The Winter, It Will Pass

We’re only a calendar month into winter but already we’re enjoying hints of the coming spring. The first hint is that Runnings has their seed display up! There has been moisture in the air, bluebird skies, and the excitement of springtime approaching! It has been a whirlwind of sourdough baking and chickens, puppies and our first two calves, housework and laundry and getting ready to visit my sister in Illinois.

Calving has officially started for us with the excitement (and puzzlement) of our first two calves of the year, beautiful full-term babies in spite of being born a solid month sooner than expected. That’s called a bull with initiative. The first calf showed up on Sunday, and the second one was found Monday. Both pairs are safely settled into the nursery pen on our end of the ranch. What a beautiful sight! Gorgeous, lanky-legged, satin-sleek calves tripping along daintily behind their protective mamas.

Puppies are (literally) underfoot during most of chores and throughout the day, finding everything absolutely fascinating. They watch attentively while chickens get fed, torment the cats, and come running in a black and white wave when they’re called. It takes about ten times longer just to walk up the hill to the house, with half a dozen puppies chasing my feet and scheming to trip me. All our females are spoken for and we are looking for homes for our two boy pups, Max and Teddy. We’re excited to see how they all turn out. They are so smart, it’s a little scary!

The chickens are already going gangbusters (for a flock the size of mine), with fourteen eggs today and a dozen yesterday. They have come through their first cold snaps beautifully with only a couple mild incidents of frostbite on a couple larger-combed hens, have been healthy overall, and I’m excited to embark on my second year of chicken keeping. I have learned so much this year, dealing with coccidiosis in my chicks, bumblefoot in a few hens, a few unfortunate dog attacks and resulting chicken first aid, and dealing with a crossbeak chicken who, after today’s beak work, is able to eat again!I’m very thankful for the customers I have and am looking forward to being able to provide eggs for more people this year! It was satisfying to know that my family always had eggs, even when the stores didn’t! And they’re better eggs anyway.

I hauled a bunch of loose hay up from the stackyard this week to give the chickens something to scratch in when they’re locked up and to help with mud when we get snow. The run looks better and the chickens love it. I’m excited to work on making chicken farming more sustainable this year and to try growing some fodder crops specifically for feeding my flock.

So we are off to a running start this year, excited for calving, excited to get planning my garden, excited to grow my flock, excited for what this year will hold. Spring really is just around the corner. The winter, it will pass.

Back in Business

As of today, I am back in the blue egg business! One of my Ameraucanas, which I actually was concerned was a rooster, left me this beautiful blue egg.

There’s just something about a colorful egg basket. And now I know my young flock is starting to lay!

Seeing Black and White

When the puppies were first born, it was impossible to really distinguish one from the other, at least as far as four of them were concerned. Bessie was named pretty quickly, because of her milk cow markings, and there was an all black male that was quickly identifiable, but for some reason hadn’t earned a name.

They are now coming up on 7 weeks old and are a riot of activity, eager for attention, friendly, boisterous, and just a bundle of fun. We’ve got the sweet and sleepy one, the go-getter, the playful and clumsy one, the smart one, and a couple that haven’t really distinguished themselves but are plenty adorable with more energy than should fit in a body that size. It doesn’t get much more fun than going down to the barn and yelling, “Puppies!” and have six puppies and sometimes their mother come pouring out of the barn or out from under the trailers.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have let them start to explore outside and it is hilarious to watch the fat little pandas barreling full-tilt across the yard in protection of their pinecones, tumble down remnants of snow drifts, and learn the about the delicacy of horse manure.

They also enjoy terrorizing the cats, many of which actually invite the terrorizing and enjoy a playful romp with the pups. Polly in particular. It is only since the puppies have significantly outweighed her that the novelty of them is wearing a little thin. One pup is generally tolerable, but four or more is less so. But she still comes back and invites another mauling.

It doesn’t get much cuter.

Battened Down

All of South Dakota has been gearing up for a major snow event, since the meteorologists first started talking about the potential a week ago.

For ranchers in drought-stricken parts of the state, including here, predictions of moisture can be pretty disheartening, since the outcome seems to always be less than hoped. We watched as this storm seemed to drift further south and tried not to get our hopes up for any significant moisture, but we were still a little disappointed when at 3am there was little to no snow yet.

Well, it has blown in, and we are just trusting God for His provision of the needed moisture over this winter, and praying for safety as the temps plummet and the wind kicks up. There isn’t much snow yet and it seems to have let up, but this is supposed to be a multi day snowstorm, so it should keep coming.

We have plenty of water in case of power outages, have oil in the lanterns, and are thankful for a working generator. Brad brought the calves closer yesterday and into the timber, and now the order of the day is just keeping critters fed and watered.

My usual entourage of cats had no interest in chicken chores this morning, and stayed snug in their cat house, looking pretty miffed. Except for Polly. She darted inside and since she’s getting a little daily doctoring (and will keep me company while I work on some projects inside…) I didn’t feel like stripping down to go catch her. And she really is good company, even if rather obnoxious.

The chickens needed a fair amount of coaxing and a makeshift windbreak before they’d set foot outside. My footsteps had already drifted in when I trudged back up the hill to the house.

But those cold, blustery, blizzardy days make for the perfect opportunity for finishing some Christmas presents, doing some mending, photo editing, a couple online webinars tomorrow, and getting a start on my Christmas cookie baking.

There’s always something!

And so we’re battened down.

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.