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.

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.

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: Evening

As I tidy up the kitchen as my last home task of the evening, I get a good view of my little flock of chickens down by their coop, chasing a few last bugs. Clearly they aren’t ready to be tucked in just yet. The horses are visible just on the other side of the barn, having been given their freedom for the night, and sometimes Charlie the Calf comes wandering into the barn yard for a drink of water or maybe thinking I’ll give her one more little scoop of calf creep.

The sky turns orange then pink then lavender as the shadow of our little ridge is cast further and further east, until the last little bit of sunlit prairie has been covered in the comfort of evening shadow.

What a peaceful sight.

I love my little jaunt down to the chicken coop to do the very last of my chores for the day. Pearl comes with me, since she takes her chicken chores very seriously, and usually one or more of the cats run down to the coop with me as well. With an actual pounding of little feet, Yellow Cat (who probably slept all day until five minutes ago) races by, then Grey Cat (who probably worked all day), tearing around, then stopping suddenly and staring at absolutely nothing in the uncanny way cats do.

The chickens chatter contentedly amongst themselves and maybe greet me quietly when I come in to make sure everyone is accounted for. Yep, there’s Amelia, and Alice, and Audrey, and Goldie, and Little Red, Little Red, Little Red, and Little Red. And seven black chickens, including Henrietta, the only one who gets a name because she looks like a vulture. I close the coop windows or open them a crack, depending on the evening temps, and scratch one or two of the friendly birds on their backs before collecting my egg basket and closing the girls in for the night.

Pearl reluctantly joins me on the little walk back up to the house. The cats run and pounce on each other, occasionally scrapping and working out a few feminine feline differences. Rocket the Horse says something sarcastic to Jargon the Horse, or maybe that was Chip putting Rocket in his place.

And everything is still. I love an evening on the rim of the prairie. A distant coyote yelps. A nighthawk calls out high up and out of sight. Maybe there’s the soft roar of the nighthawk’s wings as he swoops and dives. The warmth of the last days of summer melts away and cool night breezes shift around gently, resiny, fresh, and sweet.

This is home.

However Small the Harvest

This hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive summer, as far as the garden is concerned. Anyone who has gardened for any length of time knows that some years are wonderfully over abundant and other years are woefully under abundant. This has been somewhere in the middle of the two, on the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

The grasshoppers alone have been a menace and wiped out a whole garden I planted in squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. My efforts in grasshopper management were fruitless there, as those vicious insects chewed through at times three layers of netting at once to get at the seedlings practically as soon as they emerged from the soil. Several attempts at replanting and pest eradication finally resulted in me throwing in the proverbial towel. Sometimes you just have to recognize a loss.

Add to that the excessive heat and the desperate drought and it just hasn’t been a great year for a great garden. And yet there have been some victories and the satisfaction of sitting down to a 100% homegrown meal, eating beef from our ranch and produce from the garden.

I took a loss on the one garden but doubled down on the other. My other garden, planted in and around two large stock tanks close to the house, has produced a wide variety of vegetables, though it had its share of grasshopper damage (they wiped out my green beans and jalapeños, and have intermittently wreaked havoc on various greens and herbs and my zucchini), but it was decently well established by the time the grasshoppers got too bad. I turned the chickens loose in it a couple of times, which definitely helped, although those silly birds are pretty indelicate and enjoy dirt bathing in very inconvenient locations. In spite of everything, that garden has been rewarding!

Last week, I harvested all the onions, replanting their area in carrots and turnips, and cut most of the rest of the rhubarb, putting up enough for a few pies for this fall. My Swiss chard has produced abundantly all summer and we enjoyed a supper of southern style greens last week. We have enjoyed fresh cucumber salads with the occasional tomato (that is another story for another time…) and plenty of dill and arugula, and the beets are finally getting big enough to harvest. I was a little behind the eight ball on getting those in, so the heat probably stunted their growth. Basil and mint were abundant and dehydrated nicely, and I have dill hanging in the yard shed for the seeds.

I have learned that Hubbard squash is delicious harvested young, and cooks up even more deliciously than zucchini. Which is a good thing, considering that my zucchini this year was a bust! The Hubbards are gaining a lot of size and the pumpkins are starting to pick up a tint of orange. It makes me excited for the fall! The sweet corn is tasseled and silked, so hopefully we’ll enjoy some of that in the next month as well.

In spite of the lack of abundance (enough for meals but not enough to put up), it really has been a productive year. I learned that wild predators are the best control for grasshoppers, and have found that hanging a few bird feeders and having water available around the garden are hugely beneficial. I see a noticeable uptick in grasshoppers when I get complacent and let the bird feed run out! I have also gained some knowledge on what grows best here, and what I can grow a lot of in a relatively small amount of space, and those mental notes will turn into a formal garden plan for next year.

So you learn what you can and enjoy the harvest, however small!