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.

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