Scenes from the Ranch January 30, 2023

Sometimes its just too cold for wet nose kisses, but there is no stopping Maverick.

Baby it’s cold outside! I’m SO glad I had time to clean the chicken coop before the single digit weather hit. The chickens have not gone outside – and have plenty of fresh straw to peck at in their sunny, protected coop. Today it’s close to 30 degrees and they’re ready to get back to exploring the barnyard. 

Whiskey has the most beautiful winter coat – thick with a grizzled outer coat. For a horse in his mid-20s, he’s still got it all!

Scenes from the Ranch January 20, 2023

Whenever I return to the barnyard after a hike, I spend time talking to and petting our sweet horse, Ruby. We are both working on trust and confidence in each others presence. Someday, I hope that she will become my partner on long rides moving cows across the prairie.

This ball of love and black fur is Bear. He joined our barnyard community in the fall and he adores being petted and soaking up sunshine. He rolls himself around on the cat food shelf with such reckless abandon that he often tumbles to the ground. Unfazed, he jumps quickly back up for more petting.

Maverick and his horses. He is absolutely content when he is in the company of horses. When it comes right down to it, we’re pretty sure he thinks he is a horse.

Scenes from the Ranch: January 2, 2023

We love having friends visit us, and enjoyed a day hiking on the rims above Coulee Creek with Marian and Michael. I spent the week after Christmas sick with a cold, sleeping on the couch much of the time, so it felt great to get fresh air and movement again. Seeing the ranch through visitors’ eyes always helps remind me how special this place is and how truly lucky we are to call it home.

Over the past few years – since Buddy died – I’ve experienced several challenges riding horses. I just haven’t found another horse like Buddy. But despite my fears and misgivings, I’ve wanted to get back in the saddle for months now. I’m thrilled to say that on New Years Day, I rode Jack, our gentle half draft percheron. There is so much more to say about this subject, but for now let’s just say it was the perfect way to ring in the new year.

The cows are relaxed and relieved that the super cold weather has passed. When checking the herd yesterday, we found them lounging in the sun and chewing their cud. It’s a relief to have a healthy, contented herd.

Blue skies! At last we have some sunshine after a week or so of clouds. Our house and our well pump need the sun for power… and it really energizes me too.

17 December 2022

Scenes from the Ranch:

Winter has settled on the landscape in a beautiful, bright blanket of white. It is a shallow, light layer of snow and the cows are still grazing. Jack worked solo on a wagon ride up to the North pasture to break the ice on the cows’ water tank. It has been cold, and the creek at the base of the cliffs is frozen solid. At this time of the year, it is completely sheltered from the sun’s rays. Tomorrow I hope to get my ice skates out for an adventure. Never mind that the high will be 8 degrees. I’ve got layers for that.

December 3rd, 2022: Scenes from the Ranch

This year has been a challenging one for me. I didn’t find time and space for my soap-making hobby until Thanksgiving! But I now have three batches curing and ready to sell at the Holiday Market at the Montana Audubon Center on Saturday December 10 from 10am – 2pm. If you can’t make it down, message me to place an order. I have Peppermint Swirl, Fir Forest and Spiced Cider at $6/bar each.

Amidst the storms of life, I find peace and contentment by spending time outdoors petting my barn cats. We’ve had Jasmine since she was about four months old and I found her subsisting on insects in the gardens of the Audubon Center. She is a fabulous mouser and loves following me around the barnyard meowing for attention.

We put up and took down miles and miles of electric fence for our sheep this summer. Last week I took down the last of it and felt relieved that I won’t have this project on my list of chores next summer. We’ve decided to simplify our lives and are shifting our focus back solely to raising beef cattle.

Moisture is a beautiful gift! I’m relieved to see the snow from November melting slowly into the earth around us.

Scenes from the Ranch

I’ve been sharing several photos in a Scenes from the Ranch post every week or two over on social media. These snapshots capture a few events in our daily lives to give our friends, supporters and customers an idea of what life is like out here on the prairie of central Montana. I’ve been less interested in social media myself lately, and realize that some of our supporters may enjoy reading our Scenes from the Ranch outside of those platforms. So here is my first blog share of the same content – just some little snippets of our lives on the ranch.

Coulee Creek Ranch calves

Like many ranchers, we weaned our calves at the end of October. We fence line wean, which is a gentle and healthy way to separate the calves from their mothers. The cows are able to visit and make nose-to-nose contact across the fence, which prevents nursing. Slowly they all settle into the new normal, and the cows eventually wander off in search of fresh grass. We’ll keep the heifer calves to replace aging cows, and the steers will be butchered at about two years of age for our direct-to-consumer beef sales.

ski tracks and the Snowy Mountains

The snow and cold last week made from some great cross-country skiing! Maverick and I enjoyed adventures up on the prairie while the blanket of snow lasted. We’re relieved to see a thick coat of snow on the Snowy Mountains in the distance too. Hopefully it recharges the Musselshell River, which was running low and slow by the end of the summer.

draft horse team pulling the hay wagon

We took the team on a 10-mile drive over to a neighbor’s farm to pick up a load of small straw bales last month. We use straw in the barn as bedding and in the chicken coop so it feels good to have a supply stacked under the eaves of the barn before winter. It was a wonderful adventure to travel so far with the team!

bird tracks in the snow

I lucked upon this beautiful bird wing impression in the snow while it was still fresh and powdery. The wing prints were big enough to be from a great horned owl. We’ve been hearing one in the trees behind the house in the evenings.

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.