An Evening on the Porch

Abundant rain has fallen in May and June. We received close to an inch in one storm Wednesday evening, the very day we cut the first dryland sainfoin field. On the bright side, it was also just a couple of days after we seeded a new field, which greedily sucked up the moisture. The hay will dry in time.

IMG_3058 Across the coulee from the cabin the yuccas are in bloom. Over two-dozen stalks of cream-colored blossoms tower above punishing, sharp leaves. I saw the first sego lily of the year today (above). Each spring the wildflowers return like long lost friends. I recognize their colors, curves, and petal counts. Yet often their names elude my memory’s grasp. Penstemmon and pea, larkspur and lily, bluebells and buttercups. I reacquaint myself with them, if only for a few short weeks each year. New beauties surrounded us up in the Snowy Mountains while moving cows on Monday; Shooting stars, yellowbells, and my favorite (if I dare to pick one), the whispy pink prairie smoke (below).


Above me a nighthawk forages for insects, calling out repeatedly in a nasally buzz. Then silence as it makes a nosedive toward the earth, its fall punctuated by the “hooov” of its wings as it levels out at the bottom of the dive. A fascinating act to watch! There have been several yellow-headed blackbirds in the barnyard this year, mixed in with the usual red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds. Now the urgent cry of the killdeer as it wings its way north toward the beaver pond.

Ack! A mosquito on my arm! Perhaps only the second or third I’ve seen this year. June has been unseasonably, unbearably hot; in the nineties every day for the past week. It’s nine at night, the sun is just now setting, and it’s still in the mid-80s! My-oh-my, what hot misery might August bring?

And now for the fun part: Introducing our new puppy, Maverick. He sure sleeps in some interesting poses. My favorite is when he curled on on Bart’s pants. Just making sure the boss doesn’t get dressed and out the door without him!



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.


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!


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.


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


Plenty of wildlife viewing too…


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!


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.


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 Skunk



It was February 12th, and sheets of rain pounded on the cabin walls as an unusually warm storm descended on us from the north. Out in the calving lot, the cows didn’t seem to mind as they munched on the day’s delivery of fresh hay. They were brought in earlier than anticipated after a calf was stillborn two weeks ahead of schedule. This was an unfortunate and rough start to calving season. We began the search for a replacement calf to graft onto the cow in order to increase the odds of her future reproductive success. It was early to be looking for extra calves. Phone calls and internet searches left us with one unlikely lead – the Mountain View Hutterite Colony in Broadview. As luck would have it, they had a few newborn Holstein bulls to sell since male milk cows aren’t too useful.

The next day, we headed to the Colony, a collection of immaculately clean and orderly buildings, surrounded by large productive gardens. There was a young boy hanging around the barn, wearing the traditional slacks, suspenders, and long-sleeved shirts of the Hutterites. He corralled the dogs in a Germanic language incomprehensible to me. The man with whom we did business, probably in his twenties or thirties, was dressed in a manner similar to the boy. No other people were in sight on this bright, warm afternoon. The man brought us into the barn to a series of pens, each only roughly 3×3 feet large and containing a young calf. He stood our calf up, who at just over 24 hours old was more limb than substance. He looked healthy enough, so Bart guided him out to the yard, and loaded him into the cab of the pickup.

Poor Doc reluctantly shared the back seat with the calf, who towered over him and occasionally trampled him. On the ride home, the calf tried to suck on everything – the walls of the cab, the seat belt, and Bart’s back – guided by his instinct to look for milk. Finally, the calf decided to relieve himself on the carpet, and Doc was thus relieved to move to the bed of the truck for the rest of the ride in order to avoid sitting in the cow paddy. It was a rather comical and stinky 25-minute ride home.

Back in the coulee, Bart took on the unpleasant task of skinning the stillborn calf so that we could “jacket” the new calf with the dead baby’s hide. Meanwhile, I fed the hungry calf a bottle to quiet him down. He stumbled around uncoordinated, not sure what or where to suck. With some persistence, I got the nipple in his mouth and he drained the bottle in no time. Bart then carefully tied the red hide onto the calf’s body with twine, and put him in the barn with the cow, hoping she would recognize the smell and take the baby as her own.

The first few hours with his new mom were a bit strained for the calf. She head-butted him once into the fence, and then ignored him. That evening, we put her in the head stall and fed her hay so that he could suckle. She put up a minor fuss and kicked him once unenthusiastically, mostly occupied with eating. We left them together in the barn for the night, hoping that time would work its magic. And truly it did. The next morning, the cow was vigorously protecting the calf, who appeared sated as he jumped around the barn all “nimbly bimbly”, as Bart reported to me while I cooked breakfast. I went out to get photos later in the morning, and with aggressive wagging of her head she let me know that I wasn’t allowed near her calf. They make a funny pair, the red Angus cow with a black and white spotted Holstein calf. I am grateful that she has accepted him as her own. We have affectionately named him the Skunk. He is growing tall and strong – in the afternoons he romps around with the other calves on the hillside. As I watch the calves frolicking in the sunshine, the lack of sleep that is inherent in calving season melts away into joy at the arrival of new life.

Marching into spring


Calving is now in full swing, with one or two new additions to the herd each day. It seems the old Hereford bull did pretty well for himself before he injured his foot and had to be pulled from pasture with the cows. A majority of the calves bear his markings – either patches of white on the face or full white-faced baldy calves. One little heifer calf has the face of a jack-o-lantern with eyes, nose and mouth of white lighting up her otherwise red coat. The mixing of Hereford genes into the Angus herd gives the calves hybrid vigor, thus avoiding the pitfalls of inbreeding. They sure are cute little creatures. It is amusing to watch them– those that are a few days old are romping around with their anxious mothers following them at full trot, occasionally bellowing as if to say “get back here!”


The placement of our cabin allows us to see about half of the calving yard right out the kitchen window. With binoculars, I have watched two cows give birth at the far end of the lot. After their babies arrive in the world, the cows begin vigorously licking them dry, and urging them to get up. The calves shake their heads occasionally, their wet ears dangling down heavily against their necks. Shortly after birth, they begin to try to stand up. It takes several attempts before they are successful. Up goes the back end, and then plop back down. Again, up goes the back, and this time the front legs make it part way up before collapsing, and the calf tumbles onto its head. After a brief rest, the calf tries again. A few more tumbles, and he manages to stay up on all fours, wobbling unsteadily for a few moments. Sometimes the vigor of a cow’s licking pushes the calf right back down. But with each attempt, the calf gets stronger. He is determined to find his mothers’ teats so he can nurse. Usually within a half hour, calves are up, mostly dry, and sucking their first meal contentedly.


It is simply amazing to watch nature take its course. The cows’ instincts for maternal behavior allow the process to unfold gracefully. Everybody seems to know what to do on cue. It is rare that we have to intervene and lend a helping hand. So far the births have gone smoothly. We keep a close eye on the herd, checking them every three hours. Bart and I have gotten into a good rhythm that allows us to maximize continuous sleep. I check the cows at nine PM and midnight, and Bart goes out at three and six AM. Under the darkness of the new moon, I absorb the stillness of night while I walk through the herd, looking for signs of cows in labor. We couldn’t have asked for easier weather for calving. The days are mild, fifty and even sixty degrees, with nights hovering right around freezing. It is a blessing for birthing, but surely odd weather for February. All across the countryside, there are patches of green grass. I am a lover of all four seasons; it just doesn’t feel right to skip over winter. At least we had one solid month of cold and snow. Brisk cross-country ski journeys allowed me to cherish cozy nights at home with cocoa by the fire. But since late January, it has been mild enough to go out without a coat and hat during the day. This year is simply abnormal. The Snowy Mountains loom on the northern horizon, still blanketed in white. At least there is some moisture in the mountains to keep our rivers running this spring.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.
Four carrots from the garden – or is that six carrots?
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.
Round one of summer canning efforts – Dilly beans and dill pickles
It was a great year for peppers – jalapenos, anaheims, poblanos, and sweet peppers all grew abundantly!
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


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.


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


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.


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


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


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

Signs of Summer


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.

The Coulee Garden grows – June 1st
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.


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.

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.

The honey bees are back
Milkweed is just starting to bloom
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.