Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Lot of Thanks

Larry on his cell phone
Thanks Larry for helping us trail the cattle off the top of the ridge and through the canyon rims on a long cold, snowy, blowy day.

Thanks cows for travelling all those hours without out more than a few bites of grass while being poked by nosy calves who wanted a drink and a nap. You kept going, and after we called it quits at the end of the day, you marched right on down to the winter range.

Punch, one and a half years old

Thanks dogs for working with heart and speed, and for "down"  "stay" "walk up"  "away" and "come by. "

Bird ready to call it a day
Thanks Gabe and Cammie and Dawson for helping us get out wood in, for stacking hay, for all those miles of wire stretched and jacks built, and for letting us use Bird whenever we need another horse.

Thanks John and Tommy for building and fixing and sometimes even riding and branding. You've helped us keep critters in the right places, roofs on, fences up, and buildings in good shape.

Thanks Cheryl for walnut gathering adventures and all the other fruits and edibles that you help stock my larder with. Thanks trees and plants for making food for us to harvest.

Sara herding toward Thomason
Thanks Zeke for choring and fixing the computer many many times. Thanks Prairie and Jon for using your vacation to come home and build fence, move cows, chop ice or do whatever else is needed.

Off the top
Thanks Bill for being such a great neighbor, and helping our management in the canyon work.  Thanks Dave and McClarans for being there, for understanding the places and life and why we're out there. Thanks all you customers for encouraging us, for buying our beef, and for letting us know why you appreciate and enjoy this nutritious food. Thanks Phillips and Killam Families for helping us get a start on the Magpie Ranch and letting us put our energy and talents to use doing the work we love.

Thanks everybody who has visited, helped, listened and valued the land, the animals, the traditions and people in this special place "where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day."


From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No More Bawling

Fuzzy heifer during weaning last year
Last night when I arrived home from work I could hear the incessant bawling of a neighbor's cattle down the road. It brought back memories of weaning and shipping time on the big ranches we used to work on here in Wallowa County. Most big ranches sell their 8-9 month old calves in the fall after the grazing season ends and before the long winter when cow herds are typically sustained on hay laboriously fed out each day in fields and feedlots.

I remember when the first snow flurries began to drift down through the big pines out north and hunting season populated the woods with wall tents and campers, the cowboys would be putting in long days gathering cattle from the prairies and timbered ridges. At the Steen Place, the cows and calves were trailed to a big holding pasture along Chesnimnus Creek, each day's gather adding bunches of cattle to the growing herd.

Before long, up to six hundred pairs, mother cows with calves at their sides, would swell the holding pasture, creating a dark tide of animals spread across the golden cured grasslands. When all the cattle were in, we'd herd them into the big corrals, sorting the calves away from the mother cows and turning the cows back into the holding pasture. That's when the bawling began.

Cattle trucks, contracted to haul the calves to sale yards or feedlots, made the long drive across the prairie to the ranch, arriving in the pre-dawn hours, their headlights lined up along the gravel road beyond the corrals. The calves were herded into alleys and up ramps into the cattle trucks, the one ranch job that I always dreaded. By lunch time, the trucks were gone and so were the calves, but the bawling continued.

At night, laying in bed inside the hundred year old log ranch house, I fell asleep to the bawling of the mother cows bunched outside the now empty corrals, and woke up in the morning to more bawling. Each day fewer cows lingered near the corrals, lured by hunger back to the farther reaches of the holding pasture, or perhaps knowing from experience that no amount of bawling would bring back their calves. By the fourth day, the silence typical of wild places returned and the cows were ready to move on.

Here at the Magpie Ranch, we don't sell our calves in the fall, we keep them as part of the herd for more than two years, ranging the canyons and prairies in multi-generational family groups. We do wean the calves when they are around ten months old, by holding them in corrals in the canyon and feeding them hay for a month, while their mothers are free to come and go outside the corrals. The mother cows can see, smell, lick and visit their calves every day if they want to. Once weaned, the calves are turned back into the herd to resume their natural lives and behaviors. 
Cows and calves during weaning

We are committed to providing our cattle the best life possible. If they are butcher animals, after two years, they are brought in small groups to the home ranch where they are humanely harvested. Listening to the bawling of the neighbor's cattle, I'm thankful we are able to practice ranching the way we do, learning from the past, honoring the future.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Moon Morning

Blue-silver, rust-fringed clouds around the moon this morning. Mike left early to inspect a ranch in Baker County and after he pulled out, I stood in the not-too-cold dark admiring the peaceful shift of clouds across the nearly full moon.

I'm thankful for the rain that has fallen this past week, but glad it's not raining this morning. I want to see the fields and breathe in the world as the dogs and I run out past the marsh and through the wheat stubble.

Dawson in the stock truck
Mike cut an enormous load of wood on Monday, hauling back two chords in the stock truck after spending the day in the woods with Gabe, Cammie and Dawson. It feels great to see wood piling up in the woodshed again. 

I got the onions hung in the cellar. Connie, visiting from Germany, helped me pull them out of the garden a few weeks ago. They were resting on tarps in the woodshed and needed to get out of there before Mike cut wood, so I braided them up, setting aside the ones without tops to use right away. 

Keeper onions in the cellar

The last of the Bartlett pears made it into the spiced preserves yesterday morning. They will be perfect for those corn-meal waffles we hope to share with visitors over the winter. 

There are a few plums left to deal with, and a big box of winter pears from Cheryl that I need to get into the dehydrator. But it still feels like a lull in the harvest frenzy. A quiet moment when nothing is clamoring for attention from the stairwell or back porch.  

I haven't forgotten those huge red apples in Joseph, the ones I trade a pie for to the guy who has the trees in his front yard. Or the prune plums I think my friend might have extras of, perfect for stewing. 

But for now, I'm going to wander out past the horse pasture, through the still-green alfalfa, and look for the moon in the new light of the day. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Trailing to the Vance Place

The day started with Mike finishing his roofing job on the front porch.  The old farmhouse got a lovely new coat of paint this summer and it seems like we just finished cleaning up from that job, but the front porch couldn't face another winter without attention and rain was in the forecast. So up he went on the ladder, while I tackled some of the plums, cutting them up for the dryer and tossing a few into the cinnamon rolls, thereby discovering a new delectable treat, plum rolls.
What I call "date" plums

Sweet-tart sticky fruity plum rolls
By the time we loaded up and hauled to the Zumwalt, dark clouds had descended and the rain had started. Nothing like swinging onto a wet saddle in your dry jeans....but wonderful to smell, hear and see that moisture falling on the range.  I was glad for my many layers in what seemed like an overnight transition from months of shorts and sandals to fleece and slicker.

Mid-day dark, leading Mike's horse while he brings the truck

The cows gathered easy, but weren't sure where we were going, as it was their first time trailing to the Vance. The last few miles seemed to stretch on and on as we meandered back and forth down the draw, stymied by the persistent traffic of hunters who seemed to enjoy stopping in the middle of the herd.
Scattering in the draw

I was glad when the winds died down and the rain let up and relieved to finally see Vance meadow through the trees. The cows were relieved too and quickly settled to grazing on their new range. With just enough daylight left, we repaired the dilapidated gate and put up the "Keep Gate Closed" signs.
Mestizo and Ol Zeb

We loaded the dogs and horses and hopped in the truck, ready for the last cup of coffee from the thermos and the plum rolls I'd saved for the end of the day. That's when Mike realized our headlights were out. It wouldn't have been the first time we'd plugged across the prairie with only our running lights, but luckily it was just a loose fuse and soon we were rattling west over the hills toward home.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Apple Apple Plum Peach

Honey-curry pickles
Early and late the harvest continues all around us. Dust clouds migrate through the fields in the distance marking the combine's progress through the wheat. Handlines spread irrigation water across close-cropped alfalfa soaking thirsty roots after second cutting. Beans and cukes are brined into pickles, sour and sweet. Fat onions, purple, white and yellow loll in their beds, soon to be pulled and braided. Cabbages become kraut, while winter squash ripen under their tarps, safe from frost.

Horse Creek Plum Jelly
At the river we picked the last of the Mirabellen, and brought them home to make the wonderful golden sweet-tart jelly that will top our whole grain waffles and cheer us up during the dark winter months. And we filled a bucket with blackberries, both for the freezer and winter cobbler, and for jam.

On through peaches and nectarines, canned, dried, and spiced into preserves with cloves and cinnamon. Then to the first applesauce from the transparent apples, one of our nicest crops of transparents ever. Somehow there are always a few extra dabs of sauce or jam left over after the last jar is filled for the canner. These go into a bowl and become our immediate reward for all that peeling, coring, and stirring. A fresh taste of harvest to smear on toast, mix with yogurt or just plain eat off a spoon.

Sorting peaches before canning

A good crop of transparent apples
Jars on the wood stove ready to go to the cellar
It's a good feeling, after lugging all those jars to the cellar, reorganizing the shelves, the few jars from last year moved to the front, the new jars behind, and then standing back, surveying the bounty, calculating how many times a week, how many times a month, we can eat this fruit or that pickle. And knowing that many jars will be shared as special gifts for family and friends. And there will be more. Still to come are the pears, the prune plums and green gage plums and the late apples. How generous the plants and trees are to share their fruits with us!

Now if only the woodshed were as full as the cellar.....

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Love and Longing

Mike's tent in the Gobi
Mike has been working in Mongolia again. This last trip he was in the Gobi desert the entire time so there wasn't any way to communicate. I knew he was out there bouncing around in a jeep, locating eco-plots and camping under the Mongolian sky and I really wished he could Skype me and tell me about it.

While he was gone, I hosted a young woman bicycling her way from Oregon to Florida. As we chopped vegetables for stir-fry one evening, she asked me to tell how Mike and I met and got married. It's a long story that starts in Seattle with a cowboy hat, a horse and a guitar, and ends three years later with a wedding on Mount Rainier.
Traditional Ger of herder household

Desert Shrine
During those three years Mike and I didn't spend much time together. A few months after we met, Mike went to work in Alaska. When he came home, I left for Germany for a year. When I got back he left to work in Alaska again. Then he came home and I left for college in Minnesota. When I got back from Minnesota, he left for the Yukon Territory. It was a bit ridiculous.

"How did you get to know each other when you spent so much time apart?" my young friend asked. There wasn't any internet and even if there was a phone, long distance calls were expensive. The whole year I was in Germany we only had one awkward twelve minute phone call. What we did was write letters. Stacks and stacks of letters.

Mike washing up at a Camel Trough

Finally, when Mike was in the Yukon, working at a gold mine, he asked me to come up and float down the Yukon River on a raft. Three weeks later, with the glacial fizz of the massive Yukon swirling us north, we decided it was time to get married. We thought getting married would mean spending a lot more time together. And it did. But a life of working on ranches, going back to college after having kids, and now doing international consulting, has meant we still spend a lot of time apart.

Prayer wheels
Last night after the sun had gone down in a tangerine-chocolate harvest sky, Mike asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. We called the dogs and headed west through the new-mown alfalfa field.

In the dark we could still make out the brow of the Wallowas jutting up at the edge of the valley and to the east, the low dry hills rising toward the Zumwalt prairie. Alfalfa stubble crunched under foot. The smell of hay and dust and ripening wheat eddied around us. The velvet air was balmy and where our bare arms touched, Mike's skin felt smooth and cool.

When we reached the marsh along the creek, the dogs raced past into the field beyond. We stood in the quiet, each of us with our own thoughts, the creek gurgling faintly beneath the waist-high grass. Then we headed back toward the old farm house that has sheltered us so many years now, and I felt a familiar longing well up inside me.  They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but sometimes, at night in a field, when the one you love is right there in front of you, striding along in the dark, your heart can feel his presence and his absence at the same time.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ropin and Ridin

Charlie Tackman with  Lucas and Trish
The past week had so many things jammed into it, it felt like a month in seven days. Mike's scientist buddy and ex-boss Charlie and family drove up from SE Oregon for a visit. The two scientists wanted to talk prairie and canyon ecology, Lucas and Trish, high school seniors, wanted to ride and fish. So they headed to the summer range to see how the new bull was getting along.  And then to the river to overnight at Horse Creek to see if they could catch some salmon.

Mike and Charlie

Dawson's birthday party rolled around on Sunday and we had big doin's at the park with the youngest generation. What a joy to be part of a family that includes children I've known since they were born, who now have their own children, all of us gathered for wild rumpus and birthday yumminess.
Cammie made a dump truck cake
Dawson got a roping lesson with his new roping dummy. Then Buck roped the kids as they screamed and ran. As soon as he caught somebody, the other kids would swoop in, relishing the chance to "brand" and "give a shot" to the "calf."
Buck gives Dawson a roping lesson
 Last year when we were celebrating Dawson's birthday at the park, we saw a huge column of smoke on the horizon and a stream of fire engines roaring west. It was the Wallowa Mountains visitor center burning to the ground, a beautiful log building with interesting displays and most of the USFS offices, including Gabe's. He lost three year's of photographs and files from his project to document the many historic cabins and other structures scattered across Forest Service lands. He wanted these structures to be mapped and described so that if there were a wildfire, the firefighters would have up-to-date information. This year we were all glad to just enjoy a simple, fun birthday with Dawson.
Cammie, Gabe, Dawson, Lucy, Buck, Chelsea, James, Callie, Luke, Kate, Lillie and Addie

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Migration and the Wayward Bull

After we branded, we gave the cows a couple days to loaf before starting the three day trip to the summer pasture. I had been sick and welcomed the extra rest before the tough climb out of the canyon.

They cows probably did rest a day, but when Mike went back down to brush out the trail, he saw fresh sign. The cows had found a way onto the road and had trailed five miles along the bench to the trail-head, climbed up the trail and were now munching bunchgrass in a steep little basin below the rims.

Morning drink

By the next day, they topped out on their own, climbing out of basin and threading the rimrock to find a hole in the fence. We found them early in the morning, resting in the timber, not far from a stock pond. It was hot and I was glad to be reminded of the pond's location as I had not been there in years.


Getting close to Thomason

We trailed on foot to Thomason and over-nighted the cows in the road pasture. Come morning, a stray Hereford bull the size of a Mac Truck had taken up with the herd. He made our 2 year old Longhorn bull look tiny and even dwarfed the biggest cows. Mike had to push half the herd through a funky wire gate in a flimsy stretch of fence and then try to cut the big bull out as the cows came back through the gate onto the road.

Hereford near the front, our bull by the brindle
The bull was not aggressive. But when he decided to make his move, he was like a mountain in motion. And he wasn't slow. All Mike had was an old horse, our other geldings were still in the canyon. All I had was a stock whip. I held it straight up, zinging the air with a few hard flicks of the wrist. The bull looked me in the eye, his neck and shoulders towering about the cows' backs. I stared back trying to look tough.

As a bunch of cows ran through the gate, the bull made his move. Mike was trapped behind a tangle of cows and calves. I stepped between the cows and the bull and snapped my whip in the bull's face. His thick flesh rolled forward over his powerful neck as he slid to a stop and hesitated, poised to plow past, or over me, I snapped the whip back and forth. "Don't you dare," I said staring him in the eye. "Don't you even think about running over me."

The bull swung his head and took several steps side to side.  "Hit him!" Mike hollered  from his horse. "Hit him on the nose."  "I can't," I yelled back, feinting slightly and snapping the stock whip, afraid to go closer, knowing I'd have no chance to get out of the way. The bull turned and ran and Mike went after him with the horse and dogs.

Luckily the bull didn't test the worthless fence, but high tailed it west over the ridge. In a cloud of dust, the bawling cows and calves milled off into the timber and we were on the move again.

At last, on the summer pasture

The rest of the day was uneventful, hot and slow. When Mike finally brought the herd through the last gate into the summer pasture, I was relieved. Thank you cows, for mostly trailing yourselves to the summer range this year.

Loaded up

"Smile. We're done."

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of  Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cow Untipping

Cow untipping field
Last week on a morning run I saw my neighbor up ahead messing with the pump in his grain field. Another neighbor had pulled over in his diesel flatbed truck and the two farmers stood yakking over the fence. We called good-morning to each other as I trotted by with our border collies in tow.

A short ways down the road I caught sight of four stiff black legs sticking up out of a dry irrigation ditch. "Dang," I thought. "Heifer got stuck in the ditch and died, that's too bad." Then I saw a leg move.
Start of dry ditch

I trotted back up the hill to the two farmers and told them about the calf, thinking we ought to do something.. They seemed unimpressed. When they realized I meant the calf was still alive, they said, "Well, better go down there and see if we can get her out."

 They got in the truck and drove down the road and parked outside the fence near the calf. I told the dogs to lie down and stay in the neighbor's driveway while I took a short cut through the pasture.

The heifer was a big black baldy. After managing to up-end herself in the ditch, she had wallowed forward upside down wedging herself in good between the narrow uneven banks.

The younger farmer grabbed a hind leg and pulled this way and that. The old farmer pulled her tail and I grabbed her head pushing it uphill. I felt slightly ridiculous, down in the ditch in my running clothes. The heifer thrashed, we jumped back, she stayed stuck.

We tried variations of this maneuver several times to no avail.  I kept saying, "If only we had a rope for some leverage."  Finally the old farmer said to the young farmer, "You got a chain or anything in your truck."  "Oh yeah, I got everything in my truck," the young farmer said.

It was a long ways around by the road to the nearest gate. I looked down at the heifer, wondering how long she'd been like that, how much time she had left. Then I spotted the nylon pea-chord that I keep tied around my waist when I run with the dogs. It's only about two feet long, but in a pinch I can loop it through the dogs' collars and corral them if we're on the road and something tempting drives by, like a flatbed of barking dogs pulling a stock trailer.

"I do have this little piece of string," I said, untying it from my waist and holding it out in front of me. The farmers looked at the tiny piece of chord and then at me. It was not a favorable expression.

Before they could say anything, I made a loop in the chord and lassoed the heifers off-side front foot and pulled. They grabbed a leg and tail and pulled. The heifer moved. We pulled harder, letting go as she violently jerked against us and shifted slightly inside the ditch bank. She felt the change in position and struggled harder, getting a leg against the bank and finally pushing herself over.

As the heifer struggled to her feet and stumbled off, the three of us looked at each other. "Good thing you had your little piece of string,"  the old farmer said with a smile.
Black cows

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Creek Crossing Adventures

Prairie and Zeb ready to gather
We decided to stay in the canyon and take the cows up Pumpkin Creek for a few weeks since the grass on the Zumwalt is a little slow coming on this year. It was really nice that Prairie and Jon could come home to help gather and herd the cattle the six miles up to Pumpkin Creek.

Mike lines out the plan
Jon hiked upriver and gathered the cows off the bar and headed them up to the bench. Mike and Prairie met him on horseback and trailed the herd north and through the gate, headed up Horse Creek. A soft rain fell off and on all day and the grass felt like it was growing under our feet.

Sara putting on her chinks

Mestizo ready to go

The next day, Mike and I rode up the creek and found the cows most of the way to Pumpkin Creek. They trailed smoothly and by noon we were at the cabin. The only excitement of the day was when Mike and I crossed Horse Creek.

After we went through the gate at Pile Up, the herd trailed off up canyon through the brush. Mike and I climbed down off the steep hillside, looking for a place to cross the creek. Since we hadn't taken the high trail, we were stuck in Pile Up, with its narrow boulder filled draws, dead-fall timber, and thorny thickets.

I found a spot where we could get to the creek and we rode across the first channel to an island. At the second channel, there was an opening on the far bank where we thought Mike had cleared a trail last year. If we crossed there, we thought we could get through the trees and up the steep bank to the road. Unfortunately a tree had washed down stream and wedged in the channel just below the crossing spot.

Mike took a first attempt, but his horse refused to jump out of the creek into the brush on the other side and veered downstream into the logs. After a tense moment of tangled legs and rushing water, he jumped back over the logs and returned to the island. I decided to try another route, heading downstream off the island and sweeping around to the far bank below the logs, where I thought I might angle onto the "trail" from behind a tree.

The water below the island showed a dead spot, still and murky in the otherwise turbulent stream. I knew it was deeper, and hoped the bottom wasn't full of sticky mud. My horse stepped off the island reaching for the bottom. I felt him going down, down, down and then he pushed off hard with his hind feet and propelled us across the hole to the rocky bottom and rushing current in the middle of the channel. I couldn't believe how deep that hole was. We navigated the rest of the channel, picked our way around a nasty staub of a log sticking neck high out of the water, and took the bank with three big leaps up through the brush, a hard left through the rocks and finally we were up on the road. Mestizo was awesome, careful, sure-footed, calm.

Mike followed, but tried skirting the far side of the hole after seeing Mestizo and I drop into it. Amazingly enough, the far side was even deeper. Mike's horse, Zip, stepped into the hole and sunk to the left, losing his footing and almost rolling over in the deep water. He thrashed forward, found the stream bed and shot up out of the hole with Mike still in the saddle, water streaming. They made it across the channel, but ended up at a tangle of trees on the near bank below me. Mike was able to get off and somehow get his horse around a tree and up the bank. Safely on the road, we knew how bad it could have turned out. Zip stood heaving for air and sluicing water with one ear bent so far back it looked like it was broken. It was full of water from being submerged. Then Mike recalled the time Jim Baquet's horse fell crossing Cow Creek during spring run-off one year, pinning Jim underwater until the horse finally rolled free. We knew we wouldn't try a crossing like that again. Next time we'd find a better way.

Jon takes an after lunch siesta
Bear paw prints on the cabin door

 At the cabin, Jon had trekked up into the rims and closed all the gates, so we could just let the cows settle, relax and eat our lunch.

Relaxing cows

Happy mama and calf

Looking north up the Imnaha

Nice valley sunset
As we drove out of the canyon the clouds lifted revealing the beautiful green benches and red rock ridges. By the time we reached the valley, a glorious sunset provided the perfect good-night to a good day's work.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef