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