Friday, December 21, 2018

December's Gifts

December happened, and the slide to Christmas is in full swing. We started the cows home from the range on the first day of the month. We grazed the valley ground initially, but by now the herd looks to us to feed them by hand each day. It’s nice when we have additional grazing in the valley and don’t have to feed on Christmas morning. This won’t be one of those years.

We had some fun grazing the first and second calvers on farm ground around the community. These young cows marched dutifully along the county roads to their destinations. First stop was a field of cover crops, those crops planted after harvest primarily to enhance soil fertility. The cows do their part by turning the mix of grain, kale, turnips and radishes into manure, setting the stage for farming again in the spring.

Then we went to a field of barley that had been harvested and regrown. Mark set up a water tank and ran a hose, but they hardly used it. The snow was soft and I imagine they took a lot of water in that way, plus the feed was lush and moist. We walked them back today. Though this is an agricultural community, cows aren’t generally part of traffic in the countryside. I claim it's good for motorists to come upon us. Slow down along your hurried way and watch a cow.

Our Christmas tree is a cedar we cut in the mountains as we were bringing the cows home. It’s a big one, adorned very simply with ornaments I’ve had since the kids were little. I have a box of nests I've collected over the years and some tiny eggs from the craft store to put in the bottom. My favorite ornaments are the ones the kids made in grade school. I still appreciate those teachers! 

After snow cover for a couple of weeks, we’ve had a nice thaw; not very Christmasy but it sure feels good. Today is the winter solstice. It’s extra special because it coincides with the December full moon, aptly called the long night moon.

I finally, just six days before Christmas, got a wreath made for the front door. The greens are cut from the yard and the vine that forms the base grows wild in the fence lines. Christmas can come now.

The morning we rode to the cows

one for Seth and Leah, one for us 

back in the valley, grazing cover crops

after the thaw and before the haystack

Merry Christmas!


My sisters have been here. We had non-stop fun for almost a week. We thought of a new word to describe the activity - sistering. To spend time with one’s sisters – visiting, supporting, traveling, laughing, reminiscing, cooking, etc.

There are four local sisters (and a local brother), one Montana sister, and one we call the faraway sister who lives in Maryland.

We spent a day at each one of our local homes. My house was the first day where we got the first wave of visiting underway. At brother Rich’s we talked about his service in Vietnam and watched California quail feed on the lawn at dusk. Merle’s day featured a wagon ride with the Clydesdales, Honey and Liz. Kit fed us roast pork by candlelight. On Becky’s day (she lives on the ranch where we grew up) we visited our ancestral home at dusk and approved our niece’s remodel of our own childhood home next door.

We pulled out Mom’s photo albums and had a great time reminiscing. We dug out some hand made vintage clothing, Becky and Donna’s wedding dresses, Janene’s maid-of-honor dress and a prom dress or two. We laughed and carried on about fabric and bygone styles. We marveled at how Mom sewed four dresses in the two-weeks AFTER our house burned down in May 1969 and BEFORE Janene got married in June of that same summer. Whose sewing machine did she borrow? She didn’t even have a kitchen and with seven kids to manage, how did she pull it off?

We argued back and forth about who was who in some of the photos. Becky can usually figure it out, but even she was stumped by the person in the coonskin hat helping clean up on the morning after our house burned down. He/she is leaning over, examining one of the many fire damaged items that were strewn across the lawn. Before our discussion was over, some of the sisters even second-guessed that it was a coonskin hat after all! It was.  

I know outsiders see we six sisters as very similar. I see our differences. We live varied lives. We have different opinions and different challenges. We have the same history, but remember different details about the same events. We’re on the other side of lots of life’s decisions. We've had our share of missteps and disappointments, and have learned to find beauty in the imperfections that make up our lives. For some reason I’m reminded of the lines of a poem Donna sent me back when I got divorced from my first husband. It's by Veronica Shoftsall and the passage I'm thinking of goes, "So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to leave you flowers." It's a grown-up way of looking at happiness, and grown ups we are.   

six sisters plus Howdy and Cole

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Friendly Persuasion

Mark and I made an afternoon drive to the cows. Sometimes they need to be reminded where the grass is. They’re still in the mountains and there’s a few inches of snow on the ground. That’s enough to make them look towards home. Seems crazy that they stand at the gate waiting for us. They're just SURE that today is the day, even though deep grass is just a short walk away. This day especially they needed us. We crossed a bridge and persuaded them to climb the mountain where the grazing was superb.  

Mark led them and I brought up the rear on foot. After the movement was started they traveled nicely, crowding each other across the bridge because they thought it was such a good idea. They trust us that we’re doing this for a reason. We left them at dusk, climbing up through the bitterbrush and seemingly content.

We’re getting fall chores behind us one by one. We tested the bulls for trichomoniasis, a venereal disease that causes abortions in the cows and can wreak havoc if left undiscovered. The bulls are home and had to be gathered off a nearby pasture and taken to the corrals for their annual meeting with our local veterinarian. Herding bulls is a totally different dynamic than handling cows. To pick them up and ask them to move seems to tell them it’s time to challenge each other and fight. It’s the strangest thing. They will be contentedly grazing, the picture of comradery, and when my dogs and I enter the picture, all hell breaks loose. Running and bellering, side swiping, facing off. It can be exciting and dangerous if you get too close. They move quicker than their size suggests, especially if they’re making a quick get away.

The quiet of November has set in. Mature and steady, no-nonsense and nuanced, November is the perfect illustration of Leonardo DaVinci’s words: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Last night when I let the dogs loose for their evening run, we walked out to the bare cottonwoods where the starlings were massing before their nightly roost. What a racket! They clatter and squawk, and then in one huge swoop they cease talking and the sound changes to the flutter of thousands of wings as they shift to a new location. Not one bird was left behind in that one grand swell. What a thrill, and pretty darned sophisticated for a bunch of scraggly commoners. 


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Not Exactly Fishing

Mark and Seth and I spent a day letting down and loosening the fences in the mountains. It’s the last thing we do before winter so the snow doesn't break the wires. Seth took his fly rod because we knew there were brook trout spawners (adults laying and fertilizing eggs) in the creek this time of year. Seth is usually working at his day job, so this was a rare opportunity to combine ranch work and his first love, fly fishing.  

When we had loosened the fences for a while, we made it to the creek. I held the dogs back as Seth crawled along the bank, strategizing. He selected a lure that would look like a little minnow under the water. He snagged three trout in short order, one a big one as brookies go. I have only gone fishing with him once and that day he didn’t catch any fish, so I was happy to get in on the fun and witness his expert handling of the line. Then, with more fence to tend, Seth packed up his gear for the day. 

But before we left the creek, we walked a tiny tributary which lead to a spring nearby. The closer we got to the spring, the larger the spawners got. Seth ran back for his net and stood straddle of the creek and scooped up several copper hued beauties for us to examine up close. The creek had good flow and a clean gravel bottom with lots of weeds and bank to hide under. They’re so quick, just a flash in the water. What fun!    

Brook trout are native to the Eastern U.S. and have proliferated here in the West since they were transplanted in the mid 1800’s. They can be quite competitive with our native cutthroat and rainbow trout. However, they spawn in the fall while the other two natives spawn in the high melt water of spring, so they don’t compete for the same spawning sites. Brookies may live all their lives in the creek, spawning in habitats that are suitable, like our spring, and living the rest of the time in deeper waters. Interestingly, their numbers are in trouble in the East because of habitat destruction and competition from introduced brown trout.   

When we got back to the pickup and were eating our soup, I told Seth about the time when he was a little guy and brought his fishing pole along when we we went to the hills. He was just learning to fish and had never caught one, but he was confident enough to say, “Mom, you don’t need to bring lunch because we can eat fish.” I brought one just in case!

Mark and I have lived and worked in this country all our lives. We love seeing wildlife of all kinds, but we have never fully appreciated the fish story happening all around us. It took our cowboy-naturalist son to educate us. We now work towards protecting habitat along the streams in our pastures. We promised ourselves to head to the tiny creek early next spring to look for cutthroat.

On the way home, we stopped at another property to work on a crowding alley that Mark and Jesse had started. We planted some stout railroad ties and hung a gate to the Bud Box which is at a right angle to the alley leading up to the headcatch designed to hold individual animals. Before we were done, we were treated to a lovely sunset and Seth made good use of his headlamp.

Days like these are precious. I loved the company and the views - and the fish.  

nice brookie

Seth and Elsa

my guys

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Final Lap

The starlings have started their fall time murmurations, those lovely flock formations that swoosh across the landscape as one fluid being. They gather in the evening before roosting and mass and twirl in flight to confuse predators. 

There’s a lovely layer of leaves on the ground where the dogs are tied under the cottonwoods. At chore time I’ve had to search around in the leaves to find the dog food dishes.

Mark announced yesterday that he was done irrigating for the year. One by one the canals have shut down. The water slows, then stands, then sinks. It’s sad and it’s beautiful with the leaves layered on top and settling to the canal floor as the water goes away. In a few more days the dogs will have to go to the hydrant for a drink instead of plunging into the canal.

Mark and Jesse have been working in the hills installing and repairing water facilities, fixing fence and upgrading a set of corrals with a crowding alley. I’m so glad they’ve had a chance to do some fall projects that Mark had in mind. He’s got such stamina for the steadiness of ranch work. I’m still hoping he’ll make time for some projects I had on my list, but the calendar is filling and snow is in the forecast.

The calves got to the other side of weaning in fine shape. Thankfully our drinking water foible didn’t bring on any sickness. Anna’s roommate was taken aback when Anna described the weaning process to her. I reminded her that the calves are pretty grown-up kids by now. It’s rather like sending them off to college. It still hurts but we get over it pretty quickly.

I had a fun project visiting some local cover crop farmers and writing news stories about them. The planting of cover crops to enrich the soil after the harvest of the main cash crop is an age-old practice that’s cool again. My friend Sam in Springfield has a lovely crop of turnips, radishes, phacelia (for pollinators), kale and barley. It makes wonderful fall and winter cattle feed and in mid-October was still buzzing with bees.

We have hope that more farmers in our area will adopt the practice and stop the blowing sand that is so aggravating every spring. I look forward to that April day when the wind is crisp and clean and pure. It could happen.

the black willows are extra pretty this year

doing well

Sam showing off  his giant radishes and turnips

bees are loving it


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Weaning Trial

The sun is out today and filtering through the golden quakie out my office window. We have a week of sunny weather in the forecast. It’s now or never for those last minute autumn chores.

We had a hard frost a couple of days ago. I gathered the last of the garden produce just in time. I was sad to find green spots on my potatoes. My fault for not getting the young plants hilled up or covered thoroughly with mulch. I brought in the last of the tomatoes to ripen indoors and gathered the few remaining cabbages, beets and onions.

We’re trying a new weaning method this fall. We set up a portable corral and chute on the range and put nose flaps in the calves to prevent them from sucking. They hang out with Mom but can’t suck so the weaning process is gradual. We’ll truck the calves home after 4 days and leave the cows in the high country. The calves will go right out on stockpiled feed in the green pastures here at home and not miss Mom so much. At least that’s the plan.

We had a big crew to gather the herd, sort the calves off, weigh each one and install the flaps. Every single person had a job. Seth and Alan worked the chute. Leah and Jessica worked the alley. Amy ran the gate to the scales. Mark, Jesse and I kept them coming from the back end. Dave, Gary and Gus gathered and sorted. Danielle recorded the weight of each calf, perching an umbrella over her paperwork during the snow storm.

We took turns eating sandwiches so we could keep the flow going and finished with the calves about 4:30 pm. From there we took the corral apart, loading the 16’ panels one by one in the stock trailer, folding up the portable system and hauling the chute down to where we set the whole thing up again to load out in a few days. By the time we were done it was dark, 8:00 pm, very cold and very windy. I think we froze some of our help. None of us were ready for that. 

I like to get a photo at the end of a day of working cattle. Our morale was pretty low at one point when we thought the snow storm might last all day. But when the clouds broke and we got a couple hours of sun we all felt better. And of course when the job is done everyone can relax and smile for the camera.

Mark has been back to the range every day since. The herd got a gate down one day and had to be put back. The water we were depending on is scant. Strays are coming in on us. I saw one calf who had figured out how to nurse around the nose apparatus. We’ll know in a couple of weeks whether we got them weaned without any sickness.  

Mark and I talk about this a lot. One just has to accept that things are seldom ideal. It’s hard for things to go smoothly. It happens once in a while but usually we have a hiccup, or more commonly a stumble, along the way. We need to remember that it's a good ranch and we do our best for our cows. 

Seth texted me a link to an article from Harvard University. A professor of psychology, Daniel Gilbert, has been researching our changing perception of problems. He says, “when problems become rare, we count more things as problems . . .  when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it.” Oh, how true this is.  

It’s like the advice a rancher in our marketing cooperative gave the other day. He was talking about cowboys who dreaded going to the city to hand out beef samples to our customers. “Lower your expectations,” he said. Good advice for all kinds of ranching endeavors.

in good spirits

 Leah keeps them coming 

a new squeeze chute finally made the top spot in ranch improvements

only slightly annoyed

Monday, October 1, 2018

Picking Pairs

It’s the first of October and I’m none too happy about it. September lasted only a minute. I resolve to be lazy in October because I hear that’s how you stretch time.

The fruit trees are bearing heavily this year. The old apple tree in the pasture was loaded with handful sized fruit that made into applesauce in a jiffy. The apples were so big they didn’t fit in my handy dandy apple slicer/corer. We have pears as well from a tree out by an irrigation ditch. There must have been an old orchard there. Usually Mark comes home with a few fruit barely big enough to bother with. This year he picked two 5-gallon buckets of grocery store quality pears.

I rode with Mark to the hills today to deliver our portable corral and check on a heifer that was separated from her calf and in the wrong place when he left yesterday. He didn’t get home until 9:30 last night. He’s traveled that road, up and down and up and down this summer, until he has every washboard memorized.

Seth and Leah have finally set a wedding date after 5 years of varying degrees of togetherness. We’re all pleased as punch. We took a quick trip to the Tetons to take engagement photos. What a spectacular backdrop! Leah turned her phone camera on Mark and me, and after eight years of writing, our photo finally made the ranch blog.

Eight years of herding cows, pulling weeds, feeding dogs, gardening, saddling horses, making meals, making amends and making do. I lost my Mom and Dad in those eight years. Our kids turned into adults. Mark and I got older.

I used to write almost weekly, now it’s once or twice a month. The blog might be losing some of its zest for me, might peter out completely. But for now it still compels me to sit (drawing blood Mark says) and attempt this coalescing of a life. I don’t know why really, other than to help me process the passage of time. I’m supposed to have a higher purpose, inform consumers, promote the beef industry, etc., but in the end my main audience is my husband. He suggested the title to this piece. A play on words I guess. He proofreads every post. Once in a while I catch him listening to Pandora and paging through old entries. If he ever stops reading, I quit.

one of my favorites

we only got one pose so it had to be good

picking pears

apples and stockpiled grass, yum

the range in fall

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Best Part

We spent two days serving beef samples to shoppers at New Seasons Market in Portland. It was a fun trip, but I was sad to find the birds had all left town when we got home. I took a drink to the deck that evening and all I heard was one lone owl. I complained to Mark about it. He told me that before we left he had seen the swallows all lined up on a power line with their bags packed.  

I’ve been saving some of summer’s bounty for the winter - bread and butter pickles, pickled beets, apple pie filling and peaches. The peaches were beautiful – they practically climbed in the jars on their own. I also froze 8 dozen ears of corn from the local truck garden where you pick it yourself and pay in the box with a slot in the top.

There must be something deep in our DNA that tells us to preserve fresh food for later even though modern commerce has eliminated the need for it.   

I drove to the local farmer’s market today. On the way, I noticed fall decorations on a few of the homes and one Halloween display. I totally understand autumnal enthusiasm after a hot summer, but here’s the deal. Don’t rush this part! These poignantly perfect days of late summer! It can still be hot, hot midday. We still sweat. But we pack a sweater because it’s chilly in the margin. The tomatoes can ripen now. The grass is growing again, those shiny, deep green leaves of regrowth, a grazier’s delight. The garden is overflowing, fruit is at peak flavor, and every day without a killing frost is a Godsend.

I found five monarch caterpillars today. They were on the fresh green leaves of milkweed that had regrown since being grazed earlier in the summer. Cattle love the leaves and had stripped every plant in their paddock, but the plants bounce back quickly and are now playing host to the yellow and black lovelies. The old plants that weren't grazed are yellowed and dry. We need both stages of plants. The old ones have spread their seed. The young ones are feeding caterpillars and won’t make it to seed ripe. One example, among many, of the synergies within nature.

Mark and I took a walk-about on the ranch last evening. We observed the wild paddock that had not been grazed since last winter. There were lovely perennials to go with the cheat grass, and lots of plant litter to cover and protect the soil. Curiously, grasshoppers are more plentiful here than any other place on the ranch. What’s up with that?

Then we pulled puncturevine plants, one of the nastiest weeds known to man, and which would happily invade any disturbed bare areas, like driveways and corrals, around the ranch. We use a claw hammer to pry up the base of the plant and avoid the spiny burrs that pierce fingers and tires.

Oh, the agony and the ecstasy of September.  

referring to Betty Crocker


a Septemberesque evening

so happy to find these!

these plants are fresh and green

these plants have seeded out

Friday, August 24, 2018

Late Summer Bouquet

We spent the last five days in the mountains moving the herd. It was a route we hadn’t taken before and I had worried about it for weeks. I should have saved the stress because it all turned out fine. The cows were very obedient and went exactly where we guided them. We took them in two bunches and had enough cowboy help which made all the difference.

When the cattle were delivered safely and all the help went home, Mark and I stayed overnight in the mountains to make sure the herd stayed put. We had a lovely, quiet evening. The horseflies and deer flies are done for the season and we didn’t encounter one mosquito! I went for a walk and found a bunch of plump serviceberries (or sarviceberries as my Mom would say). And even though my dogs, Dot and Kate, were totally spent after three days of herding, they went with me and lay in the undergrowth while I ate berries and filled a chest pocket for Mark. 

As I walked back to the cabin I think I saw September sliding in. The plant life is looking a little haggard and the snowberry bushes have a sprinkling of gold.       

By morning, three pairs of cows and calves had come back and found each other. Mark saddled up and took them part way back to the new field. After we loaded the horses, we stopped to make a phone call where we knew we could get service, and saw a biker in the distance pedaling toward us. It wasn’t a young man as we expected, but a “mature" woman all by herself. She asked us if we had any water. She didn’t take much, just topped off her water bottle. We talked about her route (which was crazy difficult) and how far she had come – and how far she still had to go. “And I’m an old woman!” she said. Old, maybe, but most 30-year-olds would love to be so fit.   

We convinced her that she was taking the long way around, loaded up her bike and drove her a short distance to the top of the next grade saving her several miles of uphill toil.

When we drove home later we kept expecting to come upon her. I couldn’t believe she made it so far. She showered thanks on us when we finally passed her. She was very tired by then and knew how important the short cut had been to her.

We felt an immediate kinship with this stranger. She envies our horseback rides and our cowboy life. I envy her courage and tenacity - and her glutes! As off-road vehicle use skyrockets, we doubly appreciate a recreationist on a pedal bike. Oh, if only more people could enjoy the magnificent outdoors by natural propulsion.

I brought home a bouquet of dried wildflowers. The ones I enjoyed so much this summer have dropped their blossoms and are in full seed-bearing mode. Flesh colored buckwheat, golden yarrow and tan geranium. As a woman who’s working on my 60th year - and keeping the biker lady in mind - I like the analogy of maturity in nature, more subtle than the flowering season, but equally as beautiful.      

more in common than you might think

from the range:
sticky geranium, buckwheat, yarrow

from my garden:
celosia, dill, black-eyed Susans
atop Drunkard's Knowle
trailing like they knew where they were going (the old girls did)

Monday, July 30, 2018

More of the Same

It’s hot. We’re sleeping in the basement where it's cool and quiet. No dogs barking or kingbirds squawking at 4:30 am. By fall we’ll move back upstairs, but for now it’s a mini-getaway for us.

This morning we watched a colorful tanager feed on the berries of the chokecherry out our living room window. I told the numerous robins that perhaps they could feed elsewhere. I like them, but they’re a bit mundane, choose another bush please.

We’re moving cattle every 10 days or so in the mountains, which is a big switch for us. We’re following the advice we heard a smart rancher give one day: “shorten your graze periods and lengthen your recovery periods.” It’s stressing us in ways we didn’t anticipate and it’s not perfect, but things seldom are. We’ve had a few pleasant overnight stays in the mountains. Being in the high country early in the morning and late at night means spotting elk, mule deer, sage grouse, and listening to the nighthawks boom.

I’ve enjoyed some time away from the ranch rummaging through boxes of memorabilia with my sisters. It’s taken us years to tackle what our grandmother and uncle left behind in their home built by my great grandparents. We hate to disturb some of the drawers and shelves that have remained untouched since the last occupation over 20 years ago. My uncle saved everything. I hauled box after box down the steep attic stairs one very hot day. One curious find was a large box filled with crepe paper streamers, all a faded green. Their household was staunchly democrat and there was a stash of John Kennedy campaign materials and articles written after his assassination. There were piles of books and magazines, and the occasional handwritten letter to keep us interested.

We have a box labeled for each branch of the family, file folders for each individual, a box to take to the local historical society, totes for scrapbooks to deal with later, and piles of items with some value that we need to think about. It’s a labor of love, and with my dear sisters, what I would do just for fun.

Summer is cruising along at warp speed. Oh, to hold on to these evenings! We watched the July full moon, the buck moon, rise at dusk on my birthday. We christened the new redwood deck and made merry as I tried to forget how surprising the number on the cake was.

All of it - aging, the intoxicating days of summer, the cool breeze coming through the windows when I can’t sleep - take on a special poignancy when I’m immersed in the lives of my ancestors. We are the same. Especially so since our livelihood is the land, and we cherish country living as they did. My grandma talks about beet harvest, flood irrigating, and the first killdeer of spring as the important events they were. An optimist, nearly every diary entry begins with, “Lovely, lovely day.” She also wrote in a letter, “We lived through the depression and two world wars and loved every minute of it.”

I promise today to be more like her. 

moving heifers at home
 Anna and Clyde

moving the herd in the mountains
Tin Cup Spring
Seth and Dot

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Shift in Baseline

Previously printed as commentary in the Post Register, Idaho Falls, Idaho, July 22, 2018

My Dad, born in 1919, worried in his later years that we were losing monarch butterflies.  He’s gone now, but he was right. According to science the monarch population has plunged. When I was a kid we always had a few jars of milkweed leaves to feed our captive caterpillars for the fun of watching them turn into butterflies. It’s just darn hard to find them anymore, even though our ranch is rich with milkweed, their sole food.

But here’s the thing, kids these days don’t regret not having the experience of watching a caterpillar hang upside down, morph into a cocoon and emerge as the delicate and wondrous monarch, because it just isn’t part of their normal. Their normal has more to do with organized sports and screen time. There’s a name for this phenomenon, it’s called the shifting baseline syndrome.

The term was coined in 1995 by fisheries biologist, Daniel Pauly, who used it to describe how each generation is blind to the loss of species diversity and abundance because they never experienced it differently. His focus was the ocean and the breathtaking mass of species present when we first started to study the sea, and how subsequent marine biologists missed it because they only saw changes related to what they themselves encountered in their own career.  

This hits close to home when you work the land as we do. My uncles, during the homesteading era, lived year around in the mountains where we now graze cattle in the summer. They trapped the creeks every winter and the number of pelts they collected sound like fiction. And by then there were only remnant beaver populations from the staggering numbers present prior to European discovery of the West. Shifting baseline.

My ranching father fought the troublesome weed, burdock, in his day. It is especially annoying to livestock owners because it produces burrs that cling to the coats of cattle and sheep. Burdock is still here and we still fight it, but Dad would be horrified at the new adversaries that have made their way to the ranch in 2018. This is the current generation’s new normal.

Shifting baselines are all around us. One I’ve watched over my lifetime is the growth of homes in the country owned by folks that commute to municipalities for work. It used to be that if you lived out of town you had a farm. Not so anymore. The newcomers are friendly people and mostly good neighbors, but if the trend continues, as it surely will, our ranch won’t fit here in the future. Shifting baselines sneak up on us and lull us into complacency.  

As I watch young people behave, even ranch kids, I’ve developed the sobering suspicion that they don’t have the same land ethic as their forefathers. Some jump on this or that environmental cause, but they lack a basic understanding of how the whole ecosystem works. Some just don’t seem to care. But perhaps it’s not that at all, perhaps they just don’t know what they’re missing. 

taken in 2013, I haven't seen any this year. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Scrapbook

June is slipping away. June always does that.

We had a major move over the last mountain with the cattle. The route is convoluted. It includes a blind corner and a steep grade. It’s a trick to execute with a big herd, so we determined to cut them in half. We were able to make a clean sweep and not separate any cows from their calves and got the first herd well along their way before dropping three riders to gather the remaining bunch. When the first herd topped the mountain, Anna and I fell back as well and left five riders to get them the rest of the way.

We found Mark and his skeleton crew with the second herd gathered and just about to attempt a creek crossing. They were glad to have us and our three border collies. 

When the first cows crossed the creek, they immediately headed for home instead of climbing the hill. It was hidden to us and being otherwise occupied with the tail end, we didn’t see their escape. We had to gallop around the lead and get them turned around before we could attempt the climb. After much ado we got them lined out just in time to face two side-by-sides with flags fluttering on each side of the machines. This caused an about-face with the lead which we aggressively mauled back to face the right direction.   

The last excitement for the day was doling out the stash of yellow slickers we have stowed in the horse trailer just before the rain started. The day ended well, but I suffered the last two hours thinking I could forego my biking shorts hidden under my jeans. I won’t do that again.

Since then we’ve had the disappointing experience of a thief in the mountains that not only stole from us, but left a gate open and let the cows into a neighboring field. We hate to lock things up, but that’s our only recourse.  

At home we’re moving yearling heifers around, fighting weeds, irrigating and more irrigating.

It’s lovely weather, we’ve received lots of rain and the ranch is exploding with growth. We sup on the terrace every evening and make a point to soak in the beauty that surrounds us. But we’re tired and behind as usual. We have to bolster one another up to let some of it go and quit worrying. I asked Mark what it was like to be him and he said with a smile, “I’m not bored.”   

I don’t have any cow pictures, just wildflower pictures from a rare day of quiet on the range.     


blue flax

sticky geranium

a type of arnica  (I think)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Visit from Down Under

Anna and Gus are ranchers from New South Wales, Australia. They’re on a five week visit to the U.S. to see their daughter who is working here in her gap year following high school graduation. They're friends of friends. They visited the ranch over a couple of days and got a feel for how we do things in the West.   

We took them to the mountains to check cattle. They got to handle a lariat, a tool the beef industry never developed on their continent. Because of this, their saddles have no horn to dally a rope to - and nothing to hang on to as far as I can tell. We found a sick bull which Mark roped to give him a shot of antibiotics. He was a young bull, but uncooperative, and Gus got the challenging job of giving the injection and then, the riskiest part, taking the rope off his neck when we were done. A bit of excitement for sure!

We talked at length about the differences between ranching there and ranching here. They can’t use temporary fence because the overpopulated kangaroos knock it down. Their squeeze chute is called a “crush.” They use motorcycles; we use horses. We’re called ranchers; they’re called graziers. They graze year 'round; we only wish we could graze year 'round. They rely on highly variable rainfall. We irrigate and can usually count on rangeland moisture. They shared the heartbreak of having to sell cattle to deal with drought. We talked of the challenges of grazing in a cooperative and pleasing the public on public land.    

But it’s our common values we enjoyed sharing the most. We both raised our kids immersed in the business, fed them home-cooked meals, and didn't let them drink pop (fizzy drinks). We both share the feeling that we’re running a ranch on land that is too valuable to put cows on, but do it anyway. We're both confused by our respective governments and the idiocy that sometimes accompanies agriculture policy. We love grass and species diversity and deeply respect soils and all the organisms that live there. Cattle are not only our livelihood, they’re our hope to enhance the land we manage. We run cows through dry and wet, hot and cold, high prices and low prices.   

We had fun sharing stories of what it's like when your spouse is your business partner - and the challenges thereof. I'm adopting the title Gus gave Anna on their farm, Minister of War and Finance! Anna is the first woman rancher I've met, who, like me, has photos on her phone of grass before and after grazing. Ya gotta love that.    

Anna on Alice, Gus on Sly, Mark on Jane

wildflower season

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Word of the Day - Sylvan

Mark took a couple of days to get the fences pulled up on our mountain ground. He left me with only one stream of water to change so that makes me happy and I feel a bit of freedom with him gone overnight. That is until I wake up and feel unease at my aloneness. He took the mosquito net. I hope he uses it because the little buggers are fierce this year.

It’s lovely to have the cattle in the mountains. They take constant tending, but it’s a different kind of tending than winter-time feeding. Mark knows each animal even on the range, but to me it’s as if they take on different characteristics in the wild. He might say, “there’s the cow you blogged about in the calving barn with the twin.” Really? I don't even recognize her. She’s just another slick hereford out enjoying the foraging season.   

It’s snowing cotton at our house from the giant cottonwoods that grace the northwest corner of our sylvan homestead. I like the sound of "sylvan." It means wooded, only more poetic. It is associated with an idyllic or pastoral setting, disconnected from the modern world. And we are, that is, we do . . . live in the woods. No, not a majestic hardwood or pine forest. Our trees are common black willows, box elders, elms, Russian olives and cottonwoods. They’re fast growing. Some might call them trashy. We call them beautiful, stately, comforting.

I’ve learned there can be too much of a good thing, however. I’m trying to convince Mark that we need to take some trees out to address the “how many ever” board feet of lumber that is produced every year on our ranch. The leaves cover and choke the grass in the pasture, the base of the trunks provide hiding places for weeds, and most of all, with too many neighbors, the lovely silhouette of each tree is blurred and crowded out. Then there are the limbs, upon limbs, which need to be picked up and hauled away or burned. If I feel old, it’s after a day of dealing with weeds or tree limbs.

Not to mention the cotton! Every seed on the cottonwoods has a halo of white stuff that coats the lawn and garden and piles in the corner of the porch. Sometimes as the breeze swirls on the pavement, balls are formed - neat little spheres that dance a dos-a-dos on the sidewalk. Working in the garden means a nose full of cotton. The seed-making indicates that we’ve had a wet spring and our trees are making the most of it. Nature is cool like that. We’re not complaining. Mark says it’s a reminder that we’re not in charge. How true, like the mosquitoes.   

a man-made flood irrigating pond

they're loaded this spring

another sign of a wet spring: expanses of camas lillies

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The End of the Trail

The spring cattle drive is done for another season. A “drive” is the traditional name for moving cows long distances. We call it “the trail,” as in “going up the trail.” There is a subtle but important difference of semantics between trailing cows and driving cows. We still end up pushing the back end, but endeavor to let them “trail” because they know the way and for the most part walk along agreeably.

Trailing days can be beautiful, peaceful days, especially first thing in the morning. And they can be stressful, mind blowing days, maneuvering hundreds of cow-calf pairs past a multitude of obstacles. The first difficulty this year was the temporary three-strand electric fence the department of agriculture installed to keep the herd off a potato field infected with pale cyst nematode. They were afraid the hooves, even along the edge of the road, would transport the pest to neighboring fields. They had five staff persons stationed to divert traffic during that portion of the route. Only a few calves got through the fence, so it was a success. I asked if we could hire them for the rest of the trail!

Other obstacles include yards and gardens in our community. We’ve learned to put up a twine string across driveways. How we appreciate the conscientious country dweller that provides a gate for us to close. Mark found a couple of orange traffic cones in the canal that we used as obstacles this year too. Cows will avoid a seemingly benign roadblock if given the chance. One yard was so vulnerable that I stopped one day and got the cell number of the owner so I could text her before we came by. She and her kids stood guard and helped tremendously.

One morning as we crested the final push out of our farming community heading to range ground, I sat on my horse and visited with a farmer sitting in his pickup. A tractor was working the field behind him. We talked about the challenges of producing food in the fastest growing state in the nation. He said drivers don't like him moving farming equipment on the road any more than they like to encounter our herd. He said he liked the cow scene, even though they were walking on, and grazing, the edge of his farm. We agreed that those of us in agriculture need to stick together.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to trail cattle to the mountains. It’s an old, old human tradition, taking livestock to grass. The symbiotic relationship between humans, grass and ruminants has been known to cultures for thousands of years. It’s so old that most people don’t even recognize what they’re witnessing. I tell whoever will listen that cows and horses and herding dogs don’t walk any faster than they ever have, even though the pace of technology zooms past us. Whether we as a people can value that, slow down and learn how cows fit in our communities and in the environment remains a question.   

photos by Anita Pratt
finally arrived and letting them "mother up"

mountains are other obstacles

we got wet and were glad to be so

beating the rain through the night cattleguard at Boosies