Sunday, August 18, 2019

Spud Patch

            Yesterday I baled the hay in what my mother-in-law always referred to as “The Spud Patch”.

            It’s a small field that lays in a bend of the river under an irrigation ditch.  It represents only 1.5% of our hayland, and .01% of the ranch.  It puts up enough hay to feed our cows for only one day in the winter.  But in the early years it fed a very large family.

            The spud patch has some pretty good dirt.  And it can be irrigated from the ditch just above it.  That tiny field could produce many hundreds of sacks of potatoes.

            Those potatoes were an important food source for the family of William Elges, who homesteaded on the West Boulder River in 1896.  He went on to raise 11 children there. 

            Everyone worked hard then.  From daylight until dark they were busy plowing with horses and pitching hay by hand.  The water was carried in buckets from the springhouse and heated on a stove fueled with wood that was felled and bucked with a two-man crosscut, hauled in with a team, and split with and axe.  They burned a lot of carbs in those days!

            During the Great Depression of the 1930s much of the West was in the grip of a drought.  Times were tough.  But this little spud patch had been prolific – kept green with water that had been diverted from the river.

            In the early fall, Papa would have hitched up a horse to a moldboard plow to lift the potatoes out of the ground.  The whole family would have been scratching through the ground with spud forks and gathering the potatoes into burlap “gunny sacks”.  Those 100# bags would have been thrown up into a horse-drawn wagon for the mile and a half trip back to the home place.

            As many of these potatoes as possible were stored in the root cellar and in the basement of the house.  They were fried, mashed, boiled, and baked.  Many would have been fed to pigs and thus converted to meat.  And there were surely enough left over to sell in town or trade to neighbors.


            That small field is insignificant in today’s operation.  But it was a major source of ‘meat and potatoes’ to a generation now past.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Plan 'A'

            I’m not a big planner.  I’m a strategist.

            Strategy may be defined as a “course of action”.  It’s a framework within which plans are made.  My strategy is to harvest the grass on our ranch, using cattle, in an effective manner which has recently been given the title “sustainable”.

            Part of our ranch strategy is to harvest the over-abundance of grass which grows in June and early July – to preserve its nutrients, and to feed in the winter when forage quality is poor, and often covered by snow.
            We could plan to begin cutting on June 20.  But what if its raining?  What if its been a cold spring and the hay is not yet ripening?  What if there’s a funeral that day? What if the granddaughter has only that day free to help move cows?

            As part of that “sustainable” strategy, we move cattle often in the early summer to protect those growing grasses from the damage caused by frequent repeated grazing.  We aim for a 7-day rotation.  But maybe an irrigation ditch blew out.  Maybe we could only get an excavator on Tuesday.  Maybe the swather broke down.  Maybe we got the horses in and found one with a thrown shoe.  Maybe there is lightening.

            My strategy is simple when we do go into a field to gather cows: get them all from here and put them there.  But I’ve had a number of people ask for a plan.
            For me, a plan is too much work.  We don’t know where the cows are in the field – how many are here and how many are over there.  We don’t know what the weather is going to be like, and we don’t know toward which gate they are going to line out.  We don’t know if the fence got down and some of our cows out or the neighbor’s in; we don’t know if one is sick or lame.
            Sure, we could crowd them in whatever direction we chose – but it would be hard on the cows and hard on the horses.  It’s better to start them moving and bend them toward whichever gate accomplishes our objective with the least amount of effort.

            I once had my son-in-law lined up to help with some cow-work on Thursday.  He called the evening before to check on the plan.
            “So far as I know it’s still Plan ‘A’”, I told him.
            “Hey Amy”, he shouted over top of the phone!  “Listen to this: Your dad’s still on plan ‘A’”!

            It was years later that I finally received some positive affirmation for my “flexible” style.  Improvise; Adapt; Overcome”, I was told, is a slogan of the U.S. Marines.

            Yes!  That’s me!  After 20 years as a cowboy I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome a broken back by going back to school and entering the health care profession.  I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome when called to manage a hospital, three ranches, a dozen nursing homes, and hundreds of emergency ambulance calls.

            And I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome my wife’s broken printer as I tell in this blogpost:


Friday, August 2, 2019

Fire Season

            We’re still in the middle of haying, and the grass on the hills is still green – but it’s now fire season.  Our local volunteer fire crew - of which we are members - has been paged out three times this week.

            Haying is running over a month behind due to an extremely cool, wet summer.  We’re usually finished with the first cutting early in July, but we didn’t even start until the 12th of July.
Before that hay had a chance to dry, we were hit with another series of afternoon showers.  In an average year, it takes about three days for hay to dry enough to be baled.  Those first three fields laid in the windrow for 12 days before there was enough break in the weather for them to dry. 

On Tuesday, a rancher mowing along the road sparked a small fire. 
On Wednesday, lightening caused a fire in a deep, forested coulee.  It took some dozen trucks, several dozen firefighters, two retardant tankers, an overnight standby, and a day to mop up the hot-spots.
On Thursday, we put together our own ranch ‘fire truck’:  a 300-gallon water tank on a flatbed, with pump, hose, and fire tools.  I was just getting ready to go out and bale hay when a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped ¼” of rain.  After it passed, we saw smoke on the ridge across the river.
Four of us went up from the bottom as far as we could on ATVs, then hoofed it up the rest of the way carrying fire tools and a chainsaw.  We had it contained to a small area when the trucks reached us from above, and laid enough hose to extinguish it.

The wet summer has grown some lush fuel that will become more and more dangerous as the summer progresses.  Lightening strikes are common.  We’ve used our home-built rig on two fires in the past, and take some comfort in having that water standing by for a quick response.