Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dirty Jobs

July is about used up. It’s hot. We don’t have air-conditioning, but the house stays cool if we open the windows at night and close them tight by 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. It’s one of the best parts of living in Idaho – cool nights.

Mark has been fencing in the hills, which is a never ending job if you’re a rancher. We acquired property 4 years ago whose interior and exterior fence lines are totally electric. It’s been a constant chore getting them to stay charged. The voltage is erratic and it takes multiple chargers being moved from one section of fence to another throughout the season. Mark and Colton came home from an extended stay in the mountains and said they finally got 5,000 volts in the whole thing with one charger!

It’s weed fighting season. Weeds make me think of my great aunt Elsie’s line, “there’s always something to take the joy out of living.” Our land is diverse: dry sandhills intermingled with irrigated pastures, canals, and timbered areas. It’s great for wildlife, but unhandy to keep weeds out of. We’re judicious with herbicides, preferring to manage weeds with cultural methods, but find ourselves spraying to have a chance against their onslaught. I discovered a different kind of thistle while changing water one day. It was huge - as wide as my outstretched arms and taller than me, with stout, leathery leaves. I hacked at the stem with my shovel and it made a cracking sound as it fell to the ground. Ack! I felt like I was in some horror movie where weeds appear overnight and gobble up the children.

Mark tried something different with the heifers. We took the bulls out after 40 days with plans to draw blood from each animal and have it tested for pregnancy proteins. This allows for a tighter birthing window and opens up marketing options for the heifers that didn’t “settle” within the breeding period. Our crew included Callie, Anna, and my sister Becky, a retired vet technician, who drew the blood. She brought her grandkids who hung out in the heat with us, alternately tracking wild kittens in the barn and helping sort blood vials.

After I put the last three head in the chute, I took the kids down the lane to Great Grandma’s for Fresca and donut holes. It’s the best part of ranching, working with family. And unlike much of largescale agriculture today, ranching is still hands-on and family friendly. You have to be intentional about it, though. Callie and Anna, kids once themselves who learned the ropes underfoot the working adults, knew to keep the little kids busy with “jobs” of their own.

Callie, especially, as a kid, wasn’t happy if she had “none jobs.” We laugh about the time when she was 5 years old and helping Gary with some ranch project. When grandpa Eldro arrived, she said he could go home because, as she put it, “Gary already has help!” For children, this learning to do and seeing the results of one's efforts, is critical parenting, and so beneficial as to deserve a line of its own on the profit section of the ranch’s income statement.     

Anna and Mark repairing fence

So mad to find houndstongue here!

working heifers
Clancy and Clara have jobs

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Citizen Science

It’s mid-July and we've had some pleasant, coolish days. To make it even better, the mosquitoes and flies are taking a bit of a hiatus. Wait, what?

We’re heading into the crunch season of irrigation and our streams are already losing their springtime exuberance. The late afternoon wilt can be seen across the hay fields waiting for water.
I’m having fun in my garden. We have beets galore and a variety of greens. I’m planning on surprising Mark tonight with creamed new potatoes and peas!

I’ve had two “citizen scientist” escapades lately. It's apparently an old (ala' Ben Franklin), now new movement to empower the public in natural resource management based not on regulatory actions but on education and volunteerism. 

First I attended a workshop by Tim Ekins, University of Idaho Extension Water Educator, to learn how to monitor parameters of stream health including dissolved oxygen level, velocity and turbidity (cloudiness from suspended particles), pH, temperature, and bank characteristics. The best part was using a screen to collect organisms that live on the bottom of the stream. We sorted through debris with tweezers and transferred any bugs to an ice cube tray for identification. Seth’s fly fishing talk of caddis and stoneflies came alive to me during this exercise. So that's what he was talking about!

The second science lesson was hosting Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition who returned to the ranch to revisit a carbon plot on one of our pastures. Peter educates as he monitors. At one point he pulled out two loupes, small 5X magnifying glasses that fit in your eye socket, and invited me and Colton, a young man working on the ranch this summer, to lie down in the grass and observe the soil surface. Worm castings rose up like boulders and giant ants scuttled around the grass stems. Later we looked at seed heads and tiny bugs on flowers with the loupes. It blows your mind and makes you know how little we grasp of the natural world.  

We ranchers and farmers need to try harder to mix it up with the scientific community. I’ve learned both parties can be skeptical of the other. We cowboys can be intimidated by the scientist’s unfamiliar names of our common plants and their sometimes superior attitude. Likewise, I'm guessing biologists are suspicious of the cowboy culture and don't think they can relate to us. Truth is, a richness comes to the conversation when both disciplines are included. And in my opinion our resource issues will only be successfully addressed when the two “sides” come together.   

Resource management aside, the citizen scientist in me is a perfect fit with the artist in me. Knowing their contribution to the ecosystem only makes the species that live here on the ranch more beautiful.  

They're not endangered around here

fighting over who gets to collect bottom dwelling macroinvertebrates!

Peter eyeing soil life with a loupe

the loveliest grass of all, Indian Rice 

 mules ear and quakies