Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Notes

Ahhh, September, harvest time.

I'm not a hard core food preserver. My Mormon neighbors can “can” me under the table. Still, I’m pretty proud of the produce I put away for the winter: an assortment of pickles, beets, pears, beans and apple pie filling, frozen corn and raspberry jam, spaghetti and butternut squash for keeping and red potatoes to stash in the cold room.

Why don’t people grow gardens? How much chemical, mowing, and irrigation do we put into our lawns with only a view to show for it? Seems nuts to me. And, sorry, but I see acres and acres of lawn with nothing more going on. No volleyball net or Frisbee lying around. No kids playing, no tents set up, no lawn chairs. To me a lawn is for using. If you can’t use it, might as well put a goat on it.

I went to change water today and came home with an armful of apples from an old tree in the pasture and a bunch of sumac branches in full color. I came in the house, showed Callie my treasures, and said “this . . . is autumn!”

Mark has been pumping water every day for the cow herd. I was with him one day and it rained so hard the cattle hardly came to water. We turned on the generator, had our cookies and coffee and took a nap. Tough stuff.  

A banker once told me (he’s not our banker anymore!) that he envied the life of a rancher, “sitting on a horse watching the sun set over the mountains.” Yeah, right. More like:  guarding the float in a water trough while cattle fight to get a drink, getting soaked with wet snow, getting home after dark in time to gulp down some Campbell’s soup, fall into bed and do it all again the next day.  

Still, ranching has its perks. As we waited for the storage tanks to fill, the rain quit and we did some fencing. There was a mob of bluebirds, fifty or so, flitting from sagebrush to fence post and back again, flashing their brilliant blue on the fly. 

I was a bank employee in my other life. I liked the work. I liked dressing up, the paycheck and working in a clean and comfortable office. I’d do it again most of the year, but I’ll take the ranching life in September. 

Thanksgiving pies?

old timey

portable water system will go home when the cows do

rainy weather means gorgeous skies

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Grazing St. Ignatius Style

We’re back from a two-day grazing workshop in St. Ignatius, Montana.  We were in need of a grazing fix and this did the trick. But even without the education opportunity, our visit to a diverse community on the Montana map was a treat. 

The venue was spectacular. The town is located in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation between Missoula and Glacier National Park, at the foot of the Mission Mountains, where a dusting of snow had just graced the topmost peaks. Emerald green irrigated fields surrounded by rain soaked mature grasses lay out in every direction.  

I called ahead to the Sunset Motel so we got one of the remodeled rooms on the ground floor. No, there’s no in-room hair dryer or coffee maker, but Mike, the proprietor, has an espresso shop just off the motel office. That is, if you can wait until he opens at 8:00 a.m.

We had breakfast across the street at the “Old Timer CafĂ©.” You bet the morning coffee crew was there! Overhearing bits of their conversation, I thought how the scene and the banter was being repeated all over America. “Did you ever get your hitch fixed?”

The town’s main attraction is the Roman Catholic Mission, an imposing structure built in 1891 by Flathead Indians and Jesuit missionaries. It's open to visitors and we took our turn gazing up at the multitude of frescoes painted by the church handyman and cook.  

The workshop was held at the warm and welcoming Amish Community Center, a spacious building of hardwood floors and propane light fixtures with little hand manipulated mantles. The ladies room, complete with a real towel for washing up, adjoins a furnished nursery. Reverence for family and tradition permeates the space.    
The Amish women served us fresh homemade doughnuts both mornings. Not the air-filled, super-sweet, store bought kind, but dense bready pastries like my Mom made. This was followed by meat loaf and ham for lunch, homemade rolls and berry jam, pies - you get the idea. I felt spoiled. It was my vacation ideal – good food and "change the world" conversation, grass education and pasture walks.

Sometimes we come home discouraged from events like this. We feel like the sideboards we operate within make excellent grass management impossible. Okay, so we belong to a grazing cooperative where change comes slowly if at all. Yes, we’re surrounded by farmers that don’t like cattle hooves on their soil. We live 45 miles from our summer pasture, etc. The roadblocks are many. We've been through all that and have the bruises to show for our efforts. But for some reason we got past that this time. We can talk now about what we can implement without convincing anyone else to change. And as long as we keep learning, that’s good enough.        

beautiful Mission Valley

breakfast with the locals

ready for a new pasture break
note "wasted" grass left behind to feed soil microbes

changing paddocks

Thursday, September 12, 2013


It’s raining again. Listening to it outside my darkened office window is like getting a deep massage.

We’re settling into a pleasant September routine that includes Callie, our oldest daughter who’s been home for a month now. She rode Sly, the veteran, as we moved the main herd into an adjacent pasture last week. She was alone for much of the day, gathering cattle across Paradise Valley. Alone, but so unlike the alone she feels negotiating the crowds in New York City, where people look at the ground instead of making eye contact.    

When we were done for the day, she said for the first time in a long time she didn't consciously need to calm her brain and try NOT to think; she was naturally at peace. She spent the day moving her horse in tune with the cattle from muscle memory, from her “animal brain not her analytical brain.” For a young woman who’s been struggling to get control of her mind and emotions for years, it’s a welcome relief.

Callie is beautiful and talented . . . and clinically depressed. Finally, after years of trying to deal with it on her own and chasing a “positive attitude,” she reached out for help. She talked to nutritionists and counselors, doctors, family and friends. She researched and discovered undiagnosed hormonal issues. And from this holistic knowledge base, she is addressing her health from all angles including diet, nutritional supplements, a Zoloft prescription, greater focus on relationships, yoga, meditation, and most of all self-care.

Part of her treatment is taking a break from New York City. She’s been doing ranch work, hanging with family, eating from the garden, diving into a painting project, and letting go of expectations. After a couple of weeks of adjustment, she seems back to the Callie we know. Of course there are challenges ahead, but we know she’s turned a corner in her healing.   

Far from the sirens of the city, the quiet of the ranch has been good therapy. She described her ride on Sly as a “deep, deep familiarity,” which comes from her own history being raised on the land with horses and cattle. But perhaps it goes deeper still. To a time when we as a species lived in concert with nature. It’s in her DNA after all. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Closing Up Shop

We got him from a local breeder. He was a good one - fleshy and thick, with a moderate frame, solid feet and a docile temperament. He was only five years old, but a bull's productive life is short. Older bulls can carry a venereal disease, trichomoniasis, which causes spontaneous abortions and is impossible to detect 100%, so we had to let him go. Our grazing cooperative only allows bulls four and younger, so this season he stayed home with his own group of cows.  

He’s the kind you can load in a trailer out in the open - responsive to handling and eager to do what you ask. He knows it’s less work that way. Honest; that’s what he’s been. He cycled grass and fathered plenty of good beef. His contribution to the herd will live on in his progeny.

We know it’s a business – all about debits and credits, but that doesn’t mean we go about it without compassion. This fellow has had a good life. Summers spent with adoring females. Winters spent in agreeable companionship with hand delivered feed. And finally, he’ll make lots of meals of high quality protein.

We dropped him off at the auction yards in town. The end of the line. We watch him go with respect and thanks for his good work.