Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shades of Gray

It’s been cool for mid-June. The hot weather garden plants have stalled out temporarily. 

We’ve had some rain, but not enough to give us much relief. A lightning storm blew through and spawned a fire in the lower elevation mountains along the Blackfoot River. I hate to see that, not that fire is necessarily bad. This one may have a positive effect, but I don’t want anything to encourage the march of cheat grass to the higher country. Parts of our nearby range is starting to burn regularly which encourages more of this annual grass to get a toehold. And with an extremely short green season, hence the name "cheat," it creates a tinder box of fuel. In southwest Idaho this combo has created a vicious cycle that threatens more and more native rangeland.  

We spent a few days in Central Oregon meeting with other ranchers throughout the West, taking a peek into each other’s businesses. We stayed at and toured a ranch where juniper trees are their major invasive problem. In their case, fire suppression is part of the scenario that creates a backlog of trees and the resulting simplification of the ecosystem. Seems every place has its nemesis. It was a beautiful operation with a respectful three-generation family that is addressing their challenges and making sure it works for everyone.

Mark and I went to check on the cows when we got home. We gambled on not needing a horse, so just took 4-wheelers to put out salt. What we found were a couple of very sick calves. Not to be deterred, Mark had me drive slowly alongside the calves while he sat sideways on the back of the machine with his lariat poised. At the right moment he hopped off and tossed the loop over the calf’s head and wrapped the rope around the rack of the 4-wheeler. I held the rope while he carefully gave them a shot of antibiotic and put two pills down their throat with a long handled “gun.” He said when there are sick calves there’s no need to be a cowboy. He's gotten really good at sneaking up on them. The procedure won't make the cover of a magazine but it works.

The older I get the more gray I see, not only in my hair but in all the situations of life. I know the answer to most questions is, "it depends." Whether it's grazing, fire, stockmanship - whatever, tell me how it's done, what other factors are at work, what's your objective? It's hardly black and white. 

a beautiful storm from this vantage

Thursday, June 12, 2014

June, Oh June

June is pure magic. I find lots to worry about, it’s just my nature - from world scale concerns like climate change and invasive species, to my own backyard landscaping which is progressing at a snail’s pace and what to fix for dinner. But every day there’s an underlying thrill, a great satisfaction, from simply living in Idaho on a ranch in June.

We moved a group of yearlings to the pasture in front of the house. We like to watch their grazing behavior over our morning coffee.

The replacement heifers are on a piece of rented property on the other side of town. Mark and I have regular dates changing paddocks. Yesterday following a move we bought a sandwich at the co-op and sat on the grass in the park for a picnic. That’s a rare occurrence.

I get regular updates from Seth who is interning at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma. It’s tall grass prairie country, so he filled me in on the particular challenges producers face with too much, and not very nutritious grasses. One of the research projects he is working on is mob grazing. He was helping set up electric fence yesterday and dealing with cattle that weren’t trained to it. He said it felt like home!

I went with my friend Jack to visit the grazing/grouse research project being conducted nearby. We observed the technicians, Haley, from Portland, Oregon, and Jennifer, from San Diego, California, laying out a monitoring transect to measure vegetation traits of grouse nesting sites. This particular hen’s clutch had been predated. Her radio collar had sent a mortality signal, and we found feathers at the site so surmised she was wounded when the eggs were eaten. I enjoyed learning about the specifics of the project, but even more I enjoyed the conversations with Jack, a grouse biologist, and the stops along the drive to walk through and discuss what we see happening with vegetation on the landscape.

Yes, we’re behind, no we’ll probably never be “caught up.” When I get discouraged I think of a great line from Emily Dickinson, “to live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else.” And I feel better just living. 

changing paddocks

changing paddocks, again

company for coffee

this hen picked poor habitat for a nest

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Ranching Game

I spent a few days off the ranch and came home to an explosion of plant life. The orchard grass is waist high and all headed out. When did that happen? The annuals are already hardening off. Spring has barreled headfirst into summer.

The vegetable garden is starting to look lively. The peas and onions are up and the potatoes are just peeking through. I’m trying sweet yellow peppers and cabbage plants for a change.

Mark and I spent two days fencing in the mountains. We inherited an electric fence that needs lots of TLC. We tightened it after its winter rest and then tried to get it all charged. We each had a 4-wheeler and walkie-talkies and only got two-thirds of it hot.  

The hills are green upon green. The tiny white daisies, fleabane, are in bloom, as are bluebells and the loveliest of all, periwinkle camas. Part of the fence line goes up through the quakies. We followed a winding leaf-covered trail through the timber that looked like it had been landscaped just for us.

We stayed one night in the Meadow Creek cabin which was supposed to save us time, but with setbacks including a flat tire, we didn’t get home until dark. Now that the cattle are in the hills, it's a well beaten trail we travel back and forth. 

Sometimes it feels like Mark and I are trapped in the last of the old, struggling to transition to the new. We’ve complicated the ranch with more ground and more intensive management but can’t seem to get around it all. We embrace new technology only if it fits our philosophy of ranching. We like our old trucks and equipment, still irrigate largely with a shovel, and prefer pasture and “waste” ground to monoculture intensive farming. We would love to be totally pasture and range, but our valley ground is too valuable not to farm. Add dry conditions to the picture and it really gets complicated.

The fencing scenario in the mountains rings true for the whole ranch. Rusted barbed wire remains alongside new high-tensile wires for carrying electricity. Each time we tend the fence we have to carry supplies for fixing the old along with supplies for maintaining the new. Sometimes a stray barbed wire grabs a high tensile wire and shorts the whole line. I can’t help but see the analogy of that!

Navigating this vortex we find ourselves in is confounding. How do we balance the needs of the two older generations who live on the ranch with our own needs, and also look ahead to creating/maintaining a ranch that is viable for our kids and hopefully grandkids? It’s not for the weak of heart. 

old and new