Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving Thanks

We took Kate with us to move the bulls.  Dogs are much better at running through deep snow than one woman in coveralls. Now Mark is sick, and he’s too valuable to the ranch to stay in the house like I did when I was sick, but I did urge him to stay in the pickup and let Kate and I wallow around in the drifts.

We strawed the calves last night. They love a fresh bale of straw. They play in it, eat it, and mostly lie in it. But then things went downhill when the tractor sprayed diesel all over Mark’s down coat. Then just at dark he found a sick calf.

I hate to burn the last of the dry wood, the rest of it is buried under this miserable foot of snow that blind-sided us in November.

It is beautiful, though.

Remember that line from Lonesome Dove when Gus is talking to Lorena, the sweet local whore, who is pining for adventure and real happiness? Gus says life is about enjoying  the simple things, “a glass of buttermilk, a drink of whiskey of an evening.” I am reminded of my college art class when we drew the negative spaces - instead of drawing the object, we drew where the object wasn’t. We all need to do a better job of that, look past the challenges, the disappointments, and see the wonderful margins; think about what we have, not what we lack.

This morning I celebrate the luxury of free speech, the sun streaming in the south windows, a steaming mug of coffee, and being able to breathe again. 

sunrise over Higham's Peak

what's left of summer

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Twenty and Counting

Today I know what Frank Pratt, a colorful cowboy neighbor, meant when he said “a cow-calf man is always in trouble.” We delayed weaning calves for various reasons, mostly because we wanted to do it on our lush stockpiled pastures after the herd returned from the mountains. But just after they arrived, November hit us with a wallop - wind, then snow, then sub-zero temperatures predicted (wind chills to –22). So in the end we weaned the calves in the corrals where we could tend them better. Weaning is a singular stress, but severe weather on top of that can be a serious health concern. 

I woke up last night worried sick about the calves. Have they all found the water tank? Did everyone get something to eat? I was weary from being out in the wind all day and shoveling drifted snow out of the mangers ‘til dark. Still, I couldn’t sleep. At about 1:30 a.m. the wind started howling, rattling the lilac branches against the house. Nursing a sore throat, I finally got up and stoked the fire and fixed me a hot toddy.

This morning Mark told me to stay home, and took our kids, Seth, 19 and home from college for Thanksgiving, and Anna, our willing 17-year-old, to help him tend the calves. I guess they'll be all right.

This blogging thing has me stumped. It has to be the truth to have value. I write to tell the story - my story. But do I share the struggles? Ranching trials are never-ending. Sometimes I tell Mark I want a job at Burger King and an apartment down the street. No cows to feed. No weeds to spray. Not even a lawn to tend.

Oh, and it’s our twentieth wedding anniversary. We were supposed to go to some exotic locale overnight, but Mark says we’ll do it later. Perhaps. We did make it to town to exchange the tire chains (by an alternate route to avoid the worst roads) and bought some pink roses for me, shrimp for supper, and those little frozen ├ęclairs that I love. We’ll celebrate with our kids and go to bed early. 

A few days before winter came
catching "Sly"
After the gather, before the gate is opened - patience

Kate turns them in the gate

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's a Business?

We’ve all heard it, “ranching is a way of life.” It’s usually said (and I always bristle) in comparison to it being a business. Of course it’s a business! I’ve got the spreadsheets, the gross margin analysis, and the line of credit to prove it.

But you could have fooled me the past week. We walked the herd home over four days. It blew, it snowed sideways, they jammed up at times, then trailed pretty. We massaged them through canyons and around traffic, through grain fields, and by yards and flower beds. It’s what we do here in eastern Idaho - those of us that summer in the high country and winter in the valley. Up in the spring and back down in the fall.

When I was a kid we called it, “the cattle drive,” the best three days of the year (not counting Christmas). The family I married into calls it, “going up the Trail.” Or down as it were. Around every bend, at every creek and old homesite is a story.  At Spring Creek the brakes went out on the old black Chevy with Mom at the wheel. Two hereford bulls were fighting at Womach Hill and pushed one over the bluff. Vicki got dumped in the rocks at Miner Creek, and Wally slid his trailer off the road up Rawlins Creek.  We seem to live through it; even the bull got up and walked away.

We got the herd home on Thursday. It might be cause for celebration, but it's snowing hard outside and there’s weaning left to do, and vaccinating the cows, then walking them to cornstalks, and …..

They know the routine

Jesse said it, "Livin' the Dream!"

gathering three that got separated from Mom

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Little Omnivores

The 6th and 7th grade kids at Sage International charter school had lots of questions for us.  “Do you have mule deer or white tail deer?”  “Who will take care of the cows if you die?” “Does it hurt the calves to put a tag in their ear?” “Do you slaughter the cows on the ranch or take them somewhere else to be slaughtered?”  And this one from a petite dark-haired girl, “Isn’t the filet from the back of the cow?” 

We showed them slides of a “year in the life” of a cow on Pratt ranch. From calving, then walking to mountain range, winter feeding, and finally a photo from Portland Oregon, where we helped the staff at Burgerville serve burgers from our co-op, Country Natural Beef.  We talked freely about the cold hard facts of beef production – taking grass that humans can’t harvest and turning it into nutritious delicious beef. And how, along the way, nature recycles plant life by manure on the ground. The children’s ability to grasp the entirety, right down to the human element (what if you die?) took me by surprise.

I applaud the administrator and teachers of the school for exploring this very practical topic - for we all eat. They used a student edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemna, Michael Pollan’s critical look at our food system, as a preliminary to our presentation. They visited farms in the Boise area. And even though the book is one-sided, the kids didn’t seem to be. They are naturally open-minded and inquisitive. Maybe it’s us adults that insist on taking sides and thereby lose our ability to learn from each other. 

Here's a few of the slides we showed the kids:

mother and son
"They look alike!" they said

tools of the trade used throughout time to tend livestock
horses, herding dogs, and kids

Diversity is good, on the range and in the classroom
Just good honest "real" food
Country Natural Beef in Bend, Oregon

Monday, November 8, 2010

November Serenade

I have often loved November.  It's a muted month, kind of like me.  I like wearing neutral colors and blending into the background - tastefully I hope. November is resolute. It's a no-frills, take me for what I am month.

November is also the month we get the cattle ready for winter. We just finished four straight days of working the herd. Day 1 thru 3 was collecting and moving the herd to a new pasture at a lower elevation.  Day 4 was separating the cows from the calves and vaccinating the calves.  Then we put them back with their mothers for a couple of weeks before weaning.

My job on day 4 was loading the calves, five at a time, in the chute to receive their shots.  It's an enjoyable task, but a young man who we've watched grow up the last ten years needed a job, so after awhile I gave him mine.  I gladly got my camera and hiked up the mountain. As high as I went, I could still hear the cows and calves calling to each other from across the corrals.

I hiked up past the old homesteader’s cabin. It is always picturesque, but even more so today, nestled quietly in a grove of bare quaking aspens that mimic the gray of its weathered logs.

As I went further I happened across a surveyor’s marker dated 1910. “Penalty $250 for removal” was plainly stamped on the cap. Who were the men that tromped over these hills a hundred years ago?

Ever the grass enthusiast, I made mental notes about the quantity and quality of forage; ever the naturalist, I greeted the bare chokecherries, the fragrant sage, and the spent blue flax with its wheatberry tops. Finally I laid down near a thicket, put my hat over my eyes, and sunk into the earth.

This land has a history. A history of man, yes, of the surveyors, the homesteaders, the trappers and cowboys. Of grandpa Eldro who purchased the property, of my friend Brenda, who prior to that with her folks took their turn at irrigating and loving this bit of range.  Man’s most recent history includes me and my kids picking wildflowers and herding cows here.

But the real history of this land is of the plants and animals that evolved here.  In a graceful dance, their symbiotic relationships compel me - sagebrush and grouse, willows and beaver, elk and bunch grass.  I respect them and understand my temporary place here.

Enjoying my respite from cattle work, I got a wild hair and tried a self-portrait like my teenage daughter does with her friends, hold the camera out at arms length and click the shutter. 


When I walked back down to the corrals, there was only one more draft of calves to process. We got done before dark, which was better than the day before. In 10 days we’ll return to walk the herd home and leave the field to the mule deer, the bitterbrush  . .  the snowfall.