Winter wanderings

On Wednesday, I drove over five hours northwest from my home up to Browning, Montana. My work in education requires occasional travel, and this week took me to the edge of Glacier National Park, just south of the Canadian border. When I moved to Montana in 2000, I lived on the other side of Glacier Park in the Swan Valley. My roommates and I frequently visited Glacier, which quickly became one of my favorite places to go hiking. Long, lush valleys surrounded by high peaks were the reward for a short and scenic drive north under towering pine trees. It was that summer living at Swan Lake that I first fell in love with Montana. Everything here was larger than my imagination could fathom. Something about the place felt both authentic and wild, an alluring combination.

Sixteen years later, when I arrived in Browning for an education seminar, the hotel clerk asked me if I wanted a view of the mountains or a view of the parking lot. Seriously, do you even need to ask this question? Out my window in the fading light of evening lies a stunning vista. High lofty peaks blanketed in snow line the horizon. Swirling eddies of white meander down the slopes under peaks capped by towering clouds. Yet down from those majestic mountains comes a relentless whipping wind. The last two nights I’ve woken up nearly hourly to the noisy rattle of my windows. Tonight is off to a rollicking start. With gusts up to 60 mph predicted, I don’t see much peaceful sleep in my future. The east side parking lot view is looking a bit rosier now that I’ve tried the view to the windy west…

While staying here, miles from home, I’ve missed my morning routines. Usually, I enjoy a mug of hot tea while sitting by the freshly stoked fire in the dark hours before dawn. When day breaks, I pull on my muck boots, down jacket, hat and gloves, ready to venture outdoors. Doc stretches, shakes and joins me in greeting the world. The fresh air and mountain views make my morning complete. IMG_4779

My first task is to open up the chicken coop and bring the girls fresh water. Usually a couple of the red chickens are up and feeding or wandering around the coop. Most of the girls are still on the roost, clucking softly and waking to the day. After the chickens are released to the wider world, I grab a big flake of hay for the horses. They have become used to our routine, and usually wait eagerly for me by the back fence. Buddy gets a bit pushy, trying to get the first bites of hay before Whiskey runs him off. I make sure to create two equalish piles, more than a horse-length’s apart, so that they both can feed on the sweet grass hay. The scent of it is lovely; in the crisp winter air it fills my nostrils with the warm richness of summer.

For the month of December and into January we were blessed with a blanket of snow that made cross country ski adventures a daily reality. Doc jumps at the opportunity to ski or hike with me, and most days he seems unsettled until we have put a few miles under our belts.

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On these cross-country journeys my path crosses with those of mice, rabbits, fox, and coyotes. Magnificent views and the discovery of secret animal worlds reward my efforts to get out in the wind and cold.

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The sun is at its lowest point in the sky, yet we have only had to use the generator 2 – 3 times to bring our batteries back to full charge. On the fall equinox, we tilted the panels up to a 60 degree angle to maximize solar input. They continue to crank out the energy and the batteries usually reach “float” stage (ie full) by mid-afternoon on sunny days.  Our cabin has proven to be more than adequately insulated. When our wood burning stove really gets going, we have to open the windows and bring in the cool night air so that we can sleep.

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The heifer calves don’t mind winter on their thick straw “nest”. They have become friendly enough with us that 4 – 5 of the 8 will eat cow cake right out of our hand. One particularly bold heifer will even put her head into the shed when we are getting the cake out. Someday, she may become a milk cow for us. The one thing we must buy consistently and can’t make independently (yet) is cheese. Little #009 may change all of that if she agrees to a milking now and then!

Life is about to get really interesting as the time for calving approaches. In preparation, we bought a new love seat with dual reclining chairs. Between three-hour shifts checking the cows, we will be able to nap in the comfort of the love seat. For tonight, I can only hope that the raging winds will somehow lull me to sleep under my sweet mountain view.

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Entering winter

This past autumn presented me with several challenges. A brief retreat within was necessary in order to recoup and renew my spirits. Now that we are entering winter, I feel refreshed by the cold, crisp air, and am eager to again share stories from Coulee Creek Ranch.

There have been many changes around here as we settled into our new cabin and the responsibilities of the season. We held our first branding last month, and with the help of several good, experienced friends, the day went smoothly. There were just a couple of “oops” moments that we recovered from easily, and which provided for some good laughs later over chili and cornbread. It was a remarkably warm day for November, with temperatures in the 50s under a bright sun. Alas, we were so busy that no one remembered to take photos!

 

After branding, we moved the cows down to a pasture at the northeast corner of the property. We had a brief cold snap with night temperatures hovering down around zero degrees. On frigid mornings like these, we have to break ice on Coulee Creek to provide the cows with access to drinking water. This meant that the beaver pond was also beginning to freeze over, tempting me with its smooth, glassy surface! I started dreaming and scheming about our annual ice-skating party.

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Bart at the first annual Coulee Creek Classic in 2013

The last week has been balmy and barely below freezing at night – turning the ice quickly back to liquid water. So despite the short days, it hardly feels like winter. Snow that fell in two separate storms around Thanksgiving has already melted away down here on the ranch. A new storm this week left a light dusting of snow on the shady side of slopes. And as a distant reminder of winter, a white blanket still cloaks the Snowy Mountains, which grace our horizon to the north.

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Feeding the herd has become a daily morning chore. Bart and I usually go out to feed the cows together – with Doc along for the ride. IMG_4686

We take turns chucking flakes of hay from square bales off the truck. Small square bales take a bit more work, yet we can be very precise about how much we feed each day.

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The cows are learning the routine, and usually start to head down from the far corner of the pasture when they see the truck pull up.

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Just a week away from the winter solstice, the sun rises late enough that we have been lucky to witness many colorful sunrises while we feed. On the flip side, it is close to dark by 4:30, making it harder to get outside chores accomplished. It is the time for snuggling close in by the fire in the evenings and enjoying some well-deserved down time. Our new cabin has been a blessing in that respect – it is light, comfortable, and more spacious than our old bunkhouse in town.

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Perhaps the best part is the cabin’s location – you can’t beat the view out the window and our neighbors – owls, deer, eagles, coyotes, antelope, and countless species of birds that provide us with a chorus of songs. At night, the stars illuminate the dark sky, and as I step outdoors to marvel at them, everything falls into perspective. Challenges and changes melt away into acceptance of this moment just as it is. The solace of nature envelops me here at home in the coulee.

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October Already

Summer certainly flew by in a whirlwind of activity here at Coulee Creek Ranch. We moved our home and headquarters out to a new cabin next to the barn and corrals. We are now a few miles out in the country where sagebrush, cows, and coyotes are our nearest neighbors. Lately in the evenings, I’ve enjoyed watching the shadows of the pines reach across the coulee like long fingers before dusk.

Down along the Musselshell River, the cottonwoods are ablaze in yellow hues. Their leaves gently rustle in the breeze before drifting to the earth. Autumn is by far my favorite time of year. I love the cool evenings, the cozy feeling of snuggling under blankets next to the open window, and the immense satisfaction of storing the garden’s harvest for the cold months ahead. Fall is a time to reflect on the accomplishments of long summer days, and to take stock of what is on hand for the leaner time of year ahead of us.

I can’t possibly capture all of the moments from the last three busy summer months in words. I share some highlights in the following photos.

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Doc lounges on our new patio. He makes the rock steps look so comfortable.
Ranch Camp with the Graham family again - Talus the Chicken collects our eggs
We enjoyed our second annual Ranch Camp with the Graham family this year! Here, Talus the Chicken collects the days’ eggs to make more french toast.
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Four carrots from the garden – or is that six carrots?
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We are completely solar-powered! It has been a huge learning adventure to research, order, install, and operate these panels. Yet it has been well worth the effort. It sure feels empowering to be energy-independent.
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Round one of summer canning efforts – Dilly beans and dill pickles
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It was a great year for peppers – jalapenos, anaheims, poblanos, and sweet peppers all grew abundantly!
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And with a nod of recognition to the Talking Heads, yes, “Home, is where I want to be… This must be the place”

What’s in a Name?

Bart and I tossed around several names for our new ranch last year. In the end, we chose Coulee Creek Ranch – not because we are die-hard fans of the other CCR – but for the simple fact that Coulee Creek itself runs through the property. Additionally, we built our barn and corrals in a little coulee on the property. We both spend most of the day “out in the coulee” working in our garden or building fences and taking care of the herd. Soon we will have a cabin out in the coulee too. It is our little piece of heaven.

When I talk about Coulee Creek Ranch with my relatives and friends from out-of-state, they are often confused by the name. “What, exactly,” they ask, “is a coulee?” And “how do you spell that?” Even the spell checker on this WordPress blog questions my repeated use of the word coulee. It suggests that I replace it with “couple” or “college” or even “coffee”. While there is a Coffee Creek in Montana and I love to drink a strong cup every morning, Coffee Creek is nowhere near Lavina and Bart despises the stuff (yes, even the smell).

I didn’t realize how unusual or unfamiliar the word “coulee” really was until this past year. I suppose I had become accustomed to it through seven years of life with Bart and my growing familiarity with Lavina. So I had to chuckle when my sister Susanne sent me an article by Linton Weeks (2015) entitled “Do We Talk Funny? 51 American Colloquialisms“. I discovered that the word unique to Montana is… you guessed it… coulee. It means “a valley”. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), regionalisms persist across the United States despite our increasingly homogenized culture. I recognized a few of the other words on the list complied by DARE in Week’s article: skijoring for Alaska (we do that here too) and colchon for New Mexico (which is Spanish for mattress).

Strangely though, I had never heard the word characteristic of my home state of New York (spiedie — a marinated meat sandwich). My hunch is that spiedies must be unique to New York City, which really could be a whole state unto itself. The rest of New York State – including my hometown of Rochester – is nothing like the City. I often have to explain this geographic fact to my western friends and family. I grew up seven hours from New York City, I’ve only been there twice, and I have no idea what life in the Big Apple is like. Similarly, now I must explain to my friends and family back East that a coulee is a valley, it’s spelled c-o-u-l-e-e, and we have the unique pleasure of living on the banks of Coulee Creek.

Riding home into the coulee in  early February - another photo by the talented Alexis Bonogfsky
Riding home to the coulee in early February – another photo by the talented Alexis Bonogofsky

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
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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.

My First Parade

Lavina School celebrated its 100-year anniversary this past weekend, complete with a parade through town on Saturday morning. Our friends, Ken and Daphne Kuhlmann, pulled their beautiful old wagon in the parade with their horses, Kit and Cash. They invited me and Bart to be outriders for their wagon. Since I’ve gotten to ride regularly over the past year, I’ve become much more comfortable on horses, and felt ready for my first parade. Luckily, it was a small scale, short parade unlike the bigger affairs that Bart has ridden in down in Billings.IMG_4251 Bart and I rode into town from the Coulee, just shy of three miles, in order to calm the horses down so they’d be ready for the noise and commotion of the parade. Bart is riding Whiskey these days and I am on Buddy. Last fall, I rode Whiskey because he was considered the horse least likely to buck. Turns out he is also very smart, and picked up quickly on my inexperience around horses. He pushed my boundaries a few times because he thought he had the upper hand. Several times now I’ve been put on horses deemed the least likely to buck. Usually it turns out they have some other quirk that makes them an interesting ride – such as being a gaited horse or just being downright stubborn. I switched over to Buddy this spring, and it’s made a big difference in my riding. He is a lovable, albeit slow, horse who takes good care of me. IMG_4259 We lined up for the parade on Railroad Avenue with Ken, Daphne, and a few other riders on Saturday morning. Railroad Avenue is adjacent to the old railroad right-of-way. This branch of the railroad was abandoned long ago when they decided not to continue with the electrified route over the mountains. Turns out this wasn’t the best decision the railroad could’ve made at the time… but that is a story for another day. IMG_4276 IMG_4264 IMG_4291 While we waited amidst the assorted floats, Bart rode up and down capturing some photos.

Here you can see that Ken and Daphne ride in style!

My friend Annie gave me this beautiful shirt, perfect for a parade. IMG_4295 We traveled down Main St. from north to south while the sheriff held up traffic at both ends. It is a unique, historic downtown. At the far end of the photo on the right is the old bank building, and then the Slayton Mercantile with the green awning. This is where the dance and lamb barbeque took place on Friday night. I am usually not a fan of lamb, but Friday night’s marinated lamb kabobs changed my opinion. They were so incredibly tender and tasty that I actually went back for seconds! Just out of the photo on my right is the Adam’s Hotel, once a fashionable destination along the railroad line between Milwaukee and the West Coast. Later in the afternoon we toured the hotel, which has been partially restored. I can only imagine how luxurious it was to stay there on the long train ride west.

I am pleased to say the horses behaved well and the parade went off without a hitch. We stopped by the neighbor’s house on the way home and I led the kids around on Buddy’s back. He really is a gentle, sweet horse. IMG_4303 IMG_4296

Glimpse of Spring

IMG_4147 We moved north to the country last year in order to live a simpler, more sustainable existence. One year later, we are much closer to our dream, yet there is still room for improvement. I managed to take on enough teaching responsibilities this year that I’ve kept myself busy – too busy. I enjoy teaching immensely, however, it is time again to simplify. Luckily, with the end of the school year, I have the valuable opportunity to evaluate what I will continue with next year. And, I have the delight of working outdoors in the gardens again all summer to look forward to! Garden planning has already begun. We’ve had little tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings growing in our cabin for over a month now.

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Tomato plant at ten days old – moved up into its new 3-inch peat pot
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Tomato plants at three weeks old basking in the grow lights
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Wide selection of month-old tomato plants: Amish Paste, Valley Girl, Gill’s, Stupice, and a few varieties of cherry tomatoes

We’ve put the potato, onion, and root vegetable seeds in the ground out at our new garden in the coulee. There, the soil is sandy unlike the Musselshell River bottom here at the cabin. Our carrots will grow straight and narrow! No more franken-carrots struggling to push their way down into the soil. Our new well will provide easy access to water, unlike our old potato patch where I hauled bucket after bucket, toning my arm muscles and watering the plants all at once last year.

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Bare-root honeyoye strawberry plant in its new home

I added 25 strawberry plants to the new plot yesterday before a 12-hour spring rain doused the landscape in moisture.

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Straining the sauce before thickening

Today, on a rainy Saturday, I am cozy by the fire in our cabin as I grade papers and turn the remainder of last summer’s tomatoes into spaghetti sauce.

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Bart has been planting too – on a bit of larger scale

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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