When feeding is as good as eating.
|Corriente calves in the weaning pen|
I’ve been away hard at work on my book. Along with the 125-odd recipes, the first part of the book will cover everything you want to know about grass-fed beef–that’s my goal, at least. There is a burning interest in the subject and just as much misinformation I’m hoping to clear up. But it’s been more arduous than marathon training, which is what I was doing at this time last year.
I’ve been preoccupied trying to digest all that I’ve learned about beef production–more complex than it has any right to be. So, today was a welcome reprieve from wrangling with my words at the computer.
I went out and fed some cows first thing this morning.
I knew it was going to be a great day when I pulled up the curtains in my bedroom and the sky burned blue over the sparkling white mountains–a blue bird day, the skiers call it. The temperature was in the teens, so I put on a down coat underneath my big work jacket and earmuffs underneath my cowboy hat. Then I drove along the Wallowa River and crossed up into the hills to meet my friends Liz Jane and Craig Nichols at their ranch. From their front porch the rising sun sat on the slope like a giant Florida orange. Three border collies wiggled around my knees and lifted their snouts for pets. I slipped off my boots and went inside for coffee.
The Nichols own the 6 Ranch. They raise a small, sharp-horned heritage breed called Corriente, cattle used for rodeo roping and grass-fed beef. Liza Jane and Craig are two of the most joyful people I know. He’s the quintessential horse-shoeing, rodeoing, game-hunting, guitar-playing, storytelling, fix-anything cowboy. She’s a fun-loving, barrel-racing, horse and cattle breeding local food activist who works as a land steward for The Nature Conservancy. They are great pair to be with out on the land on any day.
Their ranch perches above the valley floor, spreads down to the river (where they did a restoration project documented by Oregon Public Broadcasting), and over the broad pastures with mountain views from every angle. Did I mention the landscape actually sparkled?
|Craig calls in the cattle while Liza Jane doles out the hay|
Seated in the warmth of the 1952 Chevy pickup’s cab, we bounced down the snow-covered dirt road to feed the calves, freshly weaned from their mother cows only a couple of days ago. None of them were bawling, and they went straight for the hay we piled off the flatbed. I learned how to pull of a “flake” from the 150-pound hay bales to toss into piles spaced to prevent crowding and poking.
Snows have come early, so the ranchers are already dipping into their hay supplies–bundles of timothy, orchard grass and rye grass–that nourish the cattle until late spring when all grows green again. The adult Corrientes are hearty and well-adapted to these alpine conditions. Since they browse the seed heads of the grasses that stand above the snow, they ignored the horn Craig blew to call them in for their feed. Later from the roadway, we saw them grazing on the craggy hills in full sun. Smart cows. This breed has a goat-like ability to scale steep hillsides and a liking for just about anything that grows in soil. Good for weed control.
Along with getting the bulls and the yearlings their hay, we threw hay to the two milk cows, handed fistfuls to the horses as a snack against the cold, and replaced frozen with free-flowing water for the chickens and the barn cats.
In three hours, we’d toured the entirety of the ranch. I asked Liza Jane and Craig about aspects of ranching and producing meat I will never fully understand. Still, I felt like I was a part of it. Riding around in the pickup having a great time has never felt so essential and valuable.
|Indulging my inner cowgirl|
After a warming cup of coffee and banana bread, I left 6 Ranch reluctantly. Back to my own world. Liza Jane told me she planned to head out on horseback to check on the rest of the herd, to see if any of the mother cows had traveled to the river bottom trying to get back to their calves.
I would have done anything to go with her.