It has been a long time since I wrote anything on the blog. I have no way of explaining that except maybe I am a little more private than I thought I was.
Without a doubt life has been ticking along here at the ranch. Our crew and our cows have persevered through some devastatingly cold conditions. Having called them devastating conditions it seems important to affirm that in fact we had no losses from the cold, except that our cows had trouble keeping weight on. We believed that we were giving them good quality feed but still they were dropping pounds. We tested for worms. That wasn’t the problem. It was just the cold and as soon as the weather shifted upwards the cows started to bounce back. There is a significant amount of stress that goes with this. One of the worries is whether feed supplies will hold out. We budgeted our bale supply for a typical winter but this winter has required more food than average due to the cold. When its cold the cows eat more to keep their inner furnace producing heat.
We got into something new this week, in response to this worry about feed lasting through the winter. We got the chance to do a little alchemy. That is a word I connect to the Muppets. When the kids were little we had a VHS tape of the Muppets recreating classic fairytales. It was really memorable when Gonzo did his thing as Rumpelstiltskin and turned straw into gold to rescue Miss Piggy, for a fee. I really loved that VHS tape back when being Gina and Jill’s Mom gave me permission to be a kid again. Anyways, the alchemy we were a part of was turning straw bales into nourishing food. If you have not had time on a farm you might not know that straw is usually used for bedding and hay is used for food. Straw is the stalks that grain grows on and hay may be comprised of a variety of grasses. Straw has bulk and roughage but not much nutrition. However, we had the chance to have a man come with a fancy machine and inject a nutritious mixture into 100 straw bales. The mixture was mostly molasses and offers 14% protein content, making them edible and somewhat nourishing. We have started introducing these bales into our feed rotation. At this point they are not a favorite item on the menu but are getting eaten and allowing the feed to last just a little longer. Surprisingly this process was not that expensive, as farm expenses go. There are years when having feed for cows is like possessing gold, this year with our severe drought its one of them, so making straw viable as a food source is a little like the fairytale alchemy I remember.
Another way we have extended our feed supply is by purchasing grain pellets for the cows. We were able to find a source for these, which was not straightforward. The place that was reccomended to us flat out refused to talk to us because we are not already customers. We did get lined up with a good option though and the price was better than we thought it might be. A load cost us $12,500 and Monday a 2nd load is being delivered. Those kinds of figures amaze me. How does a ranch sustain these kinds of extra costs? Well……part of it is strategic decision making. Like this……..We usually buy oats for our calves and get them ready for market by supplementing their feed this way. This year the price per bushel of oats has about tripled. We made a strategic decision not to feed them oats, to do some leftover grain and some barley for supplemental feed and see how they would fare on that with hay. They were not as bulked up as usual but did okay. The term that goes with this is that it didn’t “pencil out” to feed them 9$/bushel oats. So perhaps we saved a bit there. The true saving grace when having extra feed expenses is that our provincial government offered ranchers drought relief. There is lots of talk about how terrible government is. I don’t negate anyone’s position, there is a reason for everything everyone says. However our experience is that in this terribly scary and hard time of maintaining a herd of cows we have felt seen by our government. Our work creating food feels valued and our need to have sustainability affirmed. There is support that will make it possible to carry on. We are incredibly grateful.
One other big part of this season of ranch life is snow. Wow we have had snow and our entire province seems to have been blanketed with it. It has meant so much extra work but it has also translated to hope. The extra work comes from managing the snow, moving it to create paths to get feed to animals and keep yards clear. Then moving it again when the wind rearranges it. We seem to have had lots of wind. The hope comes from the knowledge that this spring there should be some run-off, we begin to envision dugouts with some water in them. This is so major. We need the hope as much as we need the water.
The deep snow and deep cold have made life hard on the nature that surrounds us. We have found ourselves hosting some species that are having a hard time getting by. Prairie Chickens, partridges and pheasants are birds that have been taking food and shelter with us. Deer are everywhere. The picture below is typical lately, I counted 35 deer in this picture, Russ says there are 160 within a mile of home, all grazing where any food source remains accessible. The coyotes have been bedding down with the cows, using their bedding and eating their manure as a food source. It seems there are many species including our own that are doing their best to survive in trying times.
When the air is deadly cold, the worries real and big and we are surrounded by snow and tricky roads what sustains us? What sustains you?
I answer my question with the word love. I think about it, in one way or another, all the time. My experiences with it help me live these days. Here are some pictures.
We are celebrating with Russell today. He had a big job on his hands and its done. In July we contracted with a farm family in the Alameda area. They had a winter crop that was very compromised by last winters unusual conditions, crop insurance was writing it off, would we like to come bale it? The answer was yes. The offer was an answer to prayer. I don’t like bossing God around with my prayers but I do think I am invited to be deeply real with God about what I want and need. So I had been praying like this, “God, I want to feed and water these cows.” The feed part of it, thanks to two grain farm families and drought relief support from the provincial government has been addressed for now. The water part…..well it remains to be seen how that will all pan out. We move forward. Anyways…………today Russell hauled the last of the bales home. We baled 687 bales in early August and they sat until three weeks ago when Russ began bringing them home. Under normal road conditions it was about a 50 minute trip to get to the field. He could bring home 18 at a time. Needless to say he has spent a lot of time on the road! I have made a few of those trips with him, to keep him company and have some pal time. Today Jill and I both went, we stopped for brunch in Oxbow, had a coffee with Foster, paid him for the bales and then went and loaded the last load. Jill then drove the tractor home and I took the victorious last run with Russ.
There are a few threads of this story that could be teased out a little bit. How do you bring home 18 bales at one time when each bale weighs about 1245lbs? With a flat deck trailer. We have always had one of these however ours only held 12 bales. After we made the bale deal with the Warriners Russell did serious pondering about the logistics of getting these bales home. We began to talk about a bigger flat deck. A friend of ours scouted out a used one in Estevan, it would be $8000 to bring home. Jill and I had to be in the city so we got designated as the shoppers for this trailer. I have to tell you, this ticked me off. We were so devastated by the drought conditions, we didn’t know how we were going to manage everything, we didn’t yet have word of the support from the government and I was being asked to get used to the idea of spending another 8000 bucks for the privilege of continuing to ranch. It was with some relief that I had a good look at the trailer and decided it was too rusty for my liking.
Whew, 8000 bucks saved, except, we still had that hay to get home. I am an intensely practical person. As much as having to shell out more dollars was disturbing me it was also disturbing me to think about the time and gas wasted making one third more trips over that 60 km span. So…….I percolated as I sometimes do. Russ gently needled me to do some shopping online. Before I knew it I was making phone calls and learning the specs of flat deck trailers. Here is where the sadness of my year of being an orphan gets transformed a tiny bit (I know orphan talk is dramatic and truly inaccurate, but I am giving myself permission to be this way.) Being an orphan sucks, but my Mom’s estate was dispersed and I had some money to work with. My Mom loved Russell and found her way clear to celebrate and support the work that we do. My Mom was also a very practical person. I came to terms with the possibility that it would make my Mom happy to be able to step in and do something so concrete to lower our stress and increase our efficiency. So, Mom provided us with a 34 foot flat deck trailer. In a million years I can’t imagine that she would have predicted part of her legacy on this earth would be a flat deck trailer, but there it is. So that’s one part of the living through a drought story.
I am thinking about another dimension to this. To give credit where it is due. I feel like we have a good news story to tell. That crop we baled was one that when assessed by Crop Insurance was considered borderline. It could have been written off but it was also just about good enough to be considered worth harvesting. However, the adjuster was encouraged to make his decision about the crop through the lens of this drought and the ranchers in need. Given that direction from his boss the adjuster wrote it off and gave Foster the go ahead to find a rancher who needed it and then sell it. Receiving the phone call where the offer was made was a game changer. The shift in morale was unmistakable and Russ is not ashamed that he needed to wipe away tears more than once. The hard thing is that all this crop we bought to bale, from two different families, is extra cost. More expense than we already have, and we already have enough. It was therefore rather stunning to learn that all cattle farmers would be given a per cow benefit through government crop insurance to help them make it through the year. One hundred dollars per cow doesn’t sound like much but it does add up and paid a part of our extra feed bill this year. All of this reminds me of my blog name, about being seen. Maybe I am too easily soothed but it means alot to me that our role feeding the world, the vulnerability we face and the sustainability we hope to secure are all things that seem to be seen and honored. I am feeling really thankful for this. So is Russ. Its another thing that brings tears.
So that was today on the ranch. A huge job checked off the to do list, a big bill paid, good coffee and wow Foster makes amazing biscuits.
I have been away from the blog for about a month. I never expected that to happen! However, day by day, things have stolen any time I had for writing and also I start posts and only get half done. I think I have 7 drafts going. Hopefully I can get publishing them soon. I have really missed the whole process, evidence of that is that in my head I am writing something almost every day.
Getting back into the swing of things I have a few pictures to share. Liz came and photographed a couple of summer sessions, we are now pretty sure we have all the pictures we need for the coffee table book we are creating about ranching. The first of these summer sessions Liz delivered a few weeks ago. Here are some favorites from that evening (July 15th) when we moved 120 pairs and six bulls from one pasture to another. The main water source in the starting pasture had gone dry and grass was getting to be a concern. We usually move these cows once in the summer but with these drought conditions this needed to happen two weeks early.
I know these pictures betray a sense of drought, the spot where Liz met up with the crew was at a coulee fed by lots of springs, it is green. The dugout we moved them away from was essentially dry, days after we got the cows out we had machinery in to clean it out and hopefully reactivate any springs that feed it. The trackhoe removed 8 feet of mud from the bottom of the dugout. That statistic alarmed Russell, cows left there to scrounge for water could easily have been mired in mud and soon dead. The day after the cleanout was done Russ had a picnic lunch on the dry and almost dusty bottom of the dugout. There was no replenishment to be had.
If you read the post a couple weeks ago about the prescription bottle my brother’s friend gave him in 1990 you will know what is up with this post. If not, here are pictures of the gift of “uppers” given to my brother as he dealt with a cancer diagnosis.
I opened the 2nd capsule a while ago and taped its rolled up paper contents to my desk , I have been pondering it. It says “LEAN ON ME WHEN YOUR’E NOT STRONG. I’LL BE YOUR FRIEND. I’LL HELP YOU CARRY ON.” Ruth paired that with the Scripture reference Psalm 46:1-3.
I’ll be your friend………………….we can get through alot when we have that offer. What has friendship looked like on the ranch lately?
Friendship has looked like “I see you.”
Russell has been talking with a rancher friend. The depth of our hay shortage has been discussed. That friend lives not too far from here and he too is subject to this drought. But when he was offered the chance to bale up some of a farmers crop that had been written off by crop insurance, our friend said to that farmer, “why don’t you call Russell, he needs it worse than we do.” Is that not a heart stopping act of personal sacrifice and demonstrating that he really saw what Russell was working on? Russell then was approached. We went to see the crop. It was a gift beyond measure to be offered the chance to bale it. We will pay a per pound cost and it will not be cheap but it is more than fair. That farm family demonstrated a clear committment to not take advantage of this feed crisis by charging through the roof, even though surely it would have helped their bottom line. Russell shed tears over this and his spirits were boosted enormously by the experience of baling up something that really added up quickly in his baler. We are not out of the woods yet. But it helped.
Friendship has looked like “can I comfort you just by being near?”
Last Friday, late in the afternoon, Jillian started fussing to get some things clean. I was so pleased to see that. There was a reason, a happy reason. Early in the evening a car came wheeling into the laneway, windows down and Whitney Houston cranked on the stereo. Who was it? It was my friend I have had for 44 years, playing the tunes of our carefree teen days and loaded to the hilt with treats that I never buy my kids, treats for me and basics from Costco that Jill had texted to Deb in the way of a shopping list. Deb brought her own bed and bedding, set herself up in the basement and hung out with me for the weekend. We had such a good visit. She would not accept reimbursement for our shopping list items and it all added up to, “this is hard, how can I comfort you? Why don’t you lean on me a bit?”
In the week since Deb’s departure Russell has again been given a message of “I see you.” Another grain farming friend, reckoning with a crop written off by Crop Insurance due to the devastation of grasshoppers, has approached Russell about baling his crop. The terms of that arrangement are again absolutely fair.
I don’t know alot about how God works, have trouble even beginning to understand most things, but one thing I have flirted with in a solid way, in my thoughts, as life has gone on, is that God is at work in the world and in my life through other humans. That is not cutting edge theology in the least, it would be pretty widely accepted among most followers of Jesus I think. It gets powerful though and maybe a bit heart stopping when you apply it to the particulars we are experiencing. Friendship will be a huge factor in determining just how whole we remain as we face down this drought. Conversations with friends, for advice, support and cameraderie have been our main strategy through all this. There have been important things to come from these talks. They amount to experiences of refuge and strength, and that is what Psalm 46:1-3,( the text Ruth quoted) promises.
That Scripture says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
That Scripture has me moving in two directions. On the one hand reckoning with my need for the assurance and comfort found in the first verse, my need for that is very real. On the other hand my fear about what is happening in the world around me is stoked by the last part, “though the earth give way”, it kind’ve feels thats the way things are going in the midst of drought, forest fire smoke, etc. etc. If Bob (my brother) had opened up this capsule and read this text I wonder what he would have thought, reading it from the point of view of being in for the fight of his life? I find the fact that it seems to affirm that trouble is a normal part of life to be a source of comfort all in itself. I think this text is affirming that trouble is not a sign of God’s absence, it is a sign of life, and God is ever present in the midst. (I maybe should write that on my forehead………I need to hear that over and over.)
There is so much that could be said. One thing is pretty certain to me though. I can’t expect people to read my mind. The needs we have are more likely seen and responded to when we find our way clear to speak of what is really going on. We live in a culture that encourages us, maybe even rewards us for looking put together, shiny, happy, even when we aren’t. But when the circumstances don’t allow that…. then what? Maybe it’s an act of faith to take the risk of letting ourselves be seen, by those who we feel are a good bet to receive kindly what we let be seen.
Sometimes life is alot. We are thankful for all the ways that God moves and touches our lives through friendship.
Saturday evening – Jill is in Carievale right now and Gina is in Carnduff, they both posted to the family chat pictures of the rain coming down in each place. For the second time this week rain has fallen unbelievably close to us but stopped short of reaching us. That is not to say that we won’t benefit from some of those rains, we have pasture and hayland that likely caught some of it. However, I said to Russell yesterday, “a person almost feels cursed”, he immediately cautioned me not to think or talk in the direction of cursedness. He is wise. Digging into the hearts doing the ranching around here we are dealing with so much hard stuff right now. A blog that invites the reader to experience life on a Canadian ranch would be misleading if it glossed over these days we are having. I just don’t want to do that. What do I tell you? How do I write about this so that you don’t shut it down and close the page because its depressing? Can I lure you into reading more by promising that I will counter every tough paragraph with something positive, hopeful or possibly funny? I think that is what Russell would want. The problem with thinking along lines of being cursed is that it sucks you in and makes you lose sight of the broader reality, which in our case is that we have true blessings that we experience every day.
So…………the big big deal…………our hay yield sucks. What this means……we do not have the feed we need to make it through the winter and especially if it is a tough winter. We have no way of knowing about that. We are not alone. There are few ranchers within hundreds of miles of here untouched by the drought we are in and some much worse than we are, we can be thankful that we have some hay. Right now that means some lost sleep, lots of mental scrambling to figure out options, and flirting with the awful thought that we might have to sell some of our cows. The hard part of that is that everyone will be selling some and the market will be glutted, which means a low price will be paid. The terrible part is that we sell our cows, our beautiful creatures with names and histories and places in our heart. That sense of connection is hard to explain, they can be mean and threatening, they can be gross and stinky, but we journey with them and we are theirs and they are ours.
Okay, I guess you have to be careful what you wish for. When I said I would alternate the hard with maybe something funny I wasn’t sure what that funny would be, but it presented itself. Just after I wrote that heartfelt line about our journey with the cows Russ phoned. He said he had a story for me but it really ended up being a job. He could hardly tell me the story for the laughter it caused him. Morgan was checking the calving herd, now down to a dozen, he found a situation which required him to load up a calf in the truck and drive it over to its Mama. The calf pooped, right on the drivers seat, why the calf was in the drivers seat I will never know. Morgan was therefore stranded in the calving pasture. He called Russ to come get him, the way that call started Russ figured he must have totalled the truck or something. Russ was relieved to be able to stay in the hayfield and call me for back-up. Morgan asked for paper towel and garbage bags plural. I thought that must have been one heckuva mess. On my way over I decided that this was not the time to push Morgan’s adult skill building, he has had a rough couple days with helping with repairs in high heat and not much satisfaction of getting work done, so, I was going to do the clean-up. I got Morgan to take my picture as I approached the job decked out with a pail of bleachey water, paper towel, two sizes of garbage bags and disposable gloves. I said, “Morgan, Super Pooper has arrived.” He said, “Mobile Super Pooper”, I have never taken my skills on the road before! (If you don’t count summer camp.) Anyways, for those who don’t know, I have an alter ego, a super hero identity, I am “Super Pooper” because no matter how gross the job I can usually handle it. Life on a ranch and with kids has given me many opportunities to strengthen the skills I began working on when as a 17 year old I was a nurses aide. Morgan has literally no tolerance for this part of life yet. He would have walked home if I had not come. The job was not hard and before too long Morg was rolling. In fact he was done for the day at that point. When he got home he said he would wait to eat, he needed some down time. I said, “do me a favor and wash your face.” He said, “how about you do me a favor and wash it for me.” He sat down on the toilet seat and I got to wash his face, like the good old days, it did this Mama’s heart good.
Ranching from the heart………..I hate haying season. With three tractors and three implements in the field every day the possibility of mechanical issues seems high. We have newer implements but two very old tractors, our newer tractor doesn’t seem too hardy. I am always so relieved when I pick up the phone to find Russ sounding chipper on the other end, he usually is, but sometimes he is just exasperated. He has a gift for staying up when the conditions are trying but the way things mount up is getting to even him. Having said that we can see our blessings. For some reason last night the monitor in the baler was completely wonky. Russ thought it through and this morning realized this was a tractor battery issue. Our local shops are closed on Saturday but that didn’t stop Erin from coming in from her farm, opening up her shop and selling us a battery. Russ got up and running feeling infinitely grateful for Erin’s generosity of spirit. However, then the fan on the air conditioner went. By shortly after lunch Brock was in the field doing mobile service on that problem. I had delivered Russ a stellar lunch. So shortly after Brock left, with the ac running, I got a text from Russ that said, “U R married to the happiest man in the world.” See what I mean? He finds every reason to claim the good. My afternoon included delivering buns for my bakery project and when I got back Jim Lee from Lee’s Service was in the yard trying to fix a very weird hydraulic problem we are having with the hay rake and a weird glitchy thing on the PTO shaft on the tractor. So…………after a first week of haying with no breakdown delays, today was the mother of all service days, and I guess I topped it off with my mobile super pooper call to the calving pasture!!!
Something positive………….Serious excitement is brewing around here about the fact that we are officially in book writing mode. All those times that Liz Griffin came to take pictures at our place were part of personal need for documenting our life just before Gina graduated and moved but also were research…..did we have the material to create a book about ranch life? We had a creative meeting this week and decided that yes, we are moving on to the next step. There are beautiful images that Liz has taken that are just too good to not offer in large format. However, we are short on summer scenes and summer work. So…………Liz came and documented our work moving cows to alternate pasture on Thursday night. Afterwards she shared 2 sneaks peeks on Facebook. They are here. She captured beauty and joy, for me these pictures are like a mirror that reflects back that alongside the struggles of today we are immersed in beauty and we feel joy.
A little more about the shape of this drought. Our hay is poor but our pasture is decent. Our water is low but not gone yet. The poor hay can be explained by the dry summer, fall and then winter that we had, no water in place to get the hay started in a meaningful way. The fact that we have any yield is due to the rains that I commented on previously in the blog. Thats how I understand this. So when you look at pictures you might see green grass, you see water in a dugout, it doesn’t look like a drought, you might think I am not being accurate, and for truth, it could be much worse. That is a very scary thought. The signs of vitality you see are a result of timely rains in certain spots, we continue to hold our breath. In my dark moments I wonder, “am I going to be holding my breath for the rest of my life?”
Something positive………Gina got a call from one of our local superheros. Her name is Jean and she runs an ice cream shop in town, out of a structure she had built onto her house. She was going on a holiday and rather than shut the ice cream shop down she wondered if Gina would come and run it. She went for training and then took over. Our girl is having quite the experience and it is fun to hear her stories and who she gets to see. I think she is doing a good job and mostly its pretty fun for her. I call Jean a superhero because her creative approach to offering this business has meant a great drop in spot in Carnduff for awesome ice cream, she is a special person in alot of people’s eyes, for those of us who love ice cream her work is heroic! However, we are missing Gina on the ranch crew and Morgan and Jill are picking up the slack. I think Gina has plumped up their cones when we have gone in for a “visit” with her.
Ranching from the heart………I didn’t have it in me this year to plant flowers. My planters are empty. That probably sounds depressing to some but to me it represents freedom. For some reason the work of keeping myself and Russ, three kids, four dogs, five cats, for a time a bottle fed calf, 17 horses and hundreds of cows and calves alive is just enough for me. (Only a fraction of this is my responsibility but I am involved in every issue at some level.) I can’t muster an ounce of interest in watering and fertilizing flowers. I truly hope I don’t need that freedom next year and I will be back to it.
Another thing positive……….my kids all got their second vaccine this week. Gina had to shut down the ice cream shop for a day afterwards due to a rapid series of symptoms, fever, headache, exhaustion, but she bounced back and is doing great.
Another thing positive…..our province felt it was timely to remove all Covid restrictions. Life is feeling more normal again. I cannot imagine what would be unfolding if the vaccines were not working to protect us as pretty nasty variants make their way around. So, so, so, thankful!!!
Another thing positive……….Coffee dog is doing great with her broken leg and getting great care from the vets. This week she needed some extra TLC at her splint check. Jenna had her just about purring.
Another thing positive……..I am married to the best friend I ever had. As hard as a day gets I know it is a privilege to get to lie beside him every night and talk over anything and everything that I am thinking about.
The drought is horrible and we have had some pretty searching conversations about prayer around here this week. Way too deep to work on in this already lengthy post. Maybe another time. In the meantime I had a grace this week, I had a day when I had this recurring thought and feeling come bubbling up, “everything is going to be okay.” It felt like a total blessing.