Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pop Pop goes to Armenia

Pop Pop, as grandson Dawson calls him, is headed to Yerevan again. When Mike was first asked to go to Armenia to work on a pastoral systems project, I had to look on a map to figure out where it was. It's over there next to Turkey, below Georgia and above Iran.

This is his third trip, and the last for this year. He has been too busy to educate me much about it, but so far I've learned that their main breed of cattle are a cross of native Caucasus cattle and Brown Swiss, which they hoped would increase milk production for their dairy operations. The "beef" they raise comes from bull calves that are weaned at three months and put on pasture for a year. They do not castrate and the beef animals do not gain very well and are maybe only 400 - 500 pounds when slaughtered.

It sounds like the villages have some good options for improving their management and increasing the yields from their livestock operations. These could include managing dairy and beef animals as separate herds, allowing the beef herds to be grazed on pastures further from the village, castrating non-breeding bulls, and implementing a range management approach based on
ecological principals.

There was a time when I would not have pictured Mike as a scientist, but now it seems to make perfect sense. If a horse wreck had not laid him up and sent him down the college path, he might have just kept working on ranches as a hired hand. In fact, once he was back in the saddle, ranch work kept him sane while he pursued his education. Between semesters he took winters off to herd cattle at Dug Bar on the Snake River, or summers to work for the US Forest Service Range department. The ranchers we worked for, like Joe Collins of the Hubbard Ranch, were incredibly supportive.

Mike spent quite a lot of the next ten years away from home, three of those in Idaho. I cherished the months, weeks and days when he could be home with us, and especially the ones where the family was all together, wintering in cow camp, herding cattle on the craggy canyonsides. It was amazing to be on the range with him, watching him apply what he was learning, and seeing the ecological system of climate, topography, plants and animals through his eyes.

I drove him crazy with questions and I still do. He is mostly patient. He is mostly quiet. But I know that underneath the hours and hours of hard work, whether building a fence or packing out salt block, calculating stocking rates or planning a restoration project, he sees the big picture and our little place in it.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heifer Havoc

I guess this kind of behavior should be expected from a two-year old. But Mike is always telling me to have a positive outlook. In other words, don't assume the yearlings and two-year olds are going to wreak havoc.

So I didn't think about it as we unloaded at the neighbor's corrals. Our day's job: to gather the herd on the Zumwalt and sort off bulls and steers to haul to the valley. We rode through the 400 Acres and down past the pond. The sky arched over us like a robin's eggshell, and the golden grass, cured on the stem, rustled against our horses' feet. It was a beautiful Indian Summer morning.

The cattle were across the draw and on top of the ridge and they gathered easy and trailed easy all the way to the corral. Getting them in was a different story.

We bunched them by the corral gate, where a short fence made a wing to help guide them into the first corral. The cattle balked and milled, and a couple mother cows fought the dog. Then a bull went through the gate and a bunch of cows went with him. We thought we had them. That's when some heifers quit the bunch and high-tailed it north with the dog and Mike in pursuit. Then a little red cow let out a beller and started running and the whole mob broke for the hills.

Repeat this scenario about five times. Every time the three of us got the herd gathered back up, one of the blasted two-year olds would bust loose, leaping rocks and humps of grass, evading me. The cows would bulge through the opening I left behind, while the other riders worked to hold the sides. We really needed at least another dog, but Ruby was left at home to babysit Punch, the new pup. And good horse flesh was lacking. Mestizo still thinks he's a packhorse and gets confused by my agitated intentions. Spurs might have helped. And then there was Zeb, the cowy, but ancient mustang. And Zip, the big guy, all charging here and there and working up an enormous sweat. The lone dog was wore down to a frazzle with a bad leg. It was not a real positive part of the day.

Finally Mike decided we should try a different gate, one flat-on mid corral, at the alley, where they could see the other cattle in the corral. We bunched them, they balked, we bunched them again and drove, and then the lead cow walked through the gate. A miracle!

During the year, I like having the mixed age herd, the generations of cattle working the range together. But when it comes time to gather, those yearlings can be a real pain in the pitoot.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, September 6, 2010


Mike and I just returned from a few Indian Summer days on the river, where Mike diligently pulled weeds (puncture vine and cockle burr) and I picked blackberries and plums. We are in the thick of the harvest now. Our second wave of Bunchgrass Beef customers are hungrily anticipating their September deliveries. The garden is overflowing its borders in a tangle of pumpkin and winter squash vines. And the trees are weighted down with fruit.

Usually we think of a windfall as a stroke of unexpected good luck, like finding out your old horse blanket is really a Navajo rug worth thousands of dollars. But when it comes to fruit, windfalls are often viewed with disdain, i.e.: those annoying piles of rotting apples collecting in the lawn.

I could have felt that way about our transparents. The tree has been battling some kind of leaf curl, but still produced fruit this year. The small, hail pocked, easily-bruised and quick-to-rot apples were becoming more and more numerous in the grass under the tree. I kept thinking if the apples would just stay on the branches longer, they would get bigger, and I would be more inclined to work with them.

But no, they kept falling off and a little voice inside my head kept saying, "Waste not, want not." Therefore, I added the apples to the growing list of garden stuff destined to be tucked into jars, freezer bags or drying racks. This included: peaches (lots), pears (quite a few), blackberries (the tale end), green and yellow beans (tons), sour yellow plums (plenty), cucumbers (just starting) and raspberries (last gasp).

Looking into the bucket of wimpy apples, I was humbled by the fact that imperfect fruit can still yield great food. Working up the apples reminded me how I love the feel of a good knife in my hands, the weight of a fruit balanced against gravity while the knife does its work. The peel falls away, the seeds are nipped from their bed, and into the pot go the serviceable and delicious remains.

There was a lot of trim on those apples, but after cooking them and running them through the hand mill, I combined them with the tart yellow plums to make a beautifully golden batch of plum-apple butter. Luckily, after the jars were filled, there was a "windfall" dab left over to spread on crisply toasted, butter-saturated chewy whole-grain bread, the perfect snack for hungry harvesters.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, September 3, 2010


In geologic terms, rejuvenation is a kind of rapid erosion that takes landforms backwards in time, from older forms to younger, more rugged features.

I imagine this like when the 1,000 year flood came through along the Imnaha River and stripped away the soil and trees, carving new channels, leaving high raw cuts and sprawling gravel bars. A few years later, I stood at the edge of the river and looked across the rapids to the far cutbank and the water line ten feet above my head. I briefly pictured myself submerged inside the roil, and shuddered.

The Missoula Floods cycled through about every 55 years when Hells Canyon was being formed. When I think that what we witnessed was a once in a 1,000 years event, the frequency of those Ice Age floods is staggering. I wonder if I have ever seen water travelling at the rate of 80 mph. How fast was the Imnaha when it was running 20,000 cubic feet of water per second? Even during a normal flood, at 2,000 cfs, the river is frightening.

In contrast to the geologic process, the rejuvenation of body or self is mostly associated with indulgence and relaxation. Perhaps I should reconsider life's threatening situations as another form of rejuvenation, the physical breaking down into new life, the turmoil that erodes feelings down to emotional bedrock, where one can begin building up again.

In 1862, Thoreau wrote, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Back when we first met, Mike had a favorite poster with that quote on it. I think it helped me trust him. The quote was like a founding principle that we could always agree on, one that has grounded us wherever we've lived, from the Yukon Territory, to the Andes Mountains, to the depths of Hells Canyon.

Wildness has been both balm and catalyst. Ignition and antidote. It has been one of the best teachers, for two people in it for the long haul.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef