Thursday, April 5, 2012

So many "best" things

The wind howled across the Panhandle and much of the tri-state region, filling the sky with dust and swirling vortices, halting most truck traffic on the roads, and generally making life difficult. In the calving pastures cows continued to graze while calves hunkered down wherever they could get out of the gale. The livestock were noticeably agitated by the wind and plunging barometer. The temperature rose during the day to a high of nearly 80, and the warm wind sucked moisture from the ground as a precipitation-less month neared completion.

There are some unpleasant things to bear in a life lived on the shortgrass prairie of the southwest Panhandle, and the howling wind is one of them. Though the wind is tough to take, it’s early spring, and the contrast of nasty wind days allows us to enjoy the nice days all the more.

When the windy days come, I try very hard to be the optimist and see the silver lining. It keeps the flies down, I tell myself, and the mosquitoes as well. It recharges the local atmosphere, keeping the air clean and fresh. Sooner or later it even stops blowing.

The wind even blew the roof off of the on again-off again meth lab down the road. As most of us have learned to our chagrin, those inclined to law-breaking love the peace and solitude of the country. But the weather can be hard on their ramshackle enterprises, and while a roof flung across 10 acres of wheat stubble makes a huge mess, it also interferes with drug production. A bit of poetic justice there.

There are periods of calm on most windy days, and the windless moments of morning and evening can be beautiful, particularly in the spring.

As the sun rose over the eastern horizon Sunday, much of the EJE was enveloped in a thick, cool fog bank. As I headed out to check cows and calves I drove through a close, fuzzy landscape, illuminated by the faint glow of sunshine fighting through the thick wad of water vapor draped across the prairie.
The sun begins to win its battle with early morning fog on the EJE Ranch.

Visibility varied between 200 and 500 yards; good enough to find my way around and to find cattle, but poor enough to make me work at it and cover more ground than usual.

As vexing as it can be, there’s something beautiful about a morning fog. The dim light and thick vapor bring the horizon close and dampen sound waves, transforming the environment into a quiet, private space, one in which you can imagine yourself completely separated from the rest of humanity. If the fog is heavy, it dampens your face and clothing and coats both your vehicle and the greening prairie grasses with beads of water. As parched as this March has been, the tiny droplets are a blessing to the thirsty landscape.

The dim quiet of the early morning, the precious moisture, the greening grass, the smell of warming earth and growing things – mornings like these are some of the best things in my life.

As I drove across the pasture, searching for what I knew to be there, dim shapes finally loomed in the fog and morphed into cows. Finding the main cow and heifer herds was easy, as was checking on the well-being of young calves. But since cows tend to isolate themselves from the herd when birthing nears, finding them on a foggy morning can be quite a trick.

After counting the main herd and coming up one cow short on my tally, I set off in search of 540U, a four year-old red cow. Eventually I found her in the confluence of two shallow draws more than a mile away from the rest of the cows. Sure enough, she was licking a newly-born little red heifer calf. Finding the new pair in the fog, seeing that all was well, and seeing the minutes-old calf struggle to her feet and totter to the teat – well, that was simply another one of the best things in my life.
A brand-new heifer calf in the midst of her first meal on a foggy Sunday morning on the EJE Ranch.

As the sun warmed the morning and the fog dissipated, the sound of meadowlarks flowed through the springtime air, bright and sweet, like a touch of honey in an icy glass of fresh tea. I drove slowly along the pasture trail road, up and down the surprisingly steep hills of “flat” Nebraska, and slowly drank in the peace and beauty of the morning. Another best thing.
“Where’s my mom?” this day-old calf seemed to be asking the other morning on the EJE Ranch.

As I passed the cow herd I spied a young black steer calf, not yet two days old, curled up in a small depression near a clump of yucca. I swung the pickup toward the calf – just to check – and as I neared he bolted to his feet and came running toward the pickup. I’d tagged him the day before, just a few hours after birth, and as he galloped toward me I realized that he associated the pickup with his mama. He trotted up to within a few feet and looked at me expectantly, pausing long enough so that I could snap a few pictures. As I drove away he gave chase, and after a few dozen yards, began to bawl lustily. This provoked the expected reaction from his mama, who had been grazing a few hundred yards away. Her head came up and she dashed toward he baby in a cloud of dust, bellowing with concern. In moments the pair were relieved of their momentary confusion, the calf quietly nursing and the cow warily eyeing the pickup. Another best thing? You bet. I drove out of the pasture and into the rest of the day with a big smile plastered across my face.

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