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.

The Week in Pictures

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As the long days of summer fly by, I usually flop into bed exhausted at night. Therefore, I’m keeping this post simple by sharing some photos from the week.

IMG_4356My how my garden grows! I returned from a lovely week in New York State with family and friends to a garden that is taller, fuller, and weedier than when I left. After a few vigorous days of work, it is now back in tip top shape.IMG_4349 I am most impressed by the sunflowers, which must grow at least 3 – 5 inches each day.

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IMG_4346This is my first year growing eggplant, which has a rather exotic-looking leaf and flower.

IMG_4336It’s harvest time for the last of the spring spinach and chard, and the first beets and turnips. IMG_4340

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While in Syracuse, my cousins shared with me an interesting natural history tidbit from our Grandpa. He taught them to ask a daddy longleg “which way did the cows go?” and it would point a leg. The day after I flew home, we moved the cows to a new pasture, and I had the perfect opportunity to test this out. The very next morning, I found this daddy longleg trapped in my sink. When asked the question, he pointed in approximately the right direction! I consider this an affirmation of the wisdom of Grandpa.

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On hot summer days, we usually have sun tea brewing. This batch is Mountain Huckleberry with honey. Yum.

Our neighbor’s goat had twins! One of the kids was too weak to get up right away, so Bart gave it a boost. IMG_4405

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Being a ranch dog is tough work – Doc usually takes a nap at lunchtime.

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IMG_4446At dusk last night on the western horizon: the Moon and Jupiter behind the Cottonwood tree.

Signs of Summer

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Here above the 46th parallel we bask in sunlight until well after 9 at night on the summer solstice. We sleep with the windows wide open to let in the cool night air and murmur of the crickets. We awake by 5 in the morning to a chorus of birds already greeting the sun. The days are long and we have the good fortune to spend most of our time working outdoors.

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The Coulee Garden grows – June 1st
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June 7th
June 19th
June 19th

With two gardens to tend, I can usually be found in the dirt amongst vegetable plants. A couple rough hailstorms in early June set us back a bit, but everything is now growing well. I keep up on weeding, watering, and removal of pesky potato bugs. Alas, they have already found my new garden in the coulee. Luckily, they are easy to see and pick by hand. We’ve had a marvelous harvest from the town garden already: lettuce, spinach, and arugula. At this time of year, we indulge in fresh mixed green salad twice a day.

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Ample June rains have granted us lush, green fields that are ready for haying. We are up to the task as we purchased our first haying equipment this spring. We picked up a swather for a smoking deal after enduring a long hot day at an auction in May. All the sane people left in search of water and shade by five. Out of the few determined bidders left, we clearly wanted the swather the most. After a few minor tweaks, Bart is cutting hay.

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It works!

Next came the baler. Bart’s commitment to finding hidden gems on Craigslist really paid off. He found this little square baler down in Bridger. Again, a few minor tweaks and it is working like a champ. Luckily, our little tractor can pull the baler. We picked the tractor up from a friend a few years ago. It required several major tweaks before it jumped to life. Now all it needs is a sun umbrella, and we are ready to roll all summer long.

IMG_4322Bart cut and baled the first of the hay last week. We loaded it onto the trailer and brought it up to the barn. Here at the height of summer we are doing our best to prepare for winter: hay for the animals, and vegetables for us.

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The honey bees are back
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Milkweed is just starting to bloom
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Doc was nowhere to be found when I finished weeding last week. He usually sticks pretty close to me in the garden, but sometimes follows birds off on a tangent. I figured he’d show up soon, and went to the car to get my water. Lo and behold, there he was sound asleep in the back seat of the Subaru. He had taken advantage of the open driver’s side door and made his way to a luxurious bed complete with pillows. Usually he rides in the back of the wagon, which is certainly not as comfortable. I figure he made out pretty good that day. Probably even woke up when I called him, but didn’t want to give away his position.

A Thankful for Sunday

IMG_0551Today I am thankful for all the furry friends in my life – past, present, and future. They shower me with unconditional love, and when they joyfully greet me, they always bring a smile to my face even after the roughest of days. They ask little in return – some food, water, shelter, and occasional ear rubbings. I, of course, tend to spoil them rotten with attention and daily romps on the prairie.

I am especially thankful this year for Ox, our big friend who passed away in August. He had been Bart’s faithful companion for 10+ years. When I began dating Bart, he’d walk over to my house in Billings, crossing the campus of MSU-B with Ox in tow. We’d inevitably get looks and questions about Ox in Billings, even though it is in close proximity to sheep ranches with Great Pyrenees dogs like Ox. Is that a bear? What kind of dog is that? He’s like a little horse! And always – can I pet him? Ox graciously submitted to multiple sessions of petting by enthusiastic kids. He was gentle and kind, with just a little wild and stubborn streak in him.

On our first backpacking trip together in 2008, Bart and I ventured into the Beartooth Mountains in early October, despite a three foot and counting dump of heavy snow. Luckily, Ox pitched in and broke miles of trail for us – his furry back just grazing the top of white blankets of snow. He plowed ahead, giving our legs a much-needed rest. IMG_0506

Ox loved winter the best. He was famous for his snow angels and would get down and roll around in every little patch of snow he encountered. IMG_2782 He accompanied us on many ski trips – slogging up the hill behind us and then joyfully careening down the slope in our ski tracks. He even trekked with us on the infamously long Reefer Ridge ski run – off the top of Beartooth Pass to the Rock Creek valley outside of Red Lodge.

IMG_0853One time we camped off the Beartooth Highway on a side road just past a sign that said “Grizzly Bear Country. Store Food Properly”. As dusk fell on the Plateau, headlights came slowly down the dirt road toward us. Ox, curious about the noise after an evening of relative peace, roused himself and stood out by the dirt road. As the car approached, the passengers rolled down their window and checked him out. Then they hollered to us with a laugh, “hey, the sign said to watch out for grizzly bears… not polar bears!”.

I miss my big hairy white guy, the polar bear. I am thankful for all the laughs, love and adventures that we shared with Ox. We all miss him terribly, perhaps Doc most of all.

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Synchronized Sleeping
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Ox had a calming effect on Doc
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Sometimes, you just have one of those days where you want to hide your head in the fur of a friend and forget about it all!

Chicken Kitty

I had visions of filling my blog with stories from the beginning – our first months on the ranch in the winter, the many adventures of planting and building in the spring, and the blossoming of a routine in summer. Yet here it is, July 31st, and I have yet to find time to post more than one story. Long days outdoors planting, weeding, fencing, watering, and weeding some more leave me exhausted at dusk with little creative energy to rehash the past. Perhaps the long months of winter ahead will provide me with time to reflect on how we got here and the many memorable moments thus far. In the interim, I shall begin right here in the now with a kitten we call Chicken.

 

It started yesterday late in the morning. IMG_3303My dog Doc got my attention with incessant barking on the porch. Doc is not a barker. I ran to see what was up. There he was barking at the porch steps, agitated and riled up by a calico kitten. The kitten, for her part, had a most ferocious look on her face with claws drawn in front of her upright body like a miniature boxer. The fact that the kitten stood untouched at least a foot from Doc is astonishing in its own right. Doc, a trained bird dog, is not fond of felines. Small, moving objects are all too similar to pheasants. Squirrel equals kitten equals chicken equals pheasant. Two prior encounters with small cats have ended quickly with the cat dead in Doc’s mouth. This feisty little kitten was giving Doc a run for his money. She was not to be messed with. I hustled Doc away to the confines of the house, and went back in search of the kitten who had disappeared into the rose bushes in search of refuge. I left hoping she’d leave. I already have enough chaos to manage between Doc and our 19 free-roaming chickens. Adding a cat to the mix didn’t seem like a pleasing prospect.

 

Later in the evening, I heard the kitten meowing, that poor, sorrowful cry of an abandoned and lonesome creature. At least that is how I felt upon hearing her cry. It was way too small to be alone. From what crevice under the house did it emerge? Could it have wandered over from a neighbor’s farm, and been too scared to leave following it’s run-in with Doc? Whence went its mother and when would she return? I hoped beyond hope that it would leave in the dark, and find its way to a home where it belonged. During the night, I heard her once or twice, but by dawn the memories of meows seemed distant and dreamlike. Doc, patrolling the yard as usual this morning, had checked out the porch and surroundings, and hadn’t brought a dead kitten to me… yet. So on with business as usual. After collecting the day’s eggs I opened the chicken run to free the birds into the yard. Underneath the usual chorus of clucking and the rustle of feathers I heard it: the mournful meow. I opened the coop door, and there was the kitten, IMG_2902climbing up the chicken ramp into the coop right in front of my eyes. The chickens towered over the little creature, and didn’t pay her any mind as the filed out the door in search of grasshoppers and grubs. I called my husband to help me corral the kitten into a corner, but he was uninterruptable. Alas, gloveless and solo I gave a feeble attempt to corner and catch the kitty, but it quickly escaped down the chicken ramp. I will forever wish I had my camera to document what followed next. The kitten began following the chickens. Not in the low, stalking pose that I’ve seen cats use when hunting prey. No, this little kitten was bouncy and playful, apparently glad for the company of a creature its own size. The chickens, a fussy bunch with their own social hierarchy issues, were not impressed with the cat’s advances. They shuffled away from the prancing fur ball and went on with their business of pecking and preening. At about this moment, my husband looked up from his project in the shop, and caught sight of the kitten following the chickens across the driveway. Certainly a laughable sight! This got hisIMG_3580 attention and he decided to help me with the kitten. But help me do what? Leave it to defend itself against the malice of Doc? Or, if its feline prowess trumps Doc’s malevolence, then let her grow up alongside the chickens until one day she realizes that she has claws and a hunting instinct that’s unquenchable? Neither of these prospects meshed well with our relatively tranquil life on the ranch. Capturing the kitten and relocating it to a new home became our best option. What followed was confused cat wrangling with leather gloves and two towels in the dense shrubbery along the edge of the property. Again, did I mention a camera would have been really good here? Finally, the kitten, found herself pinned alongside some downed timber, and I grabbed her from behind and quickly wrapped her in the towel. Thank goodness for the gloves as the feisty feline bit me twice in admirable self-defense. The kitten, feral as they come, is now fed and sheltered in a cage in our carport. I am working on taming her so we can find her a new home. I’ve never owned a cat in my life. I’m not a big fan of housecats: furry feet on every surface including kitchen counters and the stinky litter box that someone has to clean, about as appealing as changing a baby’s diapers. Do I want to keep her, tiny little fluffball in need of a friend? Yup. But our barn won’t be built for another year so we aren’t in the market for a barn cat yet. In the meantime I’ll do my best to socialize this cat and help her become well-adjusted enough to move off the streets into a loving home. And I’ll try not to get attached to this little kitten we call Chicken.

 

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.