Friday, March 7, 2014

The Occupation of Winter

The "winter that will not die" are the words on everyone's lips. Places unaccustomed and ill-prepared for heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures continued to be blasted, although we are into March, the month of daffodils and balmy breezes. I admit it, those of us up in the north sometimes give a little chuckle when our southern friends cry at having to wear a sweater, but this year, even we are crying "uncle." Enough is enough. Away with the snowsuits and Baffin boots. We want spring. We want green.

The forecast is for temperatures to soar above freezing next week, but we need to keep our scarfs and long-handle underwear handy. It's not over yet, nor will it be for some time yet.
“Winter is not a season, it's an occupation.”  ― Sinclair Lewis
Despite the wickedly low temperatures, work must go on. There are cows to be fed every day, though the tractors and men groan and whine. Did you know that steel is weakened by the cold? So, it's a time for breakdowns and breakage of even non-mechanized machinery like feed wagons and balebusters, right when they are desperately needed to be up and running every day.

It wasn't so long ago that all work was done "by hand." With teams and wagons. Going out on horseback to check for newborn calves. To find lost cattle.

This poem is a tribute to those men and women who 
have braved the winter to do their jobs, then and now.


When you have to start out on a cold winter day
The wind blowin' cold and the sky is dull gray.
You blow on the bit till you take out the frost,
Then you put on the bridle and saddle yore hoss.

He squats and he shivers. He blows through his nose.
The blanket is stiff for the sweat is shore froze.
Then you pick up yore saddle and swing it up high,
Till the stirrups and cinches and latigoes fly.

The pony he flinches and draws down his rump.
There's a chance he might kick, and he's likely to jump.
He rolls his eye at you and shivers like jelly
When you pull that old frozen cinch up on his belly.

It is cold on his back and yore freezin' yore feet,
And you'll likely find out when you light on yore seat,
That you ain't got no tropical place fer to set.
It is likey the saddle aint none overhet.

But a cow boy don't pay no attention to weather.
He gits out of his bed and gits into the leather.
In the winter it's mighty onpleasant to ride,
But that's just the time when he's needed outside. Bruce Kisaddon (1878 - 1950)

Moving Cattle in February
I know I labour on about winter, but it is a part of our lives. To be dealt with, faced up to, endured, and survived. Much like life itself. There are unpleasant bits that cannot be avoided, not if we are to grow and truly be alive. 
“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome."  [Meditations Divine and Moral]”
― Anne Bradstreet
The Works of Anne Bradstreet

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bittersweet October

Then summer fades and passes, and October comes. Will smell smoke then, and feel an unsuspected sharpness, a thrill of nervous, swift elation, a sense of sadness and departure. ~Thomas Wolfe, "You Can't Go Home Again"
Last week, we began gathering up the cows and calves. It's time for weaning, taking the calves away from their mamas. They are big enough to get on by themselves, without milk, and they must, for it's time to load them on trucks and send them away.

It been a few short months since we branded and tagged the babies, delighting in their cuteness. So quickly the days have passed, and it's a bitttersweet time, seeing how big they've grown, but already having to say good-bye.
Gathering the calves. Pensive mamas circle the pens around their kids.
The view from the roof of the cattle liner. I didn't climb up there to take the picture. If I had, I'd still be up there, too scared to climb back down.
One of today's trucks to be loaded. On this day, there will be four loads of calves.
 Calves waiting to be loaded.
Taking a break and waiting for the brand inspector. 
One of the cowboys visiting with his wife and baby while waiting for the brand inspector. 
 "Get on the bus, kids."
 First truckload on its way. Bye-bye, babies!
"Whatcha doing with our kids?"
Some of the cows came around, bawling for their calves. Others seemed unconcerned, getting back to their main task -- eating.

Sometimes, I wonder if it is truly sad for the cows, giving them human emotions, or whether they are  responding to maternal instinct and responsibility. Some were obviously ready to be done with their kids, just like human mothers who want to be done with nursing and diapers. Fortunately, we don't put our babies on a truck, never to see them again.

The Cowboy went out to check the cows the next day. They'd been moved to an adjoining field. In the new-fallen snow, there were tracks of a single cow. She'd jumped the wire gate into the field with the loading pens. Her hoof-prints circled the pens, once. Then, she jumped over the gate back into the field with her sisters. Good Mama! Is she sad? Or is it simply a sign of being a good mom, trying to find her baby? 

After the rest of the calves have been weaned and shipped in a few weeks, we'll start preg-checking the cows. More "fun" and busy days ahead!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bringing in the Sheaves

"Bringing in the Sheaves," a hymn that is sang all over North America, especially at this time of year, can be interpreted several ways, none of which I am going to labour over. Whatever the true intent, I think Knowles Shaw, the man who penned the well-known words in 1874, was a farmer, for only a farmer would grasp the depth of jubilation as bundles of gold are harvested and brought safely into the storehouse.
A "stook" or stack of sheaves, bundles
of grain, each sheaf wrapped with a
single cord. In this case, the grain is oats.

"Bringing in the sheaves, 
Bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing,
Bringing in the sheaves."

Over the weekend, we had the privilege of helping at an old-time threshing just a few miles up the road. A vintage threshing machine, wagons, teams of horses, and the fall colours made for postcard perfect scenery.

The process is millennia old. Cut the ripe grain, "thresh" it, that is trample or stomp it, so the kernels come off the stalks, then separate the grain from the straw or chaff. Although today's experience was a step back into the olden days, using mechanization, and engine-powered mechanization at that, is very recent in the history of man and grain production.
Loading the wagons.
Bringing in a full wagon.
Waiting patiently for their turn at the threshing machine.
Josh waiting in the wagon.
Pitching the sheaves onto the threshing machine.
The belt is driven by the spool on the tractor. There are no motorized parts on the threshing machine. It's mechanized by pulleys, belts, chains, and kept running under the sharp eyes of the old-timers. 
Riding out for another load of sheaves.
I helped load two wagons, not much contribution, but I can say it is very hard work. There's a knack to picking up a sheaf with the pitchfork and tossing it high up into the wagon.

  Pitching sheaves into the threshing machine (the gray contraption) where the bundles are "threshed," or flailed and battered. The chaff blows away to the right. The grain pours into the green wagon down the red chute.
Straw pile.

Cowboy coffee. Hot and strong.
This pot held at least two gallons.

Mid-afternoon, the teams and wagons all came in and the tractor was shut down. The ladies had made dinner--fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, rolls, and home-made cinnamon buns. And lots of coffee to wash it down. It felt like nap-time after eating, but there's no rest for the weary. Back to work!

Finally, the threshed grain was taken to the granary, and everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief and thanksgiving that the harvest was finished before the snow came. Time for celebration!

May all your harvests be bountiful!

*The wagon in the the last photo was built by The Cowboy's father.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Coming Clean

Many of you are probably too young to remember the TV commercials for laundry detergent where women in flowered cotton dresses are hanging out their laundry on a sunny morning. But, the cheerful, rosy faces hid an ugly, dirty truth. Those women were ruthlessly scrutinizing the laundry of their neighbours. Were their neighbours' whites dazzling? Or did telltale stains and dinginess betray the other homemakers' carelessness? A glance at one's own sparkling and unsullied clothes brought immense satisfaction and even sanctimoniousness. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness.

I have to admit I love hanging clothes out on the line! I often didn't have neighbours in my clothesline days, so I couldn't compare my laundry to others, but I do have definite clothesline snobbery. There is a precise order in which clothes are to be hung. A proper placement for every clothespin.

I also LOVE to do laundry. But that's another story.

There is a story circulating that bears repeating. It makes the point I am getting at. (I do have a point.)
A couple moved into a new neighborhood. The first morning, while they are eating breakfast, the woman saw the neighbor hanging up the wash outside.

"That laundry is not very clean," she said. "She doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs another laundry soap."

The husband looked on, but remained silent.

Every time her neighbour would hang out the wash, the  woman would make the same comment.

About a month later, the woman was surprised to see nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband,

"Look! She has learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?"

Her husband said, "I got up early this morning and washed our windows."
Many of us would immediately think of Matthew 7: 3. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (NIV) I think this little story explains the verse well, but also takes it to another level. The poor neighbour lady was being judged for something she was not guilty of--her laundry WAS perfectly spotless. The criticizing woman was looking through the dirty lens of her own faults.

I said I'd never do this, go all preachy and philosophical on my readers. A little of the latter is okay, the former, not at all. So, with no further explanation, I'll leave it there for you to ponder.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Nellie the Kid and a New Little Miss

Today was Day 2 of our  2013 branding season, and our competent crew branded, castrated, tagged, and vaxed 213 calves.

You may remember "The Kid," who wrote two posts for me back in the winter. She's a lovely young lady who enjoys her work here on the ranch. Today, she was game for expanding her skills... and made the leap from tractor driving and ear-tagging to becoming a real cowgirl.

She's always considered the cowboy crew to have a somewhat cushy job, ambling through fields on horseback, meandering along quiet streams, chewing the fat in amiable comaraderie, only pausing now and then to check on a cow or calf.

The Kid has changed her tune. And her name. She's now Nellie the Kid. First of all, she helped gather the cattle this morning. With a little encouragement and several days of practising on the "dummy" in the barn, she was ready to cowgirl up.
Setting up a loop.
The first calf she roped slipped the loop and darted away before anyone had a chance to applaud.

Setting up a loop again.

Bucky, Nellie's horse, got a excited and did a little polka. Unfortunately, this calf had already been tagged and branded. Had to be released and Nellie went to try again.

After a few more loops, okay, after a LOT more loops, we had a fresh calf and one VERY happy cowgirl. She had a grin as wide as the Peace River!
I going to guess Nellie the Kid won't stand for staying on the farm crew now that she's gone and diversified. We're all proud as can be of her... and she's only going to get better. Better watch out, boys!

Today we welcomed another young lady to our branding... Sweet little Radeyah, at just THREE DAYS OLD, slept right through the bellowing and commotion. Could be she's another cowgirl in the making. Congratulations to Bree and Dale!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beavers and Bears and Bogs! Oh, my!

Last Saturday, I asked The Cowboy if he'd like some company as he went to the north-west corner of the ranch to check fences. You know what he said.

I got an old pair of his Wranglers. Faded and worn thin, they were too long for me, so I rolled them up three or four inches. Got my muck boots. (Good thing I did!) A couple of t-shirts and an old snap shirt of The Cowboy's and I was set to go. Oh, and my camera.

The fences hadn't been checked for a while, so we anticipated plenty of mending to keep the cows and calves from wandering out onto Crown Land. We had wire, staples, pliers, a hammer, a chainsaw, and the rifle. We loaded up the quad in the horse trailer and we were off. Sunny and warm, it was a lovely day.
I refused to ride down this hill -- and many others -- on the quad. This picture doesn't do justice to the steepness, although The Cowboy would say, "That?? It's just a tacky little hill."
We covered miles, stapling up wire and cutting out trees that had blown down over the fence. Eventually, we came to the Beaver Ponds.
The grass under our feet was matted down where a bear sow and two cubs had bedded down. 
A snipe in the reeds.
We'd left the quad behind, on the other side of a beaver channel, to look at the ponds, but The Cowboy went back to get the quad, so we could continue following the fence. He left me with the gun and the camera. I saw flora I hadn't seen for years: wild columbine in bloom. Solomon's seal. Huge alders, birch, and bam cottonwood. And of course, the wild roses were in bloom.

I couldn't stop thinking of the fresh bear sign, though, and a she-bear with cubs, at that. I sang "The Song that Never Ends," knowing that would keep any wild beast away, but after singing it about thirty times, I was still spooked. I went back to where the The Cowboy had devised a way to get the quad over the beaver channel linking two ponds. 
A "corduroy" bridge made of rotten, water-saturated logs. 
Mile after mile, we walked or rode, pushing through the brush and timber and circling around a mudslide, until the fence proved too damaged to repair. We'd had days of rain, and there was plenty of mud to challenge the quad. We came to a boggy section, and I thought I could walk through it, since the quad had had no problems. It was not to be. I was sucked down into the quagmire. Cold, dirty water overflowed into my boots. I was in mud up to my ankles. Then, to add insult to humiliation, I fell  into the sticky gumbo. 

Fortunately for me, the camera was firmly in my pocket, not with The Cowboy, who was over on dry ground roaring with laughter at my struggle to keep my boots on and escape the mire. 

After that, I drove the quad for a while, while The Cowboy sawed through downed trees and brush, until the trail became too steep for my (very) limited abilities and confidence level. The Cowboy took over, climbing a nearly perpendicular hill, looking for an ancient and overgrown logging road. I walked behind, looking for things to photograph, trying to ignore the "squish squish" of my boots. I came to the deserted quad. He was out of sight, looking for a way through the timber. 

I looked around for something to photograph. In a tree, not 30 feet away, was a black BEAR!

Think, think. What did we learn in our Wildlife Safety Course? Make noise. Put the quad between me and the bear, but he didn't appear predatory or defensive, just curious. So, I reached for my camera, but my hands, inside my muddy work gloves wouldn't cooperate. Okay, maybe I should get the rifle instead. No, the camera. Finally, I chose the only option left. I screamed.

"There's a bear! Come back! Come back!"

The Cowboy did, hollering and waving his arms, and the bear slid down the tree and ambled off into the trees. 
The cow/calf pairs in the field east of our adventure.
We were mud to the eyebrows. My jeans were caked to my boots, my gloves to my hands. Leaves, sticks, mud in my hair. We were both filthy, sweaty, and hungry, but happily full of good memories of hard, dirty, honest work, enjoying creation, and being together. 

I can't wait to go again.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Queen of the Ranch

It's been a long spell since I last posted. Spring did eventually arrive; the snow melted, the gardens have been planted, the crops have been seeded, and there are calves and foals galore! We've gone to several brandings already, and we hope to go to one on Sunday, if it stops raining. I am mowing the grass several times a week and can barely keep up.
A friend shared this article with me last week, and as I read it, I found myself chuckling, nodding my head, and agreeing out loud. Maybe it's the ranch life, the country air, or the cowboy code, but whatever it is, I know there are farm and ranch wives everywhere who will join the chorus of, "YES, this is our life!"
If you are going to be the woman on the ranch, here are the top 10 "facts" you need to know!

1. Always load your horse last in the trailer so it is the first one 
unloaded. By the time he's got his horse unloaded, you will have your cinch pulled and be mounted up ready to go - lessening the chance of him riding off without you with your horse trying to 
follow while you are still trying to get your foot in the stirrup.                      
2. Never - and I repeat never - ever believe the phrase "We'll be
right back," when he has asked you to help him do something out on the ranch. The echoing words, "this will only take a little while" have filtered through generations of ranch wives and still today should invoke sincere distrust in the woman who hears them.

3. Always know there is NO romantic intention when he pleadingly asks you to take a ride in the pickup with him around the ranch while he checks waters and looks at cattle. What that sweet request really means is he wants someone to open and close the gates.

4. He will always expect you to quickly be able to find one stray in a four-section brush-covered pasture, but he will never be able to find the mayonnaise jar in four-square feet of refrigerator. 

5. Count every head of everything you see - cattle especially, but 
sometimes horses, deer, quail or whatever moves. Count it in the gate, out the gate or on the horizon. The first time you don't count is when he will have expected that you did. That blank eyelash-batting look you give him when he asks "How many?" will not be acceptable.

6. Know that you will never be able to ride a horse or drive a pickup to suit him. Given the choice of jobs, choose throwing the feed off the back of the pickup. If he is on the back and you are driving, the opportunity for constant criticism of speed, ability and your eyesight will be utilized to the full extent. "How in the *@*# could you NOT see that hole?"

7. Never let yourself be on foot in the alley when he is sorting cattle horseback. When he has shoved 20 head of running, bucking, kicking yearlings at you and then hollers "Hold 'em, hold 'em" at the top of his lungs, don't think that you really can do it without loss of life or limb. Contrary to what he will lead you to believe, walking back to the house is always an option that has been used throughout time.

8. Don't expect him to correctly close the snap-on tops on the plastic refrigerator containers, but know he will expect you to always close every gate. His reasoning, the cows will get out; the food will not.

9. Always praise him when he helps in the kitchen - the very same way he does when you help with the ranch work - or not.

10. Know that when you step out of the house you move from the "wife" department to "hired hand" status. Although the word "hired" indicates there will be a paycheck that you will never see, rest assured you will have job security. The price is just right. And most of the time you will be "the best help he has" even if it is because you are the ONLY help he has.

A few weeks ago, The Cowboy came in and told me to get some clothes on--I was wearing a skirt and blouse. We were going to go "for a drive," he said. We drove along Road 1, and I thought we'd be checking on the calves. But, we drove right on by the fields of cows and heifers. We turned south on Road 2. Alleluia! We're going to check on the 80 mares and see how many colts and fillies have been born. As we passed by the entrance to the horse field, I began to get a sinking feeling. 

And sure enough, we came to a field being disced, readying it for seeding. The Cowboy wanted me to drive the (manual) one ton pickup while he drove the big, green tractor to another field. I don't do well with that pickup. We are mutually incompatible. Especially if I have to drive over hills and hollows and through muck and mire. But it was either drive the pickup or drive the big, green tractor. I did get the truck moved from Point A to Point B, without mishap, and without a tear. I will admit that I did put on a bit of a pout. 

He took me pistol shooting one day. "Get some clothes on," he said. (Wearing anything besides Wrangler jeans is a state of undress, as you will have figured out by now.) We did check on the calves, then out came the pistol. I'd never shot a firearm in my life. Ever. I took five shots. And hit the coffee can five times. No pouting that day. 
To all my Queen of the Ranch friends, get some clothes on. There's an adventure waiting!

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