Ranch Wife Musings | Cold

All summer long, we race against the clock to beat the heat of the day in whatever project it is we are working on. We freeze old apple juice bottles full of water to take with us when we head out in the morning, and drink greedily from them as the day heats up, wearily wishing for the heat to lessen. It doesn’t. Until the autumn months begin to slip by, and then that first real cold snap does it. You wake up in the morning and see 7 degrees plain as plain on the thermometer and start shivering sympathetically.

The cold sets in and complicates the simplest of tasks. Whether it is snow, or a particularly heavy frost, or just bitter, biting cold and the requisite South Dakota winds, impending winter is a force to be reckoned with. And when I say it complicates the simplest of tasks, I truly mean that. In warm weather, we can bounce out the door in the morning as quickly as it takes to put on a pair of boots and grab a hat. The colder it gets, the longer it takes. It gets a little brisk, and now you’re finding a jacket and a scarf. Then it’s a jacket under a heavier coat. Then coveralls. Then a warmer hat, maybe even a ski-mask type hood under the hat. Then it’s remembering to put on long underwear first thing, and nice, thick wool socks. Then, at that point, it honestly feels like you’re wearing the entire coat closet plus some after 15 minutes of buttoning and wrapping and layering, and the inevitable strip down for that irritating search for a forgotten or misplaced item that you only remembered after buttoning the final button on your coat, or the sudden need to “get rid of some coffee” as some might say.

Now, finally, you’re out shuffling the door feeling rather like a spring-loaded marshmallow and can stumble through the seasonal comedy of chores, encumbered by the entire coat closet, fumbling with gate chains and lids and dropping stuff from mittened fingers, snagging gloves and coat and hat on this, that, and the other thing, remembering – oh so fondly – when these little tasks were simple, you know, just two weeks ago, but which have by degrees become more difficult. Pun intended.

And this is now the new normal for the next several months and it isn’t even technically winter yet.

Every water source freezes up, causing the animals to walk out onto ice in the dams looking for a drink, risking a deadly fall through the ice. On stock tanks, floats can be used during the day if the temps creep up sufficiently, but have to be taken off at night so as to not freeze the entire hydrant. Jugs of hot water get hauled down to the chickens and the cats, multiple times a day unless there’s enough sun to warm the water tubs. Fingers and toes get cold and stop cooperating, in spite of efforts to keep them warm. I carelessly left my vet kit in the chicken coop and obviously everything turned to a block of ice, including what I needed right then. The mud room in the back of our house truly earns its name, in spite of good faith efforts to keep it tidy. Boy, I’m thankful for a mud room! The cats come up to the back door looking miffed or something a little more potentially violent than just miffed, and I honestly don’t blame the chickens for kind of going on strike.

And so we settle in for the coming winter and adjust to the seasonal changes of shorter days, colder temperatures, and literally everything that can turn to a block of ice turning to a block of ice, and I thank God for all of his blessings.

Instead of rushing out the door to beat the heat, we linger pleasantly over that cup of coffee, or maybe a second, letting the sun take the edge off the cold a bit, and get to work on the overnight ice. It is hard to beat the pleasure of warming up cold fingers on a hot mug of coffee or tea mid-morning or at dinner time. That blast of warm air when first coming in from outside is delightful. Hot showers even the evening never feel so good as when you’ve been borderline chilled all day long. There’s nothing quite like filling the house with the warmth and the aromas of baking, and as things out of necessity slow down outside as the days get shorter, I honestly enjoy having the time for some of those projects that get neglected during nicer weather. And having someone to spend long winter evenings with makes me actually look forward to them. And then there are those inevitable warm days or afternoons, like this afternoon, generously sprinkled through our Black Hills winters, little breaths of springtime reminding us that winter, too, will pass.

But golly, I’m pretty thankful for a good pair of insulated coveralls. And sturdy muck boots. And a warm coat. And scarves and mittens and hats, and whatever blessed person it was who invented hand warmers. And long underwear.

Ranch Wife Musings | Autumn Joys

Summer fades away and autumn rushes in with foretastes of winter, bringing the community together around this livelihood we share. Neighbors jump in to help neighbors in work trade relationships that go back decades in some cases. Slow, autumnal days are followed by long days of hard work, up doing chores with a flashlight before riding out to gather cattle, ours or a neighbor’s, building and maintaining those partnerships between rancher and rancher, family and family, neighbor and neighbor, and between people and their animal partners, whether dog or horse.

There is the excitement of seeing the beautiful fall calf crop, the satisfaction of working healthy calves, or of having the cow herd preg test well. There is the anticipation of selling, the relief of getting calves sold, and a bittersweet sense of completion when they’re loaded onto a truck. And yet the sense of contented completion is marred by the question everyone is asking right now, which is how to keep everything fed and watered over winter. But all of that is a part of this season, this beautiful, paradox of a season.

And what a paradox, what a season of contrasts and change. Weeks of summery weather, followed by weeks of chilly mornings and warm middays, and then the downright cold nights that put ice on absolutely everything. Balmy breezes one day, and biting, cutting, gnawing winds the next. Starting the day bundled in coveralls and a scarf, yet somehow managing to get down to a T-shirt or tank top by afternoon. Autumn gold that makes the trees almost hard to look at, and the next day the gold is gone and the trees are bare.

Butterflies and bumblebees did their summery work as long as the flowers bloomed, which was much longer than usual this year. Snow fells on the still-blooming flowers, blooming into the first week of November, to my bewilderment, in spite of freezing temperatures. There were those frost-less, yet icy mornings, and then days of nothing but ice and frost, with the sudden change of autumn to the winter weather we’ve been bracing for, where everything is frozen and the thermometer doesn’t register above freezing.

Sometimes there would seem to be a shortage of things to keep one busy, when all that is on the to-do list is usual chores, and “seeing what else needs to be done.” There is never any shortage of something else needing to be done! Days so full you wonder how they can hold anymore, yet with that fallish sense of slowness and peace, unique to this season. I can’t really explain it. Unplanned projects take up unanticipated time, such as mending corral fences mangled by freshly-weaned calves in a nightly tirade, or spending a morning gathering them back up from multiple pastures after they manage to break out in a hunt for their mamas. Everyone is thankful when a group of calves is successfully weaned. And there really is always something going on, something to fix, an animal to doctor, something to do in preparation for something else. And then on rare days when there really isn’t anything going on, you enjoy it.

Around and amongst the busyness of the fall season, I love those rare times when I really can take it all in, the beauty of those daily, mundane moments. A day can be so full that I don’t stop to really see those things that infuse living with so much joy.

A quick smile from my handsome rancher.

My critters. All of them.

The steady gaze of a horse.

The timid gaze of a calf.

My daily basket of beautiful, brown eggs from my hard-working girls.

Sunlight illuminating flowers (I can’t believe how late they bloomed!) so they appear like stained glass, or snow-clad, weighed-down flowers.

And so many other things.

And all that within the beautiful paradox of autumn’s joys.

Little Calf Faces

There is something so winsome in the faces of young animals that haven’t yet learned fear, and will stare boldly back, a little timidly, but overcome by their innocent curiosity.

As much as I love the Angus mamas and babies, I love the sweet little Char faces with their light lashes and dark eyes and noses. I could look at them for hours.

Spreading Little Wings

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know by now how much I love my critters. My teenage chicks got to taste their freedom for the first time a few evenings ago with some supervised time outside their run. It was so fun to watch them come bursting through their run door into the big wide world, and their explorations began. Curious little things.

I had been intending to start integrating them into the big girl flock for awhile, but this was prompted in particular by my rooster, Bernard, who is honestly just a jerk to all of his flock mates. He may end up in the soup pot if he isn’t careful. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed the big girls putting him in his place on a number of occasions…They came to inspect the proceedings and definitely aren’t impressed with Bernard.

The last few nights, they’ve gone out with the big girls, interacted pretty seamlessly with the hens, and managed to put themselves away successfully at sundown. How easy is that?

Blue-Eyed Banshees

A tragic incident on Friday bereft me of my favorite hen, and has rendered Pearl unfit for and relieved of chicken duty. My very kind husband never once laughed at my copious tears for poor Amelia who got her little head ripped clean off and the next day he brought home three cats. Three beautiful, white critters, with toffee-colored point markings and the bluest eyes. And they are wild as little banshees. Considering that, and they fact that they will never lay blue eggs, I’m not sure it quite replaces my poor beheaded chicken, but I’m willing to be open minded.

They were born to a neighbor’s barn cat and haven’t really ever been handled. As long as I keep both my eyes and all my digits, the two girls will be mine, and the male, provided he’ll let me shape and mold his disagreeable disposition, will be sent up north to my mother-in-law who lost one of her mousers (supposedly a mouser; I’ve only ever seen them snoozing) about a month ago.

Amelia (in honor of the deceased chicken, may we always fondly remember the dead) and Madeline are capable of the most withering looks of disdain, with their slightly crossed and very blue eyes, and such scornful looks they don’t hesitate to cast in my general direction if I offend them. As long as I mind my manners and don’t talk too loud, they’ll deign to emerge from their little corners and frisk about at a royal distance. Occasionally one might sneak closer, but stop far enough away to remind me of proper etiquette and the fact that they don’t appreciate having been cat-napped.

I rather have my doubts that they understand yet that all parties on this ranch will eventually be expected to fulfill certain obligations, but I’ll let these blue-eyed banshees bask in the warmth of their deity and their self righteous indignation for a little longer.

Ranch Wife Musings: Good Mornings

“Good morning!” There’s a lot tied up in that little greeting, depending on the recipient. My husband gets the first “good morning” of the day, for obvious reasons. After coffee and breakfast, the dogs get a “good morning,” then the cats, the chickens, the horses, and sometimes even the garden. It just depends on how personable I’m feeling.

It’s hard to have a truly bad morning when it starts with coffee and is followed by the cacophony of grateful little noises of a passel of chickens and two-month-old chicks. This little chicken here is Bianca. She loves to be scratched under the chin. As an aside, my husband complains that I have more pictures of my chickens than of him. He is absolutely correct, and I gently remind him that they outnumber him and are uniquely cooperative. I also want to make a disclaimer: I really don’t like selfies, and pretty much the only times I take them are either with a chicken or with abnormally large vegetables.

In spite of some very chilly nights and actually resorting to turning on the furnace this morning for the first time this fall, the garden is as of yet unfrosted! This coneflower has been getting more and more beautiful for about the last week, and if the warmish weather continues, there are a few more buds trying to bloom.

The turnips got thinned this morning and the mature ones planted much earlier this summer got fully harvested. They’ll make a delicious turnip green soup!

Now to put the kitchen to rights after all the canning yesterday, tidying the house, drying herbs, and a long walk. Doesn’t get much better.

I love a good morning.