After gathering and processing our Wagyu X calves with a second round of vaccinations, we shipped our first load off to Snake River Farms in Melba, Idaho yesterday. Though grateful we have work to do apart from the growing death toll of the pandemic, it’s been difficult to mentally adjust to this down market as a result of all the Covid-19 related problems in the beef distribution pipeline. Even with the generous premium offered by SRF, payment for the calves is well short of what they brought in 2018.
For the most part, Covid-19 has not changed our activities very much. With another load of Wagyu X calves to ship plus gathering, weaning and hauling our Angus calves to the auction yard yet ahead of us, we have plenty on our plate to keep our minds and bodies occupied as we face tough times in the market. Selling our calves is normally a joyous time, but it’s been hard to get excited this year.
Since mid-March, the impact of Covid-19 on everyone has evolved. We go to town less often, carry what’s left of our hand sanitizer since Elko, practice social distancing with outsiders and adjust to the shortages of basic consumer goods, the reality of which hangs like a dark cloud over everyone’s mental state in these uncertain times. Under these circumstances, it’s been difficult for me, and I suspect others, to maintain a healthy attitude.
Normally a daily exercise, I haven’t completed a poem for three weeks, even though I’ve started plenty. The words seem hackneyed, far from insightful or uplifting. But Robbin brings her guitar out to the deck in the evening and we sing covers of songs we like into the canyon as we try to capture the feelings of Merle Haggard, Gillian Welch, John Prine or Guy Clark to lift our spirits. For us, it’s time to sing.
Blessed are we with the diversions
of spring in bloom: colored orchestrations
of multisyllabic assonance rhyming
with short-clipped awe: an ever-changing tune
that steals the senses midst tumultuous times.
Blessed are we to be alive with work to do.
Always the War to measure the world by:
patriotic hawks enlisting reluctant doves
as fodder that shocked us into an explosion
of lyrics and melodies—an awakening
for music, a renaissance for humanity
we pray may come this way again soon.
The telephone line goes cold;
birds tread it wherever it goes.
– William Stafford (“The Farm on the Great Plains”)
He was old, but younger than I am today,
digging earthworms for a rusty coffee can,
cane pole and cork bobber for the bass hole
on the Kaweah where he pumped water
for summer pasture before the Flood of ‘55
took it all, but memories, downstream.
In those days, we were rich with time to spend
on foolishness, watching water and bobber
in the warm morning’s sunshine. I call
back occasionally, but there is no ring
on the other end for anyone to answer,
no one left at home, no fish in the bass hole.
All that was missing was a single-action Colt .45 revolver when I visited Rite Aid early this morning, my hands slathered in hand sanitizer entering and exiting the drug store. With few customers and all employees wearing facemasks behind Plexiglas shields, and me with my bandana—my hearing aids picked up some distant chuckles, but I felt safe enough.
In our culture of comfort and convenience, Covid-19 is teaching us all how things really work. I caught snippets of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s address to the nation yesterday. No preppie politician, Perdue’s Southern drawl appeared to have a rural, hands-on appeal when he says that there is plenty of food for all and that bare-shelved grocery stores are a result of a demand problem, not a supply problem, as dairymen dump milk and farmers plow their crops. $15.5 billion has been earmarked to purchase ‘milk and other protein products’ to help bolster the Ag markets. An obvious question is whether or not the USDA will take possession of these commodities. Beef and pork producers, and the USDA, have nowhere to go with the livestock as feedlots are backed-up because packing plants for both have been shuttered due to the Coronavirus.
The cattle market has been in a tailspin since the Trump Administration’s trade wars with China and other countries. Now touting billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out American farmers, $62 million has already gone to Brazil’s JBS SA, the largest meatpacker in the world whose owners, the Batista brothers, have spent time in jail for corruption and are currently under Justice Department probes. JBS SA Just how this will shake out is anyone’s guess.
We’ve been busy gathering our Wagyu calves for a second round of vaccinations as required by our contract with Snake River Farms. Normally, this is the time of year that we lock-in a price for the calves we are contracted to sell to Snake River, to be weighed and shipped at least two weeks after their vaccinations. Our calves will be lighter than last year after virtually no rain in January and February. Normally, our feed year ends around the 15th of May, leaving us 30 days to agree on a price. We’re watching the market with nowhere else to go, but nothing is normal, the deck has been shuffled.
with rain enough to restore
dry hills green again.
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams.
– Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Land of Nod”)
Gray days, low clouds hide
green horizons, the divide
between us and the bizarre
business of Coronavirus
nightly counting corpses
like sheep to fall asleep
in the Land of Nod.
Sequestered among the heavy
heads of Fidddleneck
bowing wet with rain,
our dreams unchanged:
sweet grass enough to keep
cattle fat and happy,
to keep us hungry with
high hopes for humanity.
Watching the corrals from a distance:
young men a horseback dancing in the sort
of cows from calves before branding
amid a discordant chorus, the same
plaintive song of years worn thin
that holds the heart in place as the eyes
fade and the mind wanders a far
ridge searching for the first split
in the trail that leads to this short
moment of chance and circumstance—
apart and beyond the world’s fear and all
the raw conflicts that feed it senseless.
A man rides by the seat of his pants,
pockets of memory that reach for the rhythm
of a horse collected, the singing twine.
Through the cerise redbuds and wildflowers awaiting sunshine to fully bloom, our slow hour’s drive up Dry Creek, then descending a curvy 245 to the entrance of Woolley Canyon, we arrived to brand the last of Kenny and Virginia McKee’s calves yesterday, despite concerns of Covid-19. Social distancing is virtually impossible in the branding pen.
Virginia had soap and wipes available and Kenny had prepared a concoction of 90% alcohol and witch hazel to spray on our hands that I used several times. It took the dirt off as well. Though apprehension varied among us, there was none of the normal hugs or handshakes, most keeping a noticeable distance when possible. But when it came to the groundwork and vaccinations, the work was necessarily close.
My separate apprehension on my 72nd birthday centered on a horse that I had roped on only once before. Robbin and I have outlived our dependable mounts, and I have had to borrow horses to get through this year’s branding season. By the end of the day, “Twist” was beginning to overcome his cutting horse breeding and he and I were having fun. After a couple of more brandings next year, he’ll be reliable at brandings.
Though everyone was given the option of not participating, we were there to help our neighbors, a cultural exercise we all prescribed to despite the risks. Not unlike workers tending and harvesting crops, it’s what we do this time of year. Not branding is not a viable choice in Woolley Canyon.
Working together with neighbors for a few hours on a beautiful day was a luxurious diversion from the news as we await a forecast rain.
I am traveling with a crowd on foot,
steep country new to me.
Arriving at the summit early
I follow the long ridge east
before returning to see the group has left.
I track them west to catch up
in a strange new world of wonders
where they are eating in a huge room,
cafeteria-style, but with glittering celebration,
streamers and bunting.
Across the room I see a familiar face
I thought was long dead
and hurry towards him, a short man
more full of energy than I remember.
He wants to show me around
and I follow, dazzled by all I see—
landscapes carved with care, misty
waterfalls and rivers running trout.
Growing weary, I can’t keep up,
and see him last descend a cliff
of loose dirt, brush and rock
like a young buck. I am afraid
and choose the long way ‘round
until I’m lost in the expanse
of a modern metropolis
of gray skyscrapers and elevated
thoroughfares from one horizon
to another. I stop blank-faced strangers
to ask directions to the place
where we first arrived, to family
and friends, to where I met him.
When I awake panicked, I am full
of his energy, stepping lightly
on the carpet instead of plodding
in the dark, tossing another stick
into the woodstove without pain.
Yesterday, Robbin and I began our 26th year together by making a loop through Greasy to look at the cows and calves, assess our feed conditions and put out salt and mineral. The cattle look great! We got an early start to the grass with November and December rains, but with a dry January and February, we lost our feed at our lower elevations on the south and west slopes. To date, we’ve only received three inches since the first of the year, but the grass at the higher elevations has just begun to grow.
A Border Collie at five months, it was Tessa’s first extended ride in the Kubota away from the house. Channeling her energy has been a challenge, but she’s smart and willing to please. It was good for her to be completely lost away from home and dependent on us for over four hours. Tired before she went to bed last night, she was sitting in the Kubota waiting for another ride.
Not much has changed for us, despite the Coronavirus pandemic. Normally, we do our best to stay out of town anyway. Before we have to get our Wagyu calves in for a second round of vaccinations, we’ve been preparing and planting our garden for the past couple of weeks—it’s what we do this time of year—that in turn will help us stay out of town later this spring.
However, we are not immune to the news as we try to imagine millions of people shut in their living quarters in a big city environment. Our hearts go out to them as we realize how fortunate we are to be free to move around the ranch to get our work done. Having something to do during this crisis is indeed a luxury.