Thursday, January 3, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Adventures of the Year Just Past

Here on Withington Creek we are looking forward to 2013, and we wish everyone Peace, Hope, Joy, and many blessings in the New Year.

For this blog installment I want to share a few of the highlights and adventures of the year just past — like sharing our annual Christmas letter with all of you.

Last winter we accomplished several projects before we started calving in April. With the help of our son Michael, we rebuilt several ditches, fences, and pens. We didn’t have much snow; our cattle grazed until mid-February before we had to start feeding hay.

Last winter we fixed up our pens next to the barn before 
we started calving in April. Here young Dani and our 
Andrea were helping Lynn finish hanging a new gate.

It’s been nice having our daughter Andrea and kids here on the ranch in their new house that we built during 2011. Young Dani (just turned 8) loves the cattle, and her favorite thing is helping Grandma with the chores and feeding cows. She “adopted” a gentle old cow named Maggie as her special friend, because Maggie lets Dani walk up to her and feed her a bite of hay or grass.

Dani became acquainted with Maggie a couple of years
ago when this cow came up to eat grass out of her hand.

Dani had never seen a calf born, so she made us promise we’d allow her to be present when Maggie calved — even if it meant getting her out of school and bringing her home or getting her up in the middle of the night. She had her clothes handy in a pile by her bed, ready to jump into and come to our place. Maggie calved Easter Sunday morning (April 8) at 5 a.m., and we got Dani down here in time to witness the birth. It was a cold, snowy day, so we had Maggie in the barn. Dani and I sat quietly in the next stall, and Maggie wasn’t a bit nervous having extra people around — she just lay there peacefully and calved.

Later that day (before we put Maggie and calf in the field with the other cows and calves), Dani spent a lot of time in Maggie’s pen petting the calf, and the old cow didn’t mind at all. She is very tolerant of that little girl.

After Maggie's new calf was licked dry and had nursed,
Dani sat in the stall with the new baby and also
showed the calf to her sister Sammy.

We spent many days repairing and cleaning most of our ditches (hiring Michael to help us rework the ditch heads with our backhoe) and hauling countless loads of rock from our upper place to rebuild ditch heads and put in headgates and weirs.

Michael also finished the new road to Andrea’s house, down through our field and barnyard, and hauled many dump truck loads of rock for it. It now has a better slant and surface. No one will get stuck in the mud or go shooting out over the field when it’s icy in winter.

Summer was busy with riding and haying. Granddaughter Heather was home from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and trained horses all summer for several ranchers. Her brother Nick helped his folks here on the ranch and also worked at the university ranch north of town.

Granddaughter Heather working with one of the
mares she was training this summer.

Now they are both back at school, Nick in his second year at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on a running/track scholarship and Heather in her senior year at Carroll College majoring in the human-animal bond (psychology department).

Andrea’s kids enjoyed the summer, riding horses and riding around in the tractor with her while she was baling hay. Samantha rides 26-year-old Veggie, Charlie and Dani ride a 20-year-old mare named Ed. We bought a 6-year-old mare nicknamed Sprout that turned out to need a lot more training before the younger kids can ride her, but she is making a good horse for Emily.

Sam checking cows on 26-year-old Veggie

Dani, Charlie, and Sam riding with Grandma out to the range

Dani helping check cows, riding the mare named Ed

Emily and Sprout ready for a ride

On July 5, the 12th anniversary of Andrea’s burn accident and the start of “the rest of her life,” we all went on a ride (6 miles up into the mountains behind the ranch) for a picnic. A friend came along and brought an extra horse, so we had enough horses for all the kids. Lynn and Andrea’s friend Rick drove our jeep up there to meet us at a grassy meadow in the timber and brought all the food, and we had a great picnic. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the fact we still have a daughter and four wonderful grandkids (three of whom would never have been born if she’d perished in the fire).

We tied our horses to trees while we had our picnic.

Late summer ended up hot and dry, with many fires around the West. Andrea worked at a fire camp on a pressure-washing crew (weed-washing vehicles coming and going from the fire) at Big Piney, Wyoming, and then at the Halstead fire near Stanley, Idaho. With all the fires nearby, it was almost as smoky in our valley as it was 12 years ago. The Mustang fire north of town threatened homes along Highway 93 north toward Montana and burned more than 500,000 acres.

Andrea left the fire camp at Stanley early, and she and Emily went to the annual World Burn Congress September 11 through 16, held this year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The WBC was such a wonderful experience when Andrea and I attended 4 years ago (when it was held in Raleigh, North Carolina) that we had hoped to attend another one. This summer we felt Andrea and Emily should go. Em was now old enough (mentally and emotionally) to benefit from this — possibly helpful for her in dealing with issues that stem from that summer when she was only 2½ years old and her mom disappeared and was gone for 2 months. This trip to Wisconsin was also a great chance for her and her mom to do something together.

Andrea and Emily with new friends at the WBC

They came home exhausted and inspired, with many new friends. Emily (who is normally shy) came out of her shell and made friends among the young burn survivors. She realized they were more insecure and shy than she is, and she bonded with several of them. She plans to keep in touch with them.

Emily and her new friend Eduardo at the WBC

Now the kids are all back in school: Em is in ninth grade, Charlie in fifth, Sam in fourth, and Dani in second. The youngest girls are busy with dance and gymnastics. Em, Charlie, and Dani are playing hockey.

This fall I got two young Morgan fillies — a weanling and a 2-year old — and the grandkids are helping Andrea and me work with them. A fun project! These young fillies will eventually make good horses for Dani and Sam.

 Andrea with the weanling Willow,
giving her leading lessons with the rump rope

Sammy and the 2-year-old Morgan
filly that she named Spotty Dotty

Michael and his wife Carolyn have been working extra jobs trying to make their payments at the bank. Carolyn works at a local veterinary clinic, and Michael has been driving a truck in North Dakota (near Crosby and Williston) in the oil fields since October. He came home for a short break at Christmas; weather and roads were bad. On the way home his car slid off the icy road near Livingston Montana, but fortunately, it just tore a tire off and didn’t roll.

While he was home he tried to get caught up on all his cattle work — hauling some purchased hay home to the ranch; bringing cattle home from rented pasture; hauling yearlings to the sale at Butte, Montana; and preg-checking and vaccinating his cows and their calves.

Snow and bad weather created a challenge to bringing cattle from the leased pasture to corrals for hauling them home. One old cow slipped off the road, rolled down a 20-foot bank, and landed upside down against the fence. They got her pulled back up to the road, but she’d broken her hip and had to be butchered.

Hauling hay was also a challenge with the slippery roads, but we got it safely hauled — until Michael went back to get our tractor and loader. Again, it was snowing, with horribly slick roads. Michael’s truck couldn’t make it up the grade and spun out, sliding backward. Our trailer with the tractor on it slid off the road, went down over a bank, and landed upside down with the tractor still chained to it.

This photo was taken the night of the accident,
showing the trailer and tractor tipped off the road upside down.

Fortunately, the twist in the tongue popped the hitch loose, tearing it out of the bed of the truck. Thus, the truck (with Michael and young Heather in it) stayed on the road and wasn’t dragged down off the bank, too. That accident could have been much worse. We are so thankful that it was just vehicles and equipment damaged or totaled and nobody was hurt. We hold our family close to our hearts, in gratitude.

A wrecker pulled the demolished trailer back up onto the road
the next morning; then the tractor was pulled up afterward.

Life is full of setbacks and struggles, but we rejoice in the Love of One who continually cares for us and leads us through the tough times as well as the good ones.

The accident on that slippery road may have been a blessing in disguise, because we realized how risky it would be for Carolyn to feed their cows this winter on our upper place while Michael is gone, driving their big tractor and bale processor up their steep, slippery driveway to be plugged in every night. We quickly made another plan — bringing their cattle down to one of our lower fields, to be fed here, leaving the tractor here to be plugged in at night. Lynn also learned how to run the bale processor, so he can feed their cows on days Carolyn has to leave early for work at the vet clinic. That’s the wonderful thing about families; we can all help each other.

For updates on our lives here on the ranch, see, and to read some of my “critter” stories, see my earlier posts on this blog spot.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

No comments: