Sunday, March 18, 2018

Anna takes a Break

Anna is working on a graduate degree in agricultural education and has been home this week on spring break. She’s an enthusiastic ranch helper, so it’s been great having her here for such a busy time on the ranch.

Each morning we walk to headquarters to tend the barn. Today we emptied three stalls, one with a set of twins, one pair with a calf that had been grafted on to another mother, and the third, a neophyte heifer that needed some help delivering her baby. It’s fun to see the calves haltingly follow their moms out into the big wide world.

The mother of the twins kept them both nearby, turning and humming to the one on the left, then turning and humming to the one on the right. The graft mother who had delivered a dead calf a day ago was thrilled with her new charge. The calf, a twin, had been sucking surrogate moms for a few days and was content to finally have a full belly.

This afternoon Anna helped Seth with newborns from another species – a batch of kittens! We had examined the mama cat, Roxy, a few days ago and held our hands around her belly and felt the kittens move. We knew their arrival was imminent. Sure enough she had them under an old fuel tank the next day. She moved them once before we got them collected and put on Seth’s porch for safe-watching. Another neophyte, this little gal had six kittens.  

Besides calving it’s also shipping time for the first batch of last year’s calves. Anna and Mark sorted and weighed steers yesterday and then loaded them on a truck bound for Oregon for finishing. As one set of calves leaves the ranch, the next generation hits the ground.

As we were working together on her last day here, and the dread of going back to school stalked her, Anna talked about the particular predicament of a rancher’s daughter. Yes, the sons have the burden of deciding whether to take on the mantle of ownership to the next generation. And for some of them, when outside opportunities call, it’s a difficult decision. But what about the daughters? They love the home place too and want a future there. But if she expects to find a partner and raise her own family and doesn’t see herself as taking over for her father, where does that leave her?

I get it. As one of six daughters raised on a family ranch who all hoped they could find a similar life, I feel her pain. Some of us ended up on ranches, some did not. It’s just complicated and there aren’t easy answers.   

All I can tell her is that the ranch isn’t going anywhere. We’ll work to make room for our kids, male or female, and in whatever configuration that might be. Part-time or full time, just visiting or with homes on the ranch, the barn door is always open.   

cleaning stalls while the twin calf goes for a run

following mom

shipping steers

Roxy and her brood

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cover Crops make a Comeback

Previously published as commentary in the Post Register on March 8, 2018

There’s a groundswell rising up in the world of agriculture, and Southeastern Idaho is ripe for the new “technology.” It’s actually an old practice that’s come back around in new ways – cover crops, defined as those grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. And it’s not just farmers who will benefit, but everyone who’s concerned with soil health and making the best use of our precious water resources. In other words, all of us. 

I’ve been reading Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery, which chronicles the demise of societies throughout history due to a loss of soil fertility. It’s a disturbing treatise knowing that we rely on fertilizer which is a finite resource and considering the direct link between healthy soil, full of organic material, and the capacity of the earth to capture and hold moisture. Droughts and floods happen naturally, but their severity is directly tied to how well the ground holds water.     

Besides capturing water, cover crops anchor soil. Wind erosion in our area is a serious problem. We consider it a natural consequence of wind on exposed, bare soil. But must the ground be bare? For our ranch, sand drifting in to our fence lines and irrigation ditches means constant maintenance. What if road closures due to blowing dirt were a thing of the past? Some events you can see and feel with your own eyes. But for the most part erosion is a silent marauder. Montgomery’s line “It seems that the slower the emergency, the less motivated we are to do anything about it” is haunting.       

My husband’s grandfather planted cover crops in our sandy soil, which he would then plow under to enhance soil fertility. This was a good start, but now we know to use no-till methods so as not to disturb the millions of microorganisms that live in the soil providing a web of life so critical to soil health. We know to leave plant litter on the soil to act as armor, and to leave living roots in the soil for as many days as possible throughout the year. To jump start the process, we’re relearning the old practice of using grazing animals to cycle plants and return 85% - 95% of the nutrients back to the soil through manure and urine. The savviest cover-crop farmers also know to sow a seed mix of different species, grasses and grains, root crops and leafy crops, etc. each with a specific attribute for increasing soil enrichment.

This winter, Soil Conservation Districts throughout Southern Idaho have hosted workshops to learn more about cover crops and no-till. These events are eagerly attended by young farmers ready to look at soil with fresh perspectives. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has funding help and good information to share. It’s not a quick fix for sure, but long term, regenerative actions rarely are.

It will take foresight, new knowledge and willing growers, but the future is bright for innovative farmers to make a positive difference in our community.  

We visited a neighbor's beautiful cover crop on Halloween 2017 - ready for grazing

Thursday, March 8, 2018


We’re getting calves and old man winter is having his way with us. Ranchers who calve their herds in January and February are feeling mighty smug this year because the weather was so warm and dry in mid-winter. But now? Try several inches of snow and an icy wind to blow it into drifts.

It was an “all hands on deck” morning today. Luckily Seth was available on a Sunday and Jesse is vested enough to work on his day off. We got the cold ones brought in and suckled at first light. Then we fed the herd and now I’m sitting in luxury, typing, while the sun shines on this beautiful white stuff and the guys are out making the rounds again.

Thank goodness for Jesse. He’s been with us for over ten years and has become a real hand in the barn. He’s patient with the cows and goes about his tasks with a methodical manner that calms the mothers. It’s a quality that only those of us with long years of experience handling large animals can truly appreciate.

Both Seth and I tried to milk out a cow with what Mark calls anvil teats. When milking such a cow he likes to say, “whoever said a cow ‘gives’ milk has never tried it.” No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get anything to flow. Enter Jesse with his big strong hands and easy manner and soon there was a pitcher full of colostrum, the first milk that a baby calf or a baby human needs to consume within a few hours of birth to thrive.

It’s familiar, this annual ritual of calving. I’m not like some ranch wives, however, who say this is their favorite time of year. Mark works too hard and I’m getting less willing to go out in the cold to help him. I do like to tend the barn though. Cleaning stalls and helping the babies in the quietude of the space is pleasant.

We’ve been watching the PBS series, Call the Midwife, this winter. It’s so wonderful and poignant as it details the birth process and the various situations babies are born into. The agony of those who lose a child or can’t conceive. The ecstasy of holding a newborn with no thought of the pain it brought and the immediate love that flows to this new being.

We don’t celebrate and honor mothering as we should anymore, but a rancher never forgets. It’s all about the mothers in our business. A cow that jumps up after calving, licks her newborn, coaxing, standing to allow nursing, ever watchful, is a miracle and a wonder. 

tending her first calf and doing a beautiful job