April in Photos

IMG_5056During calving season, Buddy and Whiskey sometimes get shut out of the corrals. Most mornings, they come in to take a nap in the sunshine and generally be part of the barnyard crowd. But with twins on our hands, we needed the extra space for the cow to be with her heifer calves. It was during a three AM check that I discovered the twins. Both were already on the ground, heads up and breathing well. But, being a novice at this whole business, I didn’t know if there was something we needed to do – so I woke Bart to tell him we had twins. He asked if they were standing yet, and if the cow was cleaning them. He then assured me it was okay, we could wait until dawn to check on them again. But after about 10 minutes lying in the dark, I heard his clear, alert voice ask, “how am I supposed to go back to sleep now?” By the next morning, the cow was licking one calf clean while the other suckled. A truly impressive and dedicated mother.

We are so grateful to our first branding crew – several newbies (including myself), but with plenty of determination and desire to learn, we had a smooth, easy morning of branding.

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Thanks to Mary Peters for capturing the crew on film – more photos from the morning are on her website Photography by Mary PetersIMG_5072

I am the pied piper of chickens. They follow me wherever I go, sometimes so eager for kitchen scraps that they swarm me and literally get underfoot. Their egg output is impressive for 3-year olds; We still get about a half dozen a day. In the nine months that we’ve lived out in the coulee they have learned to follow the horses and cows – pecking through their paddies for insects and seeds. Its great to have a clean-up crew around!

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We’ve spent over a week fencing along the highway – a pasture we are leasing from the neighbor in order to have a separate space for our heifers and a bull this spring. We’ve worked feverishly to get the pasture in working order. This little dip in the landscape had to be totally re-wired with new posts installed. It took about a half day of up and down, up and down to finish the job. Doc, the project boss, had to remain in the truck because of our proximity to the highway. He alternated between wistfully looking out the window and napping on the shovel handle.

At least the views while fencing provided some relief! To our northwest, the low, slumped profile of the Snowy Mountains.

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And more distant, directly to the west, the ragged white crests of the Crazy Mountains.

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Plenty of wildlife viewing too…

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The hot days have brought out the snakes. In one day we saw garter snakes, bull snakes, racers, and rattlers. Bart even saw a rattler and a racer peeking out of a hole, side-by-side, where earlier he had seen a garter. A communal hibernaculum, perhaps? The photo above is of a bull snake, the friendly relative of the prairie rattlesnake. Apparently, where there are bull snakes, there are no rattlesnakes. We welcome the presence of the bulls!

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We woke during the night on Thursday to fierce northern winds. I scrambled downstairs to shut the windows, which were left open in order to cool the cabin following a sunny, dry, and very hot day. The next morning we awoke to the acrid smell and dense smoke of wildfire. We couldn’t even see the familiar outline of the Snowy Mountains while fencing. To the north close to a half million acres in Alberta is engulfed in flames and over 80,000 people have been evacuated; a strange occurrence for early May. With a drought and temperatures already in the 80’s, it feels more like August here on the northern prairie. Gratefully, today brought ample rain, clearing the air of smoke and providing much needed moisture to us and our neighbors to the north.

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The first evening primrose of spring! It is impressive; such a large and delicate flower emerging from the rocky soil. Most of our prairie wildflowers are a fraction of the primrose’s size, beautiful and colorful in their own diminutive way. There are splashes of purple, blue, yellow, and pink everywhere lately. Today’s heavy rains will surely bring more color to the prairie. Thankfully, the forecast calls for even more tonight and tomorrow.

New Life

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Number 2 licks her calf dry

As February came to an end, we adjusted to a new rhythm of life. The first calf of the year was born to a first calf heifer within the safe confines of our new barn on Tuesday the 24th. The labor proceeded without a hitch. The mother welcomed her newborn into the world with a tongue-bath while it lay on a bed of fresh straw, catching its first breaths. Drying the new heifer quickly was imperative; the air temperature hovered in the low single digits and the winds were howling. Although our barn has but two sides for this first year, they are strategically placed to block the predominantly northwestern wind and thereby create an effective barrier to the cold.

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Our home away from home

After we made sure the new calf was up and suckling from its mother, we headed to the camper just a few hundred yards from the barn in the coulee. For the next several weeks, this became our second home, allowing us to easily check the cows every few hours during the night. Last summer we helped my father-in-law fix up the 2nd-hand camper. After intense cleaning and repairs, Bart installed wood flooring, a folding table, and propane heater, while I selected paint and coated the interior in a warm yellow hue. The first night we slept in the camper, the wind howled all night long, shaking various loose pieces of metal and flapping the vents. At first, we were cold and then way too hot, shedding the feather comforter midway through the night in favor of a light cotton quilt. The cows outside the door woke me several times with their bellowing. It was ultimately a very restless night of sleep. Just a few nights later, I had adjusted to waking up every three hours, figured out the perfect combination of blankets and pillows, and was tired enough to just about sleep the whole night through.

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The horses aren’t sure what to make of all the activity at the corrals.

So far most of the births have proceeded without a hitch – easy, smooth labors. Mild trouble arose in the first week when a first-calf heifer became wildly confused about the baby that had just emerged from her body. She bellowed at her new calf, and tried to head-butt it a few times. Luckily, one of the more experienced cows nearby came over and began licking the newborn, perhaps thinking that the calf could be her own. Something must have clicked for the first-calf heifer as she followed suite and proceeded to lick her baby dry. The air was still very cold, but at least this little calf arrived under the mid-day sun. If it is very cold, and the calf doesn’t quite dry out quickly enough, we bring it into the truck (thank goodness for the quad cab) and drive it to the shop to warm up. One Friday evening in early March, I helped towel-dry a white-faced calf that was still too wet when the sun went down and the temperature plummeted into the single digits. In a stealthy grab, Bart quickly snatched her from the mother and stuck her in the cab. Back at the shop, she stood fairly patiently through the toweling, and then stood next to me by the fire, looking for somewhere to nurse. She tried my hand, which was curled up in my lap, and then went for my rubber muck boot. After striking out on both counts, she took a couple of laps around the truck and checked out our dog, Doc, who was obviously intimidated by this oversized baby. We decided the calf was warm and mobile enough to go back out in the lot with her mom. When we dropped her off, Bart did his best imitation of a calf bellowing in order to draw the mother over. A few other cows came and checked it out with their noses and tongues, but quickly left when they realized it wasn’t their baby. At last the calf let out a bellow of its own, and instantly its mother flew over to the rescue. In no time at all, the calf latched onto its mother’s nipple for its first nutritious meal. There are but a handful of cows left to calf as we near the end of the month. It has been a relatively easy year, with daytime temperatures often above fifty and ample sunshine. Once we turn them into pasture, the calves are a joy to watch. They tumble in play and run circles around their moms in shear delight at being alive. It is a truly wondrous time of year.

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Dawn in the Coulee

In like a calf…

IMG_3988As March begins, so too begins calving season. The first round of newborns arrived early: three calves in three days from Tuesday through Thursday. Now all’s quiet. Perhaps they are waiting for the next storm and plunging temperatures. We check them every few hours just to be sure.

Here are a few photos of the newborns. Calving season means interrupted sleep, so I’m operating on the bare minimum right now. I’m getting only the essentials accomplished during the day. Stories to come soon. IMG_3980

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Leaving the city

Although our move was in the works for a long time, we ultimately left the city on a whim in late December. Two days before Christmas we rented out our house and a week later, on New Years Day 2014, we were packed and gone from Billings.

Doc loads himself into the horse trailer with our furniture in order to be sure he gets move north too
Doc loads himself into the horse trailer with our furniture – he will not be left behind!

Thus began our new lives together on the ranch in Lavina, though several months would pass by before the transformation was complete. Keeping my job in the city for awhile meant I would stay with a friend during the week while a cold, dark winter rendered the roads unpleasant if not entirely impassable at times. Weekends on the ranch were piled with chores that never seemed to end, but the pace of life was already shifting, becoming slower and richer. Returning to the “real” world of work in the city was a stark shift of reality that shook me out of my ranch reverie every Monday morning.

Our third and final calf of the year, born in early March
Our first calf of the year

Remarkable changes were taking place as I commuted to and fro from what-was-to-be and what-had-been. In late February, our first calf ever was born. On a bitterly cold night during a snowstorm, our newest cow birthed a healthy young heifer out in the pasture. By the time we spied her early the next morning, she was up on all four feet, completely dried by her mother’s tongue, and nursing contentedly despite the two feet of fresh snow and frigid temperature that hovered around four degrees Fahrenheit. This tough little calf born in a blizzard was a harbinger of our new future together on the ranch – challenging times with extraordinary rewards.