Sunday, December 10, 2017

Then Winter Came

The first snow with cold, cold temperatures is a sea change on the ranch. We were busy doing something . . . and now we switch gears and do something entirely different.  

The change in weather means the cows had to come home. We always think we might get a few more days of grazing in the mountains, but old man winter has his way. Our fall pasture is on the other side of steep mountain grades, so when the weather turns, we go for the cows. Mark’s tripping back and forth to the mountains is over until spring. Time to hunker down and tend things close to home.

We worked cows yesterday. They needed their annual shots so each one had to be put through the working facility. We had a wood stove blazing near the chute, but it was still bitter cold. This particular set of corrals hadn’t been used in a while so we had to iron out a few kinks as the day progressed. Ten head escaped out the back of the corral and another cow jumped out and bent a steel section. We gathered up a couple of panels, a long pole and a broken wooden gate and jimmied up a temporary fix. On top of that, the cows didn’t want to load in the crowding pen nor leave through the working chute. We coaxed every one through and finished just at dusk. I was so ready to be done!   

Despite the difficulties, everyone stayed agreeable and we eventually (as Gary likes to say) “wore them out.” It’s one characteristic of many I appreciate about our ranch. We don't argue while working cattle because we know we need each other's help. We may disagree on some business elements, but we’re diligent about keeping a positive working environment and for that I thank the previous generations. It’s one tradition we’re determined to keep.

Before the snow came, I took a photo of Anna and Mark catching horses and planned on using it in my blog. It’s a good one of a father and daughter starting the day. Then November got away from me and now the scene has changed so much it doesn’t seem to fit anymore. Mark assured me it didn't matter. I could write about the changing seasons he said. I guess a last, longing look-back is okay.

As we wrap up another production year, we take stock. We add up inventories, divvy expenses, balance the accounts and count our blessings. Among our blessings has been Seth and Leah living close by and helping us on the weekends.  

Leah, California raised, is spending her first Christmas in Idaho. She has a sense of joy and wonder about the snow. I found her a pair of gently used overalls on the high shelf in the mudroom. They were just her size and kept her warm working cattle. When I said she could take them home, she smiled and said, “a Christmas miracle!” Kind of sheds a whole new light on winter.   

Jane, Anna, Sis, Mark


the crew


a good calf crop on processing day


Kate bringing them home while I drive the (warm) pickup


waiting their turn
(photo by Seth)


one more to go
(photo by Seth)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Left Messy for Wintering Wildlife

Originally published as Commentary in the Post Register on October 18, 2017

I saw three wooly caterpillars on my walk today. They were rushing across the paved road, determined to find the perfect overwintering spot, a pile of leaves or a bit of dried grass to hide under. In the spring they’ll turn into tiger moths and be part of the web of life we enjoy during the summer months.

I’m cheering for them because in our world it’s fall clean-up time. For farmers tidying post-harvest and homeowners hoping to improve the look of frost beleaguered floral beds, we rush to rake, pile, till and otherwise rid the landscape of organic refuse. Or is it refuse after all?

Not if you’re a worm, a goldfinch, a partridge or a ladybug. That goldfinch will thank you for leaving seedheads standing on your long-past brilliant patches of black-eyed susans. Partridges will make use of any standing brush, weeds and grasses as food and shelter, not only from winter winds, but from the jaws of a coyote. Ladybugs and other beneficial insects need rough organic material to overwinter. A few limbs left in the corner of your yard or a pile of leaves at the base of a tree might be home to adults or eggs that will hatch in the spring.

Driving the roads this fall, look for signs of fellow citizens making a difference for living organisms that can’t come indoors for the winter. Thank a farmer for standing crops, the pivot corner planted to perennials, or a windbreak at the edge of his field. Thank a rancher for deep pastures and for keeping open spaces, “open.”  Thank the irrigation company for trees, grasses and weeds that line the canals in our community.  

And it’s not just for wildlife in the traditional sense. I mean “wild” life, including organisms that live in the soil. Some above ground protection and roots left intact below ground mean homes for the millions of microorganisms so vital to healthy soils. Don’t till the garden and kick them out just when the weather gets nasty.  

If that isn’t reason enough, consider that standing perennials catch snow, adding beauty and definition to the winter landscape. And who doesn’t love bird watching in the winter?      

But I have it easy you say. I live in the country and no one cares if I leave my flowerbeds and garden in disarray. What if you live in the city? What will the neighbors think? How about we all get lazy and stick a yard sign out front, “Left messy for wintering wildlife.”

But if you insist, we always welcome lawn clippings and bagged leaves to our ranch in the sandhills. It’s much better than the landfill. Contact me at prattcattle@gmail.com. I”ll meet you at the gate. 



still beautiful


Monday, October 23, 2017

Alone

We spent four days at the mountain ranch weaning calves. Everybody but Mark and I went home after we separated the herd. Early the next morning and every day thereafter, we rode the 4-wheeler out to a fence to make sure the wire was energized between the two groups of cattle. Then we walked a fair distance, crossing the creek at a path of rocks, then climbing towards the ridge line, winding our way through brush and lichen covered rocks and dormant bunch grasses. As we neared the ridge, the bawling of the cows and calves grew louder. From the top we could see the herd stretching out along the fence line and Mark could check the whole expanse through binoculars.

It was an impressive sight, but no rancher likes weaning and seeing his cattle in distress, even if only for the 3-4 day weaning process. Yes, they were walking the fence, but the calves looked healthy and full. Fresh grass and clean, plentiful water are paramount in keeping the calves from getting sick.  

There’s a tiny cabin at the ranch with a front porch and a swinging bench, but we never have time to stop and take in our surroundings. Imagine my surprise when Mark agreed to sit with me wrapped in a sleeping bag as the sun set, watching the horses graze out to the east, the view reaching clear to Wyoming. We hardly talked, just sat.

The nights were long. We had a propane lantern, and standing under it, I read aloud to Mark a book by Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home. A ranch girl, Jordan made her way from Cheyenne to Colorado State to Yale, and never returned to the ranch, but she loved it always. Her words hit home with us. Words about loss . . . of ranches, of rural communities, of people we love.

I took an empty journal to keep at the cabin. Well, almost empty. It had one entry written by Mark in November of 1997, 10 years ago. I see the book as part guestbook, part a record of happenings at the ranch, part Wendy’s musings (imagine that). I wrote the second entry about the previous owner and how we came to purchase the property after 30+ years of renting. The owner was a gentle soul who didn't fit the image of a traditional cowboy. We never saw him in a Stetson hat or cowboy boots. He wore lace up shoes and rode a horse like a farmer, but he could get more done with cattle on a horse than many men who looked the part.

I’m trying to figure out why the march of time comes to mind so often when we’re up at the cabin. Maybe it’s thinking about the generations of stockmen who have ridden, wrangled, and hunkered out a living on these windy vistas. Maybe it’s because I keep imagining a future when our grandchildren will occupy the now empty top-bunk in the rafters of the cabin. Maybe it's the quiet. 

On our last night I had a dream that Callie was a baby again and I had the chance for a “do-over” raising her. I wanted to, but knew that I was too old and I never saw anyone else getting a “do-over” so doubted that I could pull it off. I told Mark about the dream in the dark of the morning as we put off getting out of the covers.

I said, “I don’t think the passage of time weighs on you as heavily as it does on me.”

His reply was somehow comforting. “It does, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The darn thing just keeps on moving. All you can do is change the way you do it while you’re living it.” 

early morning catch

A good roll follows a day under saddle

day four, spectacular skies 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cowboy Science

We’ve spent the last week getting the herd settled in our highest elevation pasture. Snow, please hold off. I say this as blizzards break records across the Rockies.

There’s something about fall cattle feed. The grasses are tall, straw colored and seeded out, except for the green leaves at the base of the plants, especially in a wet fall like we’re having. Looks good enough to eat.

There’s an ethereal element to time spent in the fall field. The days are alternately warm and cold, windy and quietly still, crystal clear then cloud covered as the cattle come in and out of view perusing the perimeter of a pasture saved for them during the heat of summer. The calves have a special bloom to their coat – beef in the making.

I’ve been immersed in “range” in more ways than one. I’m reading a history of range science, The Politics of Scale, by Nathan Sayre. It’s too academic for me, but if I go slow enough, underline enough, and read and re-read, I’m good. I always grin at academics who insist on using “temporal and spatial” instead of “time and space.” I know it’s a different application, but every time I come across either word I have to remind myself what it means.

“Scale,” is another word that has broad implications to science as it relates to time and space in a range landscape. In simple terms, it means that research conducted on one landscape cannot readily be applied to other areas of different sizes, different locations, and with different variable factors over time such as weather and grazing. Every region, every watershed, every ranch is different. As is every growing season. Idaho is diverse enough to prove that.

Even in the same pasture, plants can be over-grazed and over-rested. The merging of cow and grass is confounding in its complexity.

Mark and I started work on taking down an old fence, removing staples that held the wire to the posts and then rolling up the old wire in large circles. A few cows came over to see what we were doing. We wondered about the men who built the fence and how many had visited it year after year, repairing the damage caused by snow so they could put the cows in. It’s cowboy work, fencing and tending cows. And looking at grass.

We cowboys (and girls) and range scientists have a lot in common and much to divide us. We use different terms, but in the end, we love the same rolling vistas of robust bunchgrasses, the heavy lift of a sage grouse, the brilliance of quakies in autumn. 









Tuesday, September 19, 2017

That One Sunset

The last nest of barn swallows on our porch fledged just in time to meet up with the hordes gathering along the power lines for their trip south. They’re all gone now. Or so I thought. This morning five birds were back, darting around the now vacant nest and perching on the gutter like old times. One more spin around the neighborhood. One more look back at their childhood home. A bit of nostalgia, which is fitting for September. I feel it too.

The horses keep coming in from the pasture with wads of burrs in their mane and tail, so Mark sent me out with my pruners to find the renegade burdock plants. Sure enough quite a few were hiding under the trees and amongst the weeds along the canal. There was something so familiar about the wind and the cool and the pungent scent of plants after a rain. It’s the smell of maturity, of grass laid over, sagebrush in bloom and damp dirt. Just fall I suppose.

I saw three monarch caterpillars last week. “HURRY!” I admonished them. I’m afraid they won’t make it out of here because there's frost in the forecast by Thursday.

What a change of mindset fall brings! A flip-flop designed to get you to address those remaining outdoor chores before the weather drives us indoors.  

We vaccinated the calves pre-weaning. We gathered a large pasture, separated the cows from the calves and then put the youngsters through a portable chute we had set up on the range. It was the first time we’ve tried that and it didn’t work very well. Sometimes despite pre-planning and the best of intentions, the design just doesn’t flow and it’s a chore to put every animal through. I brought a sick calf down to the vet mid-morning, and when I returned, a one-and-half hour drive each way, the crew was finishing up the last 30 head and was totally spent.

We finished and unsaddled the horses to head home, only to find the cows escaping through an electric fence that wasn’t hot. Callie and I ran around them with the dogs and got them turned back without much trouble. Callie, fresh from the city and undaunted by the long day, was full of smiles and exclaimed over the beauty of the evening. I stopped and looked around and she was right. The sun was slanting behind the mountains, the cows were burying their faces in fresh feed, the dogs were happy to be let out of the trailer with a job to do, and we had the whole of the mountains to ourselves.

Seth caught the moment with a photo that I need to hold in my mind’s eye every day. As we head into fall cattle work, I’m not feeling very strong. I’ll be fine once we get in the flow, but I’m not looking forward to the cold mornings and I’m out of shape to be horseback. Oh, but wait, my friend H.W. made me a rawhide covered cushion for my saddle! I feel better already.  



Monday, September 4, 2017

A September Welcome

Since the total eclipse, I’ve been keeping my eye on the moon just in case it has any more shenanigans in store for us. It’s waxing its way to a full moon on the fifth. The Farmer’s Almanac calls it the “corn moon,” followed by the “hunter’s moon” of October, the “beaver moon” in November (when the pelts were ready), and the “long nights moon” of December.

I have always loved the Native American names for the full moon. What would we name our moons today? September might be the “back-to-school moon” and October the “trick-or-treat moon.” November would definitely be the “turkey moon,” followed by the “shopping days moon” of December and the “super bowl moon” in January. That’s how far away we are from the natural world.

Until, of course, events like the wildfires on the Great Plains this spring, the forest fires of the West this summer, or Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast slam us to attention.

Mark and I spent a day at the farthest reaches of the ranch fixing fence and checking water. It was just like I like it: a picnic in a rundown homesteader’s cabin, a good workout moving rocks to repair a wash-out, then mostly just riding the 4-wheeler around looking at grass, getting a drink at the spring, a little fencing, and then a nap before heading back home.

I’ve done the domesticity thing too, canning pickles from the garden and making applesauce and apple pie filling from the transparent tree in the horse pasture. When I was picking apples I felt like my Uncle Doug who used to hide in the limbs and throw apples at us as we walked home from school. When I processed the apples and the cucumbers I felt like my Mom. I used her recipes and was happy to see that she had the vinegar/water ratio written down for from one to seven quarts, however many cukes you had ready in the garden. 

She preserved food effortlessly, or so it seemed. For me, canning takes me all day and it’s haphazard with a hurried-up trip to town for more lids or needed ingredients. And when I’m finished, usually after dark, I still have to clean up all the pans and the sticky floor. But oh, the click of a jar as it seals when the kitchen is clean and the jars are lined up on the counter!

I took a day to go to the hills with my cousin to change water at her mountain pasture and see her cows. We spent a lot of time together as kids, but haven’t taken advantage of the fact that we both have our families raised, she’s retired, and now we can enjoy a drive to the mountains we both love. We stopped on the way home to weave clematis wreaths from the vines that grow along the fence lines. Such fun. Her text when we returned home said it right: “laughter is such good therapy!”

She left some fresh sweet corn on our porch the next day. Just one of the many gifts of September. And just in time for the corn moon. 

wild clematis makes a lovely wreath


dipping a drink from the spring


the Lone Fir Ranch

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Day(s) after Totality

In 1918 a total eclipse visited Idaho, and the path of totality was just a few miles south of our own 2017 phenomenon. My Great Grandmother Just wrote about it in her diary. The family had traveled to be with friends for the occasion. The eclipse arrived late in the day. She wrote simply: “A jolly time, all were so happy.”

That’s a fine description for our 2017 experience as well. Nearly 100 years later we gathered at my cousin’s house which has a good view of the mountains and the Snake River Valley below. It was a festive atmosphere. As we waited and watched, I ran in and out of the house tending my crock-pot potatoes, losing my eclipse glasses often, only to pick up random pairs that were lying about for just such an emergency.

As the time neared, we saw that the dappled light coming through the trees had turned into a sprinkling of crescents. The light turned the color of honey, the air cool. We put sweaters on over our summer clothes. At seven minutes to totality my sun-sensitive glasses went clear. And along the horizon behind us a “storm” of violet-grey appeared.

As the slide to totality commenced, I couldn’t sit still and climbed over the fence to the horse pasture. Seth and Leah followed. Then we were caught up in the wonder of it. The moment our glasses went black, we threw them off to see the moon surrounded by a halo of light. Totality is a 360 degree experience. Stars appeared and we threw up our arms and turned in circles and cried and whooped. I agree with someone who called it a “primeval thrill.” It was grand!

Then, oh so quickly and much too soon, the “diamond ring” appeared as the sun gleamed out on the opposite side, and within seconds the impalpable half-light was back and the lunar march across the sun continued.  

We immediately felt a kinship with those around us who had experienced the thrill as well. We shared the day with family and with strangers from Minnesota who had been planning the trip for three years and by chance ended up in Idaho.They were delighted to have found the perfect hillside for viewing the excitement. We’ll never see them again, but we are strangers no more.

When we returned home, an unexpected line of traffic, no doubt helped by Google Maps, sped past the ranch on our own country road in an attempt to bypass the interstate and highway.

That evening I lingered outside at dusk to see if the rays of the setting sun resembled those of the eclipse. Was it this dark, I wondered? How about now? But day by day, nature doesn’t replicate the ethereal light of a total eclipse.

Some called it God’s handiwork. I can buy that, but let’s not forget the lowly human scientists who predicted the eclipse to the minutiae of detail. It’s science that figured out the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun. And the curious fact that it is 400 times closer to us, which means the two orbs are the same size when viewed from Earth as their masses overlap.   

I can only imagine Grandma Emma’s eclipse experience. They did have "solar" eyeglasses in 1918 and smoked glass for viewing, but who knows if the aids made it to rural Idaho. I do know they didn’t get home until 11:30 pm that night so would have traveled home in the dark, perhaps by buggy. And surely with a newfound sense of awe. She also said they used their first ice of the season on that warm June day. Cut from the river during the winter and stored in the ice house, then brought out for just such a celebration. Imagine!

Since the eclipse, I have been appreciating our dawns and dusks anew. Our planet spins on its axis to create day and night. It orbits the sun to create the seasons. And all around us an incredible diversity of life has evolved in sync with those cycles. Bats and owls and nighthawks soar in the darkness. Nocturnal mammals, the raccoon, badger and cougar prowl, as we homo sapiens on an opposite cycle, sleep. And seasonally, grasses drop seed and go dormant, squirrels and bears hibernate, insects burrow, and songbirds and whales migrate. Let’s not forget this feeling of majesty and mystery we were lucky enough to witness, and step back in honor of a solar system that makes it all possible.   






Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Heads up for Fall

The change is upon us. I only cracked one window last night and it was sweater weather yesterday. Oh, the deliciousness of it.

We woke to a bank of mist that moved across the pasture in front of our house before it dissipated as the sun rose. Mark said it was a sure sign of fall. I heard the word "rhapsodic" today. I don’t remember how it was used, but I can think of no better term for this full-up time of year.  

Anna visited for the weekend and I sent her home with a care package of green beans, beets and little red potatoes. August is good garden fun. The taste of a fresh-from-the-garden vegetable is exquisite, but it’s also the texture. I asked Mark to describe it, but I answered for him as usual! The adjectives that come to mind - creamy, buttery - soft but not mushy, firm but not tough, perfectly tender.

I picked my second batch of beans for canning this morning. I had to lift the renegade cucumber vines off the bean plants to get to the fruit (or vegetable as it were). This time of year we always quote Midwestern humorist, Garrison Keillor, who describes an overgrown garden as x-rated. “Lots of lewd groping going on out there!”

As I picked beans, the bees were loving the cilantro, overgrown now and blossoming. I thought to myself that if everyone had a garden they would understand why we need to let plants express themselves in order to feed bees. We would also know why farm labor is different than non-farm labor and should be flexible in regards to overtime and piecework pay. Harvest must be timely because vegetables and fruit are ready in a very narrow window and quickly out run their prime eating quality.

So many lessons to be learned between the rows of a garden.

Mark made some kids happy at the local 4-H fair by purchasing a lamb and a hog which will be processed at the local butcher shop. I gave them my cutting instructions for the pork yesterday: “four chops to a package and leave the fat on.” Things are shaping up for winter. 

We shipped the last of the heifers to Oregon for finishing. They’ve been grazing the home place all summer. Mark has been moving electric fence around to make our pastures smaller and allow for better utilization of forage and longer recovery periods for the grass. Additionally, when cattle are confined to a small area they feel competitive with one another and consume weeds better. I like to follow them around taking pictures of different “treatments.”

The plant life, both grass and weeds in some cases, bounces back after a quick graze. Pulsing roots and taking carbon from the atmosphere is engaging stuff. Just doing our part for climate change.
Who knew cows were like most of us and our endeavors, we can be part of the problem or part of the solution depending on HOW we do it.  

Kate loves coming upon irrigation water when moving cattle


goal is every plant bitten or trampled
lots of residual


headed back to grad school

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July Notebook

The first week of August is the beginning of the end of summer. July cruises along, day after hot and sweaty day, with no end in sight. Then, all of a sudden, it’s August, and the morning air has a new snap to it and you know summer is winding down.

We’re sleeping in the cool of the basement. We sleep in the green room, which was Callie's bedroom and then Anna's. There’s a window just above our heads and we listen to the crickets and feel the cool night air. It’s a mini-getaway that we retreat to each evening.

Mark and I took a day to ride through the Portneuf Wildlife Management Area. What a change to load the horses, drive on the interstate, have lunch in town, and then unload the horses - with no cows in sight! We’re always interested in what “rested” from domestic grazers looks like. If you look across the grass, it appears tall and abundant. If you look down you see a scant stand, old grass from years past, and too much bare ground. We talked about whether it could be improved by strategic grazing. It’s steep and water would be a challenge, but it would be fun to try. One thing is for sure, even rested land has weeds.

Considering all the bottom land we humans have taken from wintering wildlife, it's good to know this 3,000+ acres is reserved for them. I'm glad Idaho Fish and Game had the means to acquire it.     

The garden has exploded. Every year I tell Mark my garden is kind of sad. His response is, “yeah, you always say that and it always turns out.” And he’s right. By August the rows are growing on top of each other and we can’t keep up with the vegetables. I love ignoring the produce section of the supermarket - except for the blueberries and melons, of course.

I’ve been doing battle with barn swallows over who’s in charge of our front porch. We watched them fledge their first five babies from a nest right over the front door, which we enjoyed. I cleaned that all up and thought that was the end of it, but no! We then had a week-long power tussle when they wanted to re-nest. First I put up a big ladder and a mop with a hat on it stuck on top. When that didn't work I anchored grocery sacks to the beams. Then a colorful kite with a long tail. I finally compromised - or got tired - and let them use the south-facing crosspiece where the mess they made would end up in the bushes. Talk about determined!

We had a good morning collecting blood samples from the heifers with help from my sister Becky, a retired vet technician. We started at 6:00 am and were done by 9:30, so avoided the heat. We sent the samples to my niece who has a home-based lab in Emmett, Sage Labs, for analysis. Seth took the morning off to help us as well, so it was a family affair all the way around. Sage sent the results today and now we know who’s pregnant and who’s not and can make marketing decisions based on that information. 

July is good for lots of things. The calves are blooming. The garden is bearing. It’s the only full month I paint my toenails and wear shorts. I hate to see it slip away. 

the mesh cover provides organic pest control - and beauty - after sprinkling

kale





for sitting of an evening in July 


 Wildlife Management Area 


musk thistle
it looks like the rest of the county


a good crew


grass in the mountains
checking to see if the fence is hot

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sly

We’ve been hauling hay. The first days were hot, miserable and sticky. The final day was perfect, with wonderful clouds rolling by and a brisk breeze. It felt almost cool. Mark called it a vacation.

We haul hay to the stackyard in hot air, and haul it back to the cows in cold air. Ranching is nothing if not living in extremes.     

I’m on a cleaning and organizing jag. I hit my pantry then went on to bigger projects. I’ve made attempts at grandpa’s big steel shop in the past, but finally made some real headway last week. And I got help! It was grand: Seth was sweeping, Mark was running the Hotsy on his horse trailer, Amy was cleaning grease guns and Alan was hauling the mega sorting bin out of doors to clean it up. I know there’s a ton of other stuff that needs done, but creating a clean and organized work space sure feels good.    

Our veteran Sly spent a few days with long time family friends who needed a gentle horse for their grandson to ride. Max is only three and fell in love with Sly when his Mom brought him up for an afternoon ride while we were moving cattle two springs ago. Anita got some good photos of the two of them. Look at the expression on Max's face!

Sly is a one-in-a-million horse. Mark would just as soon saddle him up for any job he has in mind, but knows the other horses in our remuda need the experienceSly is as “cowy” as any of them, but he’s also just lazy enough to be “dog gentle” and can tend the most inexperienced rider. He’s big and tall and has a long lumbering stride. He’s a looker too, with horseshow-quality confirmation and should be on the cover of Quarter Horse magazine.

We got him when he was six years old. He was so spoiled that when he got tired of hauling someone around, he would drop to his knees and try to roll! Mark got him over that in a hurry. Our kids 4-H’d on him. He squared up nicely in halter class, but didn’t lead very well. The kids would pull and he would stretch his neck waaaay out before moving his feet ahead. His gentle way kept them safe, and his disposition taught the kids to be active riders, cuing correctly with determination or he would fall asleep!

Sly is getting up in years. We’re not sure what we’ll do without him. Besides Max, he also tended Clara and Clancy, my neice and nephew, on their cattle drive, and sponsored a couple of out-of-town visitors this year as well. Ash from England and Bud from upstate New York got along well with Sly. And today Mark loaded him up to carry a rider on the Governor’s Trail Ride. The call went out for “bomb proof” horses and Sly fits the bill.

I still remember the feeling that winter day when Anna was a little girl and we needed to gather the Brush Creek field. We legged her up on Sly and away we went, knowing he would take good care of her. He’ll go down in the ranch history book as one of the greats.    


one happy kid




he makes a pretty picture

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Always Something

My Great Aunt Elsie said it: “There’s always something to take the joy out of living.” I never knew her, but my Mom repeated the saying quite often. I don’t think she was referring to the really big tragedies, death, divorce, disability, but common place miseries, a leaky roof, a failed crop, a body’s aches and pains - and weeds. For Mom and Dad, it was their twin nemeses, quack grass and gophers. Mom was a fastidious gardener and quack was always lurking at her shoulder, ready to invade her beauty spots. Dad was a farmer and rancher, so gopher hills in the hay crop were a constant annoyance.

Mark cusses gophers and I battle quack grass, but their threats pale compared to the hardy invasives pounding on the door to our ranch in the twenty-first century. Houndstongue, burdock, puncturevine, knapweed and musk thistle top our list.  

I picked up 1,000 tiny gall wasps from the local weed supervisor to put on Russian knapweed. The bug isn’t proven yet, but the hope is that it weakens the weed allowing other plants to compete and bring balance back into an ecosystem. The fly lays eggs on the plant, and a gall forms around the larvae. It’s not a quick fix, but offers hope over time.

So we’ve added biocontrol to our list of weapons: mowing, spraying, cutting with a shovel, grazing, mulching, and, I might add, coexisting, which in the end might be our only option.

We visited our mountain property to cut houndstongue and check fences. The diversity of life made me so happy! Butterflies flitting about and a constant hum of insects greeted us. Golden cinquefoil and pink veined sticky geranium dominate the wildflower scene with lupine, potentilla, buckwheat, and the delicate violets and blues of penstemon rounding out the colorful meadows and sagebrush uplands.

A nighthawk screeched above us, dive bombing and booming for our benefit. We found a nest of baby doves and lay spots in the deep grass where deer had spent time. We saw a dozen cow elk and their calves. And the morning was filled with birdsong. A wren had nested under the eve of the cabin and we watched a tree swallow sort through debris to shore up his nest.     

And the grass! Mark said he’d roll in it if his nose could stand it.

So, yes, we cut a million houndstongue burrs, but we soaked in all the rest of it. All the strange and wonderful organisms that call our mountain ground home.

It’s kind of like this blog. I look over and past the messy parts, to see the joy in the expanse around me. Or move aside an annoyance and look really close, to the delicate folds of a penstemon blossom.   

And Mark? He’s a guy and all about cows. He gets excited about wildlife and can spot houndstongue almost as good as me, but he kept saying over and over, “have I told you how happy I am that the fence is hot?”  

Mark found the mourning doves


sticky geranium, buckwheat and lupine 


gall wasp flies 


the villainous Russian knapweed

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Making Connections

Mark and I spent another day in the hills repairing fence. This time the deer flies and mosquitoes nearly drove us mad. Well, actually, you can’t let your mind go there, just slather on the repellant and try to ignore them. It works for the first few hours.

This is a good spring for camas lilies. Their pale periwinkle blossoms, so delicate and lovely, are abundant across the soggy meadows.  

We dug up a plant to see what the bulb looked like. They were a Native American food staple, high in protein and carbohydrates. The bulbs were baked in an earthen pit for a long, long time to bring out the sugars and prepare them for storage. Camas lilies were so plentiful that non-natives sometimes confused the fields of blue with standing water.

There’s a tiny cabin in the mountains with a porch that looks out to the east. There's a bench to sit on, side by side. I looked at it wistfully; seems we never take time to sit there. We’re always in a hurry to finish up and get home. Well, there was that one time . . . 

The following weekend we flew to Seattle to do “in-stores” for our marketing cooperative, Oregon Country Beef, a sister line to Country Natural Beef. We’ve been members for a dozen years now, but standing in a grocery store cooking burgers on a tiny grill, talking to city dwellers is an eye opener and not within the scope of our comfort zone.

Seth and Anna joined us, as well as my sister and her husband from my ranch of origin, so we could handle three stores at a time. The question I ponder is this: "who learns more, the rancher or the consumer?"  

Quite a few vegetarians declined our offer, of course. But the meat eaters loved it.  

Getting to know the meat staff is one of the funnest parts of the job. They treated us well and even brought us a cushy mat to stand on. The store manager of the Bothell PCC Natural Market brought us a big serving of scrumptious gluten-free chocolate cake!   

Many shoppers have a connection to a farm or ranch somewhere in their past and like to tell us about it. One woman in spandex shorts told us about her granddad’s place that was for sale, “the end of a legacy.” 

It’s fun to visit the city, and Mark’s cowboy hat always garners a few stares and a few handshakes. “Are you from Texas?”

We toured Pike’s Place Market, ate expensive seafood, and explored the locks at Chittendon on Salmon Bay. It’s a long ways from deer flies and camas lilies to Seattle, but good clean food crosses boundaries and we found lots of like-minded folks that made us feel at home.  









    

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Dog's Life

The cattle are delivered to the mountains. Now it's hours of beating the road up and down, back and forth, tending them. By winter we’ll be sick of that and ready to have them home again, but for now it feels good to have them out from underfoot and in the high country. 

I still thrill at the green grass in the mountains. Against a crystalline blue sky, it’s the prettiest thing you ever saw.  

My dog Kate was a trooper going up the Trail. She’s showing some age and that makes me sad, but she hung tough and herded with her familiar intensity. And on the last day I still had to call her back from the herd as they settled in for the summer. Having her with me is like having a great big arm that extends way out, first to the right and then to the left, sweeping in a big arc moving cattle. Rocks, fences, creeks, trees - grain fields - she's got them covered. A border collie’s work ethic is a thing of beauty and enviable to anyone with a lick of sense. Anita says I need to break down and start another pup while Kate can still teach her the ropes. If I do, that will make four new dogs on the crew next year. I guess the veterans could use some help.

It seems like an accident that my dog and I do as well as we do. I don’t really train. We just start working cattle together and somehow figure it out. Gary says you just need to spend time with a dog and they’ll start to understand you, all your verbal and non-verbal ways of communication. The best advice Anita gives is to get your dog hooked on you as a first step. Then they’ll stay with you and figure out how to please you. I can ride by myself for long periods and I never feel alone, because I’m not alone.  

They’re so loyal. I remember the day we were coming back from taking cattle to a far-off pasture. The memory has faded and was during the lifetime of my only other dog, Beauty. I must have left my horse with the cattle, because I was riding double with Mark for some reason. Beauty, who was accustomed to staying with my horse, hadn't realized I had switched mounts. As soon as I noticed she wasn’t with us, I called and called and was quite worried that I had lost her. Then she showed up. That tugged at my heart. And I don’t deserve it. It’s not as if my dog sleeps at the foot of our bed. She’s my working companion and I don’t do a lot of fussing over her. But I let her work, and what fun we have - her most favorite thing in the world. 

Martha, Clyde, Kate and Jill, pros all


Seth and Cassie holding herd


lead cows in the distance
  
Katie tucking them in

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Passing Grade

We’ve been starting irrigation water and staging the cows to leave for the mountains. We group them in two herds and put them on fresh grass so their bellies are full of green feed before we turn them out on the road and walk them by people’s lawns and farmers’ fields. No one likes to fence anymore, so we spend the first two days convincing the cows they can walk right by succulent green grain.  

Before the cows arrive in the high country we have to get the fence put up, so we spent a day in the mountains. It was lovely and we rode the 4-wheeler along a ridgeline with a majestic view. I took my little saw and pruners to cut back the quakies that crowd the line. I overdid it in the heat, and at the end of the day was completely used up. And as I thought about the work ahead of us getting the cattle to the hills . . . I just flat didn’t feel up to any of it!

I moped around for the rest of the day, which is hard on Mark. I really am “all in” when it comes to the ranch, but dang, this part is hard. Getting the cattle to the mountains is the classic love/hate affair. I love the land and the stock and working my dog with the herd. But the overload of stimuli, cows and calves milling and bawling and trying to go back, horses and riders and dogs of every skill level, a constant stream of vehicles trying to get by us - not to mention trying to protect my neighbor’s flowers and trees! It's hard for a self-diagnosed HSP (highly sensitive person). 

By the next day I was feeling better. We had moved another herd, and as I was walking back through the woods near our home, I ran across an apple tree in full glorious bloom. It was growing next to a cottonwood, and its trunk ran up the side of the larger tree, making it long and leggy, not like a fruit tree at all. It was so lovely and unexpected - a tender mercy to cheer me up. A line which is totally made up; the mercy part is all in my head, the rest is just the wonder of nature.

Two more things helped. I went to pick wild asparagus before the late frost that was forecasted bent their heads, and found an armload. I told Mark, "I found the mother lode!” Then I had a fun text conversation with Anna as I was waiting behind one more herd of cows. I had told her I was feeling overwhelmed about making the cattle drive this year without her, and that I knew I needed to relax, and not get anxious and push myself too hard. She responded in her university mindset: “We all try so hard to get an “A+” in AG 515 (moving cattle to the mountains), but a “C” is still a good grade.

Wise words. 

    
nature's way



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Sheltering Place

It continues to be cool and damp. I planted peas, onions, kale and beets in the garden. To my surprise, I ran into some potatoes I hadn’t found last fall and they were perfect. I just rubbed off the new sprouts and gathered them up for supper. And to top it off, the kale and collard greens left from last summer started growing again and we had yummy greens on the first of May. Who knew?

I cleaned our little rental home one more time to house extra summer-time help. It’s not fit for full-time living, but works for young guys learning the ranching trade for a few months during the heavy workload of summer. Before it was a “bunkhouse,” it sheltered a lot of families, including ours.  

I still get nostalgic working there by myself. It’s where we spent the first 10 years of our marriage, so the memories are close by.

There was the morning Callie locked herself in the bathroom after we informed her that her 4-H steer wasn’t coming home from the State Fair after all. “But I loved that steer!”

And the phase, years really, where Seth always had the piano bench pulled out because it provided a flat surface at just the right height to set up his farm. Often a stuffed animal was lassoed with his little lariat and hitched to the leg of the bench.  

It’s where I found a swollen tick in Anna’s hair and called Mark in a panic to come home from school to help me deal with it. And where she cried at the stranger in the bathroom after he’d shaved off his mustache to dress-up as a woman on Halloween. 

The house was small enough that if the kids woke up at night, they only had a short ways to go to get to our bedroom. I always felt like I was awake a minute or two before they were. They would stir quietly, then walk in for a hug before being escorted back to bed.

Oh and there was lots of “dog piling.” Mark would lie on one kid, and the other two would leap on top of him, with much tickling, laughing and squealing. I always thought someone would get a bloody nose or get squished. I needn’t have worried.    

The house was safe and cozy even though it was right on a busy paved road. The kids learned to be careful of the road on one side and the canal on the other. And most of all, they learned to get along with each other sharing one bedroom, to make do, and to put off a purchase until they could afford it.

As much as we love our new home, we all have a soft spot for the small quarters where we got to know each other and thereby know ourselves. Those first tender years that went by in a flash. 


the living room is just big enough for a "dog pile"

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Power of a Good Design

We made it all the way to 78 degrees last week, and today a soft rain is falling. The green and the beauty in our world has exploded. Mount Putnam in the distance never looks more beautiful than this time of year when it's still white, but framed in the foreground with the greens of spring.    

The quakie leaves out our office window are the size of a dime, which is significant only because Grandpa Eldro used to say that when the quakies in the mountains had dime-sized leaves, it was time to turn out the cows. My biologist friends would call it phenology, nature's calendar, in rancher-speak.

The barn is empty at the moment. I was thinking about my last two blogs and how readers might assume we have lots of calving trouble. Not so. What I don’t write about are the “invisible” cows - all those hundreds that calve on their own unassisted. They’re our favorite cows and the ones that make our business sustainable. 

We shipped yearlings out of the new loading facility. Our new “Bud Box,” named for Bud Williams, the now deceased guru of animal handling from Bowie, Texas, worked like a charm. It’s designed in a square with the exit to the chute at a right angle to where the cattle enter. This funnels cattle back to where they came from, so that in their natural inclination to return to familiar surroundings, they load into the stock trailer with little pressure. Our old chute is like most traditional facilities in that cattle go straight into a smaller loading alley and into the truck, with the handler having to get right behind them in their blind spot, which cattle don’t like. In the new scenario, we work them from their side where they can see us and remain calm.

And the new chute is safe - for livestock and their human handlers. I’m forever campaigning (not complaining, campaigning) for our equipment and cattle handling facilities to be safe enough for anyone to use - young and old, male and female, experienced or not.

I have always believed in and appreciated the power of a good design. The Bud Box is one example; it lubricates, simplifies, even beautifies the art of cattle handling. 

thanks Bud

coming off the scales, Gary and Seth

what remains of the old chute to the left . . . and the new