Friday, March 30, 2012

The View

We moved the heavy (uncalved) heifers to the pasture in front of our home, right out our picture window. This morning as the sun rose over Higham’s Peak, streaking pink and then orange, the outlines of the cows appeared. We watched a mother and her brand new baby coming across the pasture. The calf would follow mom slowly for a bit and then lope a circle around her while she twirled a 360 to keep him within view. Then the baby would run away and mom would follow, her neck outstretched and ears thrown forward with concern.

One winter morning, out this same window, we watched a coyote hunting in the snow. He tiptoed all senses on high alert, listening . . . then would pounce and gulp down his prize.  He gobbled up seven mice, one after the other as we watched. When we got the two young horses, Gent and Jane, we watched the older geldings in power plays to win Jane’s attention. On other mornings the horses graze quietly, with dominance games settled, they paw through the snow for their breakfast.

This changing pastoral scene is the backdrop to our lives. When we’re very old we’ll still relish that first cup of coffee of the day and the life out our front door. It’s not particularly majestic, just a pasture backed by humble sandhills and the sage covered Blackfoot River Mountains in the distance. In July the grass lies in windrows awaiting the baler. In September, rabbit brush in bloom dot the hills with gold. And in January and February the snow lies quiet, the sky gray and icy.

Designers talk about the focal point of a living space. This is ours - the view. And as we watch the sun take the day from its slowly moving vantage, east to west and back again, we live our lives. Coffee anyone?  

Friday, March 23, 2012

Red Meat in the Cross-Hairs - Again

There’s new research out as reported in the L.A. Times, claiming that red meat consumption is associated with a 13% increase in premature death.  Not junk food, not sugar, not soda pop or beer or potato chips, just red meat. What the reporter (and the average reader) neglects to consider is the word “associated,” for in truth there is no cause and effect conclusion by the research. It's what is called an observational study, people filled out a questionnaire every four years telling the researchers what they ate, but no risk factors were isolated to determine if red meat really “caused” anything. 

More disturbing is that red meat eaters were more likely to lead sedentary lives, be smokers, drinkers and have a higher body mass index. So . . .   let’s see, it was the red meat that did it? Not the waistline, the cigarettes, the alcohol or the lack of exercise? Perhaps these slackers ignore their health overall. Maybe they ignore the warning on cigarettes and stupid red meat studies as well. Perhaps red meat, as healthy as it is, can’t overcome their other poor lifestyle choices?

The timing was perfect on this article, as I had just finished a fascinating book by Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat and What to do About it. Taubes is a science trained journalist who has reviewed tons of nutritional studies and debunks the “fat makes fat” premise. He says it’s all about carbohydrates and how they direct the body to store fat. Since obesity is increasingly blamed for everything from diabetes to alzheimers, shouldn’t our focus be on carbs? Additionally, the major black eye for red meat has been the belief that it causes heart disease. Even this, according to Taubes, has never been confirmed in study after study.    

Sadly, the research garnered worldwide attention and furthered the breathtaking agenda of those determined to vilify meat. Today I’ve been perusing the internet, reading comments from mothers wondering what to feed their kids since hamburgers are off limits. What these Moms don't recognize is that beef is truly unbeatable for what it offers a body – protein, zinc, B vitamins, selenium, iron, phosphorous, etc. Even highly celebrated fruits and vegetables don't compare well with the nutritional components of beef. And even worse, as folks try to find an alternative to meat, they often replace it with carbohydrates - rice, pasta, potatoes, white bread, etc.

After stewing about the study for a few days, I went to Taubes’s website and found his apt rebuttal to the study. And by following comments from his readers, I found a whole underground of fitness experts, medical professionals, researchers, and paleo diet followers who echo his claims. 

As an aside - now stay with me on this - how much do you know about the diet of songbirds? On a different day, on a different internet rabbit trail, I was researching what we could do around the farmstead to provide for songbirds. What struck me was their diet. Birds eat insects while nesting because they need lots of protein and fat for developing baby birds and to fuel endurance for foraging. And here’s what really caught my eye - they change their diet to grains and fruits in late summer to lay on fat for the coming migratory journey.  Oh really!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

March Madness

The daffodils and tulips are showing their heads and I may forego the long underwear tomorrow. It must be spring.  

We had our seventh set of twins on the ranch, only these were born to Jesse, our loyal employee. They came a few weeks early, so he’s splitting his time between the ranch and the neonatal unit in Idaho Falls. The twins are doing great and other than sleep deprivation, Jesse is loving fatherhood. I know he’ll make a good Dad because I’ve seen his gentle, patient work in the calving barn.

I noticed with Mark and now with Jesse, that ranchers think they’re extra funny when they become fathers. Jesse, who is good at suckling calves that need a little extra help, jokes about using his “lactation consultant” skills on his wife! And because the mother, Milee, is oriental, he claims the twins are doing especially good because of hybrid vigor. Somehow these jokes are less funny to the mother!

We had our GAP audit this week. GAP is the acronym for Global Animal Partnership, a group dedicated to “improving the lives of farm animals.” We require this certification as members of Country Natural Beef. The auditor, who ranches in Colorado, was very thorough, looking at Mark’s detailed records and quizzing us on handling techniques, health treatments, and animal care in general. We don’t mind the questions and generally believe the more animal welfare advocates and ranchers communicate, the better off we’ll all be. With this crazy cattle market, however, we’ve yet to see a real payoff for our efforts.

Anna took off for the Oregon and Montana state FFA conferences yesterday. It’s been fun having her home. She and I have been feeding the herd by ourselves. We trade off driving and kicking off feed. It goes fine until we get bushwhacked by an unruly oat bale that collapses despite our great effort. Then it takes two of us to get the thing back in shape.   

I’m certainly more than just a rancher, but you wouldn’t know it from the photo assignments I’ve been taking to my photography class. I think the instructor is a little puzzled at my cow fetish. 


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring Starts

The first sounds of spring are the gurgles of the red-wing blackbirds in the willow branches. And now the meadowlarks and killdeers are back. A few robins hang around all winter, but now they’re massing for choir practice at daybreak. They greet Mark as he comes in from the early heifer check in time to fix me breakfast!

New green shoots are showing through the old grass. I've noticed that blades of grass pop up a couple of inches in early spring and then wait . . . perhaps collecting solar energy, waiting for the go-ahead from nature before staking their future on growing leaf length.

We made the first move of the calvey cows away from the new pairs. It’s always interesting to watch how easily the uncalved cows separate themselves from the nursery. They have a totally different frame of mind – a sort of “devil may care” attitude.  I’m ready to travel, where shall we go?

We moved them to the Gardner place, one of the last remaining wooded properties in the area. Thank goodness the owners had real jobs in town so they weren't compelled to doze the trees and sagebrush and plant spuds. It works out good for cows . . . and cowboys.  It can be howling wind, but at Gardner’s all is quiet and peaceful.

We had 10 or so calves overnight following the move. This little guy was born as we were feeding hay. I can just feel the Mom's sandpapery tongue gathering up slimy amniotic fluid, stimulating her baby while drying him off. This process ensures that his unique smell is firmly imprinted on her psyche, and they’ll use this scent to hook to one another throughout life. He’s getting a good start, and just like human babies, that’s what it’s all about. 


Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Cheatgrass Grazing Debate

We had to make a quick trip to Boise and stopped to check the calves on their winter pasture. Bob, their caretaker, met us and we jumped in his rickety fencing pickup to make the final bumpy ride. The calves came to meet us, curious, a few bucking and playing in the distance. 

It’s always fun to look at grass and this range is unlike anything we have here at home. Looking out across the sward you’d swear it was solid annual cheatgrass, but upon closer inspection, you see lots of perennial poa bunchgrass, with cheatgrass in the interspaces. 

Annual grass plants have their place, but perennials are more desirable for lots of reasons. They have deeper roots which stabilize the soil and reach further for moisture, and they have a longer window of palatability for cattle and wildlife. Annuals dry off quickly and are prone to returning fires.

Bob told us how his grazing management promotes healthy perennials. He said that removing last year’s growth allows sunlight to reach the growing point of the perennials and removes some of the competition from the annuals. He makes sure to take the cattle off early, usually by mid-May, to allow the plants to regrow and “recover” completely before returning.

Surveying the grazed portions, Bob said he would like to see it all looking like this. If it did, they “might have a chance against fires.” Wildfire, the biggest threat to healthy rangelands in Idaho’s low elevation areas, is uppermost in Bob’s mind. Last year’s moisture means lots of highly flammable standing dry material and fires move quickly here impacting hundreds and often thousands of acres in a hurry.

The calves will soon be moving to federal land operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Bob would like them to allow more animals to help eliminate some of the dry grass, but government standards aren’t as changeable as weather patterns. 

Using grazing to moderate cheatgrass stands is hotly debated. Some people believe that overgrazing of perennials by cattle and sheep caused the widespread presence of cheatgrass. Some people believe that well managed grazing is the only way to get the perennials to return. I believe both are right.

Grazing can be good, grazing can be bad, it depends on management. What time of year are the animals present? How long do they stay? When do they return? Getting it right means good things on the land.