Friday, May 29, 2009

A Harrowing Experience

Harrowing or raking the meadows in the springtime is one of the priorities on a ranch. Stirring up the meadow grass, spreading the manure, and scratching at surface of the ground beneath helps the hay ground begin its growing season. The hard earth is disturbed enough to open up to the rains and the dead grass is also disturbed enough to let go of its hold on what’s beneath, the smallest of grass shoots just looking for the light and warmth of the sun.

Our renter and ranch hand, Dawn, first tried her hand at harrowing last year. She found that running the 16 foot-wide harrow around and through the meadows wasn’t hard. The difficult part was transporting the harrow to another pasture, through a gate, or perhaps down the county road. In order to do so, she had to detach the harrow from the tractor and turn the tractor around and pick up the harrow with the front-end loader. As she lifted the harrow up off the ground, it would immediately begin to swing side to side and front to back. She quickly realized that the slower she performed this operation, the slower the swing and the slower the swing the less likelihood she would crash into the gate or fence.

I asked Dawn recently, what worried her most about the balancing act of moving the harrow through the gate. She said, “It’s that phone call to Pete. Kiddingly she gives life to the imaginary call, ‘Hey, Pete, are you busy?’” She laughs in a way that it’s funny but downright serious at the same time; something to be avoided at all costs. And then Dawn revisits a similar scene from her childhood when she had to tell her father she’d broken something. She said, “It’s one thing when it’s your father, it’s another when it’s the boss.”

Listening to her talk about learning how to do so many new things on a ranch in the West, I wondered out loud where she got her “can-do spirit.” “So, Dawn, not a lot of women in their forties would take on learning how to drive a tractor, fix fence, or help with regular ranch work. How is it that you’re not worried about learning new things?”

“Well, you know Mary, I lived on my own for a year (in Michigan) when Robert was in Colorado. And when something had to be done, I did it. Just like last winter here on the ranch. When it snowed like crazy, I had to plow when you were gone and Robert was working. It had to be done, so I did it.”

Still curious, I asked, “But you had some confidence in your abilities. Where did that come from?”

“You know, I competed in gymnastics, baton, and shooting sports as a kid and I always wanted to win and I always wanted to give a 110%. I also know other women do ranch work. So, why not me?”

There was my answer. Dawn, although anxious when she works to master the skill of moving the harrow through a gate, continues to believe that she could master whatever task was put before her. She was willing to live through the “harrowing experience," tolerating the worry of making a mistake in order to accomplish the task.

Dawn has embraced not only her work on the ranch, but the spirit of the West. From her independent mindedness that moves her to find what needs to be done, to taking a risk and tolerating a “harrowing experience” in order to get the work done, she doesn’t let fear pull her away from the opportunity that awaits any of us if we remain open to the world each day.

Update: Whoopi Adopts Monkey

Whenever we told the story last week about feeding Candy’s foal every two to three hours, anyone who knew much about horses would ask, “Why don’t you find another brood mare to put her on?” It’s not an unusual to put an orphaned foal on another mare, but this year we only had one other mare with a baby by her side and we felt it would be too much to ask of her. So, we abandoned that possibility and realized we would be the filly's parents. Meantime our renters, Bob and Dawn, also christened the filly, “Monkey” because we had been feeding her out of a wine bottle from the Monkey Bay Winery and she was a bay roan.

By happenstance, Pete had to take another horse to the vet to be treated. There he encountered a friend, Shane Baker, whose mare, Whoopi, had a seriously ill foal. Sadly, Whoopi’s foal passed away and Shane graciously allowed us to use Whoopi as an adoptive mom. Suddenly, we had a brood mare who could take on Candy’s foal.

Grafting a foal onto another mare is not a simple procedure. Whoopi wasn’t keen on the idea of a new little one bothering her, so Pete kept her close but separated from Monkey and with some help hobbled her and helped the foal nurse. Afterwards, he supplemented the foal with formula. Each feeding was a little more successful and eventually last night the mare stood on her own and allowed Candy’s foal to nurse. The two are now inseparable.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Spring Loss

The brilliant energy of spring has a way of denying any thought of death and dying. As I imagine the four seasons, loss easily takes its place as a powerful metaphor central to autumn’s arrival. But I live on a ranch where we anxiously await the arrival of new life every spring and with that unfolding there’s always an inherent risk of death. We just don’t find ourselves thinking about that. Instead, we gladly embrace spring’s invitation to hopefully expect the safe arrival of a new little one.

This year we anticipated both Lena’s and Candy’s foals. Lena had a beautiful sorrel filly in early April and mom and baby now run with mares. Candy was due the end of the month but historically she’s foaled about ten days early. So, this last week we began our watch. When I looked out the window to the west just after dawn yesterday I found Candy standing in the corner of the paddock with a baby by her side. I figured she’d foaled just before six a.m. She’s been such a good mare; we don’t worry too much about her. So, there they stood. The baby looked like a bay but its hind end looked like a roan; a bit of her sire’s coloring and a bit of her dam’s coloring. Candy had handily managed another foal at the age of eighteen.

The spring morning lapped the mare and foal with warm and soothing light. The baby nursed with legs wobbling beneath her and Candy patiently standing so she could learn to drink her fill. The first day of a foal’s life is critical to their survival. In those first feedings the foal takes in colostrum, a miracle of a mother’s first milk that gives the baby a boost to its immune system.

About noon, Andy rode nearby and saw both the mare and the baby down in the grass. The scene did not seem out of the ordinary; a bit of rest after labor and delivery. But later on when Pete and Andy went out to check on the mare and baby, they found Candy dead, her foal by her side. Pete walked into the kitchen and said simply, “Candy’s dead.” The moment was surreal: part of the intellect registering the information, part of it denying it. Candy, self-sufficient Candy always sailed through foaling. I said, “That’s so sad.” And I repeated it over and over again wondering why I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Once the reality of the loss settled into the thinking and doing part of the brain, Pete and Andy brought the foal into the barn and began feeding the baby a powdered formula out of a wine bottle. The only nipple we had on hand was for a calf and was too much for the newborn. Our vet suggested a lamb nipple and so we contacted a local sheep rancher and asked if he could loan out a few nipples. And he did.

Our first chore was to get the foal to simply suck. So Pete put his finger in the foal’s mouth and rubbed her tongue and the roof of her mouth. After several attempts, he tried the warm formula and while the going was slow, the baby began to suck in fits and starts. After about ten minutes, she had a pretty good handle on a new avenue for survival.

That night we didn’t feel assured of her ability to survive because we didn’t know whether or not she had received all her mother’s colostrum. If Candy's foal didn't get enough colostrum, death could have very easily visited her too, within the first few days of life. So, the only choice we had was to continue to nurse her every 2-3 hours.

Thirty-six hours later, she’s doing well enough that she began to run about the stall and stand for a back rub and nuzzling. Dawn, our hired-hand and renter, feeds her several times a day and Pete and I take night and early morning shifts. Now that there’s a thin shaft of hope, we begin to imagine what she might look like as she matures; her cute head and beautiful bay and roan coloring making her perhaps an outstanding filly and mare.

After speaking with our vet, we understand Candy may have died from an inter-uterine arterial rupture which occurs occasionally in older mares. From what we know, we do not believe we could have saved her nor had a vet present in time to perform an emergency surgery. However, we will continue to ask ourselves the question as we process an unsettling reminder that life is as precious as it is transient.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gardening Green

A late spring often means the work on the ranch and in the gardens needs tending all at once. Whether it’s the fencing or harrowing the meadows, the time to get it done is now. With the gardens, the window of opportunity to freshly mulch the raspberries, weed the raised herb garden, turn over the perennial beds, fertilize, and mulch also demands timely attention.

What surprises me is just as the wait to get into the gardens is over, they are suddenly filled with grasses that need to be pulled along with various weeds, like dandelions and Canadian Thistle. Where did they come from? One such area is the garden on the west side that adjoins a meadow along its entire length. Over the years I’ve abandoned ideas like burying a wall three feet down in order to defeat the grass because of cost. I’ve opted instead for roto-tilling, mulching, using weed barrier and so on, but without much consistent luck. Some years I've been drawn to the big guns of herbicides, but I waiver each time. However, when I’m overwhelmed with the project, I have Pete mix up a sprayer load of herbicide that he uses on the meadows. In addition to my concern for the issue of herbicide toxicity, I can barely manage the patience it requires to wait two weeks before the grasses actually give up and die.

So, this year, along with opting for organic fertilizer on the lawn, I remembered in a moment of quiet while driving to town that I’d tackled a decade and a half of grass in the raspberry patch about four years ago. At the time, I contacted a woman I knew in our CSU Extension Office and asked her for some help. When she called me back, she said she found only one person who reported having success with getting rid of grass in a raspberry patch. She was a seventy-year-old woman from North Park, near Walden, Colorado. Debbie, the Extension staff member, reported that this woman put down layers of newspaper around her raspberry plants and then mulched the whole patch heavily. I couldn’t quite believe this would do the trick. The grass was so thick. But, by the end of the summer season, the raspberry patch was impressively clear of almost all grass.

My moment of quiet while driving to town had led me in the right direction. I knew this would require that I round up stacks of newspaper which I knew were available only if I were willing to dumpster dive for them at the newspaper office. Fortunately, the dumpster was nearly full and I had only to put my hand into the container. I made sure I had ample mulch from the feed store for it would be my big gun this year. No scrimping allowed. The grass was already six inches high in places.

In about two hours I had the newspaper down, the mulch piled high, and the grass-filled backsplash to this year’s tulip display appearing well-cared for and satisfying to my gardener’s soul.

*Newpaper ink today is almost entirely soy-based and non-toxic. For those interested in the safety of newspaper ink for composting and gardening use, please visit the following links.

Monday, May 11, 2009


While making my first spring visit to our local nursery, I ran into an old acquaintance who runs the Wolf Run Ranch with her husband. After inquiring about my family she asked, “Well, how’s spring at your place? Got all your fencin’ done? We’re in good shape. We’ve got the fencin’ done, but now I need to get some fertilizer down.”

I was surprised to hear their fencing was done. I tell her we’ve got a good start on the fencing but we weren’t done. The winter was hard on our fences: the harsh winter snows stack up deep and lay across the wire pulling it until either the staples come out, the wire breaks, or the fence posts collapse and snap off at the ground.

Pete goes out every morning, just as he has in previous years, to take on repairing the fences. It’s an important ritual to the life of a ranch. Calving herds, yearlings, and bred heifers all need to be put out on grazing land as soon as possible in the spring. After being fed hay all winter, they need to be moved to grazing ground to make practical use of the free feed and the ground they were wintered on can be harrowed, irrigated, perhaps fertilized, and then hayed later in the summer.

The ritual Pete follows, building and maintenance boundary fences, has a long and interesting history in the West and is well told by Laurie Winn Carlson in her book, Cattle: In Informal Social History. In the mid-1800s, the West was grazed largely by great bison herds, originally supporting the many Native Americans tribes inhabiting the plains and the grasslands of the West. However, in 1870 a new technique was developed in Philadelphia for tanning hides. Buffalo hides could now be hunted and harvested year round. For four years, shooters and skinners harvested over four million bison hides, delivering them to the railheads for use in the burgeoning shoe industry back East. Eventually, between dwindling numbers of bison and the dislocation of Native American Indians, who relied on the animals for their way of life, the large prairie and grasslands were left largely ungrazed.

In 1875, two important events occurred. The refrigerated rail car made its appearance and a surge in interest in Western lands, both by Americans and the English and the Scottish, for grazing land for livestock. It didn’t take long until the ranges were overstocked with animals. As settlers moved in, there were competing interests for the land and settlers soon found it necessary to establish boundaries in order to protect their land, crops, and small livestock herds.

The original boundaries set up to protect pastures and property lines were creatively made out of hedges, the most popular, Osage Orange, in addition to prickly pear, mesquite, and wild roses. Soon to follow was the rush to patent the barb wire fence. Between 1886-1888, 368 fence patents were filed.

Barb wire fences moved Western agriculture forward. Containing livestock prevented overgrazing, better control of breeding genetics, and prevention of the spread of diseases found in free roaming cattle. However, the development of barb wire fencing was not without its opposition. Battles were fought between subsistence farmers and small ranch operators, who wanted to protect their stake, and large urban and foreign cattle investors who saw large cattle herds grazing open lands as a viable and profitable investment. As settlers continued to move into the West and the fencing movement gained momentum, the era of cattle drives and cattle barons came to a close.

Today, barb wire is still vital to most cattle operations. In addition, a rancher may use the next generation of fencing, the electric fence, sometimes solar powered, for small areas of containment or pasturing for other livestock. Pete uses electric fencing to more efficiently use the horse pastures through intensive rotational grazing.

Pete will breathe a sigh of relief when the fences are fully resurrected because the season can’t get underway until he does. The mares can’t be pushed out into the larger meadow and he can’t push the yearlings across the road until their pasture fencing is restored and sound. When it’s done, and the horses and yearlings are where they belong, he will feel a new season of growth begin again on the ranch.

For more information on barb wire, click on the following link:
To read more about author, Laurie Carlson, click on the following link:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Missy's Springtime Misadventure

Once the snow clears from the meadows, the horses’ spirits seem to lift. Surrounded by open space, they often turn loose and run freely, filled with the pleasure of movement and a sense of play. They may also socialize, visiting across fence lines: yearlings saying hello to two-year olds and mares saying hello to the geldings. In the exuberance of springtime, sometimes the excitement of greeting and meeting or in the flirtation between young fillies and colts, a horse can put a hoof in a wire or back up into another horse and get kicked in the middle of springtime play. Unfortunately, Missy, a two-year old palomino filly, recently flirted with Hustler, a yearling colt, from across the fence with more than just springtime exuberance.

As Pete and Dawn went out to spread manure, Dawn, our renter and Missy’s owner, spotted Missy near the fence line across from the yearlings with what looked like blood on her hind legs. Dawn approached carefully but with the sense of urgency a parent might display when finding their child injured. Dawn found Missy with smooth wire wrapped around her hind legs in a figure-eight. Both legs were lacerated, the left hind suffering a gaping wound which appeared to be a severed extensor tendon. Dawn grabbed a halter out of the Gator and remained with Missy; Pete went for the truck and trailer, and then called me to take Missy and Dawn into the veterinary hospital.

Watching Missy negotiate the horse trailer for the first time in her life after such a serious injury, I understood why Dawn cared for Missy so much. A horse, who in crisis, remains calm and cooperative and loads without hurting herself further, is worth a million dollars. Missy demonstrated a good mind and perhaps an instinct for survival in allowing us to help her.

Ever so carefully, we transported Missy to the vet’s. Once there, she stood quietly, and allowed Dr. Mike Gotchey to treat the extensor tendon laceration just below her hock in her left hind and thankfully, just a laceration on her right hind leg also just below the hock.

Dr. Gotchey explained there are a number of ways to treat a severed extensor tendon partly determined by the disposition of the horse. In most cases, it is very difficult to actually re-attach the tendon because one end usually draws too far up into limb. So, on some horses he sutures the wound and casts it and with others he simply cleans the laceration, then wraps and casts it because a restless horse usually ends up rupturing the sutures anyway. As the wound heals, the tendon groove granulates, scar tissue forms where the tendon once was, and over time a functioning artificial connection is created between both ends of the tendon. Truly a miracle.

Missy proved to be a good candidate for suturing and casting because of her calm disposition and sound mind as she stood for treatment. She also demonstrated it when she loaded into the trailer and calmly swung her casted left hind leg up and around as she stepped into the trailer. At that point, Dr. Gotchey said, “Now that’s a sign for a good prognosis. Some horses would fight loading and ruin the sutures and, or cast.”

Missy looks to be doing well. Now stalled in the barn, she will be kept quiet for 7-10 days when Dr. Gotchey will come out and take the cast off and treat the wound. He’ll then cut the cast in half and use it to support the next phase in Missy’s recuperation. Dawn will keep Missy stalled for three months providing her with hay, a feed supplement to aid healing, and companionship until she can be free to move in a larger stall area. Dr. Gotchey believes her prognosis is very good and that she’ll be able to perform in whatever way Dawn wishes: whether it’s on the trail or in the arena.