Saturday, January 28, 2023

Crunch Time, or not

We drive through Anna and Cole’s yard every morning to feed the young cows expecting their first or second calf. On occasion Anna takes my place, leaving baby Lou inside with Cole who works from home. One morning she came out with a warm loaf of Cole’s sourdough bread. We tore off chunks on the way home, just like you’re supposed to do with a crusty sourdough loaf! Most mornings we just drive by the little house with a grateful heart for the special souls that live there. 

One morning Anna was tending their border collies and stopped at the pickup to say hi. I quizzed her: “What’s different about the birds this morning?” She passed the test when she said, “They’re blackbirds!” 

“Right, red-wing blackbirds!" I said. “They’re back in town, and about two weeks early.” 

I love these precious winter days. I could do this for a couple more months and be happy. It’s a real change of pace from the rest of the year. We linger in the dark over coffee in the morning. I take time to read from my stack of books, guilt free. It’s the only time of year we watch movies. I came home last night from a rare evening out and found Mark asleep in bed listening to a podcast. He got the stitching started on a leather wallet he tooled last winter and we have brunch scheduled with friends on Saturday. This will all feel foreign in about three weeks when calving starts and the production year gets underway. 

It’s also tax time, budgeting time, goal-setting time, and that annual window when all types of agriculture meetings are held. Mark and I both got the chance to visit the Idaho State Capital this winter. We’ve been involved in various gatherings to address soil and water conservation, range health, beef industry challenges, and the marketing of our product(s) which may one day include that enticing concept, ecosystem services. Turns out we’ve got support from a wide variety of individuals, agencies, and other environmentally conscious groups that all agree ranching should endure if we want to protect open, natural landscapes. It’s a refreshing change from the “us against them” mentality that took up so much space twenty years ago, and that still defines the public domain. 

Pressures continue to come at us from many angles, but having allies feels wonderful. To take part in these conversations makes us feel very blessed. And when we return home, or disconnect from a zoom meeting, we get to hug a grandkid or discuss the future with our children, and feel doubly so.

so pretty this morning!

Friday, December 23, 2022

Searching for Hallelujah

Mark and I go to the heifers every day first thing. We drive through Anna and Cole’s yard to get to the cattle. Yesterday I had to be gone so Anna bundled up baby Lou and came out to help Mark. She flaked off the hay and Lou fell asleep in Mark’s arms as he was driving. I’ve had this picture in my head for a while now and it’s a “pinch me” affair to grasp that it’s real.

It was minus 11 degrees this morning. I’m not complaining, ranchers east of us have it much worse. It’s hard enough to keep water troughs open and equipment operating at these temperatures, but 40-50 degrees below zero? Mark has taken to reading the weather forecast out loud to me. It’s understandable, the ranch lives and dies by nature's whims. 

To add to the difficulties, the water trough at the steer calves went dry. This is an emergency because after they eat they head for a drink. Cattle panic without water and pile and shove against each other when competing at the trough. Seems counterintuitive in this frigid weather, but a good drink is critical for keeping the cattle healthy under weather stress of any kind. Seth got them watered at another source and it took all day to get the trough up and going again. Mark came in at dusk very relieved.

Large numbers of elk are hanging around the neighborhood. A long line went past us as we were feeding in below zero temperatures. There were maybe 150 head, and as they walked past single file and headed for the river toward the rising sun, each animal had a swirl of steam emanating from them. They are majestic animals and we love seeing them, but there’s too many and seeing them grow dependent on agriculture lands is disturbing. They can ruin haystacks and graze out stockpiled feed saved for grazing cattle. We talked to an officer with Idaho Fish and Game and he said it's not that they don’t have feed in the mountains, it’s just easier pickings down in the valley. A rancher who lives in the foothills thinks the snowmachiners are pushing the herds down out of the high country. Another disturbing thought.

My holiday feels a little subdued this year. I love the lights, the evergreen wreaths on every door, and I enjoy playing piano from my old easy holiday books worn with time. But frankly, life is too serious to be jolly for any extended period of time! The holiday makes one think of people we’ve lost and brings the passage of time close in. There is much grief and brokenness in the world.

But, oh the gratitude that overwhelms us every day. The natural world is breathtaking in her winter coat. Our grandkids keep us laughing and what a joy they are. Emma wants to listen to the little record player we get out this time of year. Frequently she wants a “diffwnt” song than the one that’s playing. She and Freya dance side by side to the music. And Lou just smiles at everyone and everything.

From me, and from Mark who suggested the title to this essay, we wish you peace and calm. A warm bed, enough food, a friendly conversation. And perhaps the most precious gift of all, faith in the future.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Cowboys and Hunters

The mountains are white this morning. We spent the last two days up there at our highest elevation pasture. We took the bulls out the first day and loosened fences the next. The bulls had been separated from the cows since August and with snow in the forecast, it was time to bring them home. This activity always brings to mind Gary’s funny about wishing he could deflate the bulls in the fall and put them on a shelf until they’re needed again in the spring.

There was a cold wind blowing all day. The quakie leaves, what’s left of them, made a crackly sound instead of the comforting flutter they make all summer. We saw seven lumbering sage grouse and about twenty mule deer. We said goodbye to the tiny cabin after we enjoyed one last cup of coffee on the porch.

The cow herd will stay in the mountains for a while yet if the weather allows. The calves are home so the mama cows climb high with a carefree attitude. We drove home through the herd and relished seeing them up high near the timber in deep yellow grass. Our range is superb for that, cured off native grasses that remain delicious and edible all year long. It’s what native grazers depended on throughout time, wild sheep, bison, elk and exotic megafauna of ages gone past. All cycling the rich growth of the summer’s short growing season.

I was disturbed to see the muddy off-roads traveled by hunters this past month on our state lease ground. They don’t know that these aren’t “established” roads by anyone’s definition, which is the state's way of describing roads that are open to travel. They were once (just a few short years ago) a quiet two track heading off into the sagebrush, worn in by a pickup placing a sheep camp, the living quarters for the sheepherders who need to be near their band of sheep. Or the odd cowboy delivering salt to his cattle or checking a watering trough. These trails were never meant for heavy recreational use by pickups or 4-wheelers or the now ubiquitous side-by-sides. Worse still, if it’s wet like this year, there’s a second set of tracks just off the first set to keep out of the mud!

I have thought that hunters and cowboys have a lot of the same goals and see eye to eye on most things. I’m starting to doubt this. More two-track "roads" mean more and more access by vehicles, less walking. More erosion into the creeks, more weeds, more gates left open, etc. I know we must share these lands. I know we must be allies. I just don’t know how to go about that.

Well, that’s not true. Actually, I DO know how to go about it. Talk to hunters. Talk to the men and women who work for the state land department, both locally and in Boise. Stick to facts, take a long term view, listen and learn. We - all of us - need to honestly consider what it means to have a land ethic. For ranchers and hunters alike. For fly fisherman and those who just want to buzz around in a side-by-side. And for our new ex-urban neighbors in the valley. This is our state, our land, our future.

As I write, I see Mark getting on his horse in his heavy coat with his wool cap and coveralls. He's been at this long enough to not mess around. He says he can always take clothes off later. He's a pragmatist. As we often say, “intelligence plays a role.”

There's really no other choice as we face the changes coming at us in this business. We'll face what has to be faced and do what needs to be done. We'll concentrate on keeping our relationships strong, consider our options without blaming others, and take the rest as it comes.  

all quiet for another season

steer calves at home


Saturday, September 24, 2022

Monarchs and Moons

As nature sizes up her production year, we look to this year’s calf crop. The grass has been abundant, surprisingly so with the cold, dry start we had to the growing season. The calves look good – what we call “bloomy” in ranch lingo. It means an animal that is in good fleshy condition, with bright eyes and a healthy countenance. It fits doesn’t it?

Each cool morning, each warm day, we hold our breath. Country folk and city folk alike, we all cherish each golden September day. The phrase, "it's like butter" comes to mind. Like a firm yet tender carrot fresh from the garden, a tepid shower following a blistering hot workday, that first creamy cup of coffee of a morning -  you know, perfect.    

There's a heavy murmur in the afternoon sun. Late season pollinators are feeding on wild aster, gray rabbit brush, goldenrod and curly cup gumweed. The rush is on to gather up what they need for whatever awaits them as the season changes. Some, like the monarch butterfly, have a long journey ahead. I saw one as I was picking beans in the garden. He was flitting back and forth on the zinnias. “Hurry!” I said. ”No time to lose, this weather can’t last much longer.”

In my one woman quest to help the environment, I let the lawn grass grow this year. I only mowed it once in June, and then Mark let the horses graze it this week. Milkweed plants edge the lawn and some new plants ventured into previous mowing territory. Their fresh leaves attracted butterflies and I found several baby caterpillars just barely out of the egg. Leah found one too, put it in a jar, and carefully tended it through the chrysalis and butterfly metamorphosis stages. I’m sure little Emma was part of the impetus for the project. I’m tickled they both got that experience. It’s rare today.

Mark and I have been watching the moon this month. I tried to find it every day, behind clouds, behind smoke, and in odd positions in the sky whenever I remembered to look. This morning it was a tiny crescent, and at 6:00 am was hanging above the horizon, so lovely in the rosy smudge of a new day. Tomorrow is the new moon, with no illumination from the sun because the earth is blocking it. The sun, the moon, and the earth will all be lined up. We’re still going to try to see it. We’ll know it’s there anyway.

The wonder of nature is all around us. Our kids like to climb mountains, ski, go fly-fishing and mountain bike, all the while enjoying the immersion in the natural environment. Though I keep saying I want to pursue those kinds of activities, I’m pretty much enthralled with my own space here at home on the ranch. Adventure awaits us every day if we look close enough.  

The black spot on the wing vein shows it's a male

Emma loves green beans

4-horsepower "riding" lawn mowers


Saturday, September 10, 2022

September Curriculum

It’s been hot, so hot. But there was a sea change in the weather and I was surprised to see a whisper of frost on the cucumber vines this morning. As it often does, a strong wind preceded the transition.

The harvest moon rises tonight. I’ve made a pledge to find the moon every day in September. Easy peasy so far since it’s been waxing and hanging in the east late in the day. Not so easy as it wanes to a new moon on the 25th and starts back as it orbits the earth. My grandmother and her mother lived together on an Idaho family ranch. They used to compete with one another to see the new moon. They made their living on the land, yes, but the moon story tells me how much they loved the natural world.

It’s state fair time. There’s the carnival rides, the food booths, and shops of every kind selling everything from fluorescent jewelry to hot tubs. There’s quilting, cake decorating and 4-H projects galore. 

One of the biggest attractions is the pony rides and farm animal petting zoo set up in the Idaho Farm Bureau corner. I talked to the proprietor who drives a semi all the way from Arkansas with an assortment of goats, milk cows, ponies, beef cows, sheep, pigs, chicks, etc. to participate in events allowing children (and adults) to pet and feed and groom the animals. 

As animal agriculture is increasingly seen as producing unhealthy food, inhumane, and a contributor to climate change, I see her job as ever more important. We ranchers can talk a blue streak, but it becomes real when it's hands on. The animals are healthy and well cared for. Signs hung along the pens teach about milking, reproduction, etc. And unless kids want to feed the animals, it's entirely free to walk through the pens. 

We talked about the natural cycle these animals are a part of. From plants to meat and milk and manure to be used by the next round of life. We talked about Joe, the zebu bull, from an Indian breed of humped cattle, and how his "job" is to stand for petting, for teaching. 

We agreed that kids are naturally drawn to the animals and that children need to learn about the relationship man has had with domesticated animals - the partnership - for thousands of years. The owner said she’d like to retire but can’t find anyone to replace her that has the heart for it. As she explained this to me, her hand reached to her left chest. 

I feel her pain. It’s a lot of work to care for animals day after day after day. And the world offers easier, more reliable and better paid careers. I wished her well and said I’d come see her next year. 



Friday, August 5, 2022

New Life

We stayed in the little cabin in the hills for a couple of nights. Our stays are always too short. All we do is work. I keep hoping for some downtime to collect samples of all the plant species that live there, but alas. We go to check cows or move cows, repair fence or spray weeds. This time was no different . . . but there was that sunrise. Mark had dealt with leg cramps four times during the night so I let him sleep a bit longer while the dogs and I watched the sun come up.

We arrived at the cabin to discover the cliff swallows had invaded. Their odd, gourd-like nests were overhead in the porch eaves and piles of mud and droppings covered the decking. Shoot! I know from experience at home that swallows are a formidable opponent once they set up shop. There wasn’t much we could do, we could hear the little ones rustling in the nests, so we proceeded with our work.

At day’s end we sat outside, just off the porch, and noticed right away the lack of mosquitoes. Is this the work of the swallows? Mark is convinced it is. As usual I need more evidence, but he’s got a point. We’ve never been able to enjoy the evenings because of the nuisance bugs. Another reminder of the symbiosis of the natural world. Like the horses that stand head to tail in the summer to swish the flies away from each other, partnerships are all around us. And somewhere, somehow, a balance emerges.

The propane had leaked out of the large canister below the kitchen window so we had to make our meals on a campfire. There’s a ring of stones under the quakies out back and it turned out to be quite enjoyable. A wood fire is softer and more malleable than the hard propane flame on the stove. And everyone loves a campfire. I kept thinking about getting our grandkids up there when they get a little older.

Speaking of grandkids, we got our third in July, a boy. On the night he was born, Mark had to be gone for Idaho Cattle Association business, so I was all alone. I had put my “blessing candle,” the one Leah had distributed at Anna’s baby shower, in a safe place. It was to be lit when Anna went into labor, a kind of solidarity of womanhood to support her. It seemed as if the tender flame throughout the night represented the event that I was part way sleeping through. A new life was making its way into the world. Mom and Dad were singularly focused, an event was unfolding, and the flickering light stood in for that activity. When I got the text and photo at 4:21 am, I cried with relief and joy. What a feeling.

Lou is his name. He was just over 6 lbs so is a tiny guy. Lou sounds kind and thoughtful, a solid soul. Or he might grow up to be a beloved renegade, who knows. I just know he’s stolen this family’s heart which only swells with each new member. 


Monday, July 11, 2022

Grabbing Carbon

We’re home from a big cattle move in the mountains. It’s a steep climb with blind corners and is generally a challenging event. Perhaps the cattle are finally learning the move, or it was the overcast sky, but it went well. Mostly it’s because we split the herd and made it a two-day affair. A smaller herd allows the moms and babies to keep track of each other. And as we all know, mom can lead her calf up the mountain a lot easier than we can push him there. That’s key.

I was at the front of the herd slowing the lead, when I carelessly let my round reins fall to my horse’s ears. Before I could retrieve them, my horse stepped into the loop and caught her foot and head together. She lunged back, dumped me and stepped on my leg before staggering away. It was a close call and I’m glad no one saw it happen. I'm fine; it was a good reminder to stay alert and always follow safety habits. We’re around horses too much to allow even one careless moment.

All but one of the nests we’ve been watching have fledged their young. We found a mourning dove nest, a loggerhead shrike nest and two nests of yellow warbler babies. How do birds create such exquisite homes to protect their babies? And with only a beak!

We had lots of late spring rains which means a memorable year for plant growth. I’ve been thinking about all the carbon our ranch has gathered up this spring. It’s part of a grand cycle that sustains life on earth. The exciting part is we work on taking in more carbon than we put back into the atmosphere in the natural cycle of growth and death. There’s a balancing act going on between photosynthesis (plants using the sun’s energy to transfer carbon underground) and decomposition (carbon returning to the atmosphere as plants are consumed) that we hope to tilt in favor of the soil. Soil that accumulates carbon means a variety of “eco-benefits:” water catchment and storage, biodiversity, enhanced nutrient cycling, and more production for all the organisms that live here. In other words: Life!  And of course, life begets life.

It’s a lofty goal for sure. One that Mark and I will work on for the rest of our lives. It makes ranching . . . well, if not fun, then meaningful. It’s easy to get discouraged with the many challenges we face in this business. I don’t need to go over them again, maybe next blog. Best to focus on the fun part.  

penstemon and pussy toes and cows

milkweed grows wild in front of our home

captivating wildflowers