April 10, 2015

Fauna and Flora of the Prairies: Cows Included!

Last time I told you some stories about my time working on the Mattheis Ranch, in light of the conservation easement that was signed with Western Sky Land Trust. I shared a few pictures of some spectacular lightning strikes and some pretty prairie scenery, but this time I want to share some more of the flora and fauna I seen and couldn't resist capturing on digital film--when I happened to have the camera handy of course!

I failed to mention, though, that the Mattheis ranch had cattle. Yes, it certainly had cattle, because what would a ranch be without some animals, if not more traditionally some cows and calves?

There were two different herds on the ranch, and neither were owned by the University of Alberta, unlike the cattle on the Kinsella Research Ranch. The first herd I seen were of commercial Herefords with some Red Angus (a few black baldies too) and I think some Limousin or Simmental thrown in the woodpile somewhere, but not a whole lot of it. When I first came to the ranch the Hereford herd had cows that were still calving, and there were some cute little calves to see, like the one above and these two hooligans below.


No, these two rascals weren't supposed to be on the other side of the fence, but calves are notoriously curious, like these two, and its hard for even a rancher to get mad at them when you look at those faces!

The second herd was dominantly Angus. Nothing but black cows--with the occasional baldie--for as far as the pasture was big. One old girl did a pose for me.


These were actually a little more tamer and friendlier than the Hereford herds. One of my colleagues, who was another research assistant I was regularly partnered with, had zip zero clue or experience with cows, and of course being less than ten feet away from a full grown, 1200 pound black beef cow was certainly quite intimidating to her, especially when they were coming in from all sides thinking she had a treat or they were going to go out to fresh pasture, and she was on the short list for having to be the gate-opener. So, to her the cows were being a bit too friendly! I pretty much had to be the one to "guard" her and keep the cows back whilst helping her with the gate, and keep her calm too because she seemed to be (to me, anyway) on the verge of a nervous break-down in the midst of these large, lumbering beasts.

It never fails to amaze me how people can be easily intimidated by these animals. Growing up with cattle and being around these critters all my life, what is completely normal for me is a new and scary experience for someone who's never lived on a farm all their lives. And yet, I can understand their level of fear, seeing as I was the one who had been charged at by a steer when I was just a little girl, and had the daylights scared out of me when a Charolais bull decided to break free from his enclosure, also when I was very young. (Some time I'll expand more on these stories, and more, if I remember to do so!)

But now let's see some wildlife!

First, some Pronghorn antelope. Not true antelope, but the last remaining ungulates that are the fastest land mammals in North America, and had these speeds to out-run a now-extinct North American cheetah that was similar to the modern cheetah of Africa. To put it right, these pronghorn are almost like Africa's gazelles, except they're faster. And have no cheetah to fear, just wolves, bears, the occasional lion, and of course humans.







And later on in the season (about mid-June), I just popped over a veg sand dune and saw three pronghorn, which I'm glad I had my camera along for.






I also happened to see some deer on the ranch. Six bucks, with some nice racks (they were mule deer), and they still had their velvet on. Unfortunately, they were too fast for me to get my camera out in time. I did happen across a couple of sheds from one or two bucks. I've heard that the ranch also sees its fair share of moose and elk, but no luck in seeing them for me. No luck either in seeing any pronghorn babies, although several times some colleagues happened across one hiding in the grass. 

There were also a multitude of species of birds, and for all you bird lovers out there, have I got a host of pictures for you!

I'll start you off with the best picture I could get of a harrier. 


Some shovellers:


A yellow-headed blackbird just landing on a cattail:


Shoveller male and female pair:


Pair of Canada geese flying over:


Pintail duck showing the underside of its wings:


Two male shovellers having a bit of an argument over breeding rights:




Teal duck pair:


Beautiful mirror effects of a teal duck stretching its wings and the ripples it leaves after:



Female red-winged blackbird sitting on a fence post:


Black-necked sandpiper was chirping at me when I snapped these couple photos of him (or her):



A few shots of some yellow-headed black bird. The bird in the foreground of the second photo below is a female.




American coot making waves in the smooth water:


Killdeer watching both me and doing some foraging around the shores of the wetlands.


Pheasant (male) running like the Looney Toon's roadrunner! Those game birds can sure run! They actually are not native to Alberta, but they're wild and living on the ranch. They aren't posing a threat as an invasive species because their numbers are naturally managed by predators like coyotes, hawks, foxes, and owls. We tended to hear a lot more of them than actually see them.


An avocet standing in one of the salt marshes on the ranch.


Some sandpipers foraging for insects and other bugs.


Lovely sage grouse we were able to catch with our lenses. She was in the same area as where we commonly seen the pronghorn.




More to come!

April 1, 2015

West Wind Acres and the Unnecessary Charges of Animal Cruelty

As if the ludicrous allegations against New York's carriage horse industry wasn't bad enough.

Now there was the charges--13 counts--against Joshua Rockwood of West Wind Acres near Glenville, New York that came into the media spotlight for me to shake my head at.

I had to take some time to delve up some thoughts well enough to write a blog post on this issue. I've been following Jon Katz's blog posts on the proceedings and results of Rockwood's plight (which have been great news), and have also visited the Facebook page of West Wind Acres (Friends of West Wind Acres) just to see for myself why these animal cruelty charges were brought to this inexperienced small farmer.

And I haven't seen anything wrong with the animals he has been raising.

How this affects me is that I come from a farm background and know what goes on with raising animals, and the struggle that has to be done to get them through some nasty winters. And these animal cruelty charges are disturbing because they show that someone who complained to the "Orwellian animal police"--the words of Jon Katz--knew worth scat about raising livestock, and was trying to tout some illogical mantra of living conditions that are simply unrealistic.

Basically the charges that Josh faced surrounded primarily of frozen water, no feed and an unheated barn. Absolutely the stupidest charges that can come up to falsely incriminate a rookie farmer of doing the best he could to get his livestock through one of the nastiest, coldest, and snowiest winters that New York state--and many other states--have been forced to face this year. Many farmers' and people's water pipes froze, power went out, and yet they still had to find ways to feed and water their livestock, their pets and themselves.

But an unheated barn?? Who in their right mind would complain of an unheated barn? I think I know, and it's those who just can't make up their minds between wanting farmers to house their animals in a barn all their lives and then turn around and cry and whine about those poor innocent animals kept in confined spaces that are simply unnatural or they can't move around in. Not every farm has their barns hooked up to electricity or can afford to have an expansive system to provide heat in a barn that is barely used even in winter. Many animals prefer to be outdoors in the winter time and would only seek shelter during the worst of it: Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, llamas, alpacas, even pigs. The body heat of the animals, as well as walls that take away the wind and the chill factor it presents, is enough to heat a small barn, just like in the old days. Finally, many barns can't be heated because it's more of a fire hazard and a safety issue. I know because we had (have) such a barn, and it was rarely used by our cattle except in really nasty weather.

Yet the insistence is there, but where does it come from? People with their pampered pooches who hold them indoors most of the time? Or those who have accepted conventional intensive practices as the norm who can afford to have climate controlled heating and cooling systems for the animals they raise? What about those who hold such unrealistically high standards for raising and caring for livestock? Those that think that barns should be pristine and clean, animals out on green, lush pastures all the time, or have clean, clear unfrozen water and constant feed in front of them no matter the weather, or as mentioned, can't make up their minds between having animals outdoors versus indoors.

The frozen water bowls was also considerably dumb. When temperatures drop below zero, water freezes. The colder the temperature, the quicker water freezes to solid ice. Unless heated water buckets or a water heater is applied to a trough, the water is going to freeze within a matter of minutes. Animals have to drink up quickly, as chores are being done, before it freezes over on them. That's how it was done way back before electricity became so popular we've taken it for granted. But today, to the animal police seeing water frozen is warrant enough for animal cruelty charges.

You see, the media doesn't report the whole story. They only tell the side of the story that the animal cops tell them, and not the farmer's side. The blog on West Wind Acres told a story of a inexperienced farmer that liked to keep his farm as transparent as possible, and the cops that showed up showed up at a time when he hadn't even done his chores yet. So he thought it fine to show them around, but that turned out to be a bad idea. Next thing he knows they're coming back again with a warrant to seize some of his animals, and to file several charges against him for what they considered were negligence and animal cruelty.

I was having a lively discussion with a woman from New York City about his charges, and she had claimed that the police were "doing their job" to the same extent that they got after those who were involved in the cock- and dog-fighting rings. Not only that, but she argued that the police had seen the "whole picture" and veterinarian of Rockwood's only part. Neither of those were true. If it's not a direct insult and highly offensive thing to compare a small farmer to someone who deliberately abuses and mistreats animals to get them to fight and kill each other for sport and gambling, it's another to think that these cops saw the "whole story."

What these coppers seen was merely an ephemeral of farm life. A passing stage of time that is only temporary, yet somehow they got it into their heads that the animals were "suffering" like this for some time. If they were using their heads and understood how New York (just like here in Alberta) gets cold in the winter, and even colder at nights, and that Rockwood was going to feed and water his animals quite soon--as he said right before the police first showed up--then the idiot that filed those charges wouldn't have done so, and a miscarriage of justice would've been avoided.

This same woman I was arguing with claimed that Rockwood failed to "meet the basic animal welfare standards" of the animals and claimed he "deserved" it because she believed that the animals should be fed and watered no matter the weather, and implied that they should always come first. She argued about the fact that he "didn't have time" was inexcusable, and also believed that his mentioning on his blog that doing chores was "nasty and difficult" was some sort of sign that he didn't care about his animals. I think any reader that has some farm background would find this definitely would rub them the wrong way!

Anybody who comes from a life of romping, roaming and working on the farm knows that there are far more jobs to be done than to be sitting or standing around all day doing nothing but feeding and watering animals and cleaning up their poop. A farmer cannot get the water pipes unfrozen or an automatic waterer fixed if she has to be constantly making sure all her animals have feed and unfrozen water in front of them 24 hours of the day seven days a week!! A farmer cannot shovel or push snow from the drive way or pay the bills if she has to always shovel every fresh pile of manure or put a new fleck of hay or a handful of grain out for her livestock. It's just not possible. There is a reason why "chores" is a name and why they are only done once or twice a day. Yet city folk like the woman I was in discussions with cannot seem to comprehend this.

The only way that people can really understand the way a farm is run is to work on one for a day or even a month. True understanding comes from experience, not from reading a book or a blog on the Internet. Even I can tell you so much.

Feeding animals is another thing people don't get. Many people have their pets and like to always see lots of feed in front of them all the time. The problem with that is that you can get some fat animals as a result.

But with livestock, it's a different story. You see, animals are messy eaters and can slop and spread their hay around without a care. Feed is wasted, trampled into the ground, crapped on, and laid on to the point that it's not eatable anymore, especially if too much feed is available. It's normal and should be considered perfectly fine for animals to fed a certain amount of feed and for them to clean it up quickly after so that they aren't going to be wasting so much feed. As far as economics are considered, feed costs money, and its money wasted when feed is wasted.

It's these unnecessary charges that question the integrity of these animal cops, even though I know that they're just doing their jobs and doing what they feel is right and in the requirements of the law. But what's the law if it's going to be harming people like Rockwood and making his life hell? The good thing that came out of this is the amazing support he has gotten not just from other farmers, but the general public. A crowdfunding source has helped him pay off his legal fees and help him make some ground to try to get his animals back. It's definitely encouraging news, now that people are starting to wake up and realize that the animal rights movement is not what PeTA and HSUS has made it out to be.

Still, there is controversy, there are arguments surrounding things like having pets versus having animals (as livestock), and there are still things many people have to learn and begin to wake up to. We can only hope that Rockwood's plight has woken the masses up to understand that the way animals are raised on farms are not as bad as the minority group with the biggest loudspeaker has been forcing us all to believe. Not only do we need the small farmer, but the small farmer needs us, and needs our support in more ways than we can fathom.