Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas in the Sandhills

We’ve had a lovely holiday. We even got snow on Christmas eve. Gotta love that.

The kids will soon spread out again, but they’ll leave with some pretty wonderful memories:  

Supping at Pickles in snow covered Arco, the large red “EAT” sign matching the Christmas lights strung around the cafĂ©. We even tried their fried pickles - yum!

Going around the table on Christmas Eve saying what we were thankful for: Callie, the grounding that happens when around a multi-generational family, so different from her world in Manhattan. Seth, being with people who “know my story.” Mark, living in a country where you’re rewarded for your own effort. Anna, “for Grandma Barb, who made killer muenster chicken that we’re enjoying tonight!”

Taking Dad along to feed the crew while moving cattle; him saying three times what a good bunch of heifers they were.

Gifts the kids collected from their travels - bright colored fabric and paintings from Africa, antique spoons from Berlin, peppermint tea from Manhattan, and a sweater from Boise!

A sleigh ride with their cousins, complete with jingle bells and steaming percherons.

Conversations about the qualities they will look for in a spouse, “calling” names for their kids, and exploring what this word “vulnerability” means.

. . . even fine memories of the funeral of a friend and fellow rancher, where honor to a family name, the ethics of hard work, forgiveness, humor, and community were celebrated. 

Callie and Seth moving heifers, cold and windy

Christmas in Wapello

Gary brought me the hornet's nest - the ranch provided the greens

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Liberian Education

We’ve been waiting for photos of Liberia from Seth’s teammate Jason. Three dvd’s arrived in the mail yesterday. Seth’s red-headed figure sticks out among the beautiful black faces of Africa.

Liberia is the second poorest nation in the world behind the Congo. They lost a generation of men during a civil war which raged for fourteen years ending in 2003. Every family has a grim story of loss. While working with Liberian youth, Seth’s team used an activity taught in FFA where students practice falling backwards into the arms of a peer, stretching their boundaries to truly trust one another. Not surprisingly, this activity was difficult for a culture where neighbor fought against neighbor.   

Seth’s task, along with his teammates Jason and Ken, was to help local leaders establish 4-H clubs in five schools and to further the school garden initiative. They helped clear and plant gardens, teaching them to use mulch and compost to return nutrients to the soil since they have no commercial fertilizer and don’t use animal manure to enrich previously farmed ground. They are typical slash and burn farmers, moving each year to a new plot, using a machete to clear the plants and then burning the refuse. This constant moving means farmers often walk over an hour each way to get to their fields.

Seth witnessed first-hand the problems of international aid. As help is provided, a culture of reliance follows. Seth saw a people that have become accustomed to asking for things. There are a few solid jobs, good pay can be had at the Firestone rubber plantation, but most people live a meager existence, growing some of their own food with a little income from selling charcoal.

A huge problem is transportation. Though they have vehicles and gas stations, the roads require a 4-wheel drive and even then it’s difficult. They have a little commerce within their own villages, but getting products to the city is nearly impossible. Heavy rains can stop all transportation and make walking to school a chore.  

He saw some hope during his stay. The kids elected officers in each of the 4-H programs. This was a fun activity for the kids and in each case the girls really stood out as leaders. Public speaking is highly valued in their culture so they were skilled at that. Local leaders are slowly learning to trust one another and take steps to surmount their many challenges.

Seth begrudgingly wrote me a Christmas list when he got home. He called it “my materialism list.”  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Home for Christmas

We got the cows home today. They were anxious to get on the road; all but a few head were waiting for us at the gate. They know within a few days of when we’ll show up. They gauge the amount of grass left and trust that we’ll arrive to take them to fresh feed. We still have to ride the ridges for the handful that are happy grazing the draws high above the creek. They’re our favorite cows. We wish we had to gather them all from way up high.

Yesterday was beautiful. The cows follow a gravel road that winds through the mountains above the Blackfoot River. Mark mostly drove the pickup, which he deserved after a long cold ride the day before. I was happy to walk along or let Kate do the work while we stayed in the warm. It was a sunny morning with a light snow covering. We listened to Christmas carols and watched the cows trail along single file. The radio program was “Sounds of Sunday” which meant lots of old time religious carols, my favorite. I called the morning poetic. Mark wasn’t sure about that.

Today was a different story – a “cold windy pig” as Mark called it. Everyone was chilled through by the time we finished. Anita had chili for us when we turned into the field and everyone was in good spirits despite the cold.

Seth arrived home from Liberia last night just in time to help us today. He went from 100+ heat index to this. He survived with long johns, wool bibs - the works. So good to have him home. So good to see the cows spread out grazing, trailing back and forth to the river. Now we just need to get our girls home!   

Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Trails, Bud

Bud Williams is a household word around here. Now he’s gone, but his impact is steadfast. He was an original. He didn’t care what people thought of him; he cared about animals first, ranchers second.

He could be hard on us cowboys. He said he would take the ranch mechanic over the ranch buckaroo because the mechanic was teachable. Ouch.

Mark and I were both raised on ranches that practiced good stockmanship, but Bud took us further. We first heard him speak 18 years ago and we’ve never handled cattle the same since. He put a name and a visual to the interaction between human and animal. He gave us a framework to talk about and practice with employees, with our kids, and with each other.   

He said that your position in relation to the animal or the herd was what mattered. Not how aggressive you were, not whether you could handle a rope, not how hard you could ride, but how sensitive you were to the animal’s natural instincts. As a woman that gave me much needed confidence. Suddenly a style I was comfortable with, attentive and soft, patient yet persistent, was most effective.

Bud talked about an animal’s flight zone and the nuance of working on the edge of that zone. Too far into the zone meant cattle were stressed and looking for a way out. 

This push-pull that exists between us, the human handlers, and our animals is key - how to apply pressure, when to release it, how to use it to achieve your desired outcome. Pressure has been the topic of many conversations on the Pratt Ranch. Anita, concerned that 3-yr-old Seth was up to no good in the goat pen, asked him if he was chasing the animals. "No grandma," he replied, "I’m just pressuring them a little!”

I think Bud lived in an alternate world, in the minds of cattle and working dogs, in all animals. But ironically, these principles apply to our human world as well. They work with the neighbor, your kids, your spouse. Just because force is often used, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. Give them time and room to think. Pay attention and take responsibility for how the relationship is going. Be respectful.

                                                                                                             photo by Anita Pratt

Friday, November 23, 2012

Remembering the Dust Bowl

We enjoyed watching The Dust Bowl on public TV. This 1930’s story of the farmers and “the big plow up” of native grasses in the southern plains has always intrigued me. I didn’t know it lasted so long, ten years, nor that it was such a health menace with dust pneumonia a killer. Man’s ignorance of natural processes has led him to ruin time and time again.

As I saw the photos of the dust storms dwarfing the prairie homesteads, I thought about my blog profile, and how it must puzzle people that I choose the phrase, “I believe in cows and grass” to describe myself. Surely life is much more than cows and grass. And it is, of course. But to the people living in the dust bowl years, the disregard of established perennial grasses meant life and death itself.

I once heard grass described as the skin of our planet.  Despite farming, development, and desertification, grasslands still make up approximately 40% of the earth’s land mass (excluding Antarctica and Greenland). Just as our skin keeps us hydrated and protects us from the elements, so does grass protect the soil. It moderates harsh temperatures, feeds a host of soil organisms, prevents erosion by wind or water, and in concert with grazing animals, provides the ultimate sustainability program. The regular onslaught of droughts and floods, two sides of the same coin of disrupted ecosystems, should make us all cognizant of the health of our soils.

Of course many of our grasslands are forever altered by farming. I was encouraged to read an article in the Capital Press reporting that the Natural Resources Conservation Service is involved in a nationwide effort to teach farmers to improve their soil health in four ways: 1- disturbing the soil as little as possible, 2 – growing as many different species of plants as practical, 3 – keeping soil covered, and 4 – keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible.

So in this season of gratitude, I give thanks for grass, improved farming practices, and for mankind’s journey to learn the gifts of the soil on a grand scale. 

Pratt grasslands await the cows' return

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sunday Drive

It’s as close as we ever get to a Sunday drive - going to check cows. The first herd is about 10 miles away on crop aftermath. It's difficult getting a farmer interested in grazing cows, so we really appreciate my cousin Paul for giving this a try. He ran the pivot after his barley was harvested, and with plenty of seed on the ground, just look at the regrowth! He lives nearby and hauls water to the cows every day. It's a bit of an experiment, so we hope it's a win/win and he'll do it again next year.

Then we drove on up to the older cows in the mountains about 2,000 feet above the valley. As we drove higher and higher the snow got deeper and deeper. It was light and fluffy, so we knew the cows would have no trouble grazing through it. We found them in good shape, sticking their noses up to their eyes in the snow, grazing contentedly. 

The sky was sapphire blue against the snow. I made Mark stop so I could take photos along the way. I felt like my Mom, who always had her camera along when she went to the hills with Dad. There’s been no wind, so every fence post had a cap of snow nearly five inches deep. Snow hung in the branches of the sagebrush, fir, and quakies. And behind it all, a rich golden light. One of those days you try, but can’t quite capture the beauty of.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Herd Work before the Storm

Storm and colder temperatures are headed our way so we pushed hard the last few days getting the cows situated. We moved them to a lower elevation over two days, then worked them through our mountain corrals to receive their annual vaccinations and pour-on internal and external parasite treatment. Mark “mouthed” the oldest cows (checked their teeth) to determine which ones might be ready to go to a ranch with easier living conditions where they don’t have to walk to range each summer. He also replaced ear tags that had been lost. We separated the youngest cows and the selling cows to start home. The main herd will stay at 6000 feet for a while longer.
When we finished working the cows, we turned them out the gate and Kate and I took them up the mountain. After the manure laden ground and close working conditions of the corrals, it was a glorious sight. It’s why we ranch, those moments of watching cattle on grass. They stick their heads in the brush and come up with mouthfuls of native grass, which they love. This grazing exposes the growth points of each plant to sunshine in the spring - good for grass, good for cows, the symbiosis of nature. A creek studded with beaver ponds will provide a good drink. We’ll be back to fetch them before it freezes over.

Seth is home and helped us all three days. So fun to watch him help his Dad and Grandpa. It’s high time we got some return on our many hours of training home grown help.

At day’s end we started the young cows towards home and didn’t put them through the gate at Rawlins Creek until after dark. Booser, our part-time cowboy helper, said with his southern drawl, “Ya’ll are gonna have to get white cows if you expect me to night herd!” 

vaccinating (after Mark dropped his hat in the chute!)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Creating Your Greenhouse

We returned from the national FFA convention in Indianapolis yesterday. Callie headed back to meet Hurricane Sandy in New York City, Seth flew to Kentucky for his team retreat, and Anna is back at the University of Idaho. It was the trip of a lifetime as we watched Seth and his team conduct the convention attended by over 50,000 FFA members. The year has been a life-changing experience for him. And we’ve changed as well, on his coattails.

Each of the six officers delivers a speech, their “retiring address” at the convention. It’s always inspirational and speaks directly to the fifteen thousand or so kids in the audience at each session. Seth began his speech by telling the students about his first public speaking task, giving oral reasons on a class of horses to a single adult judge. He said he delivered it through sobs, his tears soaking the notes he held. I remember it well. He was 9 years old, all the other kids were done and I begged him to come out from behind the county fair bleachers and talk to the judge. He finally did it, an agonizing experience; now look at him! From a shy boy clinging to his Mom, to a televised speech in front of thousands, he shows rural kids what they can achieve. 

He told them he had always been the “short, skinny kid” and how he had struggled to read in first grade. He told them how he had received the “most improved reader” award at the end of the school year, not because he was a good reader, but because he was so horrible to begin with.

He talked of driving to school on a winter morning in Idaho and entering the warm, moist greenhouse filled with Christmas poinsettias. They were tended by the ag students and fluorished in a carefully constructed environment. Seth told the kids (and adults, we were listening too) to create their own greenhouse. Find those people that lift them up, participate in those activities that help them grow. They can control the world they live in, air temperature, soil type, even fertilizer, as they create their greenhouse. Say “no” to those people and activities that drag them down. Collect inspiring quotes, listen to positive songs, and make the best of this “one wild and magnificent life.”

The greenhouse image is a powerful concept, easy to grasp, easy to remember. It’s exciting to think how some of those thousands of kids will put his words into action.  

After his speech, a freshman FFA member accompanied his Ag advisor to the front of the stadium to meet Seth. The boy reminded me of how Seth looked at 14, his FFA jacket too big, the sleeves hanging down over his hands. His advisor told Seth that this boy and he had something in common. “Go ahead and tell him,” he urged the boy.

The boy hesitated, finally managing to say, “I also got most improved reader. ”  

Callie and Anna introducing Seth      (photo by Danielle Sanok)

Backdrop to his speech

Saturday, October 20, 2012

When Cattle get Sick

There’s a cold wind blowing across the sandhills today. Yesterday it blew even harder and sent sheets of rain down periodically. Not a good time to have sick calves. But sick they are.

We weaned a week and a half ago and trucked the calves home after they had been off the cow for five days. We treated several calves on weaning day and have been treating them every day since. Yesterday was a marathon with 70 head doctored. Eleven deaths so far.

It’s a heartbreaking thing to witness. We try to get to them before the hang-headed, droopy-eared, snotty-nose stage, which can be too late to save them.

We strive to keep our cattle healthy to prevent illness from ever getting a toehold, but sometimes things go wrong despite our best effort. We think we can trace this outbreak to an episode about three weeks ago when the herd ran out of water. They were on a well, and the generator that pumped the water quit for no particular reason. The crisis was compounded because our second storage tank had blown out a week or so before. The cattle all got a drink finally, but not before the stage was set for pathogens to take hold. Illness often shows up 10-14 days after a stressful event like this. And in our case it coincided with weaning time, adding stress upon stress.

We try to avoid using antibiotics since we market our beef as natural, but we’ve thrown that restraint out the window and are just trying to save lives. Consumers would make the same choice if given the whole story. They mostly want us to avoid the mass use of antibiotic feed additives. But in the end it’s difficult to describe the difference between feeding antibiotics and treating an illness with a dose of antibiotic (just as we do ourselves when we get an infection), so our marketing cooperative has elected to abide by the “never, ever” use of antibiotics. We’ll market these calves through other channels.  

This is not only a sad loss of life and health of animals we care for, it’s a blow to our profitability. We lose the calf income on the ones that die and weight gains suffer on the sick ones that got better. Plus treatment costs are sky high. I came home from the vet (one of many trips) with a small bottle that would treat fifteen calves and the bill was $487.00!

I'm impressed, like always, at how Mark and his dad do what needs to be done without blame, anger, or complaint. Ranching is a lot like the rest of life. You do the best you can, knowing that sometimes it’s not good enough. And when things go awry, you take stock, regroup, and work together to get through it.

Doctoring on the range before the calves came home: 

Mark and Paul snagging one

how it's done when you're too far from a chute

Seth and Grandpa Gary 

Friday, October 12, 2012


With a hard frost in the forecast, I spent a sunny day gathering the last of the garden produce. Basil is drying in the mudroom. Three honeydew melons sit on the kitchen counter to ripen. The sweet-meat, butternut, and spaghetti squash are in the basement under the pool table. The red spuds are bagged safely in great grandma’s cold storage. Peach pie-filling, tomatoes, and corn wait in the freezer. Pickles and green beans sit in shiny rows in the storeroom.  I love October.

The cottonwoods are starting to turn, just a sprinkling of gold amongst the green. The dark plum dogwoods and chokecherries contrast against the shiny green regrowth of the irrigated pastures.

As the sun sinks downward in our southern sky, there’s a golden sun-kissed tone to the world. Gone are the smoke and haze of August and September.  I bought a big pumpkin, the deepest most opaque orange, and a pot of rusty-red mums to brighten the front stoop. The colors of autumn.

I made the first fire of the season in the wood stove this morning and dug out the cold weather clothing. I  must love hiding in sweaters and scarves, especially on these warm October days when the chill is off by 10:30 a.m. and it's toasty warm on the sunny side of your face.

We had grass-fed chuck roast with garden vegetables for dinner. When we sit down to a meal, Seth says we eat “from the fat of the land.”

We’re set to wean calves on Saturday. Autumn is here; time to harvest a year’s work. Did I mention I love October?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

To Meadow Creek

It was time to make the big move to fall pastures and I was anticipating it with a sick-to-the-stomach feeling. The fall field along Meadow Creek is beautiful, once you get there you never want to leave but, oh, the trip.  

The route is unfamiliar to the cows even though they’ve done it for three years now. They need to travel up and over a ridge of mountains with twists and turns, a trap near a spring, and then walk cross-country down two more bluffs. It had been a nightmare of constant shoving, hollering, cows and calves trying to go back, and total exhaustion for everyone - dogs, horses, cattle and cowboys. Not pretty.

I threatened to stay home. At least Mark wouldn’t have to deal with a mad wife along with everything else. But I went of course. 

We were trying a new strategy. We would let them out of a nearby field the night before and give them a chance to mother-up before attempting the climb the next morning. Usually as they come out of the gate in a rush, the cows lose their calves and don’t get straightened out until we re-group on the other side of the mountain. This approach would require spending the night in the hills and a few extra hours of gathering, but it would be worth it if they would climb of their own will. And they did. We took them up in two drafts. They mostly kept their calves close by and seemed to remember the route and the fresh grass that lay ahead. What a relief. I was kicking myself for being so pessimistic. Once again Mark’s steady resolve won out, and he didn’t even say “I told you so.” 

Once we reach the top of Smyler Canyon, the worst is behind us. It was a beautiful day, cool with puffy clouds all around. I could see all the way to Wyoming. I was tending the front end, letting them graze and waiting for the back of the herd to catch up. I thought about a conversation we had had the night before in the cabin. We had chicken soup by lantern light, Mark and I and our part-time cowboy help, an ex-truck driver, a preacher, and a saddle maker. We talked of their life experiences, which range from Idaho to South Carolina to Egypt. We discussed the rioting in the Middle East. Is it a national pastime or a fringe movement propagandized by the press? How to tell?

All I know is that here on this mountain, quiet except for cattle calling to one another and the soft ripping of grass, one can believe that all is right with the world. No riots, no strife, just an honest job to do and a clear shot to good grass ahead.   

catching the help

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Kill Plant

I toured the kill plant where most of our cattle are processed. Process - that’s what we say now instead of slaughter. Political correctness is everywhere. I was a bank teller once, now they’re called “customer service specialists.” I was a secretary once, now referred to as “administrative assistants.” But back to the kill plant, yes they kill cattle, but it’s done so quickly and efficiently, it’s hardly the focus of the plant.

We started at the end, where boxes of meat are stacked and loaded for shipping. It’s cold. We saw bins of trim to be ground in to hamburger, each one tested for bacteria. We saw row upon row of workers performing different stages of fabrication, the cutting and carving of the carcass into wholesale cuts. The workers sharpen their knives continually, the steel hanging on a chain belt at their waist. They put the weight of their body behind the cut, in and out around the spine, cleaning meat off bone with expert swiftness. The bones are tossed on a conveyor to be processed into bone meal, which, along with blood meal and tallow are two by-products – nothing is wasted.   

Then we walk through spacious coolers where carcass halves sway in long lines, the t-bone exposed for grading. A row of inspectors constantly guard the public against every possible defect.

Suddenly it’s warm as we get closer to the actual killing area. I’ve never been this close before. And having never hunted a living animal for food, it was unsettling, mesmerizing, fascinating. I want to stand and watch long enough for it to sink in, long enough to make sense of it. But we don’t want to break the rhythm of the line and so hurry through. The workers at the top of the line, skinning and removing the entrails, stand like warriors, performing their task with a matter-of-factness I find incredible. They do this for a living; without them we would be out of business. I realize how grateful I am to work on the opposite end of the beef business.  

Finally we go out of doors to the receiving area – the animals here are familiar, walking upright with bright, trusting eyes. There is reverence in this space. Unloaded quietly, the cattle can drink in every pen. The area is covered, clean and dry, with sure-footed surfaces. Cattle naturally like to circle back to where they started, so the alleyway curves back towards the arriving trucks. They climb a concrete chute, also curved, and one by one enter the stunning box. They have no idea what awaits them. I saw no fear, no angst. 

What’s that word I keep thinking of? Oh yes, visceral. I look it up on wikipedia. Viscera refers to the internal organs of the body cavity, the stomach, intestines, etc. Visceral is also used to describe a deep inward emotion, an instinct as opposed to intellect, as in a “gut feeling,” one that is felt rather than thought out. I decide it’s a good word to describe the kill plant, on both accounts.   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

March of the Invaders

Invasive plants make my world less wonderful. The land is our living, and having to battle these vermin really tests us. It seems we fight one weed, then something more insidious takes its place. So we fall back and try to hold our ground with the new one. Now it’s plants with burrs, a rancher's nemesis because they stick to the hides of cattle, horses and dogs. Puncture vine, houndstongue, burdock, cockle burr - are there more?
We’re in the middle of farm ground, lots of traffic coming and going, with plenty of opportunity for the spread of weed seeds. Plus, we raise animals and they're good at spreading seed as well. The farmers till the ground and apply chemicals to keep their fields clean at all costs. They grow monocultures, a single species per season. We have a more natural landscape, which we love, being strong believers in biodiversity, but it’s vulnerable to intruders. Our weapons are limited. We spray, we pull and cut, we try to manage for what we wantgiving desirable plants every advantage, but I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.

Puncture vine, or goatshead, is a particularly virulent imposter. It grows on the edges of the paved roads and all around the pivot farms in our neighborhood. It sticks to tires with a stubborn burr and can flatten a bike tire. It spreads prone to the ground with tendrils running up to six feet from the center. It grows in hot dry dirt or sand, green and happy without a drop of water. The hay stackyard is especially vulnerable with its bare ground and constant traffic. We found a house-sized mat of the vine there and attacked it with several people, rolling it up as we cut the roots. The roll was so long and heavy, we had to cut it in chunks to load it in the pickup. 

Of course invasive animals are also a worry. And it’s not just the truly noxious intruders that concern me. We love our mourning doves, but their sad song is being drowned out by the harsher call of the eurasian collared dove, a relative newcomer. Is there room in our habitat for both of them, or will the larger birds take over the dove niche? Even kingbirds, which I mostly like, seem to shoulder out more delicate birds. I fear a world given over to generalists - rabbit brush, Russian olive, coyotes, white tail deer, kochia, cheat grass, starlings, and blackbirds. In this scary future, young people wouldn't recognize sage-grouse, mule deer, monarch butterflies, or cutthroat trout

In my weed war, I’m hoping that technology will come to the rescue. I’m waiting for a hand held wand with a dial that I can turn to the targeted weed, touch a leaf and cause immediate death. I wonder if the FDA would approve that.

carpet roll of puncture vine -  nasty!

And to make me feel better:

bees attack a sagebrush in bloom - biodiversity

bread and butter pickles from the garden

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gathering Bulls

Fall cattle work has started. We took the bulls out of the herd and changed pastures last week. It was perfect weather. God has turned a page. The nights are brisk and the days have lost their sweltering heat. And we had rain, blessed rain! It was wet in the hills and soggy here at home too.

Just like people, cattle habits change with the seasons. The cows are bred, so the bulls with their work done hang out together, the young ones anyway. Mature bulls are more likely to wander off by themselves. And if the bulls were purchased from the same ranch they find each other again after the busy season is over. Cattle know their herdmates and are comfortable in their company. With the bulls congregated, it was easy to get them corralled. Someone repeated the line from Man from Snowy River, where Kirk Douglas said all they needed was a "butterfly net" to gather the strays.  

We moved the main herd into the old dry farm we used in the spring. Once the cattle figured out they were moving to fresh feed, they massed at the watering troughs. As the cowboys took the last of the bulls in, I called the cows into the pasture. “Come on, cows!”

With the herd settled, we loaded the bulls and saddle horses and headed for home. A storm was brewing in the valley. We stopped to watch a great cloud of what turned out to be ash boil over the Three Sisters, a grouping of peaks familiar to everyone traveling along the Blackfoot River. I was reminded of the dust storms with the funny name, haboob. The name comes from the great deserts of the world, so are generally dust or sand, but this was ash from the recent wildfire.

We delivered the bulls to a pasture just north of our home. It has a canal for drinking, trees for shade and good feed - a seemingly safe place to rest and recuperate. But as we drove by the other day, we saw a bull had gotten on his back on a slight incline and died. It's a frustrating accident that takes one or two head per year. Such is the cattle business.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Surveying Sage-Grouse with Jack and Meg

I spent the evening in the mountains with Jack, my grouse biologist friend, and his hunting dog Meg. I took Meg’s spot in the front seat of Jack’s pickup and she was none too happy about it.

As we were driving along near our destination, Jack said, “is that a rock or a grouse?” Sure enough it was a big hen sitting along the edge of a green meadow near a bank of sagebrush. As Meg flushed her, a few more rose. A dozen total birds were in the same vicinity. Wow, what luck! Never having flushed a bird before, it was pretty exciting for me. I am not a hunter; have never seen a dog “on point.”

We continued the evening by wandering around on foot behind Meg for a couple of miles. We saw bird droppings so know that the area is used by grouse, but didn’t see any birds. The grass has been eaten down by livestock. They’ve been gone for a month, but with the dry conditions there has been little regrowth. However, this shouldn’t be a problem for grouse, according to Jack. He pointed out fresh clover leaves for good late summer feed and brush cover nearby to hide in. We walked along a ridge and could see miles and miles of great habitat in every direction.

We found lots of droppings on a rocky knoll. Jack told me the rocks hold daytime heat and provide a clear view of approaching predators so birds will roost here. While moving cattle we've come upon several grouse on just such a rocky outcropping.

It’s a mystery as to why there are such low numbers of sage-grouse on this range. On the way home we talked about possible causes. I said that cattle and sheep are bigger, but we use the range for a shorter season than in days past. We think there’s more avian predators, crows and ravens, which may or may not be part of the problem. I believe sagebrush is heavier, too dense perhaps, with fewer options left to eliminate some of it. Jack is naturally cautious about any talk of controlling sagebrush. But real answers elude us. What did the dry-farming era do to grouse numbers? Is west nile virus having an effect?

Jack and I have enough experience from both directions, livestock and wildlife, to know that we just don’t know. We know enough to question. I guess that’s what we have in common, a natural curiosity, a love of the land and animals, a penchant to learn, and an openness to the many varied values of this incredible resource.  

Meg at work

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tending the Fall Field

We got word that strays were getting into our fall pasture, so Jesse and Mark and I loaded up the 4-wheeler with fencing supplies and two horses, Sly, the veteran, and Jane, the newbie, to straighten things out.

It was the first time for me riding Jane. She’s a sweetheart, walks out and gets the work done without complaint. That is until a mule deer jumped out of the thicket and scared her right good. She was tensed up and blowing through her nostrils. I thought she would calm if I sat quietly and stroked her neck, but no. I finally got off and lead her awhile to calm her nerves (and mine).

We picked up strays from two different pastures, the last few pairs lounging along the stream, tickled to find such lush grass. It’s risky business saving fall pasture amongst summering cattle on two sides of us. Plus, someone left a gate open and once the cattle found out the great pickings on our side of the fence they determined to get back in. Cattle are okay if kept out to begin with, but if they get in once they can be tough to keep out.

It got dark with one more fence line to check and one more group of strays to dispatch. Jesse and Sly got the cattle while Jane and I rode along the fence, the moonlight providing just enough illumination to spot a possible short in the line. Finally done, the quickest way out was over a rocky bluff. Jane was hesitant and scared, but luckily Sly was in the lead. He picked his way through the rocks carefully and Jane followed. Jesse visited and whistled despite the darkness and the two hours' drive away from his wife and kids.

It's always been thus. We start out with good intentions of getting home in decent time, but the day wanes and it turns into one more late night. Good thing we tied our jackets on the saddle.  

good fall feed

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sister Retreat

There’s six of us. Mom and Dad had one boy and then kept having girl after girl. There’s a twelve year spread between the oldest and the youngest (that’s me). We try to get away once a year without our families. This year we chose to gather at Dad’s. Our nephew turned up as well, so it was a “dad-nephew-sister” retreat. We slept on the couch and floor and filled the bedrooms.

This retreat was mostly about visiting and eating. Okay, so all our retreats are mostly about visiting and eating. Mom is gone, but her kitchen is as familiar as ever. The cast iron frying pans still reside on the stove top or in the oven, the potatoes are under the sink, the cereal and crackers around the corner. We work together to create meals and then clean up in a jiffy. It all comes back - visiting over the same sink, stepping over each other to dry dishes, wiping off counters and carrying scraps outside to dump over the fence into Wally’s alfalfa field.

Three of us are on ranches, one in the recycling business, one in real estate and one a nurse. We’ve waited tables, counted money, doctored animals and people, nurtured children and sailed oceans. We’ve managed employees, given up on marriages, stuck with marriages, and welcomed grandchildren. We’ve all had disappointments and triumphs.

During our three day stay, and following a recent death in our extended family, we spent some time sorting and cleaning a now vacant house. One evening we thumbed through the contents of a long forgotten trunk, a heartbreaking look into the life of a girl who died at seventeen in the 1940s. Here were her school papers, her baby book, even the newspaper write up of the tragic accident that took her life. She was our dad's cousin and no one is left to tell her story. Not knowing what to do with the contents, we laid the items back and closed the lid. We stepped outside as dark descended. The yard is wild and expansive and the butter-colored primroses were opening for their one-night stand. One by one they blossomed in perfect form, shouldering aside the spent and shriveled blooms that were new only last night.  

As we sisters age and watch our parents fade, we cling to each other. I just finished reading a book, About My Sisters, by Debra Ginsberg. These siblings were very different from us, loud and argumentative, with only one child and no marriages between the four of them. But the author spoke for us when she said, “each one of us carries some part of her sisters with her. I can’t imagine my life without any one of them. Nor do I want to try.”   


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Distinguished Visitors

Every day smoke hangs in the sky. The sun comes up red and goes down red. The hot, dry weather continues, but it's been cooling off at night and feels wonderful. Gotta love Idaho.

I canned green beans yesterday. The beans are purple hanging on the vine and then turn green when heated. The jars look so lovely lined up on the counter, that I hate to take them down to the storeroom.  We’re about to get an onslaught of cucumbers. Got a good pickle recipe?

Second crop alfalfa is being baled as I write. Hauling starts tomorrow.

We’ve had a fun week. Seth and his whole FFA officer team showed up for a few days between commitments. They mostly rested and worked at their laptops, but they did get in some swimming, horseback riding, and watching the dancing at the Sho-Ban Pow-Wow. They enjoyed being incognito, except for my family reunion where they were introduced to the crowd by my cousin Kent, a big FFA supporter. 

The team comes from all parts of the nation - Wisconsin, New Mexico, New York, Minnesota and Georgia. I love the southern and midwestern dialects.  I also like being called “ma’am” and "Mama Pratt." One special night we played “bug” with Seth’s 93-year-old great grandma Bonnie. It’s a game she played with the kids when they were little. Pretty simple, only requires a pencil and paper and one dice. Whoever rolls the right numbers (3-antennaes, 6-legs, etc.) and makes a bug first wins. Seth was the winner, I was second and Bonnie third. They suspected a conspiracy; we told them it’s all in the wrist.

I think what impressed me most about the young people was how well they got along. Yes they're all agriculture enthusiasts, but they still see the world differently. They spar a little and then joke it off.  As the song says, they’ve slayed dragons together. Their loyalty to one another runs deep in this year of firsts - of all for one and one for all. They’re in Kentucky today being the face of the FFA at a meeting with Toyota.

Then Anna took off for college bright and early this morning. As her Honda headed out the lane a great silence descended on the house. 

another smokey sunrise

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Little Buckaroos

The Little Buckaroo Rodeo has come and gone again. Mark has been the announcer since before we were married. I’m up in the announcer’s stand with him, keeping track of kids and numbers. He has a co-announcer, our friend Wayne, and they have a great time bantering back and forth. The rodeo and Mark are both 47 this year; his grandpa Eldro was one of the founders. Gary was the clown for umpteen years and still provides the calves, so it’s a family affair.

Mark taught school in Firth for a dozen years, and the rodeo, Firth’s claim to fame, is a good place to see his old students who enter their kids in the rodeo.  Events include stick-horse barrel racing, ribbon-tie and ribbon-pull on goats, sheep dressing (don’t ask), a pig scramble, barrel “racing” on a horse, calf and sheep riding, and the culminating event - the chicken scramble.

The kid rodeo is a big event in Firth with a community breakfast and parade to round out the festivities. Some families plan their vacation around the rodeo. The kids show up in their best western clothing - hats, boots, fringed chaps, many with stick horses.

My favorite event is the chicken scramble. All kids five and under enter the arena (no parents allowed) to try to catch a chicken. It’s complete mayhem, kids crying running here and there, chickens scooching under the fence to freedom. Good clean fun. Mark always tells the kids over the loud speaker, “no matter what Mom says, your bedroom is the best place to keep your chicken!” And this one, “parents, if you don’t want to keep the chicken – too bad!”

When Seth was five he determined he wouldn’t just grab a chicken, he would rope it. We laughed knowing what the outcome would be, but he proved us wrong, he caught a chicken in a clean loop! Seth uses this story from time to time to encourage FFA kids to dream big.

All rodeo proceeds go to the Firth FFA program, which is great, but the best outcome is that it gives children a chance to interact with animals, a rare event in today’s world.  

My nephew and his son discussing the ribbon-pull event

getting it done!

one proud boy

Friday, August 3, 2012

East Coast Wanderings

We’ve been tripping. First to Washington DC for the FFA State President’s Conference, then on to New York City to spend a few days with Callie. We were all together in New York and had a wonderful time.

We negotiated the metro, night toured the monuments in DC, walked Central Park and Times Square, sat on Washington’s veranda overlooking the Potomac, and ferried to Staten Island. A highlight was supping at Callie’s restaurant in Manhattan with her as a guest instead of a server. The staff treated us royally, with complementary wine and scrumptious dishes added to each course.

Callie lives in a Brooklyn brownstone and Seth and Anna stayed with her. It’s pretty quiet on her street. She found Mark and me an apartment above storefronts a few blocks from her room. Quiet, it wasn’t, but with earplugs we slept pretty well. What an experience to soak up a totally different way of life. We saw the real New York, the touristy sections yes, but also the residential areas and the families that live their lives there.  

I never really got used to using the subway. Well, I can ride it, but I never quite accepted the lack of congeniality among the passengers. Unfortunately the only conversation I had was a hostile one. A man with lots of anger chose me as a scapegoat. I was pretty shaken for some time and mad that he would have that effect on me. It took me a few days to see others of his type in a positive light. I know he’s an isolated case. I know the majority of people are kind if given the chance, but the “straight ahead don’t bother me look” is pervasive.

We came home to a blackened skyline out our front window. The fires are getting pretty close. 
I stood outside last night, looked at the stars and listened to a mourning dove. There was a gorgeous full moon. It’s good to be home.

FFA kids at the changing of the guard
Arlington Cemetery

New York's charm, alone (but happy) people in Washington Square Park

Central Park

sisters on the roof of  "The Met"
Metropolitan Musem of Art

the Brooklyn Bridge looking towards Manhattan

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meeting God

The news is sobering - wildfires raging across Idaho and other western states in cattle country.  We saw a photo of cows caught in the inferno and can’t imagine facing that. The news isn’t much better in the middle of the nation as the drought drags on. You could worry until all you did was walk the floor wringing your hands.

And though we worry, we go about our days busy with mid-summer tasks like always. Unlike our neighbors, we got rain last week with some great cloud displays. And even though we had hay down, we loved every drop. The windrows dried out enough to run the baler again, but the bales are none too pretty. The cows won’t care this winter, though.

We got a kitten from a neighboring ranch to deal with our gopher problem around the house. I'm surprised by how much we've enjoyed taking turns with her on our lap. She purrs non-stop. "One of the best sounds on earth,” Mark said. A kitten is a self-prescribed slow-down button. As if there was nothing more to do than pet a cat.  

The black-eyed susans are putting on a show at our front stoop and the peas are on in the garden. Now that’s something to celebrate!  

We buried my Uncle’s ashes last Sunday. It was a sticky hot day until the clouds moved in to create a perfect evening. At the humble service, I read a passage from an essay on death written by the founder of The Science of Mind, a blend of religion, science and philosophy. The last two sentences keep running through my mind, and with all that's wrong with our world, I am reminded that everyday tasks done well are all we really need to concern ourselves with.

It is a happy thing to believe that no man need prepare to meet his God; he is meeting Him every day and each hour of every day. He meets Him in the rising sun, in the budding rose, in the joy of friendship and love, and in the silence of his own soul.   –Ernest Holmes