Author Archives: John

THE OLD FARMER’S ALMANAC

The real old boys who found their weather in the stars,
within explosive storms on the sun, years in advance—
would be dismayed with how we farm today.
 
My father’s shadow, I followed disc and tractor straining
to turn the earth, blackbirds diving like swarming sea gulls
behind us, as we broke clods in lace-up boots to test the soil.
 
Trading energy, no one cultivates today to turn green weeds 
and stinging nitrogen back into the ground—no one marks-out
furrows in sandy loam, no one irrigates with a hoe.
 
We spray chemicals (‘herbicides’ sounds nice and friendly)
in the naked space between the trunks of vines and trees.
We run trillions of miles of black plastic for a sip in drips
 
to save water for more crops we can seldom sell at a profit.
Still the perpetual motion of new money: each depreciation
offsetting taxes for urban investors on the next farm 
 
they sell to one another like summer homes and yachts.
Why bother to predict tomorrow’s weather when farms
change hands in a swirl of smoke and yellow steel? 

NEW DAY

Hope rises from dark despair,
the jagged edge of acrimony
hurriedly honed in fear—
 
a pause to lay swords down,
for the blood to crust
and contemplate alternatives.
 
Are we conscripted warriors
for opposing forces,
or free to reclaim our sanity,
 
to nurture and heal
with the real work
the sun awaits?
 
 
            Well, while I’m, here I’ll do the work—
            And what’s the work?
            To ease the pain of living.
            Everything else, drunken dumbshow.
                        - Allen Ginsberg (“Memory Gardens”)

DECK POEM 11.17.20

Who needed drugs and alcohol
when you were a kid
shaping thunderheads
 
into dragons and the like—
who needed any more
than what the sky provided?

NOVEMBER 2020

One more cigarette
for the young dog
to piss and poop,
 
to explore the garden,
check-out the squirrel holes
before I load her up.
 
One more cigarette
to let the split oak set
before I stack it.
 
One more cigarette
and a cup of old coffee
to inhale November.
 

HALLOWEEN

Dark morning chill stirs the flesh
to welcome winter waiting
for flaming tongues 
to lick between
dry Manzanita branches
igniting Blue oak 
in the woodstove’s glow.
 
I recall storms, the floods
and endless downpours,
creek too high to cross
for thirty days and pray
for anything wet enough
to start the grass
for cows and calves—
 
for my sanity, something
akin to normal
in these crazy days
of politics and pandemic—
something to trust 
as right as rain—
something to believe in.

Wagyu X Calves

After about a dozen years of breeding our heifers to Wagyu bulls for Snake River Farms, we have noticed a distinct difference in their behavior as compared to our English calves, predominantly Angus with some Hereford heterosis.  The Wagyu cross is more active.  They find their legs earlier, within a week or less running and playing together, and within two weeks or so, chasing one another in gangs.   

Essentially in our front yard, we have the luxury of watching them in the pasture racing ahead of their mothers in the morning to the water trough, and then in bunches, circling at full speed as their mothers drink—and again in the evenings before their mothers move up the hill to graze.  Never the same antics twice, it’s good entertainment with coffee or a cocktail.  

With a smaller calf, we opted for the Wagyu bulls so that we could breed our yearling heifers on time. Holding our replacement heifers until they were two before we bred them was almost impossible—always an English bull around looking for more work at a time that their larger calves, if they could have them, would come at the wrong time of year for our country—those heifers out-of-sync with our breeding program.  

The Wagyu X calves also seem more secure in bunches, forming large nurseries while their mothers are away. After 2 weeks of bonding in a canyon away from the main bunch, the mother of the twins brought them in on Monday, a feed day, pictured in Friday’s post with 22 other calves using alfalfa for soft bedding until the cows returned to clean-up all the hay.   

Another trait that makes it difficult at times to pair a calf with its mother is that the Wagyu X calves are persistent when it comes to stealing milk.  Sometimes they wait until a heifer is nursing its own calf, then sneak in, often from behind, to help out.  Other times they will badger a heifer until she finally gives up.  This usually takes place when the calves get older with bigger appetites.    

Even so, maturing from heifers to cows, we are continually amazed and proud of the maternal instincts we see in our first-calf heifers—making our job so much easier.

THE COUNT

It’s an art
countin’ cattle,
‘specially calves—
it takes concentration
to keep a mind closed
to everything else
and get the same answer
twice.
 
Dad maintained
that the simpler the mind
the more dependable
the count—
the only excuse
I’ve got.


							

Good News Update

Trying to keep track of the twin calves since my “Good News” post took a little extra time and effort because their mother didn’t come into hay with all the rest of the first-calf heifers.  Several times I glassed the area where I found them on the 9th, but with little luck.  On Monday the 12that the place where they were born, I found her with two other heifers with newborn calves.  I spent some time with them while searching the down oak limbs for the missing twin only to report to Robbin and the crew that she’d probably lost one of the calves.

Two days later at my desk in the middle of the afternoon, I caught some movement on the hillside outside my window and went to the door to see a coyote chased by Buster, our German Shepherd/Great Pyrenees drop-off, disappear over the rise.  After a couple of minutes of prolonged barking, I was worried for the dog and reached for my rifle by the door as three coyotes came running down the fence at me.  So fat and big, I thought they were mottled wild pigs at first, then entertained a fleeting notion that they might be wolves, running by me so close I couldn’t find them in my scope before disappearing.  

But the old, old Border Collie Jack and Boo, a Blue Healer drop-off, had headed them off and brought two back.  In retrospect, the twenty-plus first-calf heifers may have helped turn them around. Long-haired and well-fed, these were not native coyotes, but refugees from the pines, either the SQF Complex or Creek Fires. They were lost, and more than likely, the cows north of the house had propelled all three in our direction. With no way of knowing, I wanted to blame them for the missing calf.

With cooler temperatures and older calves, the cows are edging higher up the hill for our remaining old feed between our twice-a-week feed days.  Yesterday, after Bob and Allie laid some hay down for the first-calf heifers, Robbin and I took the Kubota up the hill to locate the rest of the heifers.  As we came back down, we spotted three cows and four calves in an inaccessible spot as they were deciding which way to come off the ridge where I had photographed the twins on the 9th.  

We gathered up some flakes of hay and met them at the bottom, two new pairs, the twins and their mother.

OCTOBER

Nap-time nurseries
beneath the sycamores,
babysitting cows
relieve one another
to eat and drink.

Those without calves
recline with bellies bulging,
thrust painfully skyward
like over-inflated
black beach balls—

            all await the green
            soft-stemmed alfalfa—
            await new life,
            await a rain

to settle dust underfoot
as they graze short-cropped
dry feed into the dirt

            awaiting new life—
            seed awaiting rain.

The long range forecast
confirms our superstitions,
but like a no-hitter
we dare not mention yet—

until the dark hole
in the barn grows larger,
until the canyon fills
with echoing complaints,
the agonizing song
of cows begging,
calf solos in the distance.

Good News

Robbin reminds me that my last photo of the decapitated heron was not appropriate in these grizzly times of increasing Covid deaths and chaotic politics.  I thought it fit the poem, but…

Four days ago, I came upon two heifers that had just calved in a canyon well-apart from the bunch, one heifer with twins and a big coyote lurking within 50 feet, watching the process.  Any cow with new twins is especially vulnerable, ultimately unable to protect them both.  Fortunately, she had the other heifer nearby. I scattered a little hay.  Robbin and I checked on them that evening and all was well.    

More often than not, a cow will abandon the weaker calf to take care of the other.  I returned first thing Tuesday morning to see two cows and two calves from a distance, but as I approached them, I saw that the heifer with twins was gone, replaced by another heifer with an older calf for protection, I assume.  I scattered more hay and checked all around to find no other cattle.

Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning I checked all the first-calf heifers in the bunch, but the cow with twins was not among them.  We fed on Thursday, and still the heifer with twins was missing.  I assumed she left the area with her two Wagyu X calves, less than a day old, during the night, because of the coyote.  

This morning I went looking and finally found her and both calves secreted in the rocks on a steep slope, fine and healthy.  It occurs to me that she also needed time to bond with the twins that might have been lost and confused in the nursery of over 20 calves, had she returned to the security of the other mothers. After fifty years living with cows, I continue to be amazed and admire the intelligence of cattle, especially cows. 

On my way to town afterwards, I heard Elizabeth Cook on Sirius suggest that we look away from the news and focus locally instead.  How right she is! We’ll see how long it takes the heifer with twins to come off the hill, hopefully with both.