Another cold dry front
rests upon the tops of hills,
shapeless clouds, a haze
upon steep south slopes,
red clay like brick—
green pales to gray
as we brand calves
one by one
we may sell early
with their mothers.
I brace against the familiar
drama, growing numb
as my stiff new rope
slides through the palm
of time’s softened hand,
warming as it searches
for my frayed
I quote my elders
dead and gone
as they visit
the branding pen.
Don’t worry, Dofflemyer,
E. J.’d say.
It’s gonna rain.
It takes years to get here
with cows we like—
as we discuss
of who goes first
and who gets what’s left
Of the two of us,
I am the dreamer
you have allowed me
as I grow gray.
To date, we have 3.17″ of precipitation since September 21, 2017.
We’ve been watching the 10-day weather developments for today’s forecast rain that seems to have intensified slightly in both probability and amount, temporarily opening the storm door for a larger event by late week. For those interested, a more comprehensive assessment of North America’s weather is available at Daniel Swain’s weather blog. We’ll be dancing tonight.
Determined, the creek runs steady yet without rain,
last season leaking through cracks of granite joined,
braided currents turning small bellies up to flash and flare
in the mottled sunlight—passing clouds, dry storms.
It streams a canyon of skeletons, barkless half-trunks
corralled by windrows of fallen limbs, oak trees
crumbling, to deliver its addled chants, mumbled news
to thirsty orchard rows of certain death upstream.
West slopes wear last year’s feed, palomino tufts
dappled with strongminded green graying daily,
deep-rooted seed of filaree, its crimson leaves
turn purple before baring the crisp color of dirt.
Like the trees and grasses, we may melt down
to dust, be blown away to stick in wetter places.
But like good dogs sure, we pray for a change
in the weather—if it hasn’t already, for the worse.
I have an aversion to using someone else’s labels, especially when they are bantered about in the political arena, but wildflowers here at the first of February are unusually early. Temperatures for the past 10 days have been over 70 degrees, no rain in sight.
We are half-way through our rainy season with slightly over 3 inches of precipitation to date when our annual rainfall averages over 15 inches. Four of the last five years have been declared droughts by the USDA, and this season is off to the slowest start since record-keeping began. Sierra snowpack is 14% of normal. Regardless of what you want to call it, our weather, our climate, has become extremely volatile and it is changing.
Blame is a useless exercise at this juncture, I believe, because we must deal with the impacts, whatever and wherever they are, now and adapt—we’re all in this together, like it or not. From a cattleman’s perspective, green grass is short or non-existent, hay extremely hard to find. Water for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley will be expensive or unavailable this coming growing season. The price of food will increase for everyone.
I want to thank freelance journalist Carson Vaughan for bringing the topic of ‘Climate Change’ to the foreground as he interviewed people at the recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. I predicted that 7 out of 10 would be in denial. I truly hope I was wrong!
Oftentimes during a year of stress, some Blue Oaks shut down, loose their leaves, only to come back to life the following season. But our 4-year drought was too much and too long for whole slopes of oaks, despite above-average rainfall this season. Now, as the survivors begin to leaf-out, the casualties are fairly easy to distinguish. Most, it seems, are below 2,000 feet in elevation on north to west-facing hillsides. As these trees have been here all my life, I’m guessing they are over 100 years old, but most have probably been here less than 200 years. Usually at the top of these slopes is an older tree, or remnants of an older tree, a grandfather oak that provided the acorns.
(Facebook viewers can enlarge the photo by linking to the blog)
I thought it appropriate to offer a ‘before and after’ photo of the same hillside that’s on the cover of my ‘Best of the Dry Years’ (at the top of the column on the right) taken in September 2013. There was no improvement in feed conditions until the spring of 2016.
Dry Creek is running over 500 cfs this morning @ 6:00 a.m., after over an inch of rain in the past two days, over 6” for the first half of January—10 consecutive days of measurable precipitation—it’s wet! Any plans to cross the creek to fix fences and sort cattle won’t happen today. Furthermore, the moisture is deep, a good thing, but the only vehicle we have to get to the fence work will be the Kubota and I’d prefer to wait until Dry Creek is running less than 100 cfs.
Oh, I know the stories when Earl McKee and his sorrel horse swam the channel to ride five miles to free cattle locked in his Greasy corrals; or Clarence Holdbrooks swimming his red horse to move cattle stranded on the other side of the creek fifty years ago. They are my heroes still. All we have at risk with our current cattle mix-up is that our replacement heifers are running with the neighbor’s steers, at a time of the month, unfortunately, when the majority will be cycling, yet not exposed to the Wagyu bulls. But no livestock is at risk.
According to the 10-day forecast, we have a 5-day window to dry out before the next series of storms begin on the 18th, then 5 more days projected to leave 2.5” of rain. But no one’s complaining, yet, no one’s hollered ‘uncle’.
Not unlike the drought, Robbin and I have been making contingency plans. It dawned on me last night that making a ranch work within all the variables of the weather requires some hands-on creativity—that the art of cattle ranching starts with thinking well-outside the box. C’est la vie!
Weekly Photo Challenge: ‘Ambience’
No other love song, only
the comforting sound of fury
rumbling, rolling, churning
upstream like an old lover
returning to hold and stay
awhile with sycamores,
the boy with single-shot .410
reaching from the far bank
for dove in the top limbs
before the floods of ’67 & ’69
enveloped them, before
our high-water kisses in ’97
shared tears with rain—pure
ecstasy after so long dry.
10:00 a.m., January 8, 2017: 629 cfs
Not quite the storm of the decade, Dry Creek peaked at 1,390 cfs early yesterday morning. As of this morning, accumulated rainfall since the first of the year on lower Dry Creek has been a little over 4 inches, with yet another storm forecast to bring about 1.5″ due midday tomorrow—all welcome.
The continual gray clouds and rain of late seems miraculous when contrasted with the bare hills and dust of the past four years that have been permanently imprinted in our minds as more normal than not. The drought changed our thought processes and how we operate the ranch. And despite the ample availability of water streaming in nearly every canyon, I have often caught myself still worrying about stockwater. It’s how we lived, day to day, for a long time.
It’s good to see the creek running, the literal lifeblood of the canyon, a psychological lift as we inhale the moist air and relax a little before addressing the work that waits ahead of us. We have calves to brand and watergaps to fix as soon as we can physically get to them, when the roads dry out and creek goes down, which probably won’t be until next week if tomorrow’s storm materializes.
Warm green December, grass ahead
of fewer cattle, young bulls work
at making friends in a perfect world
of tight fences and swinging gates
everyone respects for a little while.
On the uneasy edge of drought,
we will imitate fat calves lazing,
content to watch the show unfold
into the ordinary—nothing remarkable,
but with any luck a change for good.