It's Our Turn For Now

With only a light snow covering it is still possible to ride my pedal bike along the only road that leads out of our yard. I did so yesterday after morning chores, taking the kelpies along of course and riding for a mile and half before parking the bike in the ditch and moving into the pasture on foot for further walking. 

Lately I find myself stopping during a walk to just stand in awe and gratitude of the prairie all around me. To travel a mile and still be home is in itself incredible. There are no sheep out this way so we will not encounter any while we walk about. If we did it would come as a huge surprise. The ground is uneven with frozen mole hills and icy packs of snow caught in the taller grasses. 

The pasture we arrived at is not fenced for grazing and this year it was left to sit idle given that the hay it produced was looking weak this summer. This piece of land has been cut to often for hay and needs to be grazed and fertilized by livestock for a turn. Meanwhile the grazing land we do use needs a reprieve from grazing. 

I realize that Allen and myself will never keep up to it all and sometimes I get caught in thinking that someone else would do better in being stewards of this land. Well maybe that’s so, but it is our turn here for now and we’ve worked diligently to get to where we are so we’ll go on trying. And I’ll continue to pause and feel gratitude for what it is and how it has shaped us thus far. 

How Far Would They Graze

More photos of the flock moving out, in this case heading out in the morning to begin grazing.  

The gate at the entrance to this narrow pass remains open so the ewes can come and go however they do not volunteer to enter this pass on their own. I have been moving them up every few days to remind them the water bowl is available here and by now I am sure they know that it is. Now that we are feeding hay they are settling and bedding down just over the rise and the trip to the water bowl is not far at all but with snow on the ground again I doubt they will brave the pass and come for water. 

Even though we are regularly feeding hay now the ewes are still traveling during the day. Today they traversed the whole east quarter section and then moved southward to the weedy patch before returning to the hay that is rolled out on the ground for them.

It causes me to wonder how much or how little domestication has toyed with their instinct to migrate. Have they merely developed the habit of traveling this ground since the loss of our cross fencing? Or, if we dropped our perimeter fences, would this flock show any inclination to head south as the grasses here waned? 

I really don’t want to find out how far south they might go but it is a marvel how much they travel the land that is available to them. The weather makes a difference too. On cold days they stick around the hay feed but on warmer days they put on the miles, and we haven’t received enough snow to hamper their travels yet.

Time to Feed

We'll begin feeding hay to the ewes now. With the lack of snow cover the girls have been wandering far and wide recently but I think feed wise it’s just the pickings left now; unless they graze the native prairie. But they do not go there to eat and I feel compelled to pay attention to their choice even though I wish it different. 

Heading in for the night

I’m always uncertain about the best way to graze this land through winter or if it is okay to graze it at all? Yet in the same breath I feel no inclination to restrict the ewes as seeing them continue to move and seek food feels to instinctual. Besides following this feeling it’s going to be a while before we can catch up on fencing and restrict their grazing to a plan as we did in the past so I have to accept that this is what we can manage for now. 

This next picture is a morning photo taken when approaching the flock. The ewes are so settled at this time of the year, any other time they would be up and moving off at my approach.  

The day before this I had spread hay feed nearby to gauge how interested the ewes were in feed. They grazed for the day and came to nibble the hay in the evening. Then the ewes chose to bed here on the naked hill slope rather than their usual sheltered bedding ground. A sign that the night was calm. And see how they sleep apart from each other; this particular night was also not that cold, at least not for wool covered sheep.

p.s. Thank you to the reader who asked for another way to follow this blog; I’ve added a subscription option at the sidebar. 

Prairie Pace

The kelpies and I headed out for a walk this afternoon, a little earlier than usual.  I stepped out for a few days this week to help a family member who is going through a rough deal so the dogs were eager to be off on a run and I was eager for the solace I almost always find when I walk across a piece of prairie land. 

A couple weeks ago I was wondering about the amount of snow and if it would soon be hindering the ewes ability to get enough feed during cold weather.  

This week warmer weather set the snow back and made it possible to physically walk across the pastures with relative ease again.  All to soon the snowfall will once again limit us to walking along the road which is a welcome and private walk but with a different feel than being amidst the expansive prairie.

Exploring the prairie in the company of canines worked its magic as it often does. I packed my camera and caught a few more photos to add to an impromptu collection I’ve nicknamed Prairie Signatures. Yet to see where it leads. 

While I was out Allen kindly did the evening check of the flock and guardians, which lead us into an unplanned, quite evening with little to do, which was about perfect for bringing this day to a close and life back into its routine prairie pace. 

The Two Birds, An Update on LGD's

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated on the two youngest livestock guardian dogs, Wren and Birdie.  While backing up photos yesterday I came across a few (thousand) of the dogs and ear marked a few for comparison of then and now. 

Wren is one year and seven months old. She is still soft, shy and easily spooked. Her early days here were spent with a second pup named Crow. Crow was not bonded to sheep and had a fondness for people. He taught Wren how to hang out around the yard and she still does this, mostly during the night when she travels through. During the day she disappears back to the sheep. She’s fond of sheep but lacks in commitment, perhaps due to Crow's early influence but no way to know. Food trumps everything in Wren’s word and if she misses a meal, alarm bells go off. She barks non stop when she believes there is a threat.

Puppy Wren

Young Wren 

Birdie has just turned a year old. She is small for an LGD but is serious and gutsy enough to back herself up. She puts the run on Wren now and even has top dog Lily towing the line. The only other dog to make Lily tow the line was Diesel (now passed) and Lily eventually turned the tide there. Birdie is very oriented to the flock, where the sheep are, there is Birdie. She could take or leave food and plenty of times she leaves it. She’s pushy and there is little that spooks her. 

Puppy Birdie

Young Birdie
Birdie and Wren are complete opposites, temperament wise, and work wise it shows. Wren is certainly easier to have in a pack of dogs though and she keeps livestock calmer. Birdie may cause more grief for the pack and her intense temperament stirs the ewes rather than calms them. I'm hopeful this intensity lessens with maturity; familiarity between her and the ewes is already helping. The two photos of each is an interesting comparison. I can see the temperament already stamped on them in their puppy photos, but I’ve already formed strong opinions of who they are since I see them each day.

Wren and Birdie (pup), the early days
Every pup has different experiences during its upbringing so there is no way to make things equal but I'm sure growing more and more curious about breeding influence and the possibility of selecting dogs who show that tight bond to their livestock.

Grassland Presentation Pieces

The presentation slot was twenty minutes, fifteen minutes to actually present, the other five taken up by speaker intro before and time for questions afterward. 
Fifteen minutes is long enough time for one person to talk, but just fifteen minutes to tell what you do and include why it matters means condensing a magnitude of thoughts and reasons.  

This was not a producer conference although producers were more than welcome to attend. It was a research and policy conference. It was about grass and forage. I was asked to present a virtual farm tour. Basically I was the break between all the scientific and ag business presentations. I did not realize this going in to the conference. I did not (as all the experts tell you to do) try to peg down who I was speaking to.  For some reason, when I prepared my presentation, I felt a strong compulsion just to tell what I felt and leave numbers and data out of it. I went with this. I don’t think anybody expected that, even me.  The title of the presentation: This Land and Livestock Life.

I’m going to skip over sharing the first half of the presentation here on the blog.  That first half gave a summary of our place, that we transitioned crop land back to grass and a snapshot of how we operate. While it was beautifully told through the lens of a story and great photographs (with several hours of practice behind it) I think you blog readers have a good grasp of my position on ranch life and how we operate here.

While the latter half could not have been told without the first to lead up to it, the latter half is, in my opinion, what really grabbed most people.  A volley of beautiful photographs and the quiet and sincere manner in which it was told certainly helped.

Let's start in midstream right here:

“Forage has become king here and there is an unpretentious beauty about the place. Land and livestock are linked and I am glad I have parked myself at their intersection. I have time to take a walk every day in the company of my dogs, cutting across the prairie in any direction I like. I walk in sun, rain, wind and snow. In heat and in cold. Sometimes I come across favourite sitting stones and sit for a spell, pondering the life I lead.  All the walking and pondering results in my soul being pretty tied up in this land and livestock life. 

It is quite an easy matter to share the beauty of a place through rose coloured though and to gloss over the reasons why ranchers do what they do.  But it occurs to me that our values and reasons need to hold true not only while we are looking through rose coloured glasses but more importantly they must hold true when the rose coloured glasses fall off. 

When it all goes to shit and you can’t think through the frustration of your day. When you have a wreck and you can’t project yourself to the end of a day let alone see to the end of a year.

Your reasons must hold you up and when these are purely about numbers and production and the almighty dollar I know I lose hope real fast.

So it matters a great deal that there are intangibles we cannot get our hands on. That grassland places like ours and people who earnestly ranch on them with Mother Nature in mind are still here. It matters that we grasp and explore the link between land and animal, sink our teeth into the natural connections and risk rearranging the pieces of our thinking to something a little different. 

Nowadays, when more than ever agriculture operates on numbers and facts it is increasingly important that we keep the stories and unexplainable reasons front and center. 

The agriculture industry has never before been in such a rush to grow a crop or raise an animal as we are today. We have never before been so reliant on numbers to guide us, so much so that we forego trusting our own observations of habitat and animal. Why are we in such a rush when our food and price distribution system is heavily flawed and the waste of food in first world countries is so extreme? Why do we have more focus on the quality of a carcass than we do on coexistence with the natural resources we need to raise it?

We have created a mass production game, even in the name of high, unsustainable work loads and debt loads. And yet, all in the same breath farmers and ranchers proudly take ownership of the we-feed-the-world pedestal. 

The title of this years conference is next generation forage cropping systems; profit above, wealth below. You wish to recognize the economic and environmental role forage and grasslands play in this land and livestock life. So what happens if we set aside our rush to raise an animal and produce a crop and set aside our reliance on numbers for just a moment. What if we examine not only what the land and animal give to us but what we offer in return. What is our real potential in this agriculture life? What is the true wealth below and what is the true wealth in ourselves and how much of each might we be shredding to get at the profit? 

If we wish to improve our environmental practices in agriculture what about making this a two way street again.  What about putting coexistence at the forefront of every decision we make lest we get to far down this road of taking the animal out of nature and the human out of humanity. There is nothing like keeping a flock of sheep on coyote rich prairie to teach the art of coexisting with a species that has different ideas than you do about what success is. 

Grassland is the vehicle for this to happen.  I have a small vision in which land and animal and rancher are respected for the link to humanity they are rather than viewed solely through the lens of yield per acre and dollar per production unit. Instead of pushing for maximum production we are letting production be what occurs when we look after animal and land. I operate my place in this way and it works well. We do not have to sacrifice land and animal to have ample production. There is a point where we can say we produce well, we produce enough and enough is all we need. 

Author Don Gayton spoke at the 2016 rangeland conference and he suggested the way to bridge the gap that exists between the folks who do the research and the rancher who lives the life and the public who make it all messy, is through telling stories.

So this few minutes is me telling our story. Telling it in the hope that Don just might be on to something. The people on the land need to start being the linchpin for change rather than have change implemented upon us. And those who are being that change already need opportunities to tell our story. So to that end, thank you once again for gifting me with your presence and providing the chance to keep our simple story going.“

The end
[p.s. That thank you extends to all you readers of this blog who are following this story. It only continues because you are here].

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