Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February Notes

Seth spent FFA Week in Delaware giving workshops and speeches. We saw him wading in the Atlantic Ocean on Facebook. Delaware has 8,000 FFA members. Seth feels overwhelmed trying to make an impact on kids he sees only briefly. He’s had conversations with rural poor white students in Tennessee and black inner city youth in Delaware. He said in an email, “The needs are great.” 

We had a terrible wind a couple of days this week. It was a mess feeding the herd - straw chaff and hay leaves drilled into every pore. It takes a full day and night to clear your eyes. Where did I lay those goggles?

Mark and I got some wood split before calving started. I ran the splitter, a hydraulic wonder that bites through huge blocks with ease. I kept thinking how Dad would have loved one of these babies. Mark said, “You’ll have to tell your Dad you’re not so sure if you like it. It makes splitting wood women’s work!”

On the first real calving day we had two sets of twins. One set was fine, the other set was born dead. It was an eventful day as well when Mark got chased across the pasture by a heifer. That’s unusual. We select for a calm temperament, but sometimes the motherly instinct kicks in with a vengeance during calving. Her calf was born dead as well. Seems we always start off with a few problems since those kind come early. 

And so February fades into March. We got five calves last night so we’re off and running.

                                                                                               Thanks Delaware FFA for the photos! 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sharing the Country Life

We brought the cattle closer in to ranch headquarters this week.  The cows are heavy with growing fetuses so we tried to move them carefully. The first leg of the move was through sagebrush, empty of traffic. The last leg was a different story as it travels through a gauntlet of homes, small pastures with broken down fences, driveways and lawns.  It’s exciting, which is a nice way to put it. This kind of cattle drive makes me nervous. I dread breaking someone’s carefully nursed sapling, mashing mailboxes, or poking holes in lawns. Of course this time of year the cattle can’t do much damage. Moving cattle in the summer is a longer, more anguished blog!

This ranch has raised livestock here on Kimball road for over 100 years - way back when neighbors were scarce and the sand roads could bury a vehicle in short order. And even though we’ve outlasted nearly every other homesteader, we don't automatically get a "bye" from our neighbors when they're running late for work and run into the herd moving from pasture to pasture. Or in their Sunday best on the way to church, hoping to avoid manure splatters on their clean car.   

Still . . . yesterday a young mother with a baby in her arms was standing on her porch watching the cattle go by, swaying back and forth to comfort her child like mothers do. She wasn’t annoyed, wasn’t there to protect her lawn, just enjoying watching the cattle.

I hope we, ranchers and neighbors, can forgive and appreciate each other - and realize the values we share. I need to show tolerance and acceptance as more and more homes move in with dogs, vegetable gardens and flower beds. And hopefully these neighbors see our worth as well and forgive the cowpies along the route and the occasional hoof print on the lawn. For we both love the rural life and raising our children with fresh air and animals, weeds and bugs, and all the wonderful, dirty experiences that await a kid raised in the country.

the first leg of the journey  home

Friday, February 17, 2012

Grouse - Just the Facts

I first met Jack at a sage grouse meeting. I knew his name well. His research is often quoted when discussing grouse biology. The room was full of government personnel. I braved up and spoke from a rancher’s perspective, challenging the language being proposed for a grouse management document.  What happened next blew me away. No one in the room commented - except Jack. And he agreed with me. Easily the most knowledgeable grouse person in the room and he agreed with a rancher? He would go on to back me up on another issue, even invited me to lunch where we talked about, yes, grouse.

Afterwards, the two of us talked occasionally and took a trip to the range to look at habitat. This winter Jack agreed to prepare a slide presentation specifically for ranchers. Would anyone come?

I’ve been discouraged in the past about the lack of interest shown by many ranchers. I know they’re busy. I know they’re uncomfortable in meetings. I’ve seen ranchers who dared attend a meeting being largely ignored by confident and well versed agency folks. Never mind the acronyms thrown about, discouraging the most valiant land manager. I’ve heard enough RMP’s, EIS’s, FOIA’s, NEPA’s, and WAG’s to last me awhile. But the ranchers did come, through the snow even though some were in the middle of calving and lambing. And they listened and asked questions. One rancher told me he learned more in those two hours than he had in four years of sage grouse meetings.

Of course we didn’t agree with everything Jack said. He tells it exactly as he sees it, from the bird’s perspective. He’s straight talking and to the point, with none of the agenda cloaked posturing done by many in the professional sector. And that, we pragmatic ranchers can deal with. 

Call me idealistic - that it’s not about the bird anymore, but politics plain and simple.  Probably true, but in the end it’s education and constructive dialogue between the folks that spend their time on the land where true long-run conservation has a chance. 

Jack Connelly in his sagebrush sea

Friday, February 10, 2012

In the Haystack

It’s still mild with just a light snow cover. We’re doing a few chores like cleaning up the wood lot and repairing corrals that normally wait until spring. We’ve started feeding hay to the mature cows. Of course we’d like to keep them grazing and feeding themselves, but we’ve run out of standing feed.

Our irrigated farm ground can grow up to three crops of alfalfa over the summer, so cutting, baling, and stacking it to dole out over the winter makes good use of our short but productive growing season. Still it gets more and more difficult to justify the cost of fuel and equipment to support our hay habit. Some people say you can’t feed hay and stay in business, but ranching is never that black or white. It’s about what works – economically, logistically . . . holistically. Each decision is neither right nor wrong until the factors specific to your operation are considered. And in our case, with family help and aged equipment, it works.

Feeding the same time each day is as close to an SOP, a standard operating procedure, as we get here on the ranch. Cattle have a clock in their heads and know when you’re late. I believe timeliness instills trust and a sense of security into the cow herd. What else do they have to do all day? Kind of like old people, meal time is the highlight.

And as monotonous as feeding each day can be, there is a comforting sort of rhythm to it. Breaking into stacks carefully constructed during the heat of July, flaking off the thick slices - the herd following the truck, steam rising off their backs - it’s not so bad. 

Seth and Anna are home for a few days from their FFA officer adventures and helped us feed. They're used to it. They grew up with this chore every winter morning including sundays and holiday vacation. No, they never learned to ski.

Friday, February 3, 2012

An Agreeable Sidekick

As my dog works harder, I do less. I’ll admit to letting Kate do the work behind the herd while moving cows lately as I sit in the pickup with the heater on. While driving along, an occasional word of support for her out the window, I find myself thinking about middle age spread – urck. Not only do I reject the label “middle age” but the thought of spreading is particularly abhorrent.  

Kate is in her element while herding cattle, happy as a lark, tucking this side, then that side, running back to me for approval and then back to the herd. She’s doing what border collies have been bred to do for generations and needs zero encouragement from me. In fact getting her to slow down is my main chore. “Kate, here, here . . . come back, Katie, come here . . . Kate, that'll do!” 

If you’re up to the constant attention required, using a herding dog is pure fun. I admire Kate’s enthusiasm for the job. She’s my hero. What couldn’t I do If I had her work ethic? The dishes would get done lickety-split. Laundry, no problem. Meal preparation, a breeze. What a role model.

Besides her working skills, Kate’s attitude shines. She is endlessly forgiving and adoring. If I scold her, she takes it in stride, ignoring my outburst. If a particular strategy doesn’t achieve the results I expect, why then she’ll try it from a different angle. “How about this?” she asks.  We’d all do better if we didn’t take criticism personal, learned from our missteps, and forged ahead with optimism.

I promise to learn from her lead and be better tomorrow. And as for middle age spread, I hereby resolve to get out and help Kate whether she needs it or not . . . when spring comes, that is.