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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Rocky Mountain Bee-plant - and other range residents

Rocky Mountain Bee-plant, one of yesterday's attractions
I sometimes wonder why we ever bother making plans. Yesterday morning I made my way up to the house to do the usual online stuff: checking on emails, posting the blog, catching up on sports news... and looking to see whether Rupert Murdoch had been taken off to a dungeon yet, in chains. I’d grabbed a cup of coffee and gone up there early, while it was still tolerably cool. Hadn’t washed, hadn’t eaten, had hardly really dressed. All I had on my mind was getting back down here and starting to write. So I was taken aback when the phone rang and I heard my contact from the National Resource Conservation Service in Valentine asking me if I’d got his message yesterday. What message was that, I asked.

It turned out that he’d called me to say that they were doing a survey of the ranch and ask me if I wanted to come along. Sure, I said, and when is this? We’ll be there in about thirty minutes, he said. 

I made it okay. Showered, changed, ate, packed some lunch in a bag and was waiting for them as they turned in off the highway.

I had quite a day. What these people do – I’m going to call them L and C – is to survey a ranch, using satellite photographs as a basis. Their primary task is to map it – that is, to pinpoint what the photograph doesn’t show: fence lines, wells, gates and windmills.  (I really don’t like that word windmill; those things don’t mill anything. I prefer to call them wind-pumps; but then I have been called a pedant in my time…) They locate these features very precisely with a hand-held gizmo, about the size of an early mobile phone, which communicates with a satellite to get the co-ordinates. They are accurate to within three feet or so.

The day’s work consists mainly of driving along every fence-line and logging the position at every junction or bend.  Around the center pivot that means quite a few stops. On a particularly steep or difficult stretch it means getting out and walking.

While L was doing this, and getting a stiff arm from holding the sensor out over fence-posts, C was in the back seat of the pick-up making notes on the condition of the various sections of pasture, the state of the grasses and herbaceous plants (they call them forbs), the amount of bare soil, and so on, giving them grades of fair, good, or poor, then comparing her assessment with L’s. They rarely differed by more than half a grade point. She would also be tracing lines on her own map, showing where good pasture turned to fair, fair to poor and so on. In addition she would photograph certain features.

L was everything I could have hoped for in terms of answering my questions in full, and then throwing in a whole stack of related information. In my experience any expert, whatever the field, any person who is really absorbed in a subject and knowledgeable on it, is a joy to listen to. And this guy had that one extra thing going for him: he clearly loves what he does.

So I learned a lot – and probably forgot even more, although I did make a lot of notes, and I did write them up as soon as I got back, while I could still decipher my scrawl. I learned that in this part of the world there are four seasons: calving, branding, hunting and winter. I learned to identify such grasses as downy brome, needle and thread and switchgrass – and how to differentiate between that and sand bluestem by the fuzz in the axil; or, in L's phrase, its ‘hairy arm-pit’:

And I learned that all the tree growth along the river, which looks so natural to me, is recent. Until the settlers came, prairie fires would sweep through regularly, burning off the brush.

L has a wonderful job, although he says that his biggest problem is the fact that he works for the government. He told me that people in this part of the world hate the government with a passion, and that his first task is generally to overcome that prejudice. But it’s a small price to pay when you get to spend days like we had out on the open range, then park your vehicle at a spot like this to eat your lunch.

One of the main advantages to the rancher of working with this agency is the expert advice they are given. After a survey such as this, for example, L will compute the ideal number of AUMs (Animal Unit Months) each section of pasture will stand. And he might recommend the installation of another well, or a pipelines to bring water out into a dry spot, partially funded by tax-payers’ dollars. I had assumed that with the river running through it, this ranch had few water problems, but L pointed out that when cattle find a water a source they tend to hang out nearby, and over-graze. So if a rancher can get a number of alternative sources – and divide up some of the huge pastures into smaller lots – they can better assure that the entire range is evenly grazed. The big pastures, he said, are a hangover from the days when a rancher liked to ride his land on horseback and not have to stop to open gates. They’re no longer appropriate.

At one point we passed one of Matt’s lick-tubs – in fact we ran into it, dragged it under the front fender and squashed it. ‘I like to see that,’ L said, when we’d extricated it. ‘Putting a lick-tub well away from the water source. It encourages the cattle to move.’

L’s assistant C must be nineteen or so. She’s a student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I believe she said her course was in grazing and range management. I may have got the wording of that wrong, but you get the idea. She grew up on a ranch just across Highway 61 and is planning to return to it when she marries, then gradually allow her folk to take more of a back seat as she and her husband learn to run it. At some stage during the day the subject of snakes came up. We were at a wind-pump and she was measuring its diameter. L was saying that this was an ideal hang-out for a rattler, with plenty of cover under the weeds, and C remarked that she was bitten – twice – when she was four years old, and almost died. She was rushed to hospital, given one of the two serums available, and turned out to be allergic to it. It took her an awfully long time to recover – several weeks. I have to say I felt reassured when L said that she was the only person he’d ever met who’d been bitten by a rattler.

As well as taking note of what was under their feet, L and C were keeping an eye on things from a more distant perspective, pointing out the subtle change in colour from one side of a fence to another, and interpreting it. In some cases it might have been caused by over-grazing, for example.  L told me that after a hailstorm you can often trace, from a distance, the precise line of its passage by the way the grasses have been cut back.

Our day lasted about six hours. We covered that part of the ranch that lies south of the river, so L and C will be back in a few days to look at the north side, and have invited me to join them once more. As we drove up to the house I discovered that C had a secret – not that she revealed it herself. It was L who mentioned it. Mercy was her first vehicle, and it was her father who sold it to Kitty’s dad three or four years ago. I didn’t tell her that I suspect Mercy is in terminal decline. It seemed ungracious.

To the casual observer, ranching looks pretty simple. You buy a patch of grazing, put cattle on it and watch them grow. I’ve learned over the last few months that it’s a little more complex than that, but yesterday’s outing revealed factors that would never have entered my head.

Today has started out nice and cool - 62 degrees at six o’clock. I’m hoping it stays that way, because I really have to get some writing done.