December 06, 2007

cold & quiet

I can hardly remember a more mild or beautiful Fall. I suppose that isn't saying much, considering this was only my second Fall in the Sandhills over the last 12 years. But I'm not the only one who thought so. The leaves actually had a chance to change colors before freezing off the trees and there were plenty of gorgeous days for doing the work of getting ready for winter. (Mowing up the leaves one last time, clearing the garden, draining the hoses, putting on the storm windows, and the like.)

A few days before Thanksgiving, the days were still climbing into the 60s. I went out to the Bay Area to eat turkey with friends and the frosty mornings out there (where there is no heat, and little insulation) were a shock to my system. But as soon as I stepped out of the airport into the dark South Dakota night, I knew that Winter had finally arrived. And I was ready for it.

We had our first snow earlier this week, wet and heavy, but less than an inch. A freak warm front hoovered around on Tuesday and melted it all. And now it is just cold - freezing, plus or minus 5 degrees during the day, dipping close to zero in the night. Crunchy grass in the morning, and white frosted trees.

All the cats have the sniffles, just a cold most likely. Luckily for them, George built a pretty fancy cat house over Thanksgiving. It's more like a 'cat condo' actually - two stories, fully insulated, with a porch on two sides and two entry/exit points. I just finished setting it up - it was fun to watch them discover it.

It is a quiet time on the ranch. It's not just less busy...there are less noises. Animals are going into hibernation-mode, birds are flying south or settling in, and the way that soundwaves travel in this cool air...I swear it is different. It seems to me that sound carries further when it is cold, but at the same time the small sounds are somehow muffled (or perhaps just not there?). The result is a sound landscape that is stark. unsettling. and beautiful.

This afternoon's thick fog has finally grown heavy and a few moments ago, it started to snow.

October 19, 2007

I lost by boots in the mud the other day.

We've had nearly 3 inches of rain over the past week. It started on the 13th, which was also the day we weaned calves. The calves are SO big now that it seems ridiculous they would still be nursing their mamas. Nevertheless, they're still pretty attached and both mom and calf bawled for several days after they were separated - the 'music' of weaning-time. I took a short shakey video and posted it below so you can hear for yourself.


The cows were kept in the corrals near the house until the 15th, when the vet came to 'preg check'. In the kept raining, which, in combination with the cows' hoof action in the corrals, produced MUD like we'd never really experienced here before. It was over a foot deep in places!

I went down to the corrals a few days ago, to open and watch gates so that Adam could feed some hay. At one point, I had to use both hands, in addition to the attached leg, to pull my boots back out of the mud after each step. There was no way around I stepped out into the cold mud, pulled my boots out and threw them off to the side, and just went barefoot. It was a little chilly, a little shitty (literally), but mostly just ridiculous.

I just walked down to the - now empty - corrals. The mud isn't quite as deep, but it's still pretty awesomely muddy:

how it's looking around here, lately

October 11, 2007

the Autumn palette ripens

This blog isn't the only place where a month can pass by without my attention. I was printing in my studio today and turned around at one point and noticed my Nikki McClure calendar was turned to August. I hate missing a whole month of calendar art! Alas, I flipped two pages to October and went back to printing.
Had i really not been out there since August?
It's true.

For the first time I actually have a half-way reasonable excuse for not writing here recently: my computer crashed and died. Apparently the little arm that carries the laser that reads the scratches on the discs that make (made) up my harddrive moved just a tiny little bit - less than the width of a hair, just a little tiny jiggle - and it completely destroyed everything. I know that I am technologically dependent, especially now that I live so far away from so many of the people in my life, but the extent to which a tiny little hiccup inside this white plastic box affected my life, my work, even my thought processes, was really incredible. It is 'fixed' now - new harddrive, fresh start, clean slate. Farewell to my messy OLD slate. A lot of ideas and post-it notes went down with the ship, likely never to be seen again.

I lit the gas heaters in the house and my studio yesterday. The days have been the perfect temperature, between 60 and 70 degrees, but the nights have been in the 40s, dipping into the high 30s in the early mornings. It seems like the house is just getting warmed up by the time the sun drops below the trees along the creek to the west of the house each evening. Time to light the stoves.

And time for orange. Gone are the pinks and blues of summer, with green following close behind. Now is the time for the ripening of the orange Autumn palette. I picked the last of my sugar pumpkins this afternoon. They'd been trampled a few times by pesky cows that kept getting into the yard last month and as a result the crop had been thinned out fairly substantially. So we'll only have a dozen pumpkin pies, instead of thirty. I suppose we'll manage. I've also been picking the other winter squash as they ripen and harden off. When the acorn squash are ripe, the bottomside turns orange. The dusk skies, too, are orange. And the clouds near the horizon at sunset. And, of course, the leaves provide flashes of orange, amid the warm spectrum of reds to yellows. Well, and it's football season. Since the Cody Cowboys' colors are orange and black, you know it's a game day when you see a rather ridiculous number of folks sporting orange turtlenecks, scarves, socks, jackets. Three of the baby kittens are Max-colored (yellow?), two are calico, and bright orange. My nasturtiums finally decided to blossom, adding a few flowers to my orange parade. It even smells orange here now.

It is a delicious time. Cozy and even a bit decadent. An "eating pie in front of the fire sitting on pillows with a cat in your lap" kind of feeling. Not that I have a fire or a cat that I let come inside, but that's the gist of the feeling right now. The fall into Winter. It does feel a bit like a fall - a letting go. Letting go of fresh tomatoes, open windows, the color green, bare feet. See you again next year, toes.

September 05, 2007

putting up hay

The hayfield is where most young folk spend their summers around here. I have always been spared this rite of summer thanks to my allergies ('hay fever', quite literally). Sitting out in the meadows, performing choreographed patterns with a tractor all day, may at first glance seem like an excellent way to pass your summer in quiet meditative relaxation. There are a few other factors to consider, however. First of all, the tractor is loud and rough and probably burping smoke. It needs fairly constant maintenance throughout the day and will occasionally breakdown and grind the whole operation to a halt. As a result, neither clothes nor hands can be rid of their grease stains during this time of year. The tractor seat is mounted on a spring to temper some of the roughness, but there is no respite from the elements (dry heat, blistering sunshine, and bugs). Haying is usually a dawn-to-dusk operation, punctuated with a lunch of ham sandwiches and Bush's beans. It is my impression that there are days when everything goes smoothly and perhaps some good thinking could be accomplished, but those days don't seem to be in the majority.

Most ranches around here have a significant percentage of meadow grounds, areas where the watertable is high and the prairie grasses grow tall and thick in early summer. Haying is the process of cutting those grasses, letting them dry in the sun, and then gathering/bundling them together. This hay is then saved for feeding in the winter, when the grass will die back and often be covered with snow. Basically everybody nowadays bundles their hay into bales. Bales can be small square (a 4' long rectangle fastened with wire or twine) or big square (about 4 times the size of the smalls, but similarly rectangular), but most often they are round (cylindrical, fairly cubic in dimension, often held together with a wrap of clear plastic).

Not so long ago, however, there were no machines to 'bale' the hay. Instead it was 'stacked' into great heaping piles. My great-grandfather did it this way, using a large metal cage to hold the stack together and horses to pull the hay up and over, into the cage. Eventually, the horses were replaced with tractors, during my grandfather's lifetime. Remarkably, with the addition of a few hydraulic improvements, this is still the way haying is done on our ranch. We only know of one other ranch around here that still stacks their hay.

There are many advantages to baling, though I can only speak to the obvious ones: it goes up faster and it feeds out faster. But to me, row upon row of perfect, neat saran-wrapped bales look like some kind of si-fi nightmare compared to the old fashioned beauty of stacks - imperfect pregnant mountains of hay. Besides their superior romantic qualities, my impression is that stacks last longer than bales - we fed a few this past winter that were 3 or 4 years hold, whereas bales don't keep much longer than a year. Nevertheless, I am sure that Adam will be switching over to bales within a few years. Making the switch requires a fairly large investment in new machinery, but doing so will provide valuable time-saving conveniences.

Adam and his crew (Jerry, Layne, and Clay) spent the better part of July putting up hay. They put up over 100 stacks and today Adam is working on moving them from the meadows to the stackyards, which basically consists of doing this in reverse.

Most of these pictures were taken one late evening when George was out to help sweep. A larger set of haying pictures can be viewed OVER HERE.

August 30, 2007

the rainy season

August went out with a bright yellow swoop. Considered perennial pests to pretty much everyone else, so far I've managed - despite the sneezes - to romanticize the sunflowers that line the road to my home in late summer. Such a cheerful color, so bountifully blossoming, with their faces always to the sun.

August was a month of extreme weather - dramatic thunderstorms, crazy winds, a smattering of hail, glorious amounts of rain. There were tornadoes in the neighborhood, but none touched down in my life. The lightning was another matter, however. During several of the stormy afternoons and evenings, the lightning struck close enough for us to experience the boom and flash simultaneously. It blew out our satellite internet once, and our phone line during a more recent storm. When it strikes so close, the phenomenal discharge of energy is visceral. You can feel it in your chest and it's hard not be stunned for a few moments.

Through the crazy weather, my gardens faired amazingly well. The only casualty was my watermelons, which was a major disappointment - partly because I adore watermelons and partly for more sentimental reasons. One of my most vivid early childhood memories is of my grandfather taking me down to his watermelon patch (planted pretty much right where mine were this year) to thump the melons and pick a ripe one. I was looking forward to connecting that memory to my life here now, but unfortunately they succumbed to the hail - it severed a majority of the leaves from the vines and left the few surviving melons covered in pock marks. The beans and cucumbers also sustained some damage, but have recovered for the most part. As well, my tomatoes were blown over in the 50+ mph winds, but I managed to prop them back up after some vigorious (and belated) pruning and they are producing quite well. I am rather proud of my tomatoes:

Though the storms did cause a little damage here and there, they produced a tremendous amount of rain as well. I think we had nearly 10 inches over the course of the month. That is a LOT of rain for us, and the countryside is greening-up and grateful.

July 16, 2007

beautiful vitamins

My sweet corn really took off this past week. It may not have been "knee high by the 4th of July", but it made it "waist high by mid-July".

There will be a torrent of tomatoes soon - brandywines, golden yellow, red zebra, and purple cherokees. (I counted over 150 green tomatoes already set on -yowzas!)

So far we're eating: basil, beans, beets, red currant tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes, strawberries, yellow zucchini, and fennel.
Beautiful...and delicious.

The chokecherries are starting to ripen. I'm giving the birds a run for their money, now that I've got the bushes netted. Hopefully I'll be able to pick enough for a modest batch of jelly. Grandma Johnson (as we called my father's mother) always made chokecherry jelly and gave a box of it to each of her nine (!) children at Christmastime. Since she passed away, chokecherry jelly has become a precious commodity in our family. Nothing compares to chokecherry jelly - it is a uniquely tart, yet deep flavor.

June 28, 2007

such a long time it has been

I think the uniqueness (and specialness) of this ranch life comes into sharper focus for me after spending a little time away from it. Having just returned from a perfectly fabulous week on the East Coast with nearly all of my favorite people, I am finally finally feeling like I have something to say and share here. I could use the excuse that I was "too busy to blog", which as excuses go would be fairly easy to justify, but even good excuses are lame. And I think my first observation is closer to the truth: it had been nearly six months since I'd left the ranch and I guess I needed a little trip to throw things into perspective.

It has been almost three months since my last post, so I guess I've got a little catching up to do. But I also think 'catching up' is kind of lame. I'll add a few pictures a bit later on to provide some sensation of the passage of time. And like kindred spirits, let's skip the recap and jump right back into the NOW.

The turkeys are mulling under the mulberry tree most days, gobbling up all the berries that the crazy winds have been felling. I have only picked a few handfulls for immediate enjoyment. Also to add a few purple stains to the summer patina of my hands, which I am embarassingly vain about. Dirt encrusted callouses from weeding and hoeing. A deep dark tan highlighting my little 27-year-old wrinkles. Green and purple splotches from pulling grass and picking mulberries. Dirt under my fingernails. I look at my summer hands with secret pride.

The mice have decided to move back into the house. I was hoping the 'men of the house' (of which there are now two - brother Adam who graduated from college and is back for good and our friend Layne who is working out here for the summer) would deal with the mouse problem while I was on vacation. No such luck, however, so I guess I'll dig out the traps and peanut butter this afternoon. The return of the mice coincided rather suspiciously with the recent dwindling of our cat population. I think I counted something like 15 cats at one point and now we're down to 4: Max, Mama, and the two grey kittens. I adopted out the two orange kittens, but the other cats have either moved elsewhere or met their death. I'm hoping Mama will have another batch of kittens yet this summer, but she isn't showing any signs as yet.

Adam must have remembered to water my garden for me last week because it grew beyond my wildest expectations while I was away. My tomatoes are bursting out the tops of their cages, with oodles of blossoms and a few fruits already setting on. My green beans finally rooted in and should be producing soon. The squash are covered in blossoms, though the vines are not too big yet. And the basil could probably be thinned for the first batch of pesto. The corn is only 6 or 8 inches tall - 'knee high by the 4th of July' seems unlikely, but it seems healthy otherwise. The potatoes and anasazi beans have bushed out incredibly. And my fennel is over a foot tall already. I think I'll have one or two more asparagus cuttings before I let them go to seed. It has been SUCH a treat to have so much fresh asaragus. Sometimes I eat it moments after picking, but other times I just trim the ends and set them in a glass of water in the fridge for a few days, until I have a big bunch.

I usually spend an hour or two each day, in the cool of the morning and the late evening, puttering in my garden. I set my coffee/beer on the stump and ruthlessly weed and carefully thin and tend and watch. I am so so delighted by my garden. Also proud and fulfilled and contented. Sentimental though it sounds, I truly can't wait to share the harvests with my family and neighbors.

Also, there is this very big project happening: LINK

I will say more about it in a comment. It is not really happening "On The Ranch", but it is something worth commenting on here nevertheless.

April 03, 2007

Rise and Shine!

I have tried not to get too caught up in the 60-degree sunny days we've been having. But I'm not the only one at risk of getting ahead of myself - the trees and lilacs and grass and bulbs have all been going crazy. Explosions of green, pregnant buds. Ironically, this beautiful Spring weather is quite tragic: I can't remember the last time we DIDN'T have a devastating late freeze. [I keep reminding myself that there was a foot of snow on the ground when I came home for Doug's funeral last April.] The more progress things make now, the harder it will be for them to recover from a hard freeze. Sure enough, I awoke this morning to patches of white. I assumed it was just frost but my glasses revealed that it was actually snow.

Luckily, the warm days inspired me to start planning my garden. I hemmed and hawed about where to put my garden. With so many projects planned for the near future, I thought it wise to attempt to keep out of the 'path of destruction'. I finally decided to put it about where Grandma used to have her garden, in a nook between the shed and the pond trees. I can see it from the kitchen window and have spent a few afternoons working on clearing the view on down to the pond. Dad tilled the grass under for me last weekend. It is bigger than I had imagined, which will likely lead to an overly-ambitious garden. But George and Karen won't have a garden this year, so I can justify a large garden somewhat as it will be feeding two households (even though that is really only 4 people).

I ordered seeds from the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa - they collect, propogate, and preserve heirloom and rare seeds. The best part about buying seeds from them is that they tell you the story behind each variety: how this cucumber was brought over from Germany in 1821 and passed down through generations of the family or how this tomato was thought to be extinct and then was found growing in a crack in the sidewalk in Philadelphia or that General so-and-so grew this lettuce and his great-granddaughter gave the seed to the Seed Exchange.

I raided my Master Gardener mother's supplies yesterday and set up some grow lights in my kitchen. I tucked in six varieties of tomatoes, two peppers, fennel, rosemary, and broccoli to start. The buzz of the florescent grow lights is a constant reminder of the stirrings under the soil - I imagine the little seeds slowing coming awake from their long nap, with a yawn and a stretch. Rise and shine! It's time to wake up! Time to get going.

March 19, 2007

these are for you, sunny

cuddly kitties, originally uploaded by EMprint.

sleepy face, originally uploaded by EMprint.

patient Mama, hungry kittens, originally uploaded by EMprint.

just a few hours old

George had his leg x-rayed and it turns out it isn't broken, which sure is a relief to me - I wasn't quite ready to become a full-time rancher. He and mom were out early Sunday morning and I (finally) had a bit of good news to share with them: Mama cat had her babies. She had two grey and two yellow kittens - all healthy and unbearably adorable. And the most exciting part is that two of them have bobbed tails! Which leaves no question as to who the papa is...that ol' rascal Max. I'm like a proud grandma and can hardly wait for how ridiculously cute those little Manx kitties are going to be.

just a few hours old, originally uploaded by EMprint.

hell breaks loose, part 2

Saturday was another one of those days...

Dad and Jerry went to check the cows and asked me to bring out the hay rig after an hour or so. They were planning to sort some of the pairs out of the 'heavys' into other pastures. After checking cows they were going to come back out on the four-wheelers and wanted some hay on the ground to keep the cows from scattering. I waited around a bit longer than they asked me to and had a feeling I should maybe just wait for them to get back before heading out, but decided to just take my time out to the meadows. There was still no sign of them after I got out there, so I just idled down and waited. After a bit, some cows spooked at the far end of the meadow and I assumed I'd see the pickup any minute. Instead I saw two small figures that didn't look like cows - it was George and Jerry on foot. I drove over to them - they had found a cow who was breach (her calf was coming out backwards) and got stuck in the boggy meadow ground trying to get over to her. They figured it would be just as fast to walk back as to ride in the tractor, so I started feeding hay and they kept walking.

As I was loading another stack, they came back through - George on the bike (four-wheeler) and Jerry driving the tractor. I went back to the house and started some dinner. They went back and pulled out the pickup and started trailing the cow back. Once I heard them return, I went down to let them know I had dinner about ready. As I got down to the calving barn, I heard a hellofa ruckus. The cow they'd brought in was ramming and kicking the barn door and it was swinging out about a foot or so each time. The door was starting to come open, so I was heading over to shut it when Jerry came running around - he told me to stand back, then shut the door, and asked me to make sure it didn't slide open again.

So I stood outside, unable to see what was going on in the barn, and just listened to the crashing and cussing. The situation in the calving barn is terrible - if you need to help a cow with her labor, first you've got to get her immobilized so that she will remain still and can't hurt you in the process. This requires getting her into a 'headcatch', which squeezes along the sides of her neck, so that she can't move forward or back. The headcatch in the calving barn is real piece - I'm not even sure what all is wrong with it, but I know from the choice of adjectives used to describe it that it's far from ideal. The whole situtation in there is just ridiculous and it's practically a miracle if you can get anything accomplished without getting killed in the process.

I just kept listening for their voices, to make sure they were both still conscious. After one particularly loud crash, Dad's cussing went up a notch and I heard Jerry ask him if he thought it was broke. Apparently the cow had kicked the gate and Dad's leg had been hit by the gate in front and a board in back. The impact split the board in two and I could hear that he was in pain. At this point things were at a bit of a standstill, so they hollered out for me to go get the 'hotshot', as neither of them could leave or they'd lose all the progress they'd gained.

I ran and got the hotshot and went around to the back of the barn. Jerry was holding tension on a rope around her head and George was at the headcatch, ready to lock it down as soon as she stuck her head in. I went to the gate and gave her a few little shocks in the rear. She was about as stubborn as the two men trying to help her. We went on like this for a while, to no result. Then dad limped up to the house to look for something to knock her out. Unable to find the right drug, they decided to forget the headcatch and just rope her legs to immobilize her.

Her water had broken some hours before and she'd been thrashing around for so long now, that we assumed the calf was probably dead. After finally getting the cow down, they pulled (and surprisingly, she pushed) and got the calf out. Delivering a dead calf after several hours of stressful laboring and literally risking their lives was a bummer, to say the least.

As they got the cow up and out of the barn, I went in to get dinner ready. Shaping hamburger patties in the kitchen, I was struck by the connection between the raw meat in my hands the efforts we'd just made to save a cow and her calf. Though I knew the answer, I couldn't help asking myself 'Is THIS why we do this?'.

Later that afternoon, I went out to feed hay. Afternoon sun, a cool breeze, the first meadowlark song of Spring, geese and hawks overhead, majestic bare cottonwoods in the meadow with new baby calves playing and skipping around them, their mamas humming to them nearby. THIS is why we do this. The end product of this business may be steak and burgers, but for us, I think these babies are the accomplishment of our year. There is hardly anything more charming or gratifying than a pair - a cow and her calf - walking together, the new calf stumbling behind and running ahead, stopping for a bit of milk, and walking on side by side.

March 16, 2007

getting to the "all hell breaks loose" part

When I fed hay last Friday, I noticed a couple of cows that looked like they might be about to calve. I relayed my suspicions and predicted we'd have our first babies by morning. Given my relative inexperience, I'm not sure anyone took me too seriously. Adam and Azure arrived late that night and the next morning Adam found 3 new babies. There have been an increasing number born each day since - I think we had about 13 yesterday. So far everything is going pretty well, but that's not to say there haven't been a few little tragedies.

Adam came in one morning and asked if I could come help him. There was a prolapsed cow and he wanted to try to get her back to the barn. Adam caught her calf and put him in the back of the pick-up. I started driving towards the house and she followed for about 50 yards before collapsing. She was probably in shock and it was an especially bad prolapse, so he decided we'd just have to work on her out in the pasture. Adam knew that there was basically no chance of her surviving, but it was probably for the best that I nievely thought we could still save her. We came back to the house to get supplies: warm water, plastic sheeting, and the medical kit. Azure came along with us as well.

I hadn't expected to have to do much other than trying to keep the cow from getting up. But before long I was gloved up to my shoulders and right in there with Adam, leaving Azure to hold the tail. We probably spent over an hour working on her. She died as Adam tied the last suture. We all three were exhausted, but as Adam said 'we made a valiant effort'. None of us had ever seen a prolapse put in, but you'd have never known that Adam hadn't done it before - he was calm and determined throughout the entire ordeal. Apparently, he'd covered this very procedure in one of his classes the week before - we were all joking that he'd have to go back and tell his professor a thing or two about how it isn't quite as easy in 'real life' as he'd made it seem 'on paper'.

We tracked down her calf and brought him back with us - a little bull, red with a white face: our first 'bucket calf'. By the time I got back from feeding hay that evening there was a second bucket calf. We think she was probably a twin, but her mother only claimed the other twin. It took them a couple of tries to figure out how to suckle the bottle, but now they are both doing really well. And of course they think I'm their mother now, which is pretty endearing.

We lost a calf last night, so they're trying to 'make a match' now. The cow that lost her calf and the calf who lost his mother a few days ago are in 'solitary confinement' together in calving barn now. Hopefully her maternal instincts will kick in and she'll adopt this other baby as her own. Since the cow identifies her baby in large part by its smell, they drapped the hide of the cow's lost calf over the orphan, to trick the cow into thinking it's her own.

March 09, 2007

coming around the bend

We're starting to turn the corner, from Winter into Spring. Beneath the blanket of brown, I can feel the stirrings and stretching of green things beginning to wake. It has been around 50 degrees the last few days, the sky has been looking different (goodbye dear Winter sunsets), and it is even starting to smell fresh and spring-y.

Gus woke me at midnight last night - it was warm and raining and smelled like heaven. The spring-rain smell was gone by morning, so I'm glad (for once) that Gus pulled me from my slumber.

The birds can feel the building energy of Spring too. Yesterday a swarm of swallows were fussing all day in a big cottonwood by the pond. I could hear the hum of their chatter even from inside the house. The Canada geese which Winter around here have been loud and fiesty lately as well. And I saw my first robin - a fat lady, high up above the house, surveying the territory.

And soon there will be many more new arrivals. Not only a few hundred baby calves, but a few baby kittens as well. Mama cat is pregnant again, and looks about ready to pop. I've been letting her in the bunkhouse each night in hopes that she'll have her kittens there, since her last batch had such a rough time. We're all anxious to see who will come first - a kitten or a calf.

And speaking of new arrivals, my dear friend Azure is coming today. She will be my first real visitor since I moved here last June and she couldn't have picked a better (busier) time to visit, what with all hell about to break loose. I'm anxious to show off my 'new' life to an 'old' friend. She's a far more talented photographer than I, so there will likely be some great new photos here soon.

March 01, 2007


After feeding the cows this morning, I headed back into the stackyard to load another stack. I am starting to get a feel for backing up the trailer and managed to get it perfectly positioned without even losing my temper. Then I got everything set and backed under the stack - practically perfectly. (Certainly not bad for my first time doing it solo, anyway.) I'm tremendously relieved.

the gear shift and hydraulic controls:

a bite of hay and a mess of hydraulics:

February 28, 2007

new work: feeding hay

With calving season just around the corner and everyone up to their a** in alligators already, I offered to help out by learning to feed hay. But there were a lot of new things for me to learn before I could actually be of help. So Dad started my tutorial last weekend.

First of all, I had to learn how to drive the tractor with the loader up front and pulling the haysled behind: where to drive (and more importantly where NOT to), how fast to go (how SLOW - never more than 5 mph), when to engage the 4-wheel drive, when to lock the back wheels together (and more importantly when not to), how to use all the hydraulics. Then there is an even more complicated level of decision making: how much hay to feed each bunch of cattle, where to feed it when there is a storm coming, how to feed it when the wind is blowing hard, how to judge if I fed them enough the day before or if I should feed more (or less) next time, when to feed the 'good' hay and when to feed the 'bad' hay, and how to tell the difference between the two.

On my first day we fed everything. It took almost 5 hours. That's a little bigger chunk of my day than I'd realized I was signing up for. We've decided to feed two days' worth at a time, so that will cut down on the daily time investment considerably. And George has been working on all the gates, many of which were constructed in such a ridiculously absurd manner that it took me ten minutes to get everything just right so it would fasten. Plus, with experience I'm sure I'll get more efficient overall and might only need to spend 2-3 hours a day feeding.

But the naive excitement that I had at first is waning somewhat now. I'm still totally committed to getting good at this new job and glad to be helpful. But the anxiety, which I expect (and hope) will diminish with time, is exhausting. The dimensions of the tractor and hay sled, coupled with the incredible weight of the hay stacks is overwhelming. The setup is deceptively fragile - so many hydraulics and such tremendous loads. [Hay is a lot heavier than it looks.] I can't trust my instincts when working at this scale - all the unconscious behaviors gained from 20 years of driving experience must be forgotten, for the most part, and relearned. So far I haven't done any serious damage, but that's not to say I haven't come uncomfortably close to doing so. I'm definitely one of the unfortunate who learn best from mistakes rather than successes. Luckily, a 'close call' will usually suffice.

I'm starting to feel pretty confident just driving and nearly have a sensation for the path and movement of the haysled behind me. It has taken me a while to realize that I need to plan my movements WAY ahead of time. If I turn too sharp, or not sharp enough, it would be possible to get 'trapped' in a position that would require drastic measures to remedy (like having to take out a fence, for instance). The ground is froze hard still, and I know it will drive differently once the frost goes out. I try not to worry, but I'm nervous about getting stuck. This is our biggest tractor, i.e. if it gets stuck we're screwed, because it's going to take something even bigger to pull it out. On the up side, I don't think I'm at risk of becoming over-confident anytime soon.

The one thing I may never get comfortable with is driving on the side of a hill. I sense that my threshold for tilting sideways is much lower than most people. I used to cower under the dash when I was little and dad was driving on steep terrain. And strangely, I seem to have a much higher tolerance for tipping to the left than to the right. My fears ARE somewhat justified - the tractor is pretty top heavy and tipping over would be a disaster. But the bottom falls out of my stomach with just a few degrees of tilt and it really isn't possible to avoid such situations.

The hydraulics for the hayfork seemed a bit overly-complicated at first, but I've pretty well gotten the hang of it now. (There are three hydraulic controls for the loader up front, four controls for the hayfork. plus an auxillary switch that creates several more permutations - hydralics for the haysled and the chains.) I tend toward the (secretly) perfectionist parts of my personality in the task maneuvering the hayfork, which I really need to get over unless I want to spend oodles of extra time just for the sake of aesthetics. There are a few controls that are a bit touchy, but overall I'm pretty decent at forking off the hay. It's actually a pretty fun job, though I think I'd enjoy it a lot more if you didn't have to crane your neck around backwards to see what you're doing.

So I can drive the tractor, I can fork off the hay - sounds pretty solid, right? Except that I'm still completely incompetent in one vital task: loading the stacks. We feed about one big stack a day, so a new stack has to be loaded onto the sled once or even twice a day. I've been lying in bed at night going over and over the procedure (which I've really got to stop doing because these are not sleep-inducing thoughts, to say the least). Maybe it would help if I wrote them out.

Here are the essential steps to load a haystack onto the haysled, IF everything goes smoothly (which, at this point, would basically take a miracle):

1. Pull into the stackyard, driving alongside the stack you intend to pick up, and then pull as far past it as you have room to do.
(If you're entering the stackyard from a pasture where there are cows, you'd best make sure you can feed them some hay beforehand, so that they won't try to follow you into the stackyard. Basically, that would be a disaster - ridiculously hard to get them out again, plus then they'll be on to your stash and more likely to break in later on.)

2. Back up to a stack, being careful to be centered and squared-up with the stack and trailer both.
(Sounds easy enough, but this is my number one weakness. Backing up a huge trailer makes me feel like a total dumbass. I'll think I've got the wheels cranked the right way, but then the trailer will go the wrong way because I'm past the 'fulcrum'. I'm a mess at backing up. A complete disaster. Not only is everything backwards from the way I expect it to be, I'm also facing backwards. And if you think two 'backwards' make a 'rightwards' you'd be SO wrong.)

3. Put the tractor in park and throttle down.

4. Flip the auxiliary switch to the 'neutral' position.
5. Use the joystick buttons (of which there are three, each with two directions) to move the hayfork well out of the way - up and off to the side.

6. Flip the auxiliary switch to the 'forward' position.
7. Push the joystick forward, to change the direction of the chains.
8. Test to make sure the chains are now moving in the right direction.
(towards you, so that they will pull the stack onto the trailer)

9. Flip the auxiliary switch to the 'rear' position.
10. Use the joystick to tilt up the bed of the haysled, until the wheels just start to come off the ground.
(It is very important to leave the auxiliary switch in THIS position.)

11. Flip on the 4-wheel drive lock.

(12a. Go through the remaining steps in your head because they all happen at once, much faster than is really comfortable.)

12. Put the tractor in the A range, if not already, and the 1st speed.

13. Engage the chains.

14. Release the clutch and start reversing into the stack.

15. As SOON as you're under a bit of the stack, press the joystick ALL the way forward, to the 'float' position.
(This will let the bed tilt back down as the weight of the stack moves forward, prevent the back of the sled from digging into the ground, and reduce the strain on the sled hydraulics. Incidentally, this has so far been impossible for me to remember to do, mostly because I'm preoccupied with step 16...)

16. It will be necessary to 'slip' the clutch to keep the tractor moving back at the same speed that the chains are moving forward. If these two speeds do not match up, the stack will come apart. The tractor tends to backup faster than the chains move forward, so you have to watch the front edge of the stack and slip the clutch if you see the front bit of hay rolling back underneath the stack as you go.

17. Stop the tractor once you've got the stack completely on the haysled.
(This you just have to develop a sense for. Hypothetically, it would be possible to stop the chains and the tractor and go see where you're at, but ideally you can just intuit this without the trouble.)

18. Stop the chains once the stack is nearly to the front of the sled.
(You don't want the stack too far forward because it will get wrapped up in the PTO shaft, but you need some 'tongue weight'. This can easily be adjusted after getting out and and inspecting the situation. It seems best to move the chains/stack forward until the bed is completely flat, then move it another foot or so forward.)

19. Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back. (Alternatively, have a swig of whiskey and rest your forehead on the steering wheel until you can breathe again.)

20. With the stack "perfectly" loaded, you can drop the hayfork onto the new stack and grab a bite of hay with the claw to stabilize it.

21. Switch off the 4-wheel drive and head out.
(If you are situated right next to another stack - which is nearly always the case - it is VERY important to pull out straight until the sled clears the stack next to it. Apparently, the pressure of turning too quickly - pressing into the other haystack - could be so tremendous as to BEND the haysled.)

Tomorrow will be my first solo attempt. I drove out to the stackyard this afternoon and Dad helped me load a stack (see the pictures above - not bad, eh?). After I feed the cows tomorrow, I'll load another - by myself.

February 22, 2007


I saw this dude meandering across the yard yesterday afternoon. I think Gus must have thought it was a cat until I came out with my camera. Then she realized this was NOT a cat and started circling the stricken coon with her fiercest bark. Even before Gus was on the scene, the raccoon was moving VERY slowly. I'm not sure if it was an old dude, a pregnant lady, or maybe it was sick? In case it was rabid, I made Gus stay inside until the coon had regained its courage and wandered off. I went back out to get another picture, once I'd wrestled Gus inside, and the coon was so still and docile that it seemed like I could have gone right up to it - touched it, even. I stayed a few feet back, just to be safe, but it was pretty cool to be able to get so close.

I woke up at six this morning and caught the brilliant colors of first light.
Still in bed, through the window screen, it looked like this:

February 19, 2007

the cows came home

After eighteen years working on this ranch, Matt will be taking another job next week. We knew this was coming, but had hoped he'd be around through the summer at least. It sounds like we'll be able to hire someone on to help us through the calving season, but there will be plenty of work to go around nevertheless. I've asked George to give me the full tutorial on the new tractor and hydraulic hay-fork. I have driven the tractor before, but not very confidently (it's pretty big!), and never with a haysled behind it. The controls for the hay-fork are a bit complicated by the sounds of it, but I'm up to the challenge.

This morning George and Matt trailed the expecting mamas from the East pasture, to back near the homeplace. As calving season approaches, the 'heavys' - cows nearing their due date - will be sorted into the 'heavy lot'. Then we can check the heavy lot several times a day (AND night) to make sure everything is going smoothly. Cows having a calf for the first time can have all sorts of problems as a result of their lack of experience. Sometimes the new mother will reject her calf, refuse it milk, or even try to hurt it. As well, their labor is often more difficult - we'll occasionally need to 'pull' a calf if the mother isn't progressing fast enough on her own.

Normally somebody is assigned to 'night calving', to check on the cows through the night. Since we have very few first-timers this year, we may decide to let them fend for themselves through the night. I've volunteered to check them at least once during the night. I think I could sufficiently identify a problem, but I wouldn't be competent enough to handle it by myself. If need be, my parents might move out to the ranch during calving, so that George would be at hand if anything went wrong.

It feels a bit like the calm before the storm. Soon there will be fewer hands on deck, yet more oars in the water. It is a bit daunting, but I look forward to the bustle of activity and the bawls of the newborn calves.

February 16, 2007


Yesterday morning it was just below 0ºF when I went out to shovel the sidewalks. Several nights this week have seen temperatures as low as -10º F. But the warm air arrived with a crash, quite literally, this morning. I was awoken by what sounded like the roof falling in. It was just the ice and snow falling off the tree branches and eaves. A brilliant blue sky was peeking out behind the barn and trees in small patches early this morning. It was 40ºF by 8 AM this morning and the thaw is dramatic as a result.

Though this beautiful weather is a treat, if is there is more cold and snow in store, I would just as soon Winter got it out of his system now. In a few weeks, calving will begin. Temperatures like we've had this past week are so hard on the babies. Imagine suddenly going from your 90º womb to the -10º snowy ground. Our new neighbors have been calving for a few weeks now - I bet those babies are glad for this relative heatwave.

On another note, I have some very exciting news: I had satellite internet installed! 525 Kbs!! Wireless!! I'm always connected - no more modem sounds, and I can even be on the internet and phone at the SAME TIME. It only takes me a few moments now to upload my pictures to Flickr or put up a new blog post. It's miraculous.
I'm back.
It is very exciting.

February 14, 2007

depth of brown, frosted now

It is definitely still winter. The depth and vastness of brown is profound. January was a relatively dry month - draining every last drop of color from the hills. But the barren dormancy is actually kind of a relief. And already I can feel the Spring building underneath the brown facade. The anticipation of that eventual explosion of color and life is exciting. I've always appreciated the anticipation as much (and sometimes more even) than the result.

Snow and freezing rain and well-below-freezing temperatures have done a great deal this past week to cover the brown landscape. Every surface of every thing is frosted white and it is blindingly bright outside when the sun finds its way through the clouds. We drove home from Omaha during a snowstorm on Monday. There had been an ice storm the night before and the trees, bushes, power lines, were drooping under the weight of the ice. But it looked SO amazing.

The one flash of color everyday is at dusk. It only lasts for 30 minutes at most, but the blue pink yellow orange blue is a beautiful flourish to end each day.