Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fun Cows

I had fun watching cows the other day and caught some fun expressions. I love to imagine what the cows are thinking. They are obviously curious, but cautious at the same time.

They all line up, ready to begin their high kick. Okay, maybe watching the cows makes me get a little loopy. It must be the smell of all that sweet feed and manure.

As I check out this group on the other side, I see most of them are paying attention. Then I look at the back wall, and what's that I see in the window?

Why it's a cow, not wanting to miss any thing.

Ah, how can anyone resist a sweet face like this one?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Golden Eagle

Whenever I see a really large bird of prey, I know it has to be one of two species: bald eagle or golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Adult bald eagles have easily distinguished white heads and tails, which means that an all-dark big bird is usually a golden eagle (immature bald eagles are often mostly dark, too, but a little observation makes it fairly easy to tell them apart).

Upon closer inspection, it's easy to see that the head is indeed gold-colored. The wingspan can be six to eight feet. Having such big wings can be a disadvantage at times, though. One of the places I regularly see golden eagles is feeding on road kill. They are slow to move away when a car comes, and getting hit by a car is probably the biggest cause of their demise. So if you ever see a bunch of birds up ahead feasting on a dead animal on the road, slow down to make sure one of those birds isn't a golden eagle--it needs extra time to take flight.

Golden eagles will also eat the normal assortment of small mammals, reptiles, and birds. They mate for life, with the female larger than the male as in the case of most raptors. Similar to red-tailed hawks, golden eagles have eyes eight times more powerful than humans.

We see golden eagles year round in our valley, and thoughout western North America they are fairly common. They still are exciting to see, and generally whenever someone sees one they tell other people about it. There's just something neat about seeing such a large and majestic bird. Fittingly, the golden eagle is the national bird of Mexico.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Windmills in the Desert

Out on the desert floor I see a windmill, looking lonely out in the desolate brush. The windmill is a sign of early technological progress--a way to harness the wind to pump water from the ground and provide for livestock, irrigation, or other water needs. The windmill is an indication of a rural area, a place without electrical lines.

Over the last 120 years, the basic design of a windmill hasn't changed much. The fan (or wheel) at the top of the tower is turned by the wind. This rotary motion turns a set of mechanical gears that raises and lowers the "sucker rod," the rod that extends below the fan and down into the ground. The up and down movement of the rod (reciprocating motion) powers the cylinder pump located underground.

This cylinder pump is near the bottom of the well, which is dug or drilled into an aquifer. Perforations in the well casing allow water to percolate into the well, and then the pump keeps adding water to the bottom of the pipe, creating enough pressure that the water is forced upwards and out of the pipe. 

For this windmill, once the water reached the surface, it was put into this livestock tank. Today it's full of tumbleweeds, and none of the similar windmills in the valley are working. It's been quite a few years, even decades, since the last one pumped water to the surface. My husband says he can remember one working windmill as a child. 

So why aren't more of these windmills, with their simple technology, in use? With the arrival of electricity, brought by the Rural Electrification Association from the 1930s to 1950s, windmills all over rural areas went into decline because it became easier to pump water with a motor that had a steady power supply. Nowadays, with increased energy prices, more people are repairing, restoring, and installing windmills, and learning how to maintain them. 

This windmill is an Aermotor, made in Chicago. Aermotor windmills were first sold in 1888, and were made in Chicago until 1958. Today they are still sold, made in San Angelo, Texas. 

I had a little fun with lighting effects. The windmill is a fun subject to photograph.

The old timers were on to something, harnessing the free power of the wind to make life easier for them. Nowadays, more and more people are turning to the wind again, not so much to lift water from the ground, but to create electricity. The windmills that are used for electricity are called wind turbines, and we are starting to see more and more of those out in the desert.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


With many of the calves out of the feed yard, it's time to clean it up. How do you clean a feed yard? I admit this is a subject I never even considered until I moved out here. It's a fairly simple process to clean. A loader is used to scoop up the manure into big piles. When the manure spreader truck is ready, the loader fills it, and then the truck takes the manure out to the fields for fertilizer.

Here's a pile in another corral. Although it might look like a lot, it's not very concentrated in nutrients, so it can take several corrals' worth to fertilize one pivot.

This is the manure spreader truck. It has extra tall sides so it can hold more.

Along the bottom is a conveyor-belt type of contraption that slowly moves the manure out of the truck and onto the field.
The manure spreader is not a new concept by any means. Hidden in the sagebrush is an old manure spreader. This one was pulled by a horse.

The concept was still the same, though, and on the right hand side of the wagon you can see the old chain used to slide the manure out of the wagon at a steady speed.

I always try to get some of the manure for my garden--the older stuff doesn't have quite the potent odor but still helps things grow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Plant Survival Strategies in the Desert

It's been dry out here for a long stretch, and whenever that happens I can't help but marvel at the interesting ways plants have evolved to live in such a dry climate. 

Prickly pear-Opuntia sp.
Xerophytes are plants that have changed their physical characteristics to withstand long periods of dryness. One classic example is a cactus. Instead of having leaves, which have a big surface area and thus lose a lot of moisture to evapotranspiration, a cactus has spines. The stem (cactus pad) is green and contains chlorophyll, acting as leaves do in other plants. However, this stem is often covered with a waxy coating which prevents water from leaving. In fact, many cacti can store water within their stems. They also have shallow, spreading root systems to absorb any available moisture from a brief rainstorm. 

Gray rabbitbrush-Chrysothamnus nauseosus
Another adaptation of plants that live in the desert is very small leaves, so there is less surface area for water to escape. Some plants' leaves have the ability to close their pores (stomata) to keep water in them under the intense sunlight, and some have fewer stomata than similar species found in wetter conditions. The plants may be very hairy to reflect sunlight and reduce the amount of air movement next to the leaves, which will wick away the moisture.

Stonecrop-Sedum lanceolata
Succulent plants, like stonecrop, can store water in the vacuoles, which are specialized tissues in their cells. All cacti are also succulents, and barrel cacti are famous for being able to contain large amounts of water. Many desert plants can also store water in their roots.

Joshua tree-Yucca brevifolia
The metabolism of desert plants is often very slow to reduce energy requirements. A Joshua tree only grows about two feet tall in ten years. A Saguaro cactus takes 30 years to grow just a few feet tall.

If you've looked out over a scene of desert plants, it may have seemed sparse. The plants do not live close together on purpose--there are so few nutrients and so little moisture that it takes quite a bit of space for each plant to obtain them. Spreading root systems help keep others away. In addition, some plants, like the creosote bush, have roots that are poisonous to other plants so that it's not crowded and has plenty of room to get the moisture and nutrients it needs.

Fourwing  saltbush-Atriplex canescens
Most plants need photosynthesis to live. Common photosynthesis uses what's called the C3 cycle, in which the plant fixes carbon into a three carbon compound (phosphoglyceric acid) in order to make carbohydrates. But that's not the only way photosynthesis can occur. Some desert plants like those in the goosefoot family (like the fourwing saltbush above) and bunchgrasses use the C4 cycle, which creates a four carbon compound (aspartate or malate acid). This process is more efficient in maximizing energy.

There is yet another method of photosynthesis, called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). It is used by succulents and is even more efficient. These plants open their stomates at night to absorb carbon dioxide, and then during the day use it for photosynthesis. With the stomates open only at night, they use only one-tenth the amount of water as some plants.

Greasewood-Sarcobatus vermiculatus
Other desert plants have developed long root systems to tap into underground water. These phreatophytes are good indicators of a relatively shallow aquifer system--something important for desert travelers to learn to identify. Mesquite trees can have roots that go down 80 feet, while greasewood roots may grow 50 feet to reach water. Many of these phreatophytes, like the creosote bush, will also have some roots close to the surface to capture rainfall. 

Ocotillo-Fouquieria splendens (BLM photo)
Another adaptation to desert dryness is to go dormant when not enough water is available. The ocotillo is a classic example. After rain, it will grow leaves and flower. As the climate dries, the leaves will fall off, and the ocotillo will go dormant again. It may repeat this cycle five times in one year! Greasewood also will lose leaves if its deep root loses contact with the aquifer. It may appear that the plant is dead, but once enough water is present, the leaves will come back (unless it has been dry too long!).

Indian Paintbrush-Castilleja sp.
Annuals like Indian paintbrush will only bloom when their seeds have had the right moisture and temperature. Sometimes the seeds will lie dormant for years and years until the right conditions are met. Then the plant will produce spectacular flowers. In a few days or weeks, the seeds are scattered and await the next set of climate conditions that will allow them to show their beauty again. The drier the conditions, the more annual plants that live there. It's estimated that half the plants in the Sonoran Desert are annuals, while even drier climates may consist of 90% annuals.

Tufted evening primrose-Oenothera caespitosa
Pollination can be a challenge for some desert plants, because not many animals are active in the extreme heat of the day. One adaptation is to flower at night, when more potential pollinators are active during the cooler conditions. 

Another adaptation of desert plants is to go to the water. Plants around springs and streams are extremely different than those just a few meters away, where conditions are much drier. Changes to that water source will reduce the diversity of the plant communities.

As you can see, plants have developed a large number of ways to survive in the desert. Some have developed unique ways to store and gather water (succulents). Others have learned to tolerate drought conditions by going dormant. And some plants avoid drought by staying in the seed stage until the conditions are just right for a short burst of life. Because of these adaptations, desert plants are often easy to recognize. They have to deal with extreme conditions, and in doing so, they have become interesting plants with recognizable characteristics. Although the desert may seem a harsh and inhospitable place, indigenous plants have learned to live--and thrive--with the dry conditions.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Desert Destination: A Visit to the New Calf

As I mentioned a couple days ago, the first calf of the year was born last week. I just had to see it, so yesterday my husband, Desert Boy, Henry, and I loaded up in the truck and went out to take a visit. This calf was born premature by a couple weeks, but it looks like it's doing okay. Not great, but okay. The mother is a heifer, a first-time mother, so she doesn't really know what to do, and because she had her calf early, just as the other heifers were moved to the birthing field, she and the calf are on their own for a few days and seem a bit confused.

Here's the mom, a black baldy. The calf looks mostly black because the semen was from a black angus bull. The mama cow is watching us suspiciously, which is a good sign. Our plan was to take a quick peek at the calf and see how it's doing, and then get out of there. 

Except sometimes plans don't always go as you expect. In this case, we finally got a bunch of rain. That extra moisture, coupled with a ditch that's running to make sure the cow gets plenty of water, made the normally drivable road into a muddy mess. And we started spinning. So my husband put the truck into four wheel-drive. And we continued spinning. The mud flew on to the hood, onto the windows--it was now raining mud. And the tires kept digging deeper and deeper in the mud. 

Finally, I looked at my husband. "I don't think we're going anywhere."

He grinned. "I don't either."

Usually we're in a hurry to get somewhere, but this was a Sunday afternoon and we had had a relaxing day, so we stayed calm. We got out to take a look and saw that the tires were half-buried in mud. We didn't have a shovel, so we got a bunch of sticks and put them under the  tires. But we were in too deep. We needed to go for help.

Fortunately we had on our coats and boots, so we were prepared to go for a little walk. We headed off down the muddy road, along the edge of the field, towards the misty mountains. 

And we kept walking...

We needed to go across the field and towards the white specks on the right side of the photo, past Henry, who was having a grand old time. Our house is near the trees in the middle of the photo. What, you can't see the trees? They're a long way off. 

Desert Boy walked for a while, and then he wanted to be carried. When it was my turn, I put him up on my shoulders and he used my ears like reins. I told him he really wasn't supposed to pull on my ears.

The field we walked through was good walking. It had been planted with barley last spring. After it was harvested, it was planted with alfalfa. The short stalks are from the barley, and the mat-looking stuff is the baby alfalfa.

The Canada geese really like the field and their scat was everywhere. They sure can clean up any leftovers. Soon we crossed the field and came upon a treasure--an old junkyard. The main equipment yard is huge, but not everything is in it. This particular junkyard housed lots of older vehicles. I took quite a few pictures, but in this post will just show the station wagons to complement the post earlier this week.
This is a Chevrolet Nomad. Don't you just love the trim on the side? Because it's a four-door station wagon, we can surmise it was made between 1958 and 1961, and this was the top-of-the-line station wagon for Chevrolet. The original Nomad came out in 1955 as a two-door station wagon and was produced for three years. I am still scratching my head about two-door station wagons.

This station wagon with the cool fin taillights is a Studebaker. It was kind of hard to get a good look at it because of all the brush growing up around it, but it's probably from the 1950s and might be a Commander model. 

We spent quite a bit of time looking around the old junkyard. I must say, if you have to get stuck, it's quite an enjoyable experience if you have good weather, comfortable clothes and shoes, an interesting junkyard to meander through, and a camera to document the whole trip.

By the time we got the backhoe and took it back to the truck, it was getting pretty dark. But it only took a minute to pull the truck out, and then we were on our way.

The little calf was up and exploring her surroundings. Probably tomorrow she and her mom will be moved with the other heifers and hopefully they'll get more accustomed to being together and figure out what they're supposed to do. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Photo Caption Contest-January

I haven't had a photo caption contest for awhile, so it's time!! Here are the rules: there are none. Enter as many times as you want. I'll pick my favorite sometime Monday night, but you can still create a photo caption after that. And what would be an appropriate prize for a contest with no rules? You guessed it--a thumbs up; an ego boost; the inner delight of having the wittiest, most appropriate entry; and bragging rights. Wow! 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shipping Calves

It was about four weeks ago that we weighed our calves and found they needed to gain a little more weight. Now they've put on the pounds and are ready to head out from our isolated ranch. Three empty livestock trucks arrived yesterday morning and we followed them down to the feed yard.

As one of the truck moves into position, the calves are watching. The calves get excited anytime anything different is happening. There typically is one that will go out ahead and do the investigating while the others hang out in the background and wait for the sign that it's okay to approach.

Any time cattle are bought or sold, the brand inspector has to be present. The brand inspector is a state position started in the old days to prevent cattle rustling. Cattle rustling might sound like something from the old Wild West days, but it still unfortunately occurs.  

Here are some of the calves waiting in a pen to be weighed. The basic process for shipping calves is to gather them, weigh them, and move them onto the truck. During this process, the brand inspector checks them as they pass by.

Here are some of the calves walking to the scales. This one in the front is a black baldy, with a red angus behind. You can brush up on your cow knowledge here.

About 30 calves were weighed at a time, using the Howe scale inside the scale building. They weighed about 800 pounds each. My husband would like to point out that the Howe Scales sign is made of enamel and is at least 50 years old, but still looks like new.

After being weighed, the calves are sent up this chute to the waiting truck. The chute makes them go one by one, or at least that's the idea. Sometimes they get overly excited and try to jam in there and get a little stuck. Frequently they aren't too keen about leaving the sunny desert, and don't really want to get on the truck, so have to be prodded.

Here's a view of the chute from the side. The livestock drivers and a cowboy are doing most of the work getting the calves up the chute and into the trucks. The number of calves going on each truck is determined by weight, with a 50,000 pound maximum load. That means each livestock truck carries about 60 calves for this trip. The trucks have upper and lower levels and gates inside to keep the cows from getting all bunched up.

As the last of the calves are being loaded, it's time for the business transaction. As you can see, it's a little informal out on the ranch. No big hardwood desks are needed--the trunk of a car will suffice. 

The ranch sells calves a number of ways. Some are by contract a year in advance, locking in the current price. Others are by auction. And this bunch were sold by contacting Producers Livestock and having them find a buyer and arrange shipping. They are sold at the current market price, which is down about $0.30 per pound from last year. Ouch. With the much higher fuel and fertilizer prices this past summer, it makes it really hard to make any profit.

Next it's time to write a check to the brand inspector for his services. The truck drivers are standing on the side, chatting before they get in their trucks and drive 12+ hours to eastern Colorado.

With a loaded cattle truck in the background, Desert Boy can't resist taking the opportunity to get on Kate. He likes being up high, pretending he's a cowboy. He's gotten old enough he can stay in the saddle by himself, so it probably won't be too long until he's riding for real!

Today there are six more livestock trucks coming. The calves that are leaving were born last February or March. Just a few days ago, the first calf of this year was born--we'll be heading out to visit it soon!
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