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