Thursday, March 12, 2020

Riding the Edge

I took the day off one Sunday before calving got in full swing and spent the whole day reading a book my brother brought me. It’s called, Riding the Edge of an Era, Growing Up Cowboy on the Outlaw Trail by Diana Allen Kouris. I knew I had to read it when I saw Rich’s words scrawled inside the front cover, “Really good author, very sad story. I can’t talk about it without crying.”

It was sad indeed. But happy, too, as the author described her childhood in the 1950’s on the Brown’s Park Livestock Ranch in the three corners region of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. The ranch was remote. Winters were spent in Rock Springs where the kids went to school, summers in glorious freedom on the ranch.   

The author speaks of her Mom, a great cook and homemaker, and who could ride horses with the best of the men. She talks of the warmth that her mom “forever lit inside” her daughter - just by loving her and making her know how much she was wanted. So simple and so important. Gifts my parents gave me unequivocally, and that I thought every kid got.

She talks of the animals she grew up with, Phillychich, the pet rooster that attacked Grandma on the way to the outhouse, Comet, the buckskin that liked to rub off his unsuspecting rider on the nearest low-hanging branch, and Hobo, the genteel gelding, that became a favorite mount when Diana returned to the ranch every year to help her brother with the fall roundup.

The story settled in my chest just as it did for my brother Rich. It was close to home, almost too close. Memories of our own Mom and Dad come to mind. Mom wasn’t a horsewoman, but she shared many characteristics with the matriarch in the story - faithful and steadfast, they both turned to preserving history in their later years. Our Dad was softer than the father in the story, but both men were defined by the ranches they operated.

The author’s childhood was more rough and tumble than mine. We’re both the youngest of our siblings, but her brother kept her in trouble, my sisters were easy on me. We kids spent all our time outside, though, as she did. We explored the ranch, rode horses and moved irrigation pipe. We swam in the irrigation ditch every day, running back to the house to drop on the warm sidewalk for a sunbath, our wet suits leaving a bikini smudge on the cement.

Diana and her sister kept riding with their ranching brother even though the girls were women now and had husbands and children in town. These stories are so familiar! Riding in the cold until your bottom half is numb. Rain snaking down the seams of your slicker. Facing your fears on a spirited horse and coming out the others side unscathed. Long, challenging days where you test the limits of personal exhaustion. And the exhilaration of getting to the end of your task for the day, the cattle gathered, sorted, processed, or shipped. 

Bob, the brother, who follows their Dad on the property, is the quintessential rancher. On those miserably frigid days on horseback, everyone took a turn in the warm pickup but him. Doing the impossible on a horse, fighting and figuring and putting up with the muck and misery. He reminds me of my brother and Mark, old-fashioned ranchers for sure, always willing to do what the business requires of them.
But ranchers get old and fortunes change. Sometimes the government comes for your land as it did the Allen family. They persevered through this and more, but time kept ticking for the ranch they loved.

Ranches don’t have to last. In fact only 3% make it past the 4th generation. We’re on number four ourselves. Our story is still being written.   

Rich as a young man

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Soils R Us

If one soils workshop during the off-season is good, two is even better, right? So we went to Idaho Falls and then Burley to learn and question and scratch our heads. Now we talk about soil health over coffee in the morning while it’s too dark to feed cows.

Who knew there’s a whole teeming world of microbes below our feet, and they have the power to create, maintain and regenerate above-ground health. Not only for plants, but animals that depend on plants - including humans.

The five elements of soil health are easy to understand and should be familiar to all of us that have a yard, enjoy the landscape, like clean air and water, and eat food:

1 – Keep the soil covered with dead or living plants

2 – Minimize disturbance to the soil, like tilling

3 – Promote a diverse variety of plants

4 – Keep a living root in the soil year round

5 – Graze with livestock responsibly  

But wait, Anna says we talk too much about soils so I’ll change the topic.

We’re taking a class this winter put on by the University of Idaho on ranch transition planning. Our first assignment is to individually write a legacy statement. Basically what you hope to leave to succeeding generations. How you want to be remembered. What values did you live your life by?

Mark and I had a half-hour to kill in town so we stopped by a sunny window and put pen to paper. It’s not easy to sum up a life, even for a writer like me, so I can imagine the other ranchers in the class struggling with the composition.

One thing I thought of was my intention that Mark and I be a good role model of partnership to our children. We both are “all in” for this ranch, which is good, but it leads to arguments about how to manage it. I like to talk things through, be pragmatic. When expenses come up I often ask, can we afford it? He prefers to figure it out on his own and gets annoyed with my questions.  

But he is kind to me. When it's really cold, one of the sweetest things he does is put his gloves on the pickup heater while I feed my load of hay every morning. Then we swap gloves when I'm half-way through so my hands stay cozy and warm. What a difference this small gesture makes. It makes me feel loved and cared for. Happy Valentines Day!

A shovelful of good stuff from the Back Forty

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Mid-Winter Rant

When the Holidays are done, and grazing is left behind, we nestle into a quiet routine of feeding cows every morning. If the weather cooperates, we get to do a few other things besides ranching, like go to a movie or take a drive. We took the afternoon off yesterday and drove north towards the Tetons. We hoped the weather would lift, but it spit slush at us the whole way. Then of course we couldn't see the mountains. Plus the snow sculptures in Driggs were well past their beauty. Oh well, it was a diversion from ranch duties and we had a nice supper out.

I’m feeding one big load of hay per day to the young cows who are expecting their first or second calf. I call it my “feeding practice,” like a yoga or meditation “practice.” The bales can be challenging to get off the truck one slice at a time. One must keep calm, use your body intentionally and resist the urge to fight. I really love the work. Mark drives for me so it’s time together and I get fresh air and exercise. The best part is walking home from ranch headquarters when that first load is done. Mark and the rest of our crew finish up without me. As I walk along in the quiet, I see our home up ahead and feel a rush of pleasure at the day stretching out ahead of me, the lusciousness of winter with time to do indoor jobs. Spring can take her time, if you ask me.

The snow came and then the wind blew it into big drifts. Now it’s warmed up and everything is soft. You can tell what temperature it is outside just by the look of it. Warm-up means the colors deepen. Tree trunks are dark against a white winter sky. Grasses show golden as they poke through the snow. Calves in the pasture lot spread out across the field, chewing their cud and laying in the snow. Magpies and dark-eyed juncos flit about.

Winter also gives us time to read, follow the news, take some rat trails on the internet, listen to podcasts, etc. There’s some crazy stuff out there. I think as more and more people live detached from the natural world they start to go a little nuts.     

There’s a billboard on a highway close-by which features a forlorn looking dog, and in bold letters these words, “bring me inside.” Well, it depends on the breed of course, but a dog house filled with straw and positioned out of the wind suits our dogs just fine. It's really about feed, water and shelter. The billboard is communicating in sound bites, an infuriating habit we’ve become accustomed to. Where is nuance and the ability to think something through logically?

Because of my choices over time, my Facebook feed sends me a lot of stuff on regenerative agriculture which I appreciate. I also get the anti-meat stories. The Golden Globes banned meat from their pre-show dinner for the first time ever this year. Not that one meal would make a difference, they said, but to send a message about climate change. What they don't know is that this isn't about plant vs. animal foods. Both processes CYCLE carbon. Tell me how the food is produced, the soils, the biodiversity, the community it sustains, and then we can have the conversation about climate. The Golden Globe event, along with vegan dishes, served bottled water - from Iceland. But wait, in the spirit of climate consciousness, it was in glass bottles instead of single-use plastic like the company normally sells. And they’re going to reuse the red carpet this year. Did I say the world has gone crazy?

We're popular to some

Early January

Cycling local carbon

Sunday, January 5, 2020

A 2020 Welcome

After we fed cows this morning, the snow started. It’s falling heavily now, and with it, the quiet that accompanies this familiar winter scene has enveloped the ranch. Now it looks like Christmas.

Any self-respecting ranch blog should mention a game we played over the holidays. It’s called The Game of Things. Each card is a prompt: “things that are bumpy,” “things you never told your parents,” “things you don’t want to find under the couch,” etc. Then everyone writes a secret response and we try to guess who wrote what. We laughed a lot. One prompt said, “things you don’t want to hear in the middle of the night.” Three of us answered, “the cows are out.” Interestingly it was from three women, one from each generation, Anita, me and Anna. Hmmmm.

I love the clean slate of a new year. What will 2020 hold? Last year, 2019, was a big year for our family. Seth got married, Anna got engaged and finished her master's degree, Callie’s restorative exercise business took off. Mark and I took on interests on and off the ranch. These years are precious – as is every year, but turning 60 in 2019 brought the passage of time into focus for me and I’m more stingy of how I spend it. Well, maybe stingy is a poor way to describe it. Let’s say I’m more “generous” to the efforts I value the most, and more “mindful” of the rest.  

Winter is the only chance we get to dig into our ranch finances. We’re trying to figure costs per cow right now. A large whiteboard leans against the piano in our living room with expense categories on the left and dollars on the right. The board stares at us as we linger over coffee in the morning. I’m very visual, and looking at the figures over a few days helps me grasp the total picture. Plus, these costs aren't straightforward. They take focused thinking to analyze.

We’ve been moving and sorting cows and calves, getting them set up for winter feeding. We fed our first load of hay on New Year’s Day. Of course we’d rather graze year round, but there’s something comforting about knowing feed for the herd comes from the stackyard for awhile. The chores don't change much from day to day until calving starts. Unless we get severe weather and Mark needs to push snow, this time of year gives us some mental bandwidth to consider other ranch parameters.  

Anna brought a friend to visit the ranch who was taking her Christmas break from the military. Taylor flies helicopters which sounds pretty exciting, but she thought a ranch stay might be an interesting interlude. After feeding three loads of hay one morning, the young women stopped by the corral to give Penny a pet. Penny was born prematurely and we had to help her stand and nurse for several weeks. She didn't have enough hair to keep her warm so she wore a second hand sweater. She's all grown up now with a calf of her own, but she’s still as gentle as can be. We call her “Old Pen.”

When we feed, Mark shows me cows that I’ve featured in my blog. I’ve forgotten them but he remembers each one. The one that calved early as a heifer over to the Pease place in 2013, number X14, stands out because she’s always in the lead and likes to scratch on the big bales on the truck as we enter the feed ground. V7 is a Hereford that I blogged about when Mark was tagging calves one spring. Apparently I engraved the tag on the wrong side because it’s backwards now. You can tell who she is, just get behind her!

The rhythm of a ranch goes on. Past the first snowfall and the last snowfall. Past Christmas festivities, and on into future planning. Cows that cycle through our herd bearing calves year after year and then aging out.  A brand new year reminds me of what Gary says about ranching, "it’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”

101 year old barn 

Taylor and "Old Pen"

Too funny