Friday, January 27, 2012

Open to Opportunity

We shipped some calves to southwest Idaho for winter grazing. It's a milder climate and is an alternative to backgrounding at our small feedlot at home. Our reasons were twofold. One, these calves are on track to feed folks that prefer beef from non-confined animals. And two, it pencils to be less costly than feeding our own harvested alfalfa hay.

We’ve always kept the calves home over the winter; we're very hands-on ranchers, so sending them away was a stretch. We went to visit them this week and found them just south of the interstate, out of the wind on a sheltered side hill overlooking the Snake River. They were nestled amongst lava rock outcroppings looking fine and fit and grazing cheatgrass.

This particular annual grass is viewed as an invasive species and is much maligned by wildlife advocates and ranchers alike. Its awn is an irritant to animals, it has a super short green season, and is highly flammable making frequent fires common. Our lessor, however, knows from long experience that cheat makes great winter and spring grazing, so why not use it to its best advantage? Grazing will help reduce fuel for fires, and cattle add much needed biological activity to the site. A win-win for sure.

Looking out across the feed, it looks dry and yellow and uninviting. However, if you pull up a sample, here's what you see, thick tender green shoots making up about half of their diet.  

We’re never sure how a new venture will work, but thank goodness Mark keeps asking questions and being open to new thought. I’m reading a book about small business by Michael Gerber, The E-Myth, and in it the author says to continually ask, “Where is the opportunity?” And opportunities abound all around us, whether you're in ranching or not.

And as far as the calves being far away from home and our care, Mark has a phrase he uses when he’s done his part to tend an animal and leaves the rest to their capable instincts. He’ll say he “kissed them on the forehead" and went home. And so that’s what we did, trusting they’ll do fine doing what cows are good at - being cows. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Our Story

I was heading up to my Dad’s this week. I was feeling good for no particular reason. Maybe I was celebrating another sunny day in January. Maybe I was feeling especially grateful that I lived close to my 92-year-old father. So close that I could jump in the car and sit on the couch with him in 15 minutes. I was enjoying the freedom I had to mostly plan my days.

I called up Mark who was in a tractor loading hay down at ranch headquarters. “I just wanted to tell you . . . thanks for my life,” I said.

He couldn’t hear me over the engine, “thanks for what?”

“for my life.”

He hesitated a moment, chuckled, and said, “You’re welcome.”

He brought me back home 21 years ago. We grew up in the same ranching community, but I was five years older than him and we had never officially met one another. I was living on my own about three hours away. I had a bank job, a four-year-old daughter and a failed marriage. I could pay my bills and fend for myself. His pick up line hooked me. “What’s your social calendar look like?”

And so we were married, and Callie and I moved into his humble home in the sandhills. Callie had a room with ugly green shag carpet and a whole ranch to grow up in. We placed her colorful magnetic numbers and letters of the alphabet on the fridge. We came home one day to see that Mark had written,  “1 + 2 = family.”

He would give me two more kids. And he would take care of us so I could stay home and raise them. He would give me as well, this Idaho sky, the grass, the animals - a life that compels me still. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

January Notes

I read somewhere in my winter reading that humans long ago would "hibernate” during the winter.  Before the advent of electric lights and heat from a switch on the wall, snuggling under a foot of blankets was an acceptable activity during long winter evenings and nights. And it's true that Mark and I have some of our best conversations from beneath two quilts, one down, one wool. Last night we were heading towards bed at 8:00 pm. What?

Raising animals outdoors and harvesting sunshine on acres of dirt, means our lives are tied to nature and the cycles of the season. The plants are in dormancy so a rancher should be too. Well not exactly, but it does give a chance if the weather cooperates, to get a little down time. And goodness knows Mark needs it, for calving season is just around the corner, and longer days ahead.   

Winter is also the time we visit our accountant and banker, pour over year-end figures, and analyze decisions for the year ahead. I do secretarial duties part-time for a few other agricultural entities, as well as the ranch, so year-end accounting is uppermost in my mind. I don’t mind the work, and as I sit at my keyboard and watch Mark bundle up to do the real work of the ranch, I feel spoiled. 
The slack season provides various learning opportunities to the ag community as well. I attended a “beef summit” last week to learn about our end product, carcass quality, eating characteristics, and consumer preference.

It’s the off season for the males of the cattle herd too. They’re hanging out on the “Frank Alan Corner,” a “forty” just down the road from us. I took my camera down one windy day to capture their vacation contentment.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Winter Grazing

As wintry as January was in 2011, it’s the opposite this year. Day after sunny day we watch and wonder when the heavy snows will arrive. We had a light snow cover before Christmas, but it's gone now. 

An "open" winter means we can keep grazing. We stockpiled lots of feed, cutting some hay ground only once and letting it grow back. This means plenty of grass sitting idle through late summer, through fall, and now into winter, waiting for the cows to arrive. There’s just something about deep dormant grass that fills this cowgirl’s heart to the brim. It’s a satisfying, money-in-the-bank kind of feeling. Like shelves lined with gleaming canned peaches or firewood stacked in the garage. 

I imagine the soil organisms, fat and full, pregnant with life that will jump start next spring. They thrive in an environment that has been rested from grazing, or cutting, long enough for the above ground plant material, and in turn the roots below, to express themselves. Just as humans need a good night’s rest, so does grass need renewal time.

But too much rest isn’t good for a human body, nor a grass plant. So we exercise, work our minds and our bodies to stay healthy. The “work” of grass is providing food for grazing animals, who leave behind dung and urine as a bonus to feed the soil. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the kind that nature is so good at.

It's this pursuit of grass that means we move cows on a regular basis, even during Christmas vacation. The kids helped us a couple of times while they were home.  As Anna wrote on Facebook, “it’s not home until we move cows.”