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