Sunday, February 28, 2010

Harvest Day

Life and death are inseparable. You cannot have one without the other. For us, nurturing the lives of our cattle ultimately ends in slaughter. We don't have animals as a hobby. Instead, we're dedicated to raising the best beef for people who want to eat healthy and appreciate the most humane treatment for food animals.

This blog post describes the slaughtering process that takes place at our ranch. We don't sell USDA inspected beef because that would require shipping our animals to a slaughtering plant where they would be handled and killed outside our supervision. We also simply don't approve of the way animals and carcasses are handled in a USDA facility. It's noteworthy that all meat recalls reported in the US are USDA-inspected meat. Instead, we want to ensure that our animals are treated humanely even at slaughter. This means we keep them at home in familiar surroundings and do nothing to cause them stress. When customers order beef, we pick out the mature animals to be slaughtered. We only slaughter animals that are sold. So, each customer gets the freshest beef from our ranch to their table.

WARNING: Please don't read this blog if you'll be offended by graphic pictures. These photos are true to the actual process of slaughter. They aren't selected to be particularly gruesome, but they are graphic.

We walked these steers from the pasture into the corral the evening before slaughter.

Dale is our local, mobile slaughterer. He travels around the area visiting ranches with his mobile abattoir. It's equipped with a generator to power tools, winches, and the cooler. It also has its own water tank. When he arrives, he pulls out barrels for skins and innards and sharpens his knives.

Dale is sharpening his knife before he begins.

Once Dale is ready to start work, the first step is killing the steers. We move them close to the gate so it's easier to move the carcasses to the abattoir. Dale uses a .22 rifle. He is amazingly fast and efficient. He carefully, but quickly, shoots each animal once in the head. Death is instantaneous.

 Dale shoots the second steer.

Dale must immediately cut their throats in order to drain the blood as quickly as possible before butchering the carcasses.

Dale is draining the blood from the carcasses.

Dale prepares the carcass for skinning by placing it on its back and putting wedges under the sides. This ensures that the carcass doesn't roll while he's working. It's very important to keep the exposed flesh clean. Dale removes the legs and puts them in the barrel. Dale sells all the spare body parts to a renderer, so nothing is wasted. Dale is constantly sharpening his knife on the steele as he works.

Dale has removed the front legs.

Once Dale has removed the legs, he starts to skin the carcass. He's very careful not to let the hair side of the skin touch the exposed flesh of the carcass. As he works, he regularly washes his hands and the carcass.

Dale washing his hands with water stored in the abattoir.

Dale works quickly to get the skin off the belly and legs. He'll have to hoist the carcass with a winch and get it totally off the ground before he removes the skin from the back. The skin all comes off in one piece. This keeps the carcass very clean.

Skinning from the chest to the back.

Dale works very fast. Today, he is butchering steers and hogs for us. He has already slaughtered a number of cows for other folks and still has one cow to go when he leaves our ranch.

Washing the carcass.

Once the belly has been skinned, Dale cuts through the breast bone. This makes it easy to remove the innards when the carcass is hoisted. Notice that he never cuts into the abdominal area while the guts are intact.

Sawing through the breastbone.

Dale attaches the power hoist to the carcass via the back legs. The carcass won't flip as it's raised because of the wedges that are still in place holding it in position.

The hoist is attached.

Dale raises the carcass a little at a time, skinning as he goes.

Dale is skinning from the rump down.

Once the carcass is completely skinned and hanging vertically, Dale makes the final cut through the chest releasing the innards. They just slide out without force. (In a slaughter house, the innards are forcefully ripped out of the carcass by a machine which can cause them to rupture.) This ensures that there are no tears or punctures of the gut that will release bacteria to contaminate the carcass. All animals have bacteria in their guts and some of those bacteria, like certain strains of e-coli, are dangerous to humans. Healthy, grass-fed cows rarely have dangerous e-coli strains in their guts although it is common in grain-fed beef. This is also why we will never sell or butcher a sick animal.

The innards.

Dale will cut the carcass in half with a special saw and then put labels on the carcass identifying the customers who have purchased this meat. To satisfy USDA requirements for non-inspected beef, our beef is sold "on the hoof" by the quarter, half, or whole. That means that it is sold before it is actually slaughtered. We cannot sell individual cuts.

Sawing the carcass in half.

The carcass is now basically ready to go to the butcher. Dale will wash it thoroughly before sliding it on the rail into the abattoir.

Washing the finished carcass.

Once the carcass is washed, it's ready to hang in the abattoir. It will be kept refrigerated on its trip to the meat cutter. Note how lean these carcasses are. Our grass-fed meat is not grown to produce fat but to produce muscle.

Ready for the trip to the meat cutter.

At the meat cutter, the beef will hang for several weeks to age before it's cut and wrapped. The finished meat has a unique flavor associated with grass-fed meat. Unlike grain-fed meat, the flavor doesn't come from the fat, but it's just as tender.

All of our beef at R&A Paradise Ranch meets the USDA grade for "naturally-raised" beef. That means that it's pastured, never kept in feed lots, and fed only grass and legumes, never grain.

This meat will go directly to the customers who ordered it. We're sure they're going to love it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Princess and the Pony

Once the princess discovered that she was really a cowgirl, the ogre decided that she needed a perfect pony. After all, you can't be a successful cowgirl if you don't ride a pony.

So together the princess and the ogre went in search of the perfect pony. They drove around town and to other towns to look at ponies. Each time, the princess was hopeful that she would find the perfect pony. Each time, she was disappointed. The ponies were too big, too small, too fat, too lazy, too inexperienced, or too political.

One day, they went to see a pony in a little town named Cove. The princess was very excited. Could this be the perfect pony? This pony looked like the perfect pony. She was a beautiful palomino with a very long mane and a flowing tail. Her gold color was as bright as the sun.

The ogre was very protective of the princess. He didn't care about a pony's color or it's breeding or how long was it's mane or tail or whether it was conservative or liberal. The perfect pony for the princess had to have a big heart and be willing to take care of something so precious as the perfect princess.

The ogre decided to try this pony. On went the bridle. On went the saddle. On went the ogre. Instead of going forward like good ponies do, this one went up like bad ponies do. It's a good thing the ogre is a cowboy. It was a short rodeo. The ogre stepped down from the bad pony, handed the reins to the owner, and said, "This is not the perfect pony for my princess. This is a bad pony."

The princess was heartbroken. Would they ever find the perfect pony? The ogre was more determined than ever. But where would he look? Why, he would look in the same place he found the perfect princess. The internet! The ogre searched site after site and found more ponies that were too big, too small, too fat, too lazy, too inexperienced, and too political.

But wait a minute. Here was a very handsome pony who was perfect! He was fit. He was the right size. He wasn't lazy. And he was raised on a ranch to work cows. But he was in Montana far away from Paradise. How would he get from Montana to Oregon? He rode on a cattle truck with a herd of cows on their way to Paradise.

What an exciting day it was when the cattle truck arrived at Paradise. Cows were bellowing, men were hollering and the perfect princess was waiting anxiously for the perfect pony. Finally, the perfect pony stepped into the sunlight. And the princess fell in love.

It didn't last long. This pony wasn't just perfect, he was headstrong, stubborn, and very fast. And spooked at everything - rocks, fence posts, tree stumps, and his own saddle blanket.

The princess was frustrated and afraid. Her pony didn't care at all about her. He only cared about food.

Then the ogre decided to take the princess hunting in a very remote wilderness where only horses and mules could go. So, they packed their gear, their guns, four mules, two horses, and two dogs and went to Idaho.

When they arrived at the trail to their hunting spot, the ogre was very happy. He loved the smell of his mules, the feel of his gun, the challenge of steep trails, and the thrill of the hunt.

There was just one problem. His princess had never packed mules, had never killed anything with her gun, and was afraid of her pony. Worst of all, the princess was afraid of heights. The ogre had forgotten this when he decided to take his princess hunting.

The perfect princess was petrified. She looked at the suspension bridge over the raging river. Her palms were sweaty. Her heart was pounding. Her pony was eating. "Will my perfect pony cross that raging river on a bridge that's swinging?" asked the princess in a very small voice. Without blinking, the ogre said, "He will when I get finished with him."

So, the princess went to pack her saddle bags and the ogre rode the perfect pony down the road to the swaying bridge. The princess was distraught. Would her pony buck? Would the ogre break his arm? Would the pony and the ogre fall into the river?

The princess heard the sound of hooves on the road. There was her ogre! And there was her very sweaty pony. The princess dared to ask, "Will my pony cross the bridge?" Without blinking, the ogre replied, "He will now."

The next morning, the mules were packed, the ponies were saddled, the guns were loaded, and the dogs were panting. Everybody was ready to start - except the princess. Her palms were sweating and her heart was pounding. Her pony was eating. He might go across the bridge, but could she? She sat square in the saddle, gritted her teeth and heard the ogre behind her, "Trust your pony." She focused. She sweated. She almost hyperventilated. Then, it was a miracle! Her pony stepped off the other side of the swaying bridge and they were both alive.

But things were not right. Gus the mule had refused to cross the bridge. He broke his lead line and was standing on the other side of the bridge with Axel the mule. The ogre would have to go back across the bridge. So, the ogre left the princess with her pony, two mules, and two dogs.

This is a whole other story for another time.

Finally, the princess, the ogre, four mules, two ponies and two dogs were headed down the long, winding trail to their campsite. It wasn't a short trail. It was a long trail. It wasn't a short ride. It was a long ride. It wasn't a wide trail. It was a very narrow trail. It wasn't a flat trail. It was a very steep trail. It wasn't a straight trail. It was a zigzag trail. And it went up and up. And the princess was afraid to open her eyes because her pony was just barely staying on the side of the mountain. Behind her was the ogre, "Relax. Trust your pony." The princess couldn't relax. She was using all her princess willpower to make her pony keep all four feet on the trail.

What a beautiful place! See the river far below? See the canyon in the distance? See the birds in the brush? See the eagle flying high? The princess didn't see anything. She was watching the trail.

The perfect pony never faltered. He climbed steep rocks, crossed bridges, walked through streams, and stepped over logs. He was always on the trail. He set a good pace and never slowed down. He carried the princess without complaining.

Just when the day was ending and the ogre, the princess, four mules, two ponies and two dogs were near camp, the ogre heard something. Bull elk were bugling. The ogre commanded the princess, "Get off your pony. Get your gun." And the princess did. The ogre stood next to the princess and whispered, "See that bull?" But the princess didn't. "See that bull next to the pine tree?" But they were standing in a forest of trees. The princess didn't know which exact tree. "Right there!" But where was there? "Fifty yards next to the tree!" How far is fifty yards?

Then the bull elk, next to the pine tree fifty yards away moved. And the princess saw his very big antlers. The princess loaded her gun and climbed the steep hill after the ogre. Surely, the bull elk could hear her huffing and puffing. Then the ogre commanded the princess, "Shoot!" And the princess did. But nothing happened. And the ogre commanded the princess, "Shoot again!" And the princess did. The big bull elk next to the pine tree fifty yards away fell down. And the ogre smiled very big, "Good girl!" And the princess cried real tears.

When the excitement was over, the princess was worried. Did her pony run away. Would she have to walk all the way back? No. He was eating.

The ogre and the princess spent a week in the wilderness. And the perfect pony always carried the princess without complaining. He carried her in the rain and in the dark, in the sun, and in the cold. And even though he was much smaller than the ogre's very big pony, he never fell behind and he was never too tired to carry the princess. And each time they came to the swaying bridge, he stepped across without hesitation.

And when the trip was over, the princess knew why this was the perfect pony. He had a very big heart and he took very good care of the perfect princess. And he was eating.

Ross on Silk and Ava on Dandy.

Editors note: My "perfect pony" is really not a pony. He's a registered Quarter Horse named Four Doc Dandy. I call him Dandy. He acts like he's afraid of everything so I'll take him back to the barn and he can eat. But I'm on to him. In his case, breeding is important. He has famous Doc Bar blood and was bred to be a cutting horse. He's amazingly fast, can stop in a skid, and turn on a dime. He absolutely loves working cows. I hope one day to be as skilled and brave as Dandy is.

I also have a few other "ponies". I have a draft cross that I got for my equestrian daughter, Alexandra. Her name is Nadesco (aka Beauty) and she gave birth to a mule this past summer. Then there's Grace who we saved from a feedlot two days before she was going to be shipped to slaughter. She's a beautiful, loving chestnut. And for my mom, I got Meg who is a dark bay and very quiet on trails.

My mom giving treats to Dandy and Ross's horse, Silk.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Cowgirl Learning Curve

It's not easy to become a cowgirl when you're 45 years old and you've lived in the burbs all your life. In fact, I'm not sure I'd recommend it for most folks.

The learning curve is not just steep it's VERY wide (and you have to cover a lot of the territory on foot and on horseback).

No college degrees are required, but a rancher has to be expert in:

Animal Husbandry
Fence building
Vet care
Horse shoeing
Horse and dog training
Varmint control
Tractor and truck mechanics
Electrical wiring
Weed control
Concrete work

And at our ranch, you also have to include:
wood cutting
spring water

So, how am I doing? If I were climbing Everest, I'd just now be getting to base camp, and I'm two years into this.

Animal Husbandry
Ross's arms and hands are too big. So, I'm signed up for AI (artificial insemination) school in April. All I know about AI is that it's a way to get our cows pregnant utilizing my arm inside a very big rubber glove. I've heard that women are very good at AI because our arms are smaller. I'm just worried that mine aren't long enough. Have you ever seen a cow up close?

In the meantime, we have a very nice trio of bulls (Larry, Mo, and Curly) who are more than happy to take care of our girls. Something tells me they're better equipped to deal with the necessaries than I am.

Other things I've learned . . . When a turkey hen looks like she's dying, she really just wants some. Whatever you do, don't get between a "dying" turkey hen and her Tom. He's serious and so is she. Turkeys are bigger than you think. Look closely at their heads and legs. These things are definitely related to dinosaurs. If turkeys were as big as people, people would no longer be on this planet.

It takes all my body weight to hold down a newborn calf. They are not small and they kick with amazing precision. The place you want to watch out for is your crotch.

Fence Building
After building literally miles of fence, this is actually something I am now expert at. You can tell I've had a lot of hands on practice because all of my jeans and shirts now have holes. Barbed wire is not friendly to clothing. I can pound steel posts into the ground, stretch barbed wire or New Zealand wire (for electric fences), clip wires to posts, and wire and charge an electric fence. Pay attention girls: you are NOT getting OUT.

Vet care
The nearest vets are an hour away from Paradise and bad things can happen anytime. It's best to be prepared. I've watched Ross enough to trust him with my OWN care. He has sutured a bad wound on my horse, treated several illnesses (including an outbreak of Leptospirosis last winter), and most important of all, he knows when to do nothing. Sometimes Nature is the best vet. I've learned to give shots, worm cattle, bottle-feed newborns, monitor births (and help when necessary), and lots more. The hardest part of my job as ranch vet is to make the decision to end an animal's suffering.

Cows have tough skin. That's a BIG needle.

Farming and Haying
Animals don't fast in the wintertime. So, we have to grow a lot of hay for winter feed. I've always loved power tools. Now that I can drive tractors and run really big equipment, I'm UNSTOPPABLE. Sometimes, I face reality. Like the time I ran my tractor over the harrow and got the harrow wound around the back tire. Harrows are big. Tractor tires are big. So, it was a big problem. Lesson learned: do not turn too sharply when you are pulling equipment. I love it all, but my favorite piece of equipment to date is the hay wagon. What an amazing example of engineering. It picks up bales off the field, collects them in a row, throws them onto the wagon, lines them up neatly, then stands them in a stack and drops them on the ground wherever you want your haystack. All with no dedicated engine and only very well orchestrated moving parts driven by the tractor.

Ross is running the swather to cut hay.

Aluminum is a girl's best friend. Those pipes are LONG, and I'm lucky to be able to move them but only if I'm right in the middle so I balance the length perfectly. When we're irrigating, the irrigation lines have to be moved every day. We have a 1/4 mile wheel line that uses a motor and drives itself. That's nice! But we also have lots of pipe that has to be moved by hand. Are you not happy with your thighs? Would you like firmer buttocks. Well, I have the perfect thighmaster for you. Walking miles while carrying huge pipes through deep mud will create perfect thighs and buttocks. Don't believe me? Come on out and try it.

All my horse friends pay a farrier to shoe their horses. It's been a while but I remember that bill being as high as $180 and it's something you get done every 6-8 weeks. We have 6 horses and 5 mules. Paying a farrier to keep our animals shod would put us out of business. Ross is our ranch farrier. If you watch him work, you will know why he once worked as a professional. This is one area that I'm not pursuing right now. It takes a lot of physical strength to shoe a horse, and my man is well equipped with that. So, he can keep that job.

Varmint Control
When I first moved here, Ross's cats were old and decrepid and had let the mice take over. I would lie in bed at night and listen to the mice. In the bedroom closet. In the bathroom walls. In the kitchen. On the bookcase. I think you get the picture. That was the beginning. It was good that I started with small varmints and have moved up in the world of varmint control. Lots of cats and a few mouse traps have solved the mouse problem. Then, I moved on to pack rats. They're rats with bushy tails. They're big and very smart. They weren't smart enough for my big rat traps. I now use a gun to get varmints. Coyotes kill and eat our cats, chickens and turkeys. If they have the chance, they'll also kill newborn calves. We don't hunt them in the wildnerness areas; we only shoot them when they're actually on our property. Then our cats visit the body and give it the evil eye and our dog sends a strong message by peeing on the carcass. Clearly, we're not the only ones who think a dead coyote is a good coyote.

My first coyote.

Welding, Truck and Tractor Maintenance, and Hydraulics
I won't live long enough to learn enough about these skills to be functional. But I can make brownies and egg custard for Ross to keep him energized while he's working on these problems. He stays very focused and works hard while he looks forward to hearing the sound of the ranch bell and me yell, "It's Brownie Time!" I hate to cook, but he gets a lot done when I make goodies, so it's worth it. And then I can admire the rebuilt hay wagon, the hay fork he built from scratch, the rebuilt truck beds, and the little things that make my life easier, like the steps into the cab on my tractor. When it comes to tractors and farm equipment, nothing is made for women. That's why it's necessary for a cowgirl to have a very good cowboy.

Carpentry, plumbing & electrical
Our house at Paradise was originally built a LONG time ago and the barn was built in 1890. Ross likes to fix things instead of tearing them down and building something new. He's been "fixing" the house and barn for 20 years and he still has a long way to go. The porch needs to go back on the house, the kitchen needs cabinets (with doors), the partially finished wood floor needs to get finished, blinds need to go on the windows, the living room needs to be enlarged so we can actually set up my grand piano (which is currently wrapped up and standing on its side in the hallway), the mudroom needs to get finished so the whole house doesn't serve as the mudroom, and the exterior needs to get finished so it actually looks like someone lives here. I'll be happy if these things get finished; I'll be happy if they don't. We always do what needs to get done first. So, after many years of being without a roof, the old barn is now covered with a red roof. As I type, Ross is working on running electrical throughout the barn and corrals where we work cows. He's installing lights EVERYWHERE so we can work after dark and be safe. One day, I'll even have an electric water heater in the milk parlor, so we don't have to carry buckets of hot water from the house to wash Dicey and the milk equipment every time we milk. Don't worry, we'll never be bored.

Our little house.

Water and wood
Living in a remote place has its unique challenges. There is no city water or gas here. We're lucky to have electricity. I am thankful for it every winter night when I turn on my electric blanket. There are two things that we have to monitor every day: water and wood. Our wood stove is in the basement where it heats the furnace room from which a fan sucks hot air into the house. During winter, the fire can NEVER go out if we want to maintain a comfortable 65 degrees in the house. I enjoy splitting wood, so I keep the stove supplied with wood. My favorite system is our water. Our house literally sits on top of a spring. Ross engineered and built a system that pumps water from the spring into a cistern that supplies the house with water. We have unlimited water most of the year, but during late summer the spring is slow to fill and we sometimes have to choose what gets clean: dishes, clothes, or people. We don't need to roll dice, it's pretty easy to prioritize. When all the dishes are dirty, it's time to run the dishwasher. When we're reduced to working naked, it's time to wash the clothes. When we can't stand to be in the same room with each other, it's time to wash the people.

Stoking the fire so I stay warm.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Ogre and the Princess

Once upon a time there was an ogre who lived all by himself in a little house, on a long road, in a remote wilderness. His faithful dog was his daily companion. His social network consisted of one horse, three mules, three cats, and a flock of chickens. They all had one thing in common: none of them could understand the state of American politics (just for different reasons).

Every day, the ogre went about his work alone and ate his meals alone. There was no one to notice, so he didn't mind being stinky and having a stinky dog.

One day he noticed that even though he had one dog, one horse, three mules, three cats, and a flock of chickens, he was lonely and unhappy. There was no joy in his life. So, he decided to go fishing for a woman who would be compatible. But what kind of woman would be compatible with an ogre? Surely, she had to be a princess. So, he enlisted the help of the internet to locate the very perfect princess.

While the ogre was living lonely and unhappy in his little house, on a long road, in a remote wilderness, there was a very smart princess living in a big house, on a short road, in suburbia.

Every day, the princess went about her hectic work surrounded by lots of hectic people. They all had one thing in common: the commute.

She was unsatisfied and unfulfilled with her busy work and this made her very sad. So sad, in fact, that she got very sick. One day while she was sick, she found a dream in her pocket. She decided the dream in her pocket was much better than her real life. So, she enlisted the help of the internet to locate the perfect farmer who would live in a little house, next to a big red barn, in a lush valley, surrounded by lots of fruits and vegetables.

The ogre had been fishing for many months with no success. He caught several women, but he threw them back as soon as he discovered they were not the perfect princess. Just when he was about to resign himself to his lonely, unhappy life, he got another bite. But this time, there was something different. Could this be his princess? He interviewed her very carefully and decided it was OK for her to visit his little house, on a long road, in a remote wilderness.

The princess was very excited. Could this be her farmer? She wouldn't know until she met him, so she packed carefully (taking her bird book) and embarked on a long journey to discover the truth.

The ogre was petrified. What would the princess think of his little house? He plumped up his lumpy bed, scrubbed the floor, wiped the dead flies off the window sills, and hung the bedroom door. Then he made a bed for himself in the kennel with his dog. Just before the princess arrived, he washed from head to toe and put on a shirt without holes.

The princess's heart was pounding when she finally reached a little house. A stinky dog greeted her and then a - very - big - ogre. Her heart pounded more. Should she run? This wasn't a little house, next to a big, red barn, in a lush valley, surrounded by lots of fruits and vegetables. This was a little house with no paint, a barn with no roof, sage brush instead of lush, and not a crop in sight. What should she do?

She fell in love. It didn't happen overnight. It happened on a tractor. It was a very big, very noisy, very scary tractor. But very patiently and very gently, the ogre taught the princess how to drive the tractor. And the princess fell in love with his kind voice, gentle touch, and patient spirit.

But the ogre wasn't sure if the princess would be happy living with an ogre. He watched very carefully. She broke her fingernails without complaining, castrated calves without wincing, and walked miles without stopping. Could she really be a princess?

Then one day, the princess put on a pair of Wrangler jeans. The ogre stared at the princess and the princess stared back. The world had changed! The ogre wasn't an ogre after all. He was a cowboy. And the princess wasn't a princess after all. She was a cowgirl.

Together, they bought a herd of cows, and now their home is the little house, on a long road, in a remote wilderness. And it's Paradise.

The end