Monday, July 27, 2015


Labor is always an issue on a ranch. Our ranch seems especially so since we do a lot of labor-intensive flood irrigating, put up our own hay and run back and forth from our valley operation to tend cows on our summer pasture in the mountains some 45 miles away.

We’ve had a string of hired help. Some good ones that move on to more lucrative positions. Some poor ones that the only thing we gained was an education by hiring them. Some steal from us. Some are sure they’ll love the ranching life and don’t last the summer. Some we hate to see leave.  

One thing we know for sure, there’s lots to be learned from working on a place like ours. Gary says they should pay us for the first six months.

We’re trying an experiment this year. We’ve toyed with the idea of having summer interns, young people that Mark could use his teaching skills on. Mark was a high school agriculture teacher in his other life and excelled at influencing young people. It’s his forte and I’ve always felt badly that he had to choose between that noble occupation and running a ranch.

So with that idea in mind, Seth had a friend in his fraternity that was interested in working here. Word spread and by spring that number had grown to four. They’re not really interns, they get a regular paycheck, but it’s giving us an idea of what an internship project would look like

Hand picked as they were, it was wonderful knowing their character before they set foot on the ranch. Still, it’s been challenging for Mark finding work for them to do every day. And yes, they’re green. You can’t exactly point them at a task and go about your other work. Training has been ongoing, but how reassuring it is to know we have their strong backs and willing attitudes to lean on these few months. 

They like to show up in the evening when Mark and I are sitting outside on our terrace after supper. Like most kids they stay up late, and visiting with Mark about the day’s adventures and what they’re doing tomorrow is a favorite activity. They laugh and sometimes I have to close the bedroom window against their voices and go to bed.

They’re staying in a little rental house where we spent the first 10 years of our marriage. The house is nearing the end of its useful life – having one last fling before a date with a bulldozer.

Summer is waning and soon they'll be gone. Back to school, back to bigger things. We hope they take a little of the ranch with them. Maybe they'll rise a little earlier, work a little harder and be a little sharper in their observation skills at their next job because of their practice here.

They can set a dam in a ditch and not have it blow out. They can haul a load of hay without dumping the bales. They can split wood, identify weeds, handle a horse, install irrigation headgates, set up and move electric fence, build a brace, and they have a good start on reading cattle.

But our best gauge of the success of the summer was given to us by a conversation our neighbor had with Gary. We lease pasture from Leon and Bonnie. They're retired and enjoy walking their property and sitting on the deck during the summer. The boys have become acquainted with Leon and like visiting with him from time to time as they cut weeds and walk the ditches moving water.

Leon said to Gary, “Mark is a good teacher.”

“Oh, why’s that?” asked Gary.

“Well, he strides right out when he irrigates. I always know it’s Mark from a distance just by the way he walks. When the boys first started they walked pretty slow. Now when I see someone out irrigating, I have to look twice to tell if it’s Mark or one of the boys!”

Austin, Morgan, Drew and Daniel

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fresh Bulls

The rain we had in May means a spectacular grass crop in the mountains. Gary says in his 60 plus years of ranching he’s never seen anything like it. We spent two days this week in the hills and I’d like to spend every day there, soaking in the abundance of it, stowing it in my memory bank for dry years to come. 

It was time to change out some bulls. The cows come into heat and are receptive to breeding all at the same time which requires a healthy bull battery. Seems pursuing the females is hard work, and from time to time we give a few haggard bulls a respite in the valley before going back at it. We had five fresh bulls to put out and five to bring in, three that would take a final ride to the local auction and two that needed a rest. Mark hauled the bulls and I brought the horses along in another outfit.
We dumped the bulls out, had lunch and rode through the herd to gather up Mark’s picks to come home. Loading animals in a stock trailer usually means walking them to a corral or at least backing against a fence to encourage them to walk inside. That said, we’ve had fun figuring out how to save time by loading cattle out in the open.  

Mark knew from experience that the first bull we tried would be a challenge. The bull is what we call “high headed,” wary and ready to move away quickly. He has a large flight zone, that bubble of distance around an animal which they would prefer we not penetrate. We had to trail him across the valley, so we took the opportunity to reassure him that we would respect his flight zone and release pressure if he moved in the direction we wanted him to go. You can’t “shove” an animal on the way to the trailer and then expect it to load when you get there. The same principle applies to handling people if you think about it.

When we got to the open trailer door, the bull made a couple of laps around it, then stopped and looked in – and we stopped and waited. He is typical for our ranch, weighing close to a ton and can move quickly and do exactly as he wants if prompted. He thought about the interior space for a couple of minutes and then stepped calmly inside. Once the first bull got in, the pump was primed and the next four loaded easily.

Mark and I have had our battles working cattle together. There’s a variety of methods that work, and often we’re at odds about how to tackle a particular job - but not today. We worked together just like we’d been at it for 25 years. And this November it will be just that.    

a gorgeous grass year

after scratching in the sagebrush, he calls to the herd

not exactly eager to be back with the ladies

one captured, four to go

Monday, July 13, 2015

Eastward Ho

Anna had time off from her job with the National FFA Organization for the week leading up to the fourth of July, so we decided to make a family trip out of it. Callie took the bus from New York City and Seth flew in from Charleston, South Carolina, and we all rendezvoused in Washington DC. Yes, it was a “pinch me” experience for this mom.  

We took a road trip that started in Maryland at my sister’s home on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Every time I visit I notice the cross-stitched sign on her wall, “East or West, Home is Best.” We kayaked on West River, swam in Donna’s pool and watched for fireflies flashing in her yard. She has a majestic magnolia tree in bloom and I marveled at its milky-white waxy flowers. Magnolias and fireflies – how many romantic lines have been written about these two species?

Next we traveled to Brooklyn (with me driving - what!) and stayed in Callie’s apartment. It was warm enough for Mark to compare us to rotisseried chickens by morning. The next day we toured the nation’s largest rooftop commercial garden, BK Grange. They turn a profit every year and benefit the city by providing “green space” which helps slow run-off during heavy rains.      

From there we drove to upstate New York which lived up to its storied reputation, rolling emerald hills dotted with historic red and white barns and well-kept homesteads. Our destination was Foxfield Farm, the dairy and home of the Quick family where Seth spent time during his year as a national FFA officer. We watched the Quick brothers milk one morning. Now fiftyish, they’ve worked and milked together since their youth. There is a rhythmic beauty to the twice daily ritual, the swish-swish of milk pumping into the bulk tank, the cows at feed waiting their turn at the milker, the hands of the human caretakers moving from cow to cow. Milking starts at 4:00 a.m. and is repeated each afternoon. 

Their family farm is like ours in that we’ve raised good kids with solid values that come from living on the land and caring for animals. Ironically, those values are coveted in the outside world and our kids have a plethora of career options to explore. Can the farm compete for their future? Both of our sons look to return home someday, but how will our businesses change as we transition to the next generation?

We ended our trip in DC on the fourth of July. We started with a patriotic concert at the National Cathedral, squished through the rain following a short visit to the Library of Congress, and finished up with a picnic on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial to await the fireworks on the Potomac. There were twelve of us in our party and we won’t soon forget Leah, Seth’s girlfriend, leading us in the Star Spangled Banner.

Looking back to our first day of the trip, before we got our travel legs under us, we were walking through the airport (was it Houston?) and I said to Mark, “it’s hard to leave home.” He wholeheartedly agreed. It’s hard to get ready to leave and it’s hard to feel comfortable once you’re gone, but traveling is a gift you give yourself. The gift of insight and appreciation for this vast and varied world of ours.     

pure Brooklyn
BK Grange rooftop garden 

beautiful upstate New York

happy cows 

the barn has been around awhile

heading back out to pasture after milking

waiting for fireworks on the steps of Jefferson Memorial