agriculture, photography, Uncategorized

Branding

Smith Branding 2017-48

As spring winds down and summer begins, ranchers in Wyoming begin the time-tested tradition of branding their cattle.  Branding predates our state, and is still the most reliable method of marking cattle for identification.

How a cattleman organizes his branding is as unique as the actual brand itself.  Some families choose the traditional route of roping calves out of a herd with horses and cowboys.  Others choose to use a chute and table, eliminating the need for horses.  Some features are a matter of necessity, others of tradition.  Some ranch branding probably don’t look all that different than they might have 100 years ago, save for a iron heated by propane instead of a wood fire.

But some things don’t change.  No matter where you go, you’ll find neighbors helping neighbors.  Kids work side-by-side with their parents, learning how to brand, rope and even castrate the bull calves.  Socializing with friends and family.  Earthy smells.  Petty squabbles.  Cussing.  Laughter.  And food.  Lots and lots of homemade, delicious food.

Joining the Smith family and their crew is quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of the year.

Teresa

agriculture, photography, Uncategorized

Ready for Cinderella

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Wyokiddo, Outdoor Guy and I spent our Saturday exploring a Wyoming pumpkin patch.  We found four pumpkins to haul home for Halloween, navigated the corn maze and fed some pigs.  A great day, all around.

My favorite part, though, was exploring the pumpkin patch.  Doesn’t this  pumpkin look like it’s just waiting for Fairy Godmother to come along and work her magic?

Teresa

agriculture life, photography, Uncategorized, writing

Growing Through Goodbyes

County Fair 1-2It is fair season across the country.  County fair was always the highlight of my summer – I finally got to see all the hard work I’d put into my horses, pigs or other projects come to fruition. I looked forward to the ribbons, competition and friends. Sometimes I even made some money.

But every fair also ended on a bittersweet note.  The final day of county fair was also the day of the livestock sale, and that meant saying goodbye to an animal I’d grown to love. I cried each time I walked my hog into the sold pen or loaded them onto the truck bound for market.

“A lot of kids cry when they have to sell their animals,” you might think.  “It’s a tough thing at the age of ten.”

I was 21 and still crying.  I really did love those damn pigs.

Recently, a friend shared this article on Facebook, and I thought it was a pretty good read.  Saying goodbye: How parents teach their children to part with market animal projects

But why, friends and family would often ask, would you ever raise an animal if you’re just going to send it to its death at the end of the summer?

Raising an animal is a learning experience in and of itself.  I learned tangible skills like creating a budget, applying for a loan and how to reinvest profits into my project.  But I also gained a heap of character through responsibility, pride of ownership and dedication.  I developed humility and grace, because the outcomes were not always what I thought I deserved.  And I flat worked hard at tasks cleaning stalls, walking pigs, stacking hay and hauling buckets.

Selling my animal and knowing it was bound for slaughter also provided me some opportunities for emotional growth.  Life is not all lollipops and sunshine.  An animal must die so that we have meat.  It is as simple as that.  Being part of that cycle of life and death made me accountable for my actions as a meat eater.  It is easy to order a hamburger from a menu or buy processed chicken at the grocery store and wash your hands of your complicity in its death.  It is another thing entirely to actually get your hands bloody, so to speak, and be accountable to the process.

My heart hurt ached each time I had to say goodbye.  Those pigs and cattle had become part of my life.  I had tamed them with Cool Ranch Doritos, scratched their ears, kissed their faces, fed them grain, doctored their wounds and loved them with all my heart.  So saying goodbye was always hard and always emotional.  As my pig walked out the gate and into the sold pen, my eyes would well up and boil over.  The tears would fall off and on for the next few hours as I cleaned out pens and loaded tack.  The first year I raised pigs, I couldn’t eat pork for three months.

But I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I will encourage Wyokiddo to do it, too, though ultimately the decision is up to her.  I would love for her to learn all those life skills like money management, communication and responsibility.  But she’ll get lessons in honesty, grit and toughness as well.

In my mind, raising market animals is not teaching our children to “betray their animal friends” as some animal rights organizations would have you believe.  Rather, we are teaching them the value of the life of an animal.  Wyokiddo will learn that her actions have consequences for her  AND her animal, both good and bad.  She will learn to own those actions, just like I did.  As my dad used to tell me, our actions become our character and our character becomes our future.  Own your actions, build your future.

In much the same way, Outdoor Guy and I are honest about his work raising fish and now pheasants.  We own our actions as they pertain to the death of the birds he raises.  Some of these animals will supplement wild bird populations.  But most are raised and released for  hunting opportunities.  Last year I took Wyokiddo to the hunting check station on the opening day of pheasant season.  We watched as the hunters came back with their birds and cleaned their carcasses.  We talked about how the pheasants she helped Daddy care for will now feed other families.  And we talked about how those hunters pay money that helps take care of all the wildlife and land that we love.  We even ate some of the pheasants  that died before they were released.  Because that is all part of the process.  I’m not trying to be cruel to my daughter.  But I am being honest and growing her heart.

I hurt at the end of every county fair.  I hurt from each of those goodbyes, but I also grew from them.  I am better for all the lessons I learned from each pig and cow.  I grew in confidence because I could take care of and provide for a life other than my own.  I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable.  I learned that I can survive the sad moments.  I learned that no matter how much it hurt, I still had the capacity to love.

So to all those kiddos out there saying those hard goodbyes, you have my empathy.  My heart breaks just a little for you because I know all too well how much it hurts.  But you also have my respect and admiration because you had the courage to put your heart on the line, the honesty to own your actions and the toughness to see it all through.  That’s called grit and it is a trait that will serve you and our world for years to come.

Teresa

agriculture, country life, photography, Uncategorized

Leaving a Mark

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Last month, Wyokiddo and I were invited to attend another branding, this time at the Smith Ranch.  The Smiths were some of the first friends we made here in our new home.  We were quickly invited for summer barbecues and holiday dinners.  They’ve become great friends and are definitely part of our Goshen County family.

This is my favorite photo from the branding.  I love the textures and the leading lines of the fence.  I’m working to download all the images I shot that day to a disc to give to their family.  I hope they love this photo of Mr. Waldon leaving a mark on his corral fence, because their family has certainly left a mark on my family’s heart.

Teresa

 

agriculture, photography, Uncategorized, wildlife

Pure Heart

Hatch 4-45-2

In Response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Pure.

One of my daughter’s favorite activities in the spring is to visit the pheasant chicks her daddy raises.  She would sit in the barns with them for hours, despite the sweltering conditions, if only I would let her.

I love seeing the chicks, but I was more mesmerized by her interactions with them.  As soon as she sat down, the day-old chicks were checking out their new friend.  They would  hop on her and try to crawl in her boots.  They would even climb in her outstretched hand when she offered it.  Very gently, Wyokiddo would scoop up a tiny chick, hold it in her hands and whisper “I’m glad you made it!  Grow big little chick!” before releasing it back to the floor.  The innocence and pure love of those moments made my heart swell.

Soon the chicks will grow into adult pheasants and lose their cuteness.  And before I know it, my little girl will grow up as well.  My hope is that despite the toughness of this world, she will always keep her pure, sweet, beautiful heart.

Teresa

agriculture, country life, photography, Uncategorized, writing

Branded

DSC_0100 BWLast weekend, I had the honor of attending a friend’s family branding to take pictures.  I say honor, because it is.  Multiple generations of family have worked the ranch and lived on that land, and the family takes that legacy very seriously.  Today, four generations of the family live and work on the ranch, which is operated as a working cattle ranch.  They run about 450 head of Angus/Simmental cattle and grow hay and wheat and occasionally some other grain crops.  The ranch’s extensive landscape also provides habitat for antelope, deer, birds and various other critters that scurry, slither and soar.

Branding is a tradition in this country as old as ranching itself, but the practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians.  In the unsettled West, before there were fences, brands were the only way a rancher could tell his cattle apart.  Today, brands are still used as a way to identify cattle and prevent theft.  Ear tags can fall out or be taken out.  Lip tattoos are not easily identifiable in the field.  So traditional brands remain.  States have strict laws for branding cattle.  Brands must be registered, and brand inspections are required before you can ship animals out of county or sell them.

That’s a traditional definition of a brand.  But today’s ranching families also believe in the modern concept of a brand – a series of ideas and tools used to distinguish a company from competitors and create a lasting impression in the mind of consumers.  The cattle brand is a living symbol of the ranch, its legacy and identity and its future.  So it was indeed an honor to be asked to take part in the annual branding – they trusted me enough to not screw up their image!

The morning was cold and foggy.  It felt other-worldly as Wyokiddo and I made the trek to the ranch, situated east of Cheyenne.  Wyokiddo was given a seat in the pickup that held the food, drinks and tools needed for the morning.  I was given free rein to roam about and take some photos.  I quickly got lost in the textures surrounding me.  Fringed chaps, worn work gloves, fraying rope ends, the soft brown eyes of a calf, the bright orange glow of the branding irons in the fire.

Put simply, the morning was a sensory adventure.  The makeshift corral was a heady combination of wet earth, manure and smoke.  The delicate layer of fog left a fine sheen on everything and the slight chill kept everyone covered up as much as possible.  Mother cows mooing and the roaring of the branding pot fire made intimate conversation impossible.

But really, no words were needed.  Each person knew their job and did it without hesitation.  Men on horseback roped the unbranded calves.  Teams of two would flank the calf to the ground.  One by one, each calf was branded, vaccinated and castrated, if necessary.  Then the calves were released and returned to their moms.  The entire process for each calf took less than three minutes.  To an outsider, it would have looked like complete chaos.  But it was a finely choreographed display of skill and tradition.  There was no arguing, no whining, no unnecessary displays of machismo or one-upsmanship.  Just friends helping friends.

That attitude is one of my favorite characteristics of the agriculture community.  When a neighbor asks for help, you help.  Not because there is something in it for you.  You do it because it is the right thing to do.  You do it because somewhere down the line you’ll need their help, too.  These hard-scrabble folks have been abiding by the concept of “pay it forward” well before the idea ever became mainstream.  You help and are helped in return because that is how a community works.

Someday, I hope to have my own brand, or body of work, through my writing and photography.  Until then I’m proud to ride for the brand of the agriculture community and their heritage.

Teresa

P.S.  Here are a few of my favorites.

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agriculture, agriculture life, cows, Uncategorized

Cowlick!

CowlickWyokiddo and I attended a bull sale near our house today to chat with a dear friend who was there to buy some bulls for her family’s ranch.  My 3-year old was quite the curiosity in her pink coat…the bulls she surveyed weren’t quite sure what to make of her.

One bull, in particular, caught her attention.  Not because of his potential breeding characteristics, but because of his “bumpy” tongue.  Wyokiddo was transfixed watching this guy lick the wire and pipe in the pen.  In an age where some kids won’t look past their handheld gaming device, I love that my little girl can still appreciate little things like a bumpy tongue on a silly bull.

Teresa

 

agriculture, country life, Uncategorized, writing

Sale Barn Magic

Sale Barn.jpgLast week, I told my 3-year old daughter she could pick something special to do in town.  Daddy was out of town and I wanted to make the morning a fun, girls only adventure.  The park?  The museum?  Go exploring in a wildlife habitat area?  The choice was hers.

She chose the sale barn.

Torrington Livestock Auction is one of the few remaining livestock auction houses in our state.  It’s the place where area ranchers take their cattle to sell to folks like other area ranchers or feedlot buyers.  Most animals that go through a sale barn are cattle, but occasionally a sale barn will feature lambs, hogs, goats or even horses.

To be clear, we are not in the market to buy a cow.  Or sell a cow.  But Wyokiddo loves cows.  I mean, she LOVES cows.   I thought a trip to the sale barn to see some would make her day.

So that was how we again came to spend our Friday morning surrounded by animals we have no intention of owning.  Ten minutes in and she fell in love.

For two hours, the two of us sat high in the rafters and watched cattle.  As each lot that came in, my little girl would count the animals, assess the sex and declare whether or not she would buy them.  I never could figure out what criteria she was using to determine their suitability for her future herd.  But each time, Wyokiddo would clutch the arms of her seat, scrunch up her little face and mull over the possibilities.  Soon she would proclaim “I’d buy these cows.”  Or, if they weren’t up to snuff, she’d say, very seriously, “I don’t think I need these ones.”

We got some curious looks from the old guard.  I was dressed jeans and a t-shirt.  The kid has chosen black leggings and pink cowboy boots for the occasion.  Clearly, we were not regulars.  But when a serious buyer would venture a quizzical gaze our way, Wyokiddo would catch his eye, smile and wave.  It was fun watching grizzled old ranchers who pride themselves on non-reaction break into a giant smile at the curly-haired dynamo’s enthusiasm.

An hour and a half in to our sojourn, my little cowgirl looked over at me, all seriousness and concentration.  “I love this place, Mama.”

I squeezed her hand and whispered back “I know.”

There has always been something magical about the sale barn.  Any sale barn.  From the first time I set foot in one as a kid, I felt that magic.  Because it’s not just a place to sell livestock.  Sale barns are a virtual epi-center of the agriculture world.  It is a gathering place.  A community within a community.

And our new wonder is no exception.  In a world that is driven by technology and the latest and greatest, the sale barn is delightfully retro.  The color scheme of red, white and blue is circa 1970.  Two phone booths anchor each side of the seating.  The theatre style chairs are threadbare and small.  It smells like a barn.  It’s loud and busy.   But the coffee is always hot, the folks are always friendly and the weather is always a major topic of conversation.  If not for the large television screen above the auctioneer that posts lot weights and prices, you couldn’t discern the sale barns of today from those of 1994 or 1974.

There is something comfortable and homey about the sale barn.  It’s those old, familiar smells of manure and feed and ridiculously unhealthy nachos.  It’s the lulling cadence of the auctioneer’s chant as he tries to eek out another few cents per hundred weight.  I love that baggy sweatshirts, ball caps and sweat-stained cowboy hats are the dress code.  And that the faces are new, but the people don’t change.  Two, sometimes even three generations sit shoulder to shoulder and continue the tradition of raising cattle.  Maybe it’s just the sheer predictability of it all.  The auctioneer will chant, a buyer will buy, more cows will move through the ring, and the process starts all over again.  Life marches on.

Someday, the novelty of sitting next to me and watching an endless parade of livestock pass through the ring might wear off for Wyokiddo.  She will grow up and move on to Barbies and iPhones and (sigh) boys.

But for now, I will take it.  I will sit with her in my lap for hours on end and watch cows.  I will explain breeds and answer approximately sixteen questions a minute about why some cows have white faces or why bulls have those big humps behind their necks or what polar bears dream about.  Because the sale barn isn’t just selling cattle.  It’s a place selling memories of time spent with my beautiful little daughter and those are worth their weight in gold.  Or beef.

Teresa