Our little ranch is on the west side of the Great Central Valley in Northern California. This northerly part is known as the Sacramento Valley. It is so named because the Sacramento River flows right down the middle. The river issues from the slopes of a dormant volcano known as Mt. Shasta and heads south. The southern part of the Great Central Valley – for all you geography buffs – is the San Joaquin Valley.
You get to our ranch by driving through a bunch of low hills that make up the Great Valley Sequence. These hills are ancient (I mean really ancient!) ocean floor that was scraped up off the bottom of the ocean when the Pacific Plate was going somewhere completely different from where it’s going now. It’s a fascinating subject but we’ll leave that for another blog. Right down the road from our ranch are the remnants of a town called Chrome. It is so-called because chromium mining was a big thing around there in days gone by and not too far gone. So you can easily leap to the conclusion that this is a great area for rocks and minerals.
It’s not easy to build fences out here. But don’t let that thought lead you astray. There are a lot of fences out here for keeping the livestock that graze this marginal land. The soil is horrendous. It’s full of gravel and rock. Local folks say wait until after it’s rained a good deal and then think about setting posts. I am in awe of the sheer physical strength and tenacity of the original landowners who built the fences.
Fencing, as you know, requires a person to dig holes. Digging holes in hard soil is a task for Hercules. We got here in late August a couple years ago and it was very hot and dry and we wanted a fence for our backyard. We didn’t know about the soil yet. It took my husband Marty an hour to go about 6 inches deep before he threw in the towel. He thought, "well I’ll pour a little water in there to soften it up." Three days later the water was still in there and had not soaked in. I call this “soil” pulverized rock. It’s not soil. It’s evil.
That’s when I got the brilliant idea for the Easiest Fence in The World. If you can lay your hands on old fence posts, and a lot of them, you can build the fence very quickly. Of course you can always buy the posts but I think old, almost rotten ones make a rustic look that can’t be beat. This is not a very good fence to hold back large critters or even small critters. But if you have the need for a visual barrier and a decorative touch this fence is for you. We had a lot of old wooden fence posts that were pulled out when the metal t-post fences were put in so in two shakes of a lamb’s tail we were in business.
Here's how you build it. Step 1. Gather a lot of old fence posts. Depending on how acute you want your zig zag angle, you will need about 85 posts for 60 feet of fence. This is a fence 4 and 5 posts tall alternating. You can make it shorter or taller as you see fit. Step 2. Stack the posts. You stack them overlapped in a zig zag pattern. Take a look at the photo and that will help you visualize what you need to do.
The results are beautiful and every day I look at my new fence and feel happy.
Last weekend we brought the cows and their calves in from pasture to vaccinate and to castrate the bull calves. We have 44 pair and that makes us a small operation. My husband is fond of saying ranching is not a money-making proposition, it’s a way of life. And he’s right. We make a few bucks off the calves when they are sold to feeder operations, but we’re really doing it because we like it and most of the time we break even or make a little bit of profit. It’s good to have a side gig that makes money dependably. Of course, we put a beef in the freezer. That’s the best part. And we sell a few sides or wholes to friends.
I’ve often thought that the romantic idea people have about the cowboy way of life is just that: a romantic idea. In reality there’s blood, gore, working out in the rain, wind, freezing temperatures when you’ve rather be sitting warming your heels at the wood stove. Last year we rode in freezing wind and rain to save a premature calf. We did all that, endangered our lives horseback and we were still were unsuccessful in saving it. This happens and you just have to accept it. You work hard and sometimes it’s not fun and it’s a tragedy and you do it anyway. It’s a choice. Fortunately it’s mostly pleasant and relatively easy. Watching the cows graze peacefully on the hillside in the sun is like some perfect commercial on TV.
Last weekend was one of the harder parts of working cows but it has to be done. There are so many levels to it in addition to the actual work. In this little essay I’d like to touch on some of the levels. For instance when we brought all the mommas and babies into the corrals, we were a little concerned with how much water they were drinking. We are in a drought and we knew they could suck down a lot. Our stock ponds are all dry and we’re on well water. I knew we had 3,800 gallons and sure enough by the next day they had sucked down 1,500 gallons. We needed to process them without delay so we could turn them back out to drink water pumped out of the creek.
We band instead of cut. Each method has their proponents. Some people think cutting is safer but one thing is for sure about banding. It is a heck of lot less messy. Banding is wrapping a rubber around the calf’s testicles and eventually they atrophy for lack of blood and fall off. Sound awful? Yes, it is. However, having your testicles cut off without anesthesia is worse. There’s no way around it. Good meat comes from a neutered bull. Also castrating makes the males less dangerous towards other cattle and humans when they are being raised for beef. By the way castrated bulls are called steers.
We band because it fits in with our time frame, our breed of cattle (Shorthorns), our geographic location. Castration by banding takes longer to heal than cutting. You need to factor in that it takes about a month for the testicles to atrophy and fall off. You have to think about that and correctly time any kind of castration. You don’t want to do it after the calves get too big but you can castrate by banding later than if you castrated by cutting. You can band older calves. If you cut an older calf you might take a chance on it bleeding to death. With banding there’s less chance of infection and less pain to the calf. The area quickly numbs after the band is put on. It is quick and easy to do if done properly.
But banding does have its cautions.You can accidentally put the rubber ring around the testes instead of the cord or only one testicle is banded because the other hasn't descended yet. The ring might be too brittle and might come off before the scrotum starts to atrophy. Also the calf may need a tetanus shot. There is risk of infection as the scrotum atrophies and sloughs off. The one advantage to cutting is that it’s easy to see that the two testes are present. The other is it’s the only way to harvest Rocky Mountain Oysters. If you’re into that!
As I said before you have timing to consider. It has to be when the calf is still young enough and not too old and before fly season. So technically you need to be thinking about castration when you breed your cows because when they’re bred decides when they’ll give birth which decides how old the calf is when he’s castrated and at what time of year.
Get out your calendar and plan it best you can. Depending on where you live, most castrating should be done during early spring or late fall. It can also be done in the winter time, as the cold will constrict the blood vessels making it less likely for an animal to bleed out. The younger the animal the better but if you choose banding you want to have the atrophy complete before fly season. Ideally bulls should be castrated no older than 8 months of age. Bulls can be castrated at any time, but you must remember that if you castrate a bull older than that you will have a loss in productivity. Also the older the animal is at castration, the greater the stress, risk of bleeding, and the slower the growth rate for that animal.
On average, calves are castrated around 8 weeks of age or sooner. Some ranchers, depending on how busy they are and their willingness to go out to the pasture to find calves to tag and castrate, will castrate a bull calf when it is a day to two days old. We prefer to run our calves through a chute when they're around two and a half months old so we can castrate, tag and vaccinate them all in one go.
If you are new at this, you should really get someone experienced to do the castrating. That way you can watch and learn before you try it yourself. It can go awfully wrong for you and your calves if you not 100 percent sure what you’re doing.
Every once in a while I get a hankering for something dough-y. A magazine seen on the display rack at Tractor Supply once inspired me to start making the easiest and tastiest homemade bread I’ve ever made so far. It was from a Grit publication called Grit Country Skills Series - Guide to Homemade Bread. It was the No-Knead Artisan Bread on page 17. I’ve now made it dozens of times and it’s never failed. So with that success under my belt I ventured into the uncharted territory of other easy bread stuffs. I’ve always loved English muffins but our grocery store is not close so it's not easy to pop down for a package whenever I feel like it. Fortunately we’re stocked up on supplies so I can usually concoct something with my trusty Joy of Cooking or a quick internet search.
Last November I put English muffin rings on my Christmas list and Santa was so kind to oblige. Inside the box of rings I found a recipe which turned out to be quite tasty. They don’t taste like store-bought but they taste very, very good. It's hard to imagine how anything warm from the oven can taste bad with butter slathered on? You can make them without the rings if you don’t mind that they look rather amoeba-like. Or maybe you are much handier at making things round than I. If you’re more like me, get some rings for the authentic look. They can be purchased on Amazon, for example, and aren’t very costly.
Recipe for English Muffins
Combine in a mixing bowl:
1 cup water
½ cup scalded milk
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Dissolve 1 package of active dry yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm water for 3 to 5 minutes. Combine the two mixtures. Sift before measuring 4 cups of all purpose flour. Beat 2 cups of the flour gradually into the above mixture. Cover the bowl with a cloth and let the dough rise in a warm place (about 85 degrees F.) for about 1-1/2 hours or until it collapses back into the bowl.
Beat in 3 tablespoons of softened butter. Beat or knead in the remaining flour. Grease the inside of the muffin rings and fill half full with the batter. Let them stand in a lightly greased iron skillet sprinkled with corn meal until the dough has doubled in bulk. It should now fill the muffin rings. Turn the heat to low/medium under the iron skillet and keep an eye on them so they don't burn. Adjust the heat as needed so they don't cook too fast. After about 15 minutes flip the muffins and cook the other side. You can chill or freeze the dough before it rises if you want to cook another batch at another time.
People such as I who have come from the relative cleanliness of the city to the relative funkiness of the country eventually come to this conclusion: There’s no way to keep up with chores and also keep the house immaculate. I allow that there may be some among you who are clones of the White Tornado. You can do it all. But I’ll wager that most of you are like me. You can’t do it all. Something has got to give. In my world what gave was housework. I was never that good at it to begin with, but out here the environment stacks the deck against you.
Recently we got the blessing of much needed rain. I’m trying to stay in the blessing frame of mind. We’ve had two solid days and there’s already accumulation to the tippy-top of my rain catchment system. Ya-hoodelly-hoo! Unfortunately there’s already accumulation of dirty footprints (dog and human) and little droplets of mud and various detritus all over the house. Someone in their infinite wisdom made our mudroom the size of a dog house. I’d like to call Uncle Guido and have him make that person swim with the fishes. So in an effort not to go insane I am relaxing my standards until the rain stops long enough to dry the place out. I can’t go around with a dust pan or mop and clean up after every sloppy entry point. Trust me. I’m not the vinyl-covered sofa person. I’m quite organic as compared to the next person. But enough is enough. There’s only so much a person can do.
Here’s one of my favorite poems for those of you house-bound in the midst of wintry entropy. Reading it always gives me some perspective.
Dust if You Must
Dust if you must but wouldn’t it be better
To paint a picture or write a letter
Bake a cake or plant a seed
Ponder the difference between want and need?
Dust if you must but there’s not much time
With rivers to swim and mountains to climb
Music to hear and books to read
Friends to cherish and life to lead.
Dust if you must but the world’s out there
With the sun in your eyes and wind in your hair
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain
This day will not come around again.
Dust if you must but bear in mind
Old age will come and it’s not kind
And when you go and go you must
You, yourself, will make more dust!
Now go out there and do what you want – or need – to do!
I would be a great candidate for the “What Not to Wear” show on TV. That is the most iconic of all makeover shows that used to air on The Learning Channel. Their show ended after 10 years last October. If it was still on and I could get accepted, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly would have a field day with me. Usually they just throw the makeover candidate’s clothes in a big ole trash bin. With me I’m pretty sure they’d scream “burn!” if they ever got hold of my motley selection of clothing. If only I could wean myself away from the television, I know I would be happy as a clam in my goofy duds. I could also try scurrying past the mirror without looking and not pause to inspect the reflection. I can’t help myself. I’m too weak – or vain – and the urge is too strong.
Here’s the problem. On a ranch or farm there’s something that takes over, and it’s called Practicality. You might even go as far as to call it Survival. Manolo Blahnik wouldn’t go over very well here. I don’t care how perfectly balanced his stiletto heels are. Can you just see yourself mucking stalls in heels? It’s totally ludicrous. I know I’m preaching to the choir. You know what I’m talking about. I would love to see all the “get-ups” that you folks yank over your faces and hike up to your waists just to get by and not freeze to death while you go about your business. We could call it "Farm Fashionista," and we could have a documentary made about us. Why not? Well, we could even submit it to "America’s Funniest Home Videos." Might as well get a good laugh out of it on the side, wha huh? One thing I know about farm people is that they love a good laugh, and they don’t care if it’s at their expense. Farm people have enough depth and confidence not to be intimidated about what other people think about how they look. Anyhoot, we have a job to do, don't we? Everything else comes in second.
Still and all, I try to dress with some style. I try. I don’t succeed. Maybe on the rare occasion when we go to town for dinner. Most of the time all it takes is one look at the thermometer and my priority becomes how to stay warm and not die.
Here’s an image for ya. Remember the scene from the movie “A Christmas Story”? When I dress on a winter’s day to go out at dawn and feed the critters that’s what sticks in my mind. You know the scene where Ralphie’s little brother Randy waddles along with his arms sticking out from his body? He’s a cocoon on two legs! That’s me, too! We're "separated at birth."
"A Christmas Story" photo courtesy Moots.com
I think of Randy and I'm practically rolling around on the floor choking with laughter. But I’m not laughing as I head out the door in sub-zero temperatures. Well, maybe a little. Does any of this sound familiar?
I’ve got the silk underwear, advertised “for warmth not bulk”, the fleece warm-up pants and hoodie, the thermal socks, the windbreaker pants and the Carhartt insulated, quilted coverall over the whole blame thing. We complete the ensemble with Thinsulate-lined ski gloves, fleece-lined hat with earflaps and rubber boots from Tractor Supply. Classy! But does the dog care? Does the cat? Do the horses, chickens and cows care? Guess what? Neither do I. In conclusion I guess I have to say "Stacy and Clinton, eat your heart out." Love you guys but your cute little jacket ensembles simply aren’t going to work out here.
"What Not to Wear," Clinton and Stacy photo by Brian Doben, TLC; courtesy StyleList/AOL TV
This is my first blog for the Capper Farmer family and, boy, oh howdy, I can tell you I am happy to be here. It’s an honor to be among you, and I can’t wait to join the discussion about all-things-small in farming and homesteading. I even have a discussion point for this introductory blog.
First, though, let me tell you a bit about Marty and me. We’re both “retired.” We became partners late in life, and we’re aligned on most issues and certainly aligned about living the country life and making a go of it from a back country road. Marty has been or done almost anything you can think of. He cowboyed as a young man and worked feedlots horseback. He welded, bulldozed, cleared land and more on his way to building his own home in the mountains above Lake Isabella in southern California. He worked as a police officer for many years and homesteaded on the outskirts of Bakersfield. This is where he learned to weld like a son-of-a-gun. Those throw-away oil field pipes make great horse and animal fencing. He’s not much for farming but can build the heck out of any woodworking or water project. That’s where I come in. I was born in Illinois and raised in Iowa. I think I might have corn coming out of my ears so if I tell a bad joke or two, please forgive me. While I’m not thinking of a corny joke, the Iowa in me is thinking about growing something or cooking what I grow. Next I’m thinking about animal husbandry or riding our horses. Of course, I love to write about our adventures and sometimes I go as far as to create a drawing or two to illustrate said adventures.
Marty and me by the snake fence.
We weren’t always where we are now. It’s been a year and a half since we’re getting back into it. But now that we’re here it feels as comfy and familiar as a pair of old boots. We’re a self-sufficient duo on a 1,000-acre cattle ranch in Northern California, and we caretake the place for the absentee owners. In the bargain we get 5 acres to do what we please with or what Ma Nature will allow us. She’s throwing us a learning curve and it’s fascinating from dawn to dusk and sometimes even at 3 a.m. as I lay awake trying to figure out some problem.
Many of my future blogs will be about our water issues. Others will be about our vegetable-growing issues, which are intertwined with the water issues. Then there are literally hundreds of other subjects that arise on a daily basis. There’s no writer’s block out here. As long as we stick to non-fiction!
So here’s to a long and fruitful association! I look forward to hearing all your stories and I hope I can add a thing or two.
First question for the family: How have you overcome very, very poor soil conditions? (backstory: we have here what I would call “pulverized rock.” Not soil. Literally ground conditions that hold water for days and doesn’t let it seep in.)