Sunday, March 27, 2011

Looking for Spring

It must be spring - the bulls are picking fights with each other, there’s the tiniest hint of green across the pasture, and the birds are back. First were the red-winged blackbirds chortling in the willows. Then the killdeers scurrying about searching out nesting sites. Now it’s the meadowlarks spilling their melodies, and this afternoon Mark saw the first bluebird out in the sandhills. Even though we still get snowed on every few days, there’s an unmistakable mildness to the wind. 

Mark has been battling a nasty outbreak of scours in the new calves. Scours is the scourge of every rancher, the dreaded diarrhea that dehydrates and kills unattended calves in a few days or less. It hit just as the heaviest of calving days were behind us. Mark had only a moment to catch his breath from tagging a bunch of calves each morning, to the constant monitoring and doctoring he is doing now. He drenches the calves with a dowsing tube and in severe cases gives fluid intravenously. We’ve not had trouble like this in our memory. Weather is the biggest stressor; day after day of wind and cold and wet takes its toll. We hear it’s hitting herds all over the valley.   

We use every tool at our disposal. One weapon we use is our cell phones. Each morning Jesse and I feed the herd while Mark makes his rounds. We call back and forth discussing ones that might need help or specific feeding instructions. Texts are even better. If Mark is in a tight spot he doesn’t have to dig his phone out of his pocket. Today I sent him:

“V36 blue looks yuck”

 “R95 yellow has a tight bag” (meaning she hasn’t been sucked out, a sure sign her calf isn’t feeling well)

By 11:00 a.m. things were looking up, “coffee time?”

And his welcome reply, “yes.”

One generation of calves/ three generations of Pratts
Gary (yellow), Mark (blue), Seth (red)

Just a day old

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tim gets a Mom

It’s been terribly wet lately, and owning cattle not a career choice for any self-respecting man or woman. My leather gloves got soaked the other morning, and after a couple of days drying by the wood stove, they’re so stiff I can’t stand the thought of putting my hands back inside.

The corrals are soupy and the feedground sketchy. We sneak around with the feed trucks, avoid getting stuck for the most part, and give thanks to the sandy soil of this ranch.

We moved the calvy heifers to the field right in front of our house. My favorite part of our home is the picture windows in the living area - especially so when cattle or horses grace the scene.

We’ve been feeding Tim a bottle morning and night for almost a month. He was premature, one of a set of triplets. He was the only one that lived, and his mother died as well. I told Mark he was a “going concern,” as he clearly wanted to live. He sucked hard on the bottle we prepared and butted us for more as we worked in the barn. We had planned on grafting Tim on a mom that had lost her calf, but the opportunity didn’t arrive for several weeks. Then a big black cow lost a calf to pneumonia, or so Mark thought. Jesse skinned the dead calf and laid the skin over Tim to fool the cow into thinking it was her own baby by the familiar smell. This ruse usually works like a charm; I’ve never seen it fail - until Tim. The cow didn’t seem to have much milk or much interest in a reincarnated baby. She was irritated with our efforts and never took to Tim as planned. We began to wonder if she hadn’t fed the first calf either, which would of course, have led to an early death. Finally Mark told Jesse to turn her out. “She can work for Mcdonalds,” he said.

Then yesterday a calf was born breech and died. His mother licked and licked him, like a good mother should, but to no avail. Mark loaded the dead baby on his 4-wheeler and brought it to the barn. Jesse skinned the calf and again tied the skin on Tim. This time the subterfuge was successful. The mother cow immediately hummed to Tim - that motherly coo that is such a welcome sound to a cowman – and accepted him to her udder. Mark said, as he often does when the bonding is complete, “she is in love.” 

I turned the pair out of the barn this morning. Oh, what a happy couple! 

(tiny) Tim and his new Mama

Other photos from the herd:
Bonding time

It doesn't take them long to figure out what straw is for

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kindred Souls

I never knew my grandma Mimi well. I was very shy towards her – and everyone else. We lived next door, and when our house burned down in 1969 we moved in with her for the summer while we rebuilt our home. Even taking meals in the same kitchen, I never really forged a bond with her - until now that is.

Mimi loved to write. Her typewriter was always at hand, there on her big kitchen table. And piled around it were articles she was reading, notes to share with passersby, and topics to consider mulling in her weekly column in the local newspaper. Mimi wrote a book about her pioneer mother and most of all loved to write poetry. She wrote about simple homemaking chores, about a son (my dad) going off to WWII, about a favorite horse and the mountains along the skyline. She wrote about flood irrigating, meadowlarks, and chrysanthemums. She had a rich vocabulary and was interested in everything.

She also liked to write fiction. The other day I ran across a letter she had written in 1938. She had submitted some stories to a critic in New York City and had apparently received a rejection letter with some suggestions to improve her writing. She told him his letter was “one of the most soul satisfying things I ever received.” She told him that she didn’t care about money, that writing was what she did for fun, but that “just as other women like to play bridge hard and win the prize, I’d like to be able to sell stories.” She said writing was her life’s work and her life’s ambition.

Reading her letter, I felt I could reach out my hand to clasp hers; that I might round the corner and see her setting there at her table and we would share a cup of coffee and talk about writing! She would understand why I feel driven to record my simple rural life. We would visit about the ideas and images that churn in our minds, quieted only when the effort is made to record that imagery. She and I were molded from the same Idaho clay. We share a love of the land, the sagebrush and mountains, our families, and a passion to get it all down on paper.

Seventy three years have passed since she wrote and sent that letter on its way to New York City. Her life went by quickly, just as mine is doing now. It was uncanny to read her age in the letter, 51, my age today. She speaks to me through the frayed layers of time. Your stories matter. The chores will wait. Time is short.   

Mimi's house today
built in 1887 - brick crafted on site of native clay

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Pratt Calving Barn

We woke to a fresh blanket of snow on the ground today. I’m glad Anna is home to help feed . . . the cows await.

I cleaned stalls in the calving barn yesterday. It was early morning and the sun shone through the slats in the rough-cut lumber walls. Each cow/calf pair that comes to the barn gets a fresh stall with a bale of straw spread throughout. They are, what we call “kicked out,” as soon as possible, and the stall raked clean, a shovel full of lime sprinkled over the dirt to prevent the spread of disease.

The old barn is nothing if not functional. As you step in, to your right is the “warm room,” or as the sign on the door reads, “technology lab,” where a wall heater warms cold calves. Inside is a sink with hot running water, a recliner that no one ever reclines in, and recycled kitchen cupboards containing an assortment of veterinarian supplies. The floor is littered with carpet scraps to help a wobbly calf stand up. Against one wall stands an old refrigerator, the kind with a lever handle.

 A whiteboard hangs near the door where we can leave messages to one another. On a note dated October 2008, Seth wrote, No matter how hard and continuous the work, find time each day to appreciate your lifestyle and the good in the world. I hate to erase that one. There is a heading in the upper left hand corner of the whiteboard entitled “big teats” for recording identification numbers of cows with unwieldy udders. The best laugh was the spring when we had two young guys working for us; T.J. wrote, “Brad’s girlfriend” underneath the heading.  

To the left is the straw room, where bales of golden straw and leafy, fragrant alfalfa are stacked against the wall. This room housed both a batch of kittens and a nest of baby rabbits in the past. On the bare wood walls are two crude oil paintings, one of Mark’s grandfather and one of his Mexican helper, Esteban. Both figures don cowboy hats, and grandpa Eldro a bright red neckerchief. No one has ever been able to measure up to the work ethic of Esteban. He lived in the barn for a while back in its glory days.

Down the center is an alleyway with stalls along each side. On the left are the box stalls with an upper and a lower door. Along the right are the open air board stalls. When Mark was young he painted and numbered the stalls and the colors remain vibrant. At the end is a homemade chute for restraining individual cows.  We use it to put chains on the legs of a calf that needs pulled, the traction to assist the birth process, or when a calf requires suckling, that patient persuasion to nurse.  

From the ceiling hangs a neon sign that reads “Lucky on Tap,” its plug dangling. And on the back wall is a large framed poster of a horned bull, with the words, “Hereford, The Proud Breed with the White Faceacross the bottom. We've always been partial to the red white-faced beauties.  

All along the length of the alleyway are hanging light bulbs, each with its own switch - mood lighting if you will. It’s quiet and peaceful in the barn. Anyone who spends time here learns quickly to speak in hushed tones to keep the cattle calm.    

The calving barn is where we taught our kids about life and death. They’ve witnessed caesareans, mourned the ones we lost, bedded stalls, and bottle fed orphans. When they were little we would tell them to stay out of the way in the warm room while we were bringing in a cow. They remember peeking out the window in the door as she walked by, and then playing quietly while we worked.

I wonder at all the animals saved in this barn.  Calves hiding out from a blizzard, ones with a leg back, tangled twins, some that were too big or backwards, others that just needed a helping hand to get started. It's also a classroom for the people that work here - employees, visitors, and especially the kids that grew up here.  Lessons on how to milk out a teat, how to suckle a calf, how to apply just enough torque to help a calf be born.  Lessons on bovine anatomy, animal behavior, and probably most especially, on sticking with dirty jobs until they’re done. Be quiet. Pay attention. Clean up after yourself. Their relevance rings true.