Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Food animals and antibiotic resistance in humans

The U.S. food system, in which American ag producers make up the foundation, has been under attack on various fronts for the past several years. Attacks have come from intellectual leftists, global warming alarmists, trial lawyers, animal rights activists, school administrators and boards, and the major media, among others.

The food system in general, and farmers and ranchers in particular, have been accused of contributing to man-made global warming, of producing and marketing foods tainted with pesticides, herbicides and hormones, and of inhumane and cruel treatment of livestock. In a neat contradictory claim, ag producers have been accused of causing obesity and diabetes by producing too much cheap, nutritious food, while at the same time of causing food anxiety and hunger by charging high prices for under-produced crops.

Few of the claims made against the food system are objectively true. Often a single incident or hypothesis has been the basis for wildly improbable claims. Most of the attacks are logically inconsistent, yet reported with righteous fervor. Recently, in a prime-time exclusive reported by Katie Couric of CBS News, livestock producers were accused of driving up antibiotic resistance in humans through over use of antibiotics in their animals. Couric essentially argued that producers in the U.S. heavily medicate their livestock from birth to slaughter for the sole purpose of increasing growth. More pounds equals more profit, she argued, at the expense of causing a potentially devastating epidemic of untreatable bacterial disease across the country.

Couric’s report was chock-full of inaccuracies, false claims and wildly off-base assumptions and conclusions. On February 10, 2010, the former USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food and Safety responded to the report. Dr. H. Scott Hurd, now an Associate Professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine at Iowa State University, said that Couric got the story far wrong, and that the story as reported was wrong on nearly every point.

Here are the claims made by Couric, followed (in italics) by Dr. Hurd’s rebuttals. Hurd notes that the facts he provides represent the best available and most current knowledge regarding antibiotic use in livestock and its impact on animals, humans and food safety.

COURIC: A University of Iowa study last year found a new strain of Methicillin-Resistant StaphAureus (MRSA) — in hogs (70 percent), and workers (64 percent) — on several farms in Iowa and western Illinois. All of them use antibiotics, routinely. On antibiotic-free farms no MRSA was found.

HURD: This very small pilot study sampled fewer than 300 pigs. In it, only six farms used antibiotic-free production methods. The claim that usch production is always free of MRSA is not true as there have been organic farms in other countries that have been found to be 100 percent positive for MRSA. On the other hand, in this Iowa study, some of the conventional farms that did use antibiotics were 100 percent free of MRSA. A University of Iowa study which went unreported by Couric found conventional farms with MRSA rates in pigs of 23 percent, not 70 percent. In personnel, the rate was 58 percent, not “nearly two-thirds.” The type of MRSA that has been associated with livestock is unique and has not been found in human disease surveillance. It is very unlikely that the people interviewed for the Couric story had livestock-associated MRSA, rather, it’s much more likely these people had the very common community-acquired strain of MRSA from being in close contact with infected people. also, the antibiotics used in modern pork production are not associated with the development of MRSA. Methicillin has never been used in animals in the United States.

COURIC: Health officials are concerned if workers who handle animals are getting sick – what about the rest of us? Drug resistant infections have sky-rocketed over the past two decades, killing an estimated 70,000 Americans last year alone.

HURD: The drug-resistant infections referred to here have little, to no, relationship to any antibiotic use in animal agriculture. The types of drug-resistant infections that are lethal are often associated with hospital-acquired infections – and the antibiotic used in those facilities. According to the FDA, resistance in food-borne illness is stable to declining over the last several years. Scientific risk assessments conducted by myself and others have shown a person is more likely to die from a bee sting than have a few extra days of diarrhea due to a resistant infection acquired from on-farm antibiotic use.

COURIC: Antibiotic resistance is an emerging health crisis that scientists say is caused not only by the overuse of antibiotics in humans, but in livestock as well. Antibiotics fed to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease.

HURD: Strategic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture prevents disease and produces safer food.A side benefit of this use is faster growth. Antibiotics have been used in humans for more than 60 years and in livestock for about 50 years, if there was going to be an epidemic of resistance related to antibiotic use in agriculture it would have occurred by now. The fact that it has not means that antibiotic use in animals is not a major risk to human health.

COURIC: “My fear is that one of these days we are going to have an organism that's resistant to everything that we know, and we'll be left powerless,” said Dr. Thomas Cummins. “There are a lot of concerns about antibiotics being added to animal feeds that may be contributing to MRSA as well as other antibiotic resistance. Certainly the more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics in any shape or form, the more tendency there is for resistance.”

HURD: While the types of antibiotics used in animal feeds do not contribute to the development of MRSA, the concern over the development of antibiotic resistance is why veterinarians and farmers have spent more than 20 years continually improving their antibiotic use. The results of these improvements are evident in FDA-monitoring studies that show that resistance in target pathogens is stable to declining.

COURIC: There are different types of drug-resistant bacteria. Some, like E. coli and salmonella, can be passed on to people by consuming undercooked meat and poultry. Now, scientists are worried that Americans may be acquiring drug-resistant MRSA – not from eating, but from handling tainted meat from animals that were given antibiotics.

HURD: Research demonstrates that when MRSA has been found on meat, it is present in extremely low levels. Because of this, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the European Food Safety Authority both conclude that the likelihood of MRSA being spread by handling or eating meat is very low. As always, when meat is handled and cooked properly, there is virtually no risk of becoming sick from a food-borne pathogen.

COURIC: Evidence of MRSA has been found in the nation's meat supply. But it's unclear how widespread it may be, because only a small fraction is tested for MRSA.

HURD: MRSA is not a food-borne illness, thus testing meat is unnecessary. The CDC and the European Food Safety Authority agree that the risk of MRSA from handling or eating meat is very low.

COURIC: ‘If the bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics, it can actually spread in many ways,” Hearne said. “It could be in the food supply, but it also can be in waters that runoff in a farm. It could be in the air. It can happen very quickly in many different ways. It's why it's a practice that has to stop on the farms.”

HURD: There is no evidence to support that these routes contribute to the human health concerns around antimicrobial resistance. Food-borne illness rates are declining, and resistance in those pathogens is stable to declining. Environmental spread of these pathogens is largely theoretical.

COURIC: Using antibiotics to help animals absorb and process food so they grow bigger, faster is a selling point pushed by the pharmaceutical industry. Because animals are packed into confinement pens, antibiotics are also used to keep disease from spreading like wildfire.

HURD: Antibiotic use is one very important tool to maintain animal health in farms of all sizes and structures. Other tools used include hygiene, proper diet and nutrition, providing the proper environment and vaccination. Antibiotics help the animals grow healthier, improve animal well-being and help provide safe food.

COURIC: But the bottom line on antibiotic use is this: no one is really monitoring it.

HURD: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates antibiotic use in both humans and animals. The FDA inspects the feed mills that would produce medicated feed. The agency also evaluates the safety of antibiotics used in animals for human safety. And, the FDA works with the USDA to conduct tests in processing facilities to make sure those regulations for antibiotic use are followed. It’s clearly a highly regulated practice.

COURIC: Antibiotics in Denmark are used sparingly and only when animals are sick.

HURD: That is true. So sparingly in fact that farmers and veterinarians are not even allowed to use antibiotics to prevent common illnesses they know are coming. They must wait until pigs suffer and die. The Danish Pilot Program resulted in an increase in diarrhea in pigs and a 25 percent increase in deaths. Many small farmers were driven out of business due to this ban. The number of farms went from 25,000 in 1995 to less than 10,000 in 2005. What appeared to be a ban on antibiotic use in healthy pigs actually pointed out the benefits of its use in helping pigs grow healthy.

COURIC: The experiment to stop widespread use of antibiotics was launched 12 years ago, when European studies showed a link between animals that were consuming antibiotic feed everyday and people developing antibiotic-resistant infections from handling or eating that meat.

HURD: No studies ever showed such a linkage. The government records clearly show it was a precautionary action due to the possibility of risk. Denmark is a very small country which produces fewer pigs than the state of Iowa. Their experiment was not on a national scale in terms of size.

COURIC: Since the ban, the Danish pork industry has grown by 43 percent – making it one of the top exporters of pork in the world. All of Europe followed suit in 2006. But the American Pork Industry doesn't want to.

HURD: In 1997, the Danish pork production was 21.2 million head. In 2008, the industry had grown to 27 million, but about 5 million pigs were exported to other European countries to be fed for market. That means that net growth in the industry was approximately 5 percent, not the 43 percent reported by Couric. The Danish Government’s own report states that since 1998, the first year of the ban, active kilograms of antimicrobials used to treat animals increased 110 percent while animal production has only increased 5 percent.

COURIC: Without growth-promoting antibiotics, it only costs $5 more for every 100 pounds of pork brought to market in this country.

HURD: According to a recent analysis by Iowa State University, a U.S. ban would increase costs by approximately $6 per animal in the first year. The total cost of a ban to all U.S. pork producers, spread across a ten-year period, could be in excess of $1.1 billion and lead to a 2 percent hike in consumer pork prices. Even though the ban raised pork prices and put small producers out of business, cost is not really the issue. The focus should be on public health. Did the ban in Denmark improve public health? Neither the World Health Organization nor I find any evidence that it did.

COURIC: Dr. Ellen Silbergeld said, “I think the Danish and European experience indicate that there will be real and measurable public health benefits. There’ll be improvements in food safety and actually in the prevalence of drug resistant infections in people.”

HURD: The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated there was no evidence of improved public health. In fact, resistant rates in human Salmonella cases have increased, and Denmark is currently experiencing their largest outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) in its history. Denmark has seen a largest increase in human MRSA cases since it banned antibiotic growth promotion in animal agriculture.

COURIC: According to one study, when different countries introduced certain antibiotics on farms, a surge occurred in people contracting antibiotic resistant intestinal infections one to two years later. One infection, Campylobacter, increased 20 percent in Denmark and 70 percent in Spain.

HURD: The example of resistant Campylobacter does not relate to the use of antibiotics for growth promotion or even of any antibiotics in feed. The type of antibiotic, fluoroquinolones, was used to treat sick animals, and in the United States required a veterinary prescription. In pigs, they were delivered by giving the animals a shot. The antibiotics that have been used in feed in the U.S. are old— most have been used for more than 40 years. In addition, risk assessments have shown that they do not pose a risk to human health. FDA surveillance shows that resistance to these antibiotics in pork products is steady to declining.

COURIC: After the ban, a Danish study confirmed that removing antibiotics from farms drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.

HURD: The only resistance that decreased was in Entercoccus spp., which is not a food-borne pathogen. The total tonnage of antibiotic used in Denmark decreased after the ban, however, the amount of product used to treat sick pigs increased 100 percent. The key point is that the type of drug used to treat sick pigs was different than those used to prevent disease. The World Health Organization notes, “It is probable, however, that termination of antimicrobial growth promoters had an indirect effect on resistance to tetracycline resistance among Salmonella Typhimurium because of an increase in therapeutic tetracycline use in food animals. Increased tetracycline resistance among Salmonella may result in additional human Salmonella infections… since persons who take tetracycline for other reasons are at increased risk of becoming infected with tetracycline-resistant Salmonella.” Based on this, there might be more risk now than before the ban because of an increase in treatments. Also, resistance in human food-borne pathogens, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter has not decreased at all.

COURIC: Danish scientists believe if the U.S. doesn't stop pumping its farm animals with antibiotics, drug-resistant diseases in people will only spread.

HURD: That’s simply not an accurate description of what America’s pork producers do at all. Drug resistance in food-borne disease is not the major concern with human-resistance issues. Less than 1 percent of food-borne illnesses require antibiotic therapy. The human-health crisis with resistance is focused on pathogens that are often hospital-acquired. Bans, such as what Denmark implemented, will not address those issues.

COURIC: It costs very little to convert a farm to antibiotic-free. And it doesn't cost consumers much more either. The example was given showing that antibiotic-free pork production would only cost farmers $5 more per hundredweight or 5 cents per pound, so why not just do it to improve human health?

HURD: U.S. economists have shown that if those same antibiotic bans occurred in California, it would add $5 to the cost of every pig. Because I spent three months working in Denmark, I can assure you these effects are real and still present. For this reason, I hope U.S. decision makers will balance this information with the goal of protecting finite resources while feeding a growing population. Attempts to ban antibiotic use in livestock won’t improve human health, and indeed may result in an increase of food-borne disease.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Share your story

Spring arrived on Sunday, March 20, and so did the EJE’s first calf of 2011(click on the pictures for a larger view).

The little red and white goggle-eyed heifer weighed 75 pounds and was already dried off and had nursed by the time the sun was topping the east horizon. A lively little thing, she was already prancing around a bit in the warming dawn.
As the first day of spring arrived on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb., so did the first calf of the year. This little heifer was born without any problems at all to a four year-old cow.
When I came back to tag her a few hours later she was dozing in the sun, digesting a belly full of rich milk. Tagging, vaccinating and weighing her took no time at all and her mother, a five year-old cow, watched carefully but quietly from a few feet away.
As she sticks close to momma, this newborn heifer calf looks at a brand new world, including the photographer, with curiosity.
It was a good day to be a newborn calf, with temperatures climbing into the low 60’s and only a bit of south breeze.
This little newborn heifer calf seems to be wondering what the bright thing in the sky is as she gazes heavenward last Sunday on the EJE ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
On the day before, Saturday, March 19, a ranch visit by family members from Sidney and Chadron prompted an afternoon prairie hike.
Several members of the Evertson Family enjoy a prairie hike Saturday on the EJE Ranch.
The weather was nearly perfect for mid-March on the High Plains. The sky was deep and wide and blue, with only a few fleecy clouds hunched around the horizon. The sun was bright and warming but not yet hot, and illuminated a shortgrass prairie ecosystem coming alive after months of frozen winter.
Jake, Julia, Austin and puppy Desi pause for a rest in a canyon cave Saturday as they hiked across parts of the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Underfoot the ground was pleasantly springy; no longer frozen hard as iron in winter’s arctic grip. While in the long view the prairie still looked drab and sere, covered with dry, stem-cured grass, in the near view the green of new growth was fairly bursting from the warming soil.
Julia, Austin and Jake take a breather in a dry wash Saturday during a family hike on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
As the five of us – myself, brother Matt, and his kids Jake, Julia and Austin – meandered across the quickening prairiescape, we slowly walked through the scattered cow herd. It was a good opportunity to field the endless stream of questions posed by the youngsters. Though they’d all been to the ranch many times, this was their first excursion afoot among the cows, and they were a bit apprehensive at first. “Will they chase us?” Will they stampede?” Will they eat us?”

As they relaxed into the experience, their questions changed. “Are they really going to have babies soon?” “How come that one is pooping?” “Why do they eat this yucky grass?” “Do they really drink that yucky water (from the stock tank)?”

I think that sometimes they ask questions just to hear a story. But at another level, they seem to have a great deal of interest in the how’s and the why’s of ranch life and raising cattle.

Regardless of the motive, though, their questions provided a great opportunity to explain. And explaining our ranching operation, or “telling our story,” is an important part of preserving our ranching lifestyle and heritage.

Whether to family, friends, or visitors, telling our story is vitally important to all of us in the production ag sector. Most people in the US are three or more generations removed from the farm/ranch experience, and most have only a superficial and simplistic understanding of what we do to produce their food. With a very few exceptions, what people “learn” about farming and ranching from newspapers, radio, television and in the classroom is incomplete at best, misleading and dishonest at worst.

The slick anti-ag efforts of HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) and other well-heeled and well–organized activist groups to legislate livestock into extinction are coming closer to fruition each day. HSUS Chairman Wayne Pacelle is on record as saying that he wouldn’t be bothered by the extinction of food animals, as they are essentially “man-made” creatures and therefore not “natural.” He’s also said he has the time and money to spend the rest of his life on a quest to rid the US of animal agriculture.

Pacelle can only succeed with the consent of the American people. But so far, his voice has been the loudest, the most heard, and has carried a superficially reasonable message. Who doesn’t love animals? If you love animals, you must rid the country of “brutal factory farming.”

So share your story whenever you find the opportunity. Be honest, forthright, and open. People are smart, and few if any Americans want Wayne Pacelle to mandate veganism as the law of the land. They’ll understand if they have the opportunity to see and hear the truth.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Circle of life

I find that grass scouting on foot can be a very enjoyable way to spend time. Monday I hiked out across parts of the ranch where we are running cattle, as well as adjacent areas where we plan to move the herd for calving.

As I strode across a drab and, to the cursory glance, barren prairie, I could just begin to feel the first inklings of spring. Temperatures have been creeping up for a couple of weeks and bright sunshine has both melted the recent snow and begun to warm the ground, slowly releasing winter’s frosty grasp.

The warming air was still coolish. Monday was, after all, only March 14. Yet the breeze was no longer blowing across snow cover, and as the day wore on, the temperature climbed steadily into the low 60’s. I did the math in my head, and deduced that it was the first day of the last week of calendar Winter. By the time many of you read this note, calendar Spring will have arrived.

A week ago the air, though warm at times, smelled sterile and lifeless. There were a few hardy insects out and about in the warmer afternoons, but it was still clearly winter. A fading winter, but nonetheless still winter.

On Monday the coolish air felt and smelled different. There was a strong touch of a muddy, earthy, growing smell in the air. The southwest wind carried the mating song of Western Meadowlark, the first of the season.

Golden-green leaves of crested wheatgrass
Underfoot, the first golden leaves of early grass were making their appearance. So far there was crested wheatgrass, smooth and downy brome, and thread- and needle-leaf sedge. There wasn’t a lot of it; the few tiny golden-green leaves I saw were the first to emerge. The cattle were finding them, though, and I marveled once again at their ability to find and harvest the most delectable and nutritious morsels of browse as they move across the vast and quickening prairiescape.

There will still be snow and frost and hard freezes. Across the south Panhandle the average last day of frost falls sometime in mid-May. But the birdsong, the insects, the smell of warm and fertile soil, and the new golden-green shoots of grass point to the annual rebirth of life across the region. These things put a spring in my step.

A young bull crops new grass
As I hiked along on Monday and meandered through the cow herd, I counted and looked the animals over. Many are beginning to spread in the rear as birth canal ligaments begin to loosen. Most were beginning to “make bag” as their udders swelled with development. They were all obviously far along in their pregnancies, roly-poly fat with calves. They were intent on grazing and on feasting on the new, greening grass. The sun was warm but the breeze cool, and to my eye, the cows seemed content. The youngest cows, still technically heifers, did a bit of pushing and chasing. The bulls, aloof and apart from the rest of the herd, placidly grazed along, heads to the ground.

I finished my inspection and count and came up one cow short. Since I was on the east edge of the pasture, I struck off to the west, knowing I’d likely find the cow off by herself with a new calf. As I hiked along I enjoyed the day, enjoyed the physical exertion, enjoyed watching the prairie wake from her long winter snooze. I topped a rise and spied the missing cow about a half-mile away, just south of a windmill near the slope of an old gravel pit. Sure enough, she was licking off a new calf.

As I drew closer, though, I could see that something wasn’t quite right. The cow was doing more sniffing than licking, and the calf, flat out on its side, didn’t seem to be moving. The cow nervously eyed me as I approached. She would look at me, pace a few steps away, then turn and walk back to the calf, nudging and sniffing.

At fifty or so feet from the pair, I realized that the calf was probably dead. At twenty feet I was certain. The calf was still and motionless, eyes open but glazed and unfocused. As I approached I spoke reassuringly to the cow in a low voice, “easy girl, easy momma, whatcha got here girl?”

The calf was a pretty little red heifer, brockle-faced just like the cow. Looking a the still little form, she seemed a near-perfect miniature of the cow. As I eased closer, the cow was clearly excited by my proximity, instinct and hormones telling her to protect her baby. But her excitement was only half-hearted, as if she knew that something was badly wrong.

I leaned over and placed my hand on the calf’s side, feeling for movement, for heartbeat, for breathing, even though I knew those things wouldn’t be there. The calf was dry and still warm; she must have expired only minutes before I arrived. The cow sniffed my hand, licked the calf a few more times, gave my arm a half-hearted shove with her nose, then took a few steps back and watched.

I sat down on the cool, newly growing prairie next to the calf and did the mental gymnastics of coming to terms with the death of a calf, the death of the first calf of the season.

I was saddened by the fundamental loss of the calf. She seemed pretty and well formed. She was a bit on the small side, only 60 pounds or so, but that was to be expected with an early birth. Still, there must have been some kind of fatal defect. An otherwise healthy, albeit early, calf would have long since been up and about. The sadness I felt was for the life the calf wouldn’t live. No long summer of growth and play and calf-socialization. But nature knows best.

I also thought about the economic impact of a dead calf. This one, had she lived, would probably have made a fine replacement heifer. She had the right genetics, anyway. But even if not a replacement heifer, she would still likely have brought $700-$800 in the late fall. Perhaps more. As they say, you can’t sell a dead calf.

As I hiked away I felt bad about the dead calf. It’s fair to say that I grieve when I lose an animal. Doesn’t seem tough, macho, or manly, but there it is. But I also understand how nature works, and I understand the fundamental nature of the business I’m engaged in. I grieve, but I work through it. I’m fortunate that I’m not a purely emotional being. I know many of those, and I feel bad for them.

I’m fortunate – blessed, really – that I grew up on a ranch and learned about the reality of life and death from an early age. The great circle of life has always been a comfort to me. I’m not sure whether a person who is never exposed to life’s harsher realities can reasonably deal with them when they inevitably crop up.

As I trudged across the awaking prairie my heart was filled with the joy of the season and tinged with the sadness of loss. A bittersweet moment, but on the whole, far more sweet than bitter.

A Llama and new cria were as curious about me as I was about them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter Pause

I wrote this for publication but got rejected. I'm afraid you poor readers are going to have to suffer through it. Click on the pictures to see a larger image.

As I feed calves on a bright February morning, I hear it calling. A whisper at first, barely audible, borne on the barest whiff of breeze, like the first cranesong of autumn. “Let’s go.”
It gets louder, clearer. “C’mon, let’s go. It’s been too long. Let’s go….” It’s the prairie calling me, and the prairie is right. It’s been too long.

Autumn was long and warm and filled with work. Fencing, corrals, weaning, sorting, moving cattle, setting stock tanks, getting hay in, hauling feed. The sun moved south and the days shortened and the weather stayed unseasonably warm and mild.

Winter arrived with a bone-chilling blast of arctic air. Temperatures fell below zero and stayed there. Dry snow came in spurts and gathered in dirty, untidy piles, blown here and there by a biting, constant wind.

Work became physically hard and demanding. Tough enough in fair weather, feeding cows and calves became a miserable chore when the cold and snow and wind came. Winter conspired to carve away summer fat and pared deep down into the heart of me, to the core of will and duty perseverance.

And then winter paused for a few short hours.

Dried and empty, last year’s yucca pods lend texture to February’s shortgrass prairie landscape in the southwest Panhandle of Nebraska.
Yucca, buffalo and grama grasses and deep blue sky line a prairie canyon rim south of Kimball Feb. 19.
The day was one of those you dream about while mired in the arctic depths of winter. The sky was clear and blue and cloudless, the sun was bright, and the air was still and warm, its temperature hovering somewhere in the mid-60’s.

Lovely February days come to the High Plains, but they don’t come every February. Forecasters forecast them, but they don’t always materialize, and when they do, they usually haven’t been presaged. When a lovely February day appears, unbidden and unanticipated, I hear the call. “Let’s go. It’s been too long.” When everything breaks right in mid-February there’s only one thing for me to do. Grab my gear and follow the call.

I stride out across the uneven shortgrass prairie. From a distance, it looks agreeably flat, but hiking it reveals a different truth. Every square foot is a mountain range cast small, with peaks and valleys of native bunch grasses; wheat grass and needle grasses and grama grasses and Little Bluestem and buffalograss, to name but a few.

As evening comes on and the day cools off, cattle graze along a prairie swale Feb. 19 south of Kimball.
The uneven prairiescape makes good footwear a must, and I hike unashamed in $200 boots and $20 socks. I carry my usual load; rucksack and rifle, pistol and camera, GPS and water. The weight of my load enhances the workout value of the hike. The firearms do too, but more importantly, they ensure that I properly exercise the moral and ethical responsibility which attends my constitutional right.

In mid-February the grass is sere and brown and gray, winter-dormant, roots still gripped by frozen earth. The snow is mostly gone, but there’s no mistaking the winter landscape, nor the feel of deeply frozen ice beneath an inch or so of sun-mushed topsoil.

I head roughly north, where a pair of wells and windmills need checking. They lay over the horizon, two and three miles away. The prairie may call, but water for the herd has priority. Mixing the two is a fine solution.

As I hike along the pain in my ankles is intense and, at first, distracting. Experience tells me the pain will ease at some point, become less bothersome, recede from the forefront of experience. I earned bad ankles during years of service at sea. Walking and running on steel decks causes cumulative injury. For some it’s knees or hips or the back. For me it was Achilles tendons. Surgery has helped, but my young ankles are gone forever, traded away in good cause.

As the pain recedes and muscles loosen I push harder, stretching my stride and driving my heart rate into the fitness range. I begin to sweat and breathe more deeply. As the terrain rises my heart begins to pound and the air rushes in and out of my lungs. I begin to feel the ache of lactic acid building in leg muscles.

As I top a rise and put the first mile behind me, I catch sight of the windmills. I move easily now, muscles warm and working smoothly, heart pulsing and lungs breathing at an elevated but comfortable rate. The pain in my ankles eases and seems but a distant ache. I feel giddy and happy and content. The weight of everyday human existence falls away and I am suffused with a sense of peace. Surrounded by beauty, I go in beauty. The prairie may wear a drab coat this season, but it is no less striking than when it wears the colorful coat of spring and summer.

Ahead of me scampers a jackrabbit, cutting back and forth between clumps of yucca and appropriately-named rabbit brush. With a final zigzag, he disappears down the scree-covered bank of a dry wash. The prairie becomes more broken as I draw closer to what we call the canyonlands, deep cuts and draws and washes accumulated over millennia of natural erosion. High overhead, a pair of Ferruginous hawks soar in the warm air, tracing a broad, mile-wide oval in the crystalline sky. The air may be warm for the season, but it remains winter air, sterile and devoid of growing season odors and insects.

I drive on, pausing only to check my windmills. Both are functioning, turning slowly in the light breeze and pumping cupfuls of water into filling stock tanks. As I finish with the second windmill, I bend my course around to the east, eager to walk the floor of a canyon not visited since summer. Signs of cattle are everywhere; muddy hoof prints and hair-adorned rubbing rocks and piles of fresh manure.

I summit the last of the high ground and find the cow herd spread out before me in the swale leading to the canyon. They watch me closely but are unafraid; they know me and know that I’m as likely to appear before them afoot as in my trusty pickup. The rise is a good place to pause, so I shrug off my rucksack, lean my rifle carefully against it, and squat down to snap a few photographs.

I take in the scene before me, trying hard to pack every detail into the vault of memory. The camera is a wonderful device, capable of producing stunningly beautiful images, but it can’t capture everything, and often misses the most important parts. I know that someday my memories will have to serve when I hear the prairie call.

Rested, relaxed, and memory-filled, I take up my ruck and rifle and enter the canyon. It runs roughly northeast to southwest, in the general direction of home. Eroded out of limestone and siltstone, the canyon floor is mostly sand, packed firm enough for walking by melting snow. At its widest the canyon is about 50 feet, narrowing here and there to not much more than 20 inches. The walls vary from vertical, fractured rock to gentle, grass-covered slope. There are eroded caves scattered along the walls; some tiny and some large enough to shelter in. A few of the larger ones have soot-covered ceilings and other evidence of human habitation.

I climb up out of the canyon along a grassy slope and find myself less than a mile from home. The canyon offered relatively easy walking, but this last stretch is a long march up a steepening slope. I could go around the hill, but I crave the challenge of hard exertion. I drive myself up the slope, pushing hard against gravity and the visceral inclination to shorten my stride. Heart pounds and muscles ache and I’m not sure whether the roaring in my ears is an external or internal sound. Air dashes in and out of laboring lungs and my eight-pound rifle seems to weigh a hundred pounds.

Silly, winter-chasing grin
Finally the slope eases and my pickup, my destination, appears. The prairie becomes mostly level, and as I close in the pounding in my chest moderates and falls away into the background of the moment. At the pickup I lay down my rifle and slip the rucksack from tired shoulders. I’m lightly winded and my clothing is soaked in sweat. I check my GPS device and note that I made 6.5 miles in just over 100 minutes. Free of my load, I step back from the pickup and turn a full circle, taking in the prairie all around me and showing it a grin plastered face. I’ve answered the call and I feel wonderful. For the moment, at least, I’ve chased winter completely from my soul.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March Madness

To the sporting crowd, March Madness means basketball. I think. I don’t follow basketball myself though I know a lot of folks do, with watch parties and office pools and all kinds of basketball talk.

A chokecherry grows in the cleft of a rock it split 50 years ago.
Sports wise, I’m more interested in spring training and spring football, though I don’t follow either one very closely.

March is an interesting time of the year on the EJE Ranch. On March 1 (as I write this) we’re a month away from first calves, and a lot will happen this month.

Eagle Rock
The cows are in their final month of gestation, busy putting final touches on the calves they’ll soon be producing. They’ve been “building” these calves since last summer, and during that time they’ve had to live through an autumn drought, separation from last year’s calves, and an often harsh winter. They’ve used up a good bit of summer condition to get here, and will need good nutrition to finish gestation, calve, and begin lactation.

Windmill in Googie Gulch.
While the days are getting longer and nicer, the ground is still frozen under foot and the grasses are still dormant in their winter slumber. Over the next month the ground will thaw and the grasses (forbs too, of course) will begin to green up. In the meantime, however, those gestating cows will continue to need supplemental feed – hay mostly, but minerals as well – until the grasses boom to life and start producing grazeable biomass.

Aeromotor and gossamer sky
It’s also time to get myself prepared for calving. I’ve yet to round up the equipment and supplies and put them in their calving-season places, but I’ll get that done over the next few weeks. There’s also some work to do in the barn to make sure the calving pen and headgate are ready to go.

March weather is the real madness across the south Panhandle. The days are longer, and many are quite pleasant, but it’s not yet spring. The days can be delightful, but they can also be blisteringly cold and packed with heavy snow. With La Nina conditions continuing to prevail across the equatorial Pacific, meteorologists say we could be in for a wild weather ride including heavy spring blizzards.

Vader Ridge
Last week I hiked out across the prairie on a wonderfully warm day. There was little if any wind, so the hiking was more than pleasant. Yet the warm air still held the sterility of winter. There seemed to be no odors at all. Certainly no odors of growing things were present as I trudged across top-mushy ground that was still frozen rock-hard a few inches below.

Strokeout Butte
When I hiked again two days later, things were entirely different. It was chillingly cold and snowing, with a mild but biting south wind. I stayed off the prairie and stuck to the roads. As I trudged along the snowfall stuck to my clothes, covering me in an even, white blanket. Soon I matched the world I walked in, a potentially dangerous condition since there were a few cars and trucks out and about. I was plenty warm so long as I kept hiking along at an exercise pace; the several layers of clothing I wore and continually-produced body heat saw to that.

As I hiked along I was struck once again at how very different this country can look in a single week. One day I strode out across a brownish prairie, where windbreaks and yucca provided the only hints of color. I could see for miles in the clean, crisp air, and the sky was an enormous inverted bowl of cloudless blue. Then the weather changed, and I found myself hiking a winter landscape two days later. Snow was everywhere, covering nearly everything within my sight. Visibility was less than a quarter-mile, and falling snow blurred the world into a powdery softness.

Both hikes were enormously enjoyable, and each helped, in its way, to chase most of the winter “blah” from my soul. The nice day presaged spring, and the snowy day felt more like spring snow than winter snow.

Today I hiked the prairie again, and nearly all of last week’s abundant snow has gone. The ground is getting softer on top as winter’s frozen, vice-like grip begins to loosen in the soil. Still no green showing, but I did spot a grasshopper and a beetle out and about. The seasons, they are a changin.’

As I count down the days of March, drawing ever closer to calving, I’ll continue to see signs of the annual rebirth of spring. It’s not here yet, and there’s still liable to be far too much snow left in the season, but that’s okay. It’s part of the deal here on the High Plains, and spring is within reach.