Women’s History Month

I’m delighted to be featured alongside several phenomenal women in the Audubon Conservation Ranching program. They are highlighting women ranchers in honor of Women’s History month. Following is my profile.

Rancher Name: Heather Bilden

Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Ranch: Coulee Creek Ranch

Location: Lavina, Montana

What is your favorite bird and why?

This is a tough question! It’s like asking me to pick my favorite color – my answer depends on my mood, my surroundings, and the season. In this moment, my favorite bird is the Common Redpoll. Large flocks of them have been descending on our yard every morning for the past few weeks. It is fascinating to watch them move in unison: landing, eating, and then taking off abruptly only to land again just a stone’s throw away. I love their bright red caps and the variety of reddish hues on the males’ chests (what the field guide aptly refers to as a “variable pink wash”). If you ask me in a month, I’ll likely say my favorite bird is the Sandhill Crane, which will be returning to Montana by mid-March. Their rattling calls will echo across the prairie for months and become part of the fabric of our daily lives. We have the pleasure of watching a pair raise their young in our pastures every year, and the transformation that occurs in just six short months is marvelous.

What conservation projects are you working on right now?

This summer we are excited to begin a trial of multi-species grazing with our new flock of Icelandic sheep. About five years ago, we subdivided 4 large pastures into 14 smaller units. We now rotate our cattle more frequently to spread grazing pressure evenly across the landscape and incorporate periods of rest for each pasture. Cattle and sheep prefer different types of plants, and grazing them in succession can improve pasture quality, decrease weeds, and increase biodiversity. Raising sheep will also give us the opportunity to diversify our income stream and provide lamb and wool to our community.

Any advice for women looking to pursue a career in ranching?

It has been vital to me to find and nurture community. Living in rural areas can feel isolating. Our business is just my husband and myself, so we often go through our day-to-day lives without seeing other people. But even in our small community, there are always neighbors that we can call on to help us when we’re in a pinch, and to whom we are eager to lend a hand. I’ve also found a tremendously supportive community in the Women in Ranching program coordinated by the Western Landowners Alliance. Virtual calls, email conversations, and annual gatherings bring this group together. I have a network of knowledgeable, inspiring, and compassionate women ranchers with me wherever I go!

What’s your dream job?

I’m doing it! Being a rancher and selling beef directly to consumers is a dynamic job that keeps me on my toes. I love working outdoors – moving the herd, checking water tanks, and feeding with our team. Even fencing has its moments! I also love connecting with our customers at farmer’s markets and through weekly deliveries to Billings. People in Montana often have stories to share about growing up on ranches and working with horses. Or they may be new to it all and are curious to learn what it’s like to live on a ranch. I enjoy talking with people about the animals we raise, and the connection between healthy landscapes and nutritious food. I also love how our work on the ranch is deeply connected to the seasons. It is very grounding to have routines that we repeat in harmony with nature’s cycles.

Support Coulee Creek Ranch

If you live in the Billings, Lavina, or Bozeman area, you’re in luck! Coulee Creek Ranch will deliver your online order or you can visit a Billings Farmers Market near you during the summer months.

Head over to the Audubon Conservation Ranching page to learn about the other women in the program.

Photo courtesy of Emmie Sperandeo

Saying Goodbye

Oh Doc! Last week we said goodbye to our sweet, soft and silly English setter. I adopted Doc in February 2011 when he was about seven. We had a challenging first night together involving a bath, a trim of his tangled mats of fur with embedded burs, a pee parade inside the house and finally non-stop crying from the kennel that even ear plugs couldn’t drown out. I gave in after a few hours – or maybe it was just one – and let him out of the kennel. He promptly fell asleep on my love seat and snuck his way into my heart. I stuck with him and taught him some basic manners, and in return he gave me hours of companionship and joy. He even gifted me a couple of dead ducks, and once, a dead cat. We’d hike on the prairie and he’d run circles around me. On the distant horizon he was as small as a grain of rice shimmering in the sun and always on the move. Twice his prairie escapades ended in vet trips when grass seeds got lodged under his long floppy red ears and worked their way to his ear drum. Once he was picked up on the highway after making his way several miles down Coulee Creek hot on the trail of a duck. He had a one track mind with two channels: birds and me. He feigned sleep while watching me move around the room with one of his big brown eyes. I couldn’t slip anything past him. Packing a suitcase? He’s onto me. Putting on town clothes and makeup? He’s by the door ready to come along. The only time he barked was when I left him alone and then it was nonstop.

The night after Doc died, Maverick howled – a long mournful howl – in his sleep. His howl reverberated in my soul all day long. There is a huge hole in our lives now that Doc is gone. I’m grateful for the time we had together. I only wish it would last forever. 

Welcome 2022

As we head into the new year, we want to express our deep gratitude for the continued support of our community. We faced many challenges this year on the ranch, yet we continue to be comforted and lifted up by the generosity and goodwill from friends, neighbors and customers. May the New Year bring an abundance of joyful moments to your lives. We appreciate you. 

We’re taking orders for bulk beef and ground beef now with weekly deliveries to Billings in late January and a delivery to Bozeman in late February. Place your order today at this link.

Death Comes for the Goose

Every morning we pass the lone goose. He has been there waiting on the banks of Coulee Creek for a couple of weeks. He is attentive and as we go by his long neck turns to keep one eye focused on us. My heart breaks for him. Geese mate for life and I fear the worst has happened to his partner. How the minutes must drag into hours and days as he waits for her arrival! How long will he sit there at the bend in the creek before he gives up? And then what? How does a lone goose find a new mate in late spring on the prairie? Wherever I look, pairs are hunkered down together preparing nests and incubating their eggs. If there is a goose singles pond, it is a well kept secret. 

I hiked upstream from the lone goose’s hangout earlier this spring. Not far away, perhaps only a quarter mile, I found the remains of a dead goose. At the time, I marveled at the lightweight bones, the unique fused pelvic girdle, and the wide, long feathers that were piled together in a heap. Probably made a good meal for the coyotes, I thought. But now as my heart breaks for the lone goose, I wonder if that pile of bones was his partner. The cycles of nature make sense to me intellectually; some animals die so that others may live. But when I see the lone goose again each morning, I ache. 

There is a delicate balance that keeps the web of life perfectly in tune. We exist as part of this web, though you wouldn’t know it while walking around on pavement in the cities or down brightly lit grocery store aisles, selecting perfectly picked and packaged food that has traveled the world to our tables. Out here in the country, we are no longer just consumers. We are an authentic part of something bigger. It is not as tidy as human society. It is messier, with the raw spots open to the wind, rain and sun. Fairy tales with predictable happy endings have no place out here. 

How can I reconcile the immense joy nature brings me with the death that is an integral part of the system? I have put wildlife out of its misery when it was evident that the alternative was a long slow death. With a shovel in hand and tears running down my cheeks, I have beheaded fatally-wounded naked baby birds. I cannot answer the question of whether there is life after death, heaven or hell, nirvana or reincarnation for myself, nor for the baby birds who lived but a short while on this earth. Those greater questions go unanswered, floating away on drifting clouds. What feels right when faced with death is deep reverence for the life that was. And so I end each mercy killing with a burial, the placing of the body within the earth from which it came. Here it will decompose and spring forward as life anew. I tuck the bodies away where flies won’t consume the flesh, laying eggs that emerge as naked fat white grubs where once there grew magnificent feathers. Is this my fascination with tidy endings, the human attachment to neatly packaged goods and ideas rearing its head? Or – quite possibly – my actions spring from an innate desire to weave together the loose ends of the web of life, completing nature’s perfect pattern. 

Swarm of Bees

Yesterday a swarm of bees on our gate post, and today I took some time to write…

“Maybe the sun will shine today” croons the smooth male voice on the radio. I can hear the rain over the music. It is coming down in steady sheets, hammering the roof and windows. An unusual north wind blows strong, barreling down the coulee where we live.  

Part of the garden is planted. The seeds tucked neatly under the earth. Rows of beets, spinach, and beans are gladly soaking up the moisture. Meanwhile, the young tomatoes and cukes hunch miserably under white cloaks that shield them from the worst of the wind. Of all the things to plant on Saturday, those went in the ground first! The peppers and pumpkins starts have a prime spot up on a card table in the wood shed. They are cold, but safe from the buffeting winds and from curious chickens. 

Yet it’s been so soggy the chickens haven’t gone ten feet from the coop today. The dogs and I took a short walk to the garden and on down the driveway to the end. We  looped back along the cliffs on the southeast side of the coulee. By the time we returned to the cabin we were drenched. Now they sleep, curled tightly on their beds by the fire. And I sit enjoying a day of rest while it rains. There is nowhere else I’d rather be. 

Winter ramblings

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Here comes our single digit winter, descending on us with brisk, stiff winds. The mercury plummets as nature rages outside. No doubt about it, we are privileged to block the buffeting wind out so completely. The roof shakes and the windows rattle. My mind turns to the animals outdoors – a small blanket of snow, groves of trees, and rock outcroppings all make temporary shelters from the wind. They are better adapted to the cold than I. Tomorrow I won’t venture out for long.

It is the first evening of February, now well after dark, and I am cozied up on the couch under blankets while the fire blazes.

And yet, just yesterday in January, I strolled across the prairie in balmy 50 degree weather. How can I capture the tenderness of that moment? It was so very still. I paused to breath and a raven called. It rose out of the pine coulee in front of me and floated overhead, drifting across a patchwork of sky and clouds. The naked prairie was dotted with bright golden snakeweed. Far to the north the Snowy Mountains jutted above the prairie, crystal clear and blanketed in snow. I could see for miles.

At times, I’m cloistered in by the cold and snow. Winter weather takes me on a rollercoaster ride of possibility. Tonight I huddle close to the fire with gratitude.

Winter Begins

Oh, November! Following on the heels of the golden glory that was October, you feel utterly oppressive. It is as if you have pulled a cold grey blanket across the sky, and tucked it in close to the earth.

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Brilliant blue October skies

Goodbye to the sun! It has slipped so far to the south that our bodies could no longer make vitamin D even if it were to show its glowing face. Goodbye to the brightly colored leaves that delighted my eyes as fading chlorophyll revealed hidden carotenoids and anthocyanins. A few dry leaves yet cling to their branches, colored only by basic brown tannins. Goodbye to all the wild things that busied themselves this last month getting ready for winter. No more caterpillars, crickets, millipedes, nor spiders, which just a few weeks ago had the prairie crawling with life. A handful of hard frosts later and the earth is still.

We have made our preparations too. Hay is baled and stacked. Firewood is split. Strawberry plants are tucked under a blanket of straw. Hoses and sprinklers are empty, wound up out of the way. A new addition to our shed offers protection to our machinery and other sundry goods. We have tidied up our outdoor lives as we move the focus indoors.

With the turning back of our clocks, it is light earlier, a welcome change. At the other end of the day, it is dark soon after five. Time to seek refuge by the fire and eat hearty meals that chase the cold away. Time to lengthen our slumber and give thanks for the roof over our heads. Another busy season has passed. We’ve circled around the sun into the chilly dark days of winter.

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I stopped to capture the view while screwing steel panels to the new shed roof

Backyard beauties

A brief stroll up the hill in our backyard revealed an amazing variety of spring flowers. Many prairie wildflowers are diminutive and understated. The prairie golden banner is an exception – bright yellow blankets of these beauties are abundant this year.

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The bright blue shining penstemmon is our earliest blooming penstemmon.

IMG_0763Like many plants, this one has a couple of common names – the star lily or sand lily.

IMG_0767It is hard to positively ID an onion without digging up the bulb. But my guess is that this is a nodding onion. When the flower opens, it will be an umbel (think umbrella-shape) with 5 – 40 individual flowers.

IMG_0768Field chick weed has but five petals – each is deeply notched, making the flower appear more complex.

IMG_0774Nuttall’s violet, also called yellow prairie violet, has a delightful 5 inch tall flower.

IMG_0776Cous, also known as biscuitroot, has an umbel flower structure like the nodding onion.

IMG_0781Phlox species, surrounded by some woody winter deer scat.

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The shrubs are all in bloom too! This is sticky currant, a cousin of the yellow currant that grows along the river. The leaves are sticky to the touch.

IMG_0786Skunkbush sumac has tiny whitish yellow flowers and trifoliate leaves (a compound leaf composed of three leaflets). If you rub your finger on the bark, it emits a pleasantly pungent smell.

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