fed cows before we opened gifts on Christmas day, which worked fine except that it got late and the prime rib was done before I’d even started the salad. The kids helped with other projects as well. We worked two days taking out some rogue trees below the house. Callie and Seth both ran a chainsaw and Anna and I hauled limbs. It was fun to work alongside my kids and the new view looks great. 

The kids are all back to their lives now, and it’s time to look down, regroup, and tackle those indoor jobs that lie in wait each year for the dead of winter.

One job we’ve been putting off is a thorough inventory of horse tack. I put a plastic cover on the dining table and hauled in all the leather head gear for horses. It’s quite a pile. I’m hoping it will inspire some quality couple-time, sorting and cleaning of an evening. Mark got a record player for Christmas and we might play some Johnny Overstreet, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or Roger Miller to go with the project.

Christmas has its own charm, but it’s a cluttered, fattening, excessive time of year. It’s maneuvering around the Christmas tree and looking back at traditions and trotting out old family recipes no matter how heavy they are. I love the comforting nostalgia of Christmas. But the New Year - ahh – it’s about the future, and creating something wonderful out of the blank slate that is 2019.