Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saying Grace

November and her unadulterated holiday, Thanksgiving, suit me perfectly. I relish November’s subdued landscape. Like the restricted palette of a novice painter, we concentrate on value rather than color. The leafless trees are now only smudges of violet and pewter. The hills in the distance are an opaque blue topped with snow. On the rare sunny day, we stand like cattle, broadside to catch the sun as it hangs in the south sky, steeling ourselves for winter.

Today was a good November day. Good for spreading manure on the garden and winding up the remaining hoses.  Also good for vaccinating the leftover calves and riding a good horse in the wind. It generally blows in November, cold and clean, and today was no exception.

Thanksgiving is still wholesome in an unwholesome world. I cringed when I saw the huge inflatable turkey on someone’s lawn. There’s no room for plastic d├ęcor on Thanksgiving. For me, I hang up the construction paper pilgrims Anna made in kindergarten, place the ceramic turkey on the autumn table runner, and call it good. I buy extra sour cream and cream cheese and a spice scented candle and leave the nonsense for Christmas.

Thanksgiving is, should be, simple. A time for setting down with family, giving thanks, and reflecting on the good things in life. We’ll spend the holiday with Aunt Mona, eating too much, playing word games, and driving home too late, reluctant to leave the leftover turkey and one more sliver of pecan pie. We’ll have grandma’s traditional carrot pudding, heavy on the sauce. We’ll put cheese with vegetables and gravy with potatoes and feel darn good about it!

And we’ll recite the Pratt prayer said at every Thanksgiving since I’ve been in the family:
Give us grateful hearts our Father for all thy blessings, and make us mindful of the needs of others. 

Seth and Anna
Cassie, Gent, Jane, Clyde

Friday, November 18, 2011

Snow Herding

The snow got deep enough, or rather the wind got deep enough, that we had to bring the cows part way down from the mountains. Even with the county snow plows running we had to chain up all four tires to get out.

We were able to get the horse trailer to the herd, but then needed to take an alternate route trailing home, so we left the trailer and ventured forth with the pickup and three horses. We got the herd gathered and put them on the road in a bone-numbing wind. Coveralls and headgear, covered with a slicker to cut the wind, were the only reason we made it. Still we were thoroughly chilled by the time we made it to the overnight field.

Mark and I stayed in a cabin close by, actually a warming hut on our grazing co-op’s land, built and maintained by the Sno-Riders, a local snowmachining group. It's a great example of multiple use, we use it during the grazing season, they use it during the winter.

Someone said something about a romantic interlude, well . . . not exactly. We arrived late in the evening, got a fire going in the woodstove, and had hot soup Mark’s mom had sent. The cabin is clean except for dead flies all over the carpet; oh for a vacuum! It got dark soon, so we kept our boot liners on and tried to ignore them. Then as the cabin got warm, more flies came to life and started falling out of the window seal. Between the drone of flies hitting the windows, the whine of the wind through the stove, having to stoke the fire and then being cooked to death when it got going, it was a long night. We got up once and killed a few hundred flies, but they just kept coming so we went back to bed.  

The next day dawned perfect. Homemade breakfast burritos in tin foil and warmed over coffee, sunshine, a brilliant royal blue sky - and no wind! Mark rode lead and I brought up the tail end on Anna, our grey mare, but Kate did most of the work flying through snow drifts keeping the cows going. Our ride took us through stands of quakies, a monochromatic world of black and white trunks making shadows on the snow - and miles of sagebrush. Moving dry cows (no more calves) is always a pleasure. We were warm and it was dead quiet, just the rustle of hooves through the snow.

The cows made it to Brush Creek in good time. Hopefully we can stay until Thanksgiving, but more snow is in the forecast so they may be on our doorstep before the holiday. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lessons on Handling

Bud Williams teaches ranchers to take responsibility for how cattle behave during handling. “Were they doing it before you got there?” he likes to ask. It’s pleasant to take credit when they behave well. It's not so nice to think it’s your fault when things fall apart.

Bud has spent his lifetime handling cattle, dogs, even reindeer and elk, and makes great effort to share what he’s learned with ranchers.  Integral to his training is using your position, rather than fear or force to achieve the desired movement from the animals.  Pressuring from the side instead of from behind, working with the animal’s natural instincts, and using release from pressure to train animals are all hallmarks of Bud’s teachings.

We had plenty of opportunity to hone our handling skills this week while processing calves and the yearling heifers. The heifers are checked to make sure they’re pregnant and given vaccine and a parasiticide. They’ll spend early winter on the Fort Hall Bottoms along Ross Fork, a warm creek that provides open water for drinking all winter. It’s a beautiful spot, wild and secluded. The landlord is retired but we used his well designed working facility to treat the heifers. On a dry hill surrounded by cedars, the corrals are spare but functional, and have features I like even better than ours at home. Using a flag I could load the heifers from the holding pen into the chute from outside the pen – slick! I told Mark even an old woman could do this. And I plan on being that old woman someday. 

Mark, Gary and Jesse are a joy to work with. They’re cut of the same cloth, patient and methodical. Their quiet conversation and fluid movements keep the cattle calm. Back and forth, one after another, the cattle wait their turn, moving into the empty spot ahead of them with little angst.

After the heifers, it took two days to vaccinate and weigh the calves. We finished up just as the November full moon was rising.

Now it’s snowing and blowing, and though we feel good the youngsters are tended, we’re concerned about the mature cows still at 6,000+ foot elevation. We hope Mother Nature is gentle with us. 

 a good design makes it easy

waiting her turn

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weaning on a Wire

Someone said, “The last of the old is always better than the first of the new.” I think they were talking about weaning calves on a wire instead of in a corral.

We have always separated the cows and calves and immediately trucked the calves home to stay in the corral until they are completely weaned. Trouble is, they walk around and around the pens, bawling. They not only miss mom, they have to change from range life to eating hay out of a manger and drinking from a trough, often in dusty conditions. It works okay, but we always want to do better. It’s stressful to the calves and the owners alike. 

This is our second year weaning on a wire, which means you put the cows on one side of an electric fence and the calves on the other. They're free to almost touch noses and communicate with each other, but no nursing allowed. In five days the calves are ready to go home to be turned out on green pastures.

Unfortunately, we can’t request the cows just walk away from their calves. It’s not like parent orientation at Boise State University, “Say your goodbyes - students go right and parents go left!” Instead, we flow the herd towards a gate, letting the cows outside and turning the calves back into the mob. Cows naturally like to change fields, so the flow usually goes well for the most part.

This year we got about two-thirds of the cows out and then they started balking at the gate, thinking there was electricity flowing through the gap. We foolishly kept trying to force them into it, and then finally fell back to a gate in the corner. When that didn’t work we went to plan “C,” putting the rest of the herd into an already grazed field and letting the cows back through in one direction and the calves another. Finally, with tired cowboys, and tired horses, we re-rode the cows, gathering up the calves that had gotten past us, then headed for the ridge top where the horsetrailers waited.

Weaning on a wire requires good fresh feed on both sides of the fence, an easy drink on the calf side, and a solid hot fence. Even though our cattle are trained to electric fences, there were a dozen calves that crawled through.

We checked the herd daily, and were relieved to see the calves spread out on the meadow, the creek close by. They continued to be bright and healthy. Yes, they still walked and bawled, but mom was not far away and they stayed full on good feed.

On day five we trailed the calves up over two ridges and into the trucking corrals. They filed on the trucks quickly; only one truck had to be unloaded at home after dark.

I took Grandma Bonnie to see the calves yesterday. She doesn’t drive anymore and I knew she would love to see the calf crop. They looked happy, sunning themselves in the afternoon light, chewing their cuds. After a challenging week, seeing them content is a satisfying feeling – a year’s work in review.

quiet again