Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Trails, Bud

Bud Williams is a household word around here. Now he’s gone, but his impact is steadfast. He was an original. He didn’t care what people thought of him; he cared about animals first, ranchers second.

He could be hard on us cowboys. He said he would take the ranch mechanic over the ranch buckaroo because the mechanic was teachable. Ouch.

Mark and I were both raised on ranches that practiced good stockmanship, but Bud took us further. We first heard him speak 18 years ago and we’ve never handled cattle the same since. He put a name and a visual to the interaction between human and animal. He gave us a framework to talk about and practice with employees, with our kids, and with each other.   

He said that your position in relation to the animal or the herd was what mattered. Not how aggressive you were, not whether you could handle a rope, not how hard you could ride, but how sensitive you were to the animal’s natural instincts. As a woman that gave me much needed confidence. Suddenly a style I was comfortable with, attentive and soft, patient yet persistent, was most effective.

Bud talked about an animal’s flight zone and the nuance of working on the edge of that zone. Too far into the zone meant cattle were stressed and looking for a way out. 

This push-pull that exists between us, the human handlers, and our animals is key - how to apply pressure, when to release it, how to use it to achieve your desired outcome. Pressure has been the topic of many conversations on the Pratt Ranch. Anita, concerned that 3-yr-old Seth was up to no good in the goat pen, asked him if he was chasing the animals. "No grandma," he replied, "I’m just pressuring them a little!”

I think Bud lived in an alternate world, in the minds of cattle and working dogs, in all animals. But ironically, these principles apply to our human world as well. They work with the neighbor, your kids, your spouse. Just because force is often used, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. Give them time and room to think. Pay attention and take responsibility for how the relationship is going. Be respectful.

                                                                                                             photo by Anita Pratt

Friday, November 23, 2012

Remembering the Dust Bowl

We enjoyed watching The Dust Bowl on public TV. This 1930’s story of the farmers and “the big plow up” of native grasses in the southern plains has always intrigued me. I didn’t know it lasted so long, ten years, nor that it was such a health menace with dust pneumonia a killer. Man’s ignorance of natural processes has led him to ruin time and time again.

As I saw the photos of the dust storms dwarfing the prairie homesteads, I thought about my blog profile, and how it must puzzle people that I choose the phrase, “I believe in cows and grass” to describe myself. Surely life is much more than cows and grass. And it is, of course. But to the people living in the dust bowl years, the disregard of established perennial grasses meant life and death itself.

I once heard grass described as the skin of our planet.  Despite farming, development, and desertification, grasslands still make up approximately 40% of the earth’s land mass (excluding Antarctica and Greenland). Just as our skin keeps us hydrated and protects us from the elements, so does grass protect the soil. It moderates harsh temperatures, feeds a host of soil organisms, prevents erosion by wind or water, and in concert with grazing animals, provides the ultimate sustainability program. The regular onslaught of droughts and floods, two sides of the same coin of disrupted ecosystems, should make us all cognizant of the health of our soils.

Of course many of our grasslands are forever altered by farming. I was encouraged to read an article in the Capital Press reporting that the Natural Resources Conservation Service is involved in a nationwide effort to teach farmers to improve their soil health in four ways: 1- disturbing the soil as little as possible, 2 – growing as many different species of plants as practical, 3 – keeping soil covered, and 4 – keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible.

So in this season of gratitude, I give thanks for grass, improved farming practices, and for mankind’s journey to learn the gifts of the soil on a grand scale. 

Pratt grasslands await the cows' return

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sunday Drive

It’s as close as we ever get to a Sunday drive - going to check cows. The first herd is about 10 miles away on crop aftermath. It's difficult getting a farmer interested in grazing cows, so we really appreciate my cousin Paul for giving this a try. He ran the pivot after his barley was harvested, and with plenty of seed on the ground, just look at the regrowth! He lives nearby and hauls water to the cows every day. It's a bit of an experiment, so we hope it's a win/win and he'll do it again next year.

Then we drove on up to the older cows in the mountains about 2,000 feet above the valley. As we drove higher and higher the snow got deeper and deeper. It was light and fluffy, so we knew the cows would have no trouble grazing through it. We found them in good shape, sticking their noses up to their eyes in the snow, grazing contentedly. 

The sky was sapphire blue against the snow. I made Mark stop so I could take photos along the way. I felt like my Mom, who always had her camera along when she went to the hills with Dad. There’s been no wind, so every fence post had a cap of snow nearly five inches deep. Snow hung in the branches of the sagebrush, fir, and quakies. And behind it all, a rich golden light. One of those days you try, but can’t quite capture the beauty of.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Herd Work before the Storm

Storm and colder temperatures are headed our way so we pushed hard the last few days getting the cows situated. We moved them to a lower elevation over two days, then worked them through our mountain corrals to receive their annual vaccinations and pour-on internal and external parasite treatment. Mark “mouthed” the oldest cows (checked their teeth) to determine which ones might be ready to go to a ranch with easier living conditions where they don’t have to walk to range each summer. He also replaced ear tags that had been lost. We separated the youngest cows and the selling cows to start home. The main herd will stay at 6000 feet for a while longer.
When we finished working the cows, we turned them out the gate and Kate and I took them up the mountain. After the manure laden ground and close working conditions of the corrals, it was a glorious sight. It’s why we ranch, those moments of watching cattle on grass. They stick their heads in the brush and come up with mouthfuls of native grass, which they love. This grazing exposes the growth points of each plant to sunshine in the spring - good for grass, good for cows, the symbiosis of nature. A creek studded with beaver ponds will provide a good drink. We’ll be back to fetch them before it freezes over.

Seth is home and helped us all three days. So fun to watch him help his Dad and Grandpa. It’s high time we got some return on our many hours of training home grown help.

At day’s end we started the young cows towards home and didn’t put them through the gate at Rawlins Creek until after dark. Booser, our part-time cowboy helper, said with his southern drawl, “Ya’ll are gonna have to get white cows if you expect me to night herd!” 

vaccinating (after Mark dropped his hat in the chute!)