Sun Pony Ranch

Diary of novice (clueless) ranch owners

Friday, October 29, 2004

There's always a bigger tractor

After David took off to go mow, Ginger suggested we get in a quick horseback ride. We hadn't yet tried our lesson horses in English tack, so we wanted to see how they reacted. She had Shoni and I rode Romeo. From the arena we could easily watch Dave and saw that he was making good progress. We were all racing against the sunset, however, so I stopped paying a lot of attention to David, until I noticed that he'd gotten out of the tractor, and actually the tractor hadn't moved much recently. Sure enough, shortly thereafter he started back to the house on foot. We rode out to meet him and confirmed he'd gotten stuck. He was almost done too - just trying to get two last swathes cut - but they were probably two swathes too close to the wetlands to be realistic. I put Romeo away while Dave got the truck and chains, and our friend Mike who is currently using our vacant small barn to do some remodeling on his '76 Bronco.
Getting the truck out to where the tractor was no picnic either. We certainly did not want to get the truck stuck as well! (Recall entry on City-Bumpkins) On the way over we passed our neighbor who said he'd have time the next day to help out, if we didn't succeed tonight. Have I mentioned we really like our neighbor?

We cautiously approached the tractor from the most solid ground we could and then tromped over to take a look. I was really kicking myself because I didn't have the camera since just earlier that day I'd found it not only dead of batteries, but the battery charger covered in leaky battery gunk. I cleaned off the charger, but decided it needed to dry thoroughly before plugging it in.... Thus no camera. And the tractor was totally picture-worthy too. All the wheels were dug in so deep that it was sitting as much on the chasse as it was on the wheels. We kicked the bush hog free and dragged it away from the tractor, but didn't dare getting any closer with the tuck. As it was near dark anyways, we decided Dave would have to go after it with the neighbor the next day.

Next day came, and Dave found the tire tracks had filled some with water already. Definitely too close to the swampy area to be mowed! At least we now know where that boundary is. Every disaster is a learning opportunity. Every disaster is a learning opportunity. This has become our mantra.

Tom came down with his big green tractor. I've never seen it up close, but it's big enough to have an enclosed cab - so it's quite a bit bigger than any we've looked at. Bigger and Heavier. And it got stuck before even reaching our red tractor.

Never fear - Tom has lots of farm equipment. He went up to get his yellow backhoe. After it became clear the backhoe wasn't going to tow anything free, Tom put down its bracer feet and was able to tug the green tractor out using the scooper arm. Then the green and yellow tractors together were able to tug the red tractor out. Sounds easy now, but I take it it was quite the operation.

But you know boys and their toys - I suspect they probably had a ball.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

The ups and downs of tractor-hood

As I mentioned, we got a new tractor a few weeks ago. Why? Because our old one is constantly in need of repair (has many adjustments rusted in place, the muffler fell off, a plastic fan blade that more resembled a stumpy starfish than a fan and that is no longer manufactured), and it wasn't big enough and only two wheel drive so it couldn't make it over to one section of the property that really needs to be mowed. Really. As in it probably had never been mowed by the previous owner. Like the county paid us a friendly visit 5 days after we moved in telling us that that section had to be mowed because it was overrun with thistle. The really bad thistle - Canada Thistle that is the scourge of Colorado apparently.

This piece of land is on the other side of the pond, outside of our fence - so the only way to get there is from across the neighbor's property, across a small stream to boot. Dave tried several times, but never could get the old tractor across - once the bush hog was attached to the back, the tractor would get low-centered such that it was suspended between the (non-powered) front wheels and the bush hog in the back, and the drive wheels not able to drive. Now, keep in mind this is a really small stream - like you probably wouldn't otice it was there if you didn't walk through the weeds and trip on the other bank. But the old tractor could not lift the bush hog high enough for even that much clearance. Don't tell Dave, but it started to get a little amusing. He'd set out to make another try. He'd putter off on the tractor down the neighbor's drive. 15 minutes later he'd reappear out from behind the barn still trying to get down there. No speed demon that tractor was. An hour later he'd be sighted driving back, foiled again.
Meanwhile the thistle grew, went to seed, and is still growing. We bad.

So once we got the new tractor there were great expectations of getting that thistle mowed finally! One Saturday afternoon, Ginger and I walked up from somewhere and noticed Dave attaching the bush hog to the new tractor. She commented how much Dave loves to mess with the tractors - that she was amazed that he seems to understand how they work right away. We agreed hands down it was a good thing she and I weren't in this project alone. I


Friday, October 22, 2004

Fall Harvest

Look what just fell into our driveway this week -

-- literally off the turnip truck!

Its undeniably harvest time. There are all sorts of unidentifiable machinery out in every field, and trucks driving up and down our road loaded beyond their gills with ... produce. We're often pretty hard pressed to name what ever it is that is in the truck that is clogging traffic to 25 mph. At least at that speed we are able to get a pretty good look at the load - one of these days maybe we'll make it to the farmers market to put names to them.

Admittedly, the premise of this diary is to chronical our experiences as we transition into this very different agrarian lifestyle. So the arrival of the turnip (or what we have interpreted as a turnip. If we're wrong*... well then that simply goes to prove my point) immediately had us chuckling about turnip trucks and falling off of them. Then I started thinking.

First of all we didn't know what the idiom meant. According to Evan Morris' Word Detective: ['does it look like I fell off the turnip truck'] "seems to be a good example of an entire class of catch phrases based on urban-rural rivalry. The thrust of such phrases is, of course, that 'I am not a fool or a newcomer,' and, in this case, that 'I am not an ignorant country bumpkin who just arrived in the big city on a truck full of lowly turnips that I was dumb enough, on top of everything else, to fall off of.'"

Our problem, however, is the quite the opposite - city folk who are ignorant of farming ways. I have no idea, but it seems like I've heard that there is a trend of city dewllers spilling out into the rural areas, occupying spaces that have been vacated by farmers because of the general downturn in the economic reality for farming as a living. If so then someone ought to come up with an idiom for us. They probably have, but I haven't been paying attention.
Or, maybe the original idiom would work just as well for us, because I wouldn't doubt that we are in fact city-bumpkin enough to actually fall off the turnip truck. Assuming we could figure out which truck was carrying turnips.


* After discussing it yet again last night, because this thing has been sitting in our kitchen all week and it just begs to be discussed, I think we've decided this is not a turnip, but a sugar beet. Any other guesses?


Thursday, October 21, 2004

Hey, Hay everywhere, but not a bale to buy

Seems ridiculous, but we still are far from getting our arms around this whole hay buying thing. We've never had to be the purchaser of the hay before, but I thought I knew the issues around it. You want hay that hasn't been rained on or else it molds. Hay that is green and fresh smelling. There are different types of hay that have different nutritional aspects. We have to buy enough hay now to last the winter - or else risk not finding any good hay still available next spring before the first cutting happens. This means we have to have a lot of hay storage. All very manageable things, right? So we thought.

We asked a friend how she went about buying hay. Her advice was that when you find a good source, of course you stick with them. You need to try out multiple sources to find one you consider good. But really, she said, "sooner or later you'll find a field that is beautifully grown and that is where you'll start buying your hay."

HUH? We didn't even know what alfalfa was when we moved onto the ranch... and then it was only by walking out into what the sellers said was our alfalfa field to get familiar. Actually, the horses helped considerably when we took them out to hand graze - as they dragged us from one alfalfa plant to the next.

But assuming we now can recognize an alfalfa field and a grass hay field - making the connection between the field and the owner is not always a simple manner. Some sellers put up signs with their phone numbers, but a lot do not. Heck, many fields aren't even for sale.

I just called a reference and asked if he had any hay available. "Not just right now." was the response. He said it in such away that I asked if they would have some shortly? "Ya never know. You might call back in a few days". Few days? He doesn't even know within a few days if he'll have hay or not? What a crazy business.

Part of the problem is that it has been an incredibly rainy summer and fall. To harvest hay it needs to be cut, dried, turned over to dry on the other side, baled, then the bales picked up. This is somewhere about a 7 day process. But we really haven't had any 7 day periods without rain - and rain during any of this process is problematic.

Take our neighbor who cuts our tinsy-bit of alfalfa when he cuts his. The night it got baled it poured down rain. Dave ran out the next day and picked up the 15 bales our side produces and stuck them under our barn overhang. But they were already wet, so we knew we'd have to feed them quickly. Not 5 days later we were noticing that when we cut the bales open they were warm inside! Talk about a disconcerting experiend. The fermentation had begun. Just for education sake Ginger and I then went to look at the other bales - that were still sitting in the field. We rolled them over and found the bottoms nearly entirely covered with black slimy mold.
And what happens if you bale too soon? We've run into this too - the guy had baled a little soon because he was rushed by the coming rain storm. Only that hay hadn't dried completely. We bought 6 bales so that we could evaluate it closely at home, and while it isn't nearly as bad as the rain soaked hay, it too is fermenting due to the water content left in the plants.

The second factor we've just learned about is that the longer you allow the alfalfa to grow, the higher protein content it has. Sounds good? Not so much - it actually can get to be far too rich for horses. (This hay is intended for cattle) This can be judged somewhat by examining the maturity of the blooms in the bales, but this really isn't sufficient. Only laboratory testing can be definitive. Some sellers advertise that they have gotten lab results on their hay - but I'm sure we'll be paying more for that.

So, the final lesson in this post - why can cows tolerate much richer, as well as poorer-quality (i.e. moldy) hay than horses? The last time the vet was out he explained it to us. Cows are ruminates - meaning in essence that they don't digest their own food.

Stay with me here - sounds weird, but makes sense eventually.

Rather, the bacteria in their stomachs feed off of the food they ingest, and the cow lives off of the by products from the bacteria. And the bacteria, as we all know, turn out to be a pretty hardy bunch regardless of what forage you give them. Fascinating! Horses, and humans, however, have to break down their own food and live off of the results from that. Part of the result is that we have much more touchy digestive systems than the ruminants.

Anyways, I think the upshot is that this weekend we purchased a few bales of what looks to be great grass / alfalfa mix hay from a friend of a friend. As this was from her second cutting this year - harvested approximately 8 weeks ago - if it hasn't fermented yet it isn't going to. Secondly it's been barn stored, so though it is going to cost a little more than else where ($4), we are just eager to put this hurdle behind us.

Next hurdle - locate a trailer to use to go pick up about 200 bales, and then storing it for the winter.


Monday, October 18, 2004

The end of the tunnel?

I sit here writing this entry at my desk, enormously relieved that it is Monday and I got to come back to work. That is rather than staying at the ranch and having to, like, move. We overhauled 3 stalls on Saturday. I hate to say it, we're getting down right efficient at the process. Course, efficient is a relative term. It took us from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm to finish - during which time we had to feed the horses twice and ourselves once. What that really means is that several days worth of bodily torture are condensed into one. I think it was lights out in the house by 8 that night.

But, 11 stalls are finished, only 2 remain!

David nearly got himself pummled when he had the nerve to ask, "What will we do once all the stalls are done?"!


Tuesday, October 12, 2004


My sister Phyllis and her girls Kelsey and Sara visited this weekend. The delay of the AirLink project schedule threatened to force me to be out of town for their visit, but we managed to swing it so that I returned home just a few hours after they arrived Friday. When I pulled up, they were helping David survey the property with her GPS unit. They took benchmarks at a bunch of places, and Phyl has access to software that can map those points on a topo map for us. (We need topo information to complete our special use application to submit to the county - and we intend to wow them with our technological prowess. Yeah - that's our strategy - mezmerize the county commissioners by our property map so that all of the other pesky details will be approved a priori)

Since they were able to stay only a short time, we put riding at the top of our list. We got rides in both Friday and Saturday. I'm still feeling my way along the ropes of being a riding instructor, so it was good practice all around.

Kelsey, Phyllis, Sara, David

Saturday they got the extra special treat of waiting around for the vetrinarian with us and then watched while he treated Harley for a very swollen sheath. Poor guy! But he's been improving every day, so we hope this little episode will be gone in a matter of days.

Then we went to a corn maze. I'd never been before - turns out that they had, but the girls were excited to go again. We went to one that is close to our place, but it also seems to be a very sophisticated one. Though, seeing as how we've never been before we didn't really have a comparison. But with the size of the line that we had to stand in to gain entry, it rapidly became clear that this farm has embraced the commercial aspects of corn mazes whole heartedly.
Oh Hey! As I was typing this Phyllis sent me a link to an article about the growing "agri-tainment" business.

Anyways the maze was incredible. Every person gets a punch card with an arial photo of the field on it, and 18 punch spots. Then you get to wander about aimlessly until you manage to happen upon one of 18 posts that have a specially shaped paper punch. Each post, fortunately, has a map of where all of the other posts are, and thus then you have a hope of making it to the rest. It took us over 2 hours to find them all. But I think we were in the minority - we sure passed a lot of people who looked like they'd given up hope ever finding their way out and were about to resort to bush- (corn-) whacking.


Monday, October 11, 2004

AirLink is Live!

The good news is that the GWS database upgrade didn't impact us. However, the fact that the production username / password for Apollo did not work most certainly did. We started out calling our direct rep, who gave us a production-support number. Only problem was that in production support there are only 2 people with access to check passwords... and of course they were not around at 9 pm. Pretty rapidly we ran through a string of supervisors and other resources, none of whom actually had power to help. At 11:00 we acquired a projector and fired up the DVD movie someone had brought with them - "Office Space". It felt rather appropriate. What with having to stop the movie everytime someone called us back, we made it about half way through by 1 am, at which point a few of us left so that at least part of the team would be conscious in the morning. Ultimately the evening ended about 3:15 am when our core developers managed to get things worked out with Apollo.

Anyways, the final build was ready for us at 7:00 am to start installing on all of the upgraded client machines. A few kinks showed up, but overall installation went very well. Some Agents were up and running as of 8:00 am taking calls. We wandered the aisles for a few hours, mostly answering functionality questions. By lunch things were running smooth enough that the team took the opportunity to go out to eat something other than fast food for the first time in several days. It was a welcome change.

Sunday we got fantastic news - on the first day of production with a brand new application, the reservation department booked twice the air reservations than they did the previous Friday with fewer overall incoming calls!

Back by popular demand, most of the team is back here in Keystone for the first half of this week to wrap up loose ends. We're looking forward to maintaining a regular schedule this week, and I'm looking forward to Dave coming up to join me tomorrow giving him an overdue opportunity to get away from the Ranch.


Thursday, October 07, 2004

Holding our breath

Tonight at midnight Vail's IT team will make the big switch over to put our airline reservation system, AirLink, into production. Airlink runs on XP where as the previous app runs on NT - so they will be running around and swapping out newly built computers for each registration agent and taking away the existing ones. Furthermore the AS400 main reservation system also had significant upgrades so that it can talk to Airlink. In short, this is a point of no return.

And what did we find in our email box this morning? Notification from Apollo that they are going to be doing some 'expidited database changes' to their system. Tonight. Between 10 PM and 1 AM. Did they actually send this notification out less than 18 hours before this takes place? No - don't be so silly as to accuse them of that. They actually notified our client previously.

Yesterday - at 4:00 pm.

Never fear, their email says, this will not impact any current system functionality. Uh huh. Wish us luck.


Wednesday, October 06, 2004

What a Deal

We got two more stalls overhauled this weekend - stalls 10 and 12. We've numbered the stalls: odds on the north side, evens on the south, going east to west. You'd think this would simplify our discussions about doing stalls, but we're still constantly stopping to mentally count out the stalls and then checking with each other to make sure we're counting the same way.

Stall 10 went great. Dave rigged up a new method of moving mats that involves laying a pipe underneath the mat, hooking chains to either end and then throwing an S-hook in the center to hook onto the tractor's front loader. Pretty slick! Course, it works much better now that we have a pipe and set of chains/hooks sturdy enough to take the weight of the mat. The first try wasn't nearly so impressive when the hooks simply pulled out straight.

Stall 12, however, was a disaster. The mats were in horrendous shape - some of them retaining only 80% of their original size. Something about big gaping holes between mats that fail to keep the upper stuff on top made for one heck of an excavation to dig out underneath. It was pretty cool, though, by the time we'd finished digging we had our own relief map of the grand canyon right in our barn. Until we had to fill it back in. It took 5 full tractor scoops of gravel to level that stall.

But... 8 out of 13 stalls are done! (notice the lovely After Pressure Washing picture above, as compared to the Before)

Ohh, I forgot to mention - we bought a new tractor! Yep, brand spankin new. Not a big brand name, but new. Dave's done a lot with the old one - replacing the battery, replacing the muffler which actually broke in half and then fell off, de-rusting 1/2 of the connection points on the three-point hitch, etc. At this point we just hope it's actually worth what we paid for it. Anyone need a tractor? Have we got a deal for you.


Friday, October 01, 2004

Just a small request

Yes, this is a second posting about Working in Keystone, because I've been up here for 5 days now spending roughly 12 hours a day in a cramped conference room with 6 of my favorite developers. Kinda derails my ability to think about anything else.

So that I don't bore you with the nasty little details, suffice it to say that building an application whose primary function is solely to interface to two legacy systems is a whole new ball game. On the one side: an archaic AS400 reservation system built 30 years ago. This is the good news. The bad news is on the other hand we have the Apollo GDS, one of the behemoth airline reservation systems built in the dark ages and bastardized time and time again to keep up with an ever changing industry. Have you ever watched a travel agent book flights? Go ahead - step around the computer screen someday, you'll be dazed.

But we had a secret weapon - Apollo was very proud of it's new Web Services interface that was bringing their system up to date with technology from this century. We'd gone into this project with expectations that this new interface was going to make airline reservations a predictable, reliable venture. HA. Little did we know the new interface really is somewhat unproven, very much undocumented, and everybit as subject to the gyrations of the native system as the native system. The biggest surprise was that we did kind of think that the Apollo people would know how it worked. HA HA.

Fortunately Vail contracted with Apollo to have top tier support. Quite often the process went: we'd ask how to do 'X'. We'd be told to do 'MNOP'. We'd do 'MNOP' but would not get what we wanted, so would ask for more help. They'd come back with do 'QRSTUV'. We do that, with still no better results. Sometimes after a few revolutions they'd come back with a whole new idea sure to work: try 'MNOP'! Trial and error is the rule of thumb.

It's bad enough to try and interface to one system that isn't well understood, but when that system in fact interfaces with alot of other systems - i.e. all of the airlines' individual reservation systems - the pain reaches magnificent thresholds. Each airline decides what they are going to do. I kid you not, one day a month ago we were notified that as of 4 hours after notification one airline had declared that they were initiating a $7 fee for anyone making reservations for their flights through a GDS. This fee, however, could not be handled adequately by Apollo, and therefore some views of fares would include the fee and others would not. There were quite a few raised eyebrows not just within our group but throughout the travel industry in general, I gather, to the extent that 3 days after this fee was initiated it was abandoned.

Apollo does have a test system against which projects like ours are allowed to test. We didn't really understand, then, why they wanted us to stick to rules like giving all of our passengers the last name of TEST, and to make sure that we always canceled the tickets we booked. Until we found out that while Apollo has a test system, not all of the airlines do, so even in test we might be booking real tickets! Suddenly we got a lot more careful.

But then we were told that the test system doesn't support all of the features that the production system does, so at one point we were instructed to do all of our testing against production! This is such an enormous faux-pass in the software world we were really stunned. The point of test is that we don't really know what our code is doing and we would rather not cause trouble in anyone's live system. However, we had no choice. Apollo gave us a test code that would help airlines identify our bookings as test.

That lasted about 3 days before the calls started coming in. Seems that American's system, for what ever reason, was not recoginizing our test code as such, and we were actually booking seats. Not just seats mind you - we have automated tests that run our code many times a day. We were booking entire flights. Yes, we are doing our best to cancel them, nevertheless American was / is none too pleased to see that much traffic. We were asked to avoid testing against American Airlines.

Then Alaska Airlines.

But yesterday's call surpassed all others. Melanie, Vail Reservation's asst manager, got a call from a guy in New Zealand telling us to stop booking flights on Air New Zealand. Seems that our testers were sending through special requests - for instance that a paricular passenger would like a vegitarian meal or needs wheel chair assistance - in lower case text. Yessiree, this alone is enough to crash this airline's resevation system. No one told us this should be upper case, Apollo has no trouble with them. Not only that, but their system crashes again when we send a cancel message! He called us mid morning here in Colorado - you just know he was yanked out of bed in the middle of the night because their system was being bombarded by lower case special requests.

We never knew we weilded such power.