1. move or jump suddenly or rapidly upward or forward.
synonyms: leap, jump, bound, vault, hop
And so it begins.
Spring brings with its new life and youthful vigor a mad dash for all those in the ag industry- this is the time to capitalize on cool temperatures, spring rains, and new melting snow pack. With our own snow pack at 150% of our normal, we've been eager (as we are every year) to get all of our irrigation systems up and running to take full advantage of every bit of water we can!
If only it were so simple.
[ BRINGING THE HERD IN ]
Spring also means moving the herd onto their summer graze- which for us means two weeks of hauling cows and calves from winter fields, working them in the corral, and then trailering them to their fields. Most people are familiar with the concept of the cattle drive, but since we keep our herds on pastured ground year round in two different valleys, a cattle drive would be quite impractical for our locale and model. (The romantic side of me gets a bit wistful at the loss, but my practical side gets excited every time we improve on our efficiency in this seemingly monumental undertaking.) This job is pretty much an "all hands on deck" kinda job, so everything else more or less gets put on hold for these two weeks!
[ IRRIGATION PREP ]
We use both flood irrigation and sprinkle irrigation to keep our fields healthy and growing. Our goal is to get all of our fields to the much more efficient sprinkle irrigation systems to be more conservative and balanced with our water use. Flood irrigating is also much more labor intensive and requires a constant assessment of the needs of each individual field which shifts as spring warms into summer- temperatures rise and as summer wears on, water supply slows.
Through the winter, our herds graze and calve on our grass fields. We protect our wheel lines and hand lines from the cows by pushing them up against the fenceline, securing them in place and then erecting a temporary hotwire fence for the winter.
That's one thing I had never given any thought to before I started ranching- exactly how hard cows are on everything. They are really just big blundering eating machines. There are, essentially, three questions a cow asks when evaluating objects present in her environment:
1} Is it food?
2} Is it good for scratching?
3} Is it going to chase me or move?
Fences and wheel lines, if you'd like to know, are GREAT scratchers.
But I digress.
Those temporary fences need to be removed completely from the field, which means all hot wire is rolled up and stored and all posts pulled and stored or moved to another use. Once the fence and all accoutrements are removed from the field, the line can be moved into position. This requires a rudimentary check of all sprinklers and other parts to see if we can catch anything that got broken before turning the line on, as well as straightening the entire line. Not all fences/fields are perfectly straight of course, so some require we dissemble parts of the line to fit more closely to the fence- which then need to be reassembled in the spring! Once the line is prepped, it needs to be flushed of any mud or critters that may have holed up for winter inside.
It's not a terribly difficult job to be sure, but it does take considerable time- especially when you have several wheel lines to attend to!
Sprinkle irrigation prep is a very mechanical job.
Flood irrigation prep is much more intimate to the land. The land itself shifts and changes in minor ways every year, but some of those changes can add up to significant impacts on water distribution. The patterns of the herd movements through the winter, particularly in the early spring when the ground is soft impacts not only the ditches, which get corroded by cattle walking them in and need to be corrected every few years, but also areas within the fields themselves- which you often won't notice until you begin irrigating and find new dry spots. The same problem arises with heavy equipment on soft ground- suddenly you may have new "ditches" in the middle of your field diverting your water.
The mechanical side of prepping a field for flood irrigating is relatively simple. You make your tarp dams- maybe you've seen those blue or orange canvas tarps in ditches- cutting the roll to the size of each post you will use, delivering all those tarps to your field and distributing them as needed. Some fields have ditches that need more heavy correction, so that's where the heavy equipment comes into play to build up those banks. Or maybe your field uses gated pipe to irrigate- so those need to be flushed as well, and turned back into position or put together entirely, depending on the field. Ours range in size from 6in to 10in diameters and you can certainly feel the difference in the weight! All the gaskets need to be checked, as well as the gates to ensure you've got the maximum possible control of your water and pressure.
As mentioned, though, the land has changed over the winter and you don't know what changes will affect what areas of your field and how significantly. So even though you may get all the pieces in place to put water onto the field, prepping for irrigating has only just begun. Now the real work begins- and it's mainly a LOT of digging. Shovel work to correct the path of water, redistributing heavy flow areas across dry. Finding and fixing old weaknesses and new. Figuring out what tarp placement will optimize your water flow for each particular set. If the ground is weak in a particular place- meaning a lack of grass root holding the topsoil in place- the goal is to slow the flow so as to not lose topsoil. That calculation also has to take into account how far the water has to travel over the next 24 hours- which obviously also changes if you're on a hill or on flat ground. Suffice it to say, you'll likely still be "prepping" some of your fields for irrigation long into summer - and you'll have ample opportunity to fine-tune after the first and second cuttings.
[ WEED CONTROL ]
Along with those lovely temperatures and spring rains come the weeds- fortunately, if you've done the work of irrigating, you'll hold them at bay on the fringes of your fields, no other work required. This is one of many reasons we work so hard to get water on every inch of ground. The places that don't see water are inevitably plagued with thistles and the dreaded white top. This requires more digging within the field to target those dry sections- whether with a shovel or a V-ditcher more or less depends on when you can get to it. A V-ditcher on a tractor is simply not practical on recently irrigated ground or on taller grass, so for irrigating purposes before the grass is harvested or grazed down enough to use that big equipment, that trusty shovel is an irrigator's best friend.
In the middle of your fields though, the better solution in to just hack those thistles down with your shovel. Again, still another reason we so highly value the equitable use of water on our fields!
Needless to say, we have been BUSY and will continue to be so until our irrigation systems stabilize and we fall into our regular rhythms. The fields are such a glorious green, with particularly deep and luscious grass this spring- I'm excited to see what the first cutting will bring and what other projects we can accomplish with the support these cool temperatures and spring rains have afforded us!
We are all hearing a lot about grass-fed beef these days and from the sounds of it, it's being put out there as the most healthy, conscientious way to produce and consume beef. But frankly, this is a gross oversimplification with a whole lot of gray area in the phrase "grass-fed".
For one thing, pretty much all beef is "grass-fed". It is the simplest, most natural and cheapest way to feed cattle while they grow and mature, so to have anything but grass-fed in the first 6 months of life would just be inefficient and wasteful across the board. So let's clarify here that what they are really talking about when they're using the term "grass-fed" is "grass-finished", which is finishing out a steer on an exclusive grass-diet.
The most important thing when deciding what type of finishing you are looking for in your beef is to know what is available, what the terms actually mean, what that translates to in terms of your food experience and what it means for the animal. At the end of the day I think we are all looking for the same things- quality of life for ourselves and others, responsible care of our environment, good health and an understanding of what goes into the food that lands on our tables.
There are a few different ways to finish beef, but here I will cover only three. There is plenty of information out there that goes into greater detail/depth on this subject, so this will be a very basic overview targeted to those who are unfamiliar with the subject.
First, the conventional way has been to raise calves on grass to weaning. The calves are then sold to a mass feedlot where they are finished out on a grain diet. Because this is where the bulk of the beef produced winds up, it becomes a numbers game- from weight gain to minimizing illness, the sheer numbers require many standardized processes. Most of the beef you'll see in the supermarket or at any fast food or other inexpensive restaurant will come from a feedlot unless specifically marked with the various certifications stating otherwise (think- Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished, Natural Beef, Certified Humane). This route is the most economically efficient way to get inexpensive beef into the hands of consumers. The focus is on quantity, much less on quality and it is about meeting the demands of a global economy.
Second, and increasing in popularity, is grass-finishing. This is a very conscientious method of finishing beef and the focus is very much in creating a very natural product without the use of all those extras. It takes much longer to finish an animal exclusively on grass- about 4-6 months longer (I mean, how quickly do YOU gain weight eating salads vs. salads and carbs?). These animals are generally maintained in beautiful pastoral settings with conscientious ranchers engaged on a much more individualized level with each animal. The focus is on optimal health and life experience for the animal to create beef that is leaner and has a solid nutrient profile. Grass-finished beef will likely taste a bit different and indeed be leaner than the typical grain-finished animal.
Let's talk now about what we do- or what we mean when we say pasture-raised beef. While we do finish some of our beef on grass, it is more expensive to produce due to the longer finishing time- and many of our customers prefer the taste of a grain-finished animal. Our steers spend their whole lives with access to improved pasture. They dine on native pasture grasses conscientiously irrigated by each year's melting snowpack (a source that is renewable thru natural weather systems rather than water pumped from aquifers millions of years in the making) to keep the natural grass and clover thick and lush, which naturally chokes out excessive weeds. For the last 90 days or so before they go to processing, their diet adjusts to a ratio of 30% grain, with 70% maintained on the natural pasture grasses. This enables us to maintain a nutrient profile as close to the grass-fed side as possible, reduce finishing time by a significant margin and provide that individualized, pastoral experience that honors the animal and the land in a sustainable way. The grain creates tender, well-marbled beef that melts in your mouth and needs no more than salt and pepper to bring out the rich, buttery flavor.
It's always a bit difficult to answer the question "is your beef grass-fed?" because as you can see, answering requires that the ask-er and the answer-er be speaking the same language with the same definitions. Most often, it is more an opportunity to educate the curious and the interested on our process and share a little of our passion, perspective and priorities- and even on occasion clear up some misconceptions embedded in the question! And trust me when I say that there is a LOT of misinformation out there regarding many aspects of the beef industry. Stick around and we'll share some very interesting research that turns many commonly accepted beliefs about animal agriculture upside down!
The last couple of weeks have been absolutely relentless with these snowstorms. It is nearly March and spring is nowhere in sight- but the weather is so bipolar I'm sure it will suddenly decide to melt off one day and start blooming!
At the beginning of winter we were just hoping and praying for a solid snowpack to lead us into the coming El Nino summer- water is always the question and we need solid irrigation to keep us in grass and hay to harvest for next winter. Last year our snowpack was a bit low, so there were a few winter pasture fields we worried about getting enough water to really get a good graze ready for the herds to come in on from their summer pastures, but by and large they came into some really deep, lush grassy fields. The snow held off for long enough that they maximized the grazing potential of each field. Sometimes if it snows too much too early, all that graze goes to waste because it winds up flattened beneath the snow and becomes much less accessible. This year we needn't have worried- nearly every field was grazed optimally before the first real snow.
The other part of that concern is the hay already stored up for the winter season- and in our case, banked for following years. After a summer like this one, the question is whether or not you'll have to buy feed. It is vital in these cold months that cows get enough to eat, and of nutrient and protein-dense feed. Not only does it keep them at a healthy weight and nutritionally healthy, it gives them energy and helps to keep them, and in turn, their calves, warm. Fortunately, we have been able to harvest enough over the past two years that we have hay banked for a year such as this- a cold winter following a dry summer. Not every rancher has been as lucky, and at the current prices of $160 per ton (one ton feeds about 60-65 head per day), it can get truly painful.
When I was a kid, I remember the weather worries of all the local farmers- but it pretty much all seemed focused on rain. I don't recall ever hearing any emphasis on the importance of snowpack, but then again all I remember feeling about winter was that it was terribly inconvenient. I truly did not appreciate how much everything in agriculture is impacted by the weather, from the day to day to full seasons and even years.
After a worrisome December and January, the snowpack had built enough that it appeared irrigation would be manageable, but not ideal. We are in the last week of February now and the snowpack in our region is over 120% of the normal range. So I'm finally ready to let out the breath I've been holding over snowpack- but now the worries for our new calves in the cold and the wet are ready to take the place of snowpack concerns.
I don't love rolling around on my quad in icy or slushy fields and roads in twenty degree temperatures, my hands and face freezing, my breath condensing on my eyelashes and my nose hairs freezing. But all it takes is one brief moment picturing these very wet, wide-eyed calves being expelled from the warm confines of their mothers' wombs into this same world I complain about from within my layers of warm and dry Carhartts to get me rushing out the door every single morning to help the team check every field and make sure all is well. Every day that we find healthy, happy calves nestled in the feedline is a victory- and every time we find a calf or cow in distress we have an immediate opportunity to resolve that distress. All it takes is getting our eyes on the problem in time.
Winter is a harsh season, but once the initial checks for the morning are done, its quietness and beauty are worth a pause to simply absorb. For all the worry and the inconvenience, there is always a moment in there to let the stillness of the snowfall blanketing the earth suspend time, to sit quietly and watch as the cows lick their nestled babies. To listen to them low gently, talking to their new little ones. To watch the older calves kick up their heels and frolic in pure, unbridled joy at this big, new world to explore. To breath in the crisp air and just be there fully in that moment.