If you don’t follow Mary Heffernan on Instagram, you are missing out! Her life, from the time she wakes up until the time she calls it a day, is jam-packed with ranch life. That means fresh eggs and dirty kids and four-wheeler excursions and happy births and sad little animal deaths, and a multitude of ranch happenings that are totally and completely different from neighborhood happenings! (So completely different, even, than her previous life we peeked in on here.)
Oh. And there is a Dead Pile. Gulp. Come see what I mean when I tell you I’m kind of obsessed with this family’s days! Welcome, Mary!
I wake up this morning to the roosters crowing at 6:00 am ready to start the day and check on the animals before I rouse the girls for school. I linger in my cozy bed as many extra minutes as I can, but it’s definitely time to get up! My husband Brian is at least an hour ahead of me getting out the door to feed and check the cows.
It’s calving season now so we have to be particularly vigilant, and most mornings we discover a few new calves have joined our Black Angus herd. We always get excited about new babies on the ranch and like to spend a little extra time with them in their first few days to make sure they have the best start to life possible.
Brian lets our herd of heritage sheep out of their night pen near the house. We do our best to keep them safe from the local predators that roam our ranch including bears, mountain lions, and coyotes, and he starts our daily list of chores. It is always a long list! I grab my jacket on the way out the door for the first time since fall is fast approaching and it’s chilly today. It reminds me we’re behind on stock-piling wood for winter to heat our little cabin. Remind me to add that to the list.
I make the rounds feeding the chickens and turkeys and collecting some eggs. Most won’t lay until a little later in the day, but we like nice clean eggs to sell to our customers so I collect them often. My husband has fed the large animals and is loading up the tractor to fix something or other, so I head back to the house by 7:00 am to start waking up the girls.
We have four daughters, all named Mary, which is why our farm is Five Marys Farm. Our girls were all named after grandmothers and aunts on both sides carrying on a long standing family tradition of strong women named Mary. I am Mary Regan after my maternal grandmother. Our girls are MaryFrances, who is eight and goes by Francie; MaryMarjorie or Maisie is six; MaryJane or Janie/JJ is four; and MaryTeresa is Tessa, two years old, and more affectionately known as Tiny.
I try to wake the oldest two quietly, but the little girls wake up as well since all four of them not only share a room, they also share a bed!
We live in a small cabin on our ranch that is all of 780 square feet, and their room only really fits one double bed. I turned their closet into a built-in triple bunk so they each have their own little space for books and treasures, but the closet bunks are only four by two feet, so it’s a little tight for sleeping! They have gotten used to sleeping together piled in the same bed, anyway.
We moved up here full time a year and a half ago to start a very different life than our old one! My husband was a lawyer and we owned several small businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, including family-friendly, local-fare restaurants. We had been working with small farms to supply our restaurants, and then decided to raise our own meats to produce the quality we really wanted.
After a lot of long weekend trips up here — a six hour drive both ways — to get the ranch started, we quickly realized this was the lifestyle and community in which we wanted to raise our family. So we sold our businesses to move up here and be ranchers.
We hoped to continue to provide really good meats, raised the way we wanted them to for our customers, and we are actually doing that now through direct shipments to our customers’ doorsteps instead of on a plate at a restaurant! It allows us to provide for a much larger audience and really makes it all worth it when we get reviews from our customers saying it’s the best steak/burger/lamb/bacon they’ve EVER had! Brian and I are both from California agricultural families with deep farming roots, so in more ways than one it felt like we were going home.
The big girls get up and dressed, but the clock is ticking closer to 7:45 am so I run a brush through their hair and herd the big girls out the door with their backpacks to walk a quarter of a mile down to the shop to meet their Dad who drives them to school most days. We are fortunate, living in the country, that our little school is only five miles down the road.
Then the little girls and I clean up from breakfast and get the food scrap bucket together for the chickens. Janie is old enough for preschool but she prefers ranch school, and we are happy to have her home one more year. So is Tiny! We pile into my four-wheeler and make the rounds to all of our Cluck Trucks, which are old non-functioning trucks or trailers we’ve turned into mobile chicken coops. We have 450 chickens we raise for eggs that we sell at our little honor system roadside stand in front of our barn or ship to our customers.
One of the trucks had part of the roof blow off in the wind last night so I have to stop and fix it; I always carry my tools in the back of my four-wheeler since things always need to be fixed around here. The girls run around catching their favorite chickens and collecting more eggs while I’m working on the roof. They have learned they need to be useful on the ranch. While I climb on the roof, Janie climbs half-way up the truck so she can hand the drill up to me. I probably should have gotten a ladder but patience is not my strong suit, and like many things on the ranch, you just gotta make it happen. Where there is a will, there is a way is one of our favorite family mottos, and always has been.
We fix up the coop and then drive through the pastures to find my husband who is checking cows again. These momma cows have had babies before so they are seasoned mothers and we hope for things to go smoothly at birth – as opposed to our heifers or first time moms who need to be checked carefully and more often, sometimes hourly in the middle of the night during their calving season. We need to be there to help if they are having trouble birthing, we know we need to be ready to pull a calf quickly to save the mom or baby or both.
So far, all the calves are doing well and nursing on their own already, so they should be off to a good start. We also keep a supply of colostrum in the freezer we get from a local dairy in case a mother dies in childbirth or has twins and rejects one so we can step in and bottle-feed to keep the baby alive. We tag their ears so we know which momma each belongs to, and make note that it is a bull calf or a heifer. We will keep some of the females to add to our breeding herd, but the males are all likely raised for our meat program to be finished on our ranch pastures.
Then, we all head to our corrals to bring in the rams, our male sheep who are in their own pasture right now until breeding season starts in November. We have 190 ewes (mother sheep) and 240 lambs right now. They travel in a pack and move from pasture to pasture in our rotational grazing pattern. Or at least that’s the hope! But the sheep love to bust through fence for greener pastures and are usually in the wrong place, which has earned them the name “Mama’s Damn Sheep” since my husband was always teasing me “Your damn sheep are out again!” The little girls started casually asking “Are those mama’s-damn-sheep?” and it stuck!
The rams look healthy and happy so we turn them back out to their pasture and then bring in a cow who has a piece of wire stuck in her foot and has been limping. We get her in our chute which helps restrain this 1600 pound animal so we can help her get that wire out pretty easily today, thank goodness!
Ranch life can be intense, and we are learning as we go. Every day there are new animal medical issues — some normal and some emergencies — but we do not have a traveling large animal vet in this county so we have to figure out these things on our own or call on neighbors for help. We’ve learned a lot from YouTube! And we each have a vet friend in other regions that we can text or call for advice on the fly, which is very helpful and saved the day on more than one occasion.
We go in for lunch and make tacos with our leftover pulled pork from last night’s dinner. Yum! I pick some tomatoes and jalapeño peppers from the garden to add a little spice. The girls wash up their dirty hands — never mind the rest of their bodies are still covered in dirt — and play baby dolls in their play corner of our cabin for awhile. My husband and I talk about our plans for our next round of shipments over the lunch table and freshly brewed sun tea.
I go to pick the girls up from school at 2:00 pm and we drop some of our eggs and honey off at the local cafe in town that sells them for us. We visit with some friends in town as we drop them off, and then head home for the afternoon. The girls have a few chores to do when they get home to help out; they feed the working dogs and clean their kennels, and then we all load up to get to the real work.
We stop at the shop to say hi to our only ranch helper, John, who is working on a welding project putting a hog carrier together so we have an easier way to weigh our Gloucester Old Spot heritage pigs. They get to be about 300 pounds before they are ready for slaughter, and not so easy to move when they don’t want to go! So this steel pen will allow us to put them in safely and move the whole operation to the weigh scales in the corrals.
We have 22 pigs we are raising for meat right now with four more litters on the way from our four momma breeder pigs. Pigs can have two and a half litters in a year with seven to 12 piglets in each litter! We like to go easy on them with longer rest periods between breeding, but it’s still a lot of piglets running around here.
I have had to learn to castrate them myself. At first it was really intense, but I’ve gotten better every time and can do it pretty quickly now. We mix some feed for the pigs from our careful ration of GMO-free all natural feed, and haul it out to the happy pigs who come lumbering out of their mud wallow across the pasture at the sound of grain filling the their feeder.
The afternoon quickly turns into evening and we still have plenty to do! We all jump on the feed truck for the second feeding of the day and help Dad hand-load 18 bales, 120 pounds each, to feed our spring herd who are up on the hillside. The cows hear us coming when the diesel engine starts up towards the hill, and they coming running down to wait at the fence line. The girls get to ride on the flatbed and cut the bales open throwing the flakes to the cows. They love this job, especially Tiny.
The wind is picking up tonight and hay is flying everywhere as we throw flakes of hay but we’ve got the local country music station playing in the truck and all six of us our out there working together, our animals all look well-fed, happy, and healthy today, and that makes us pretty happy, too.
Then the big girls get on four-wheelers to help herd the sheep in for the night to keep them safe from predators. And tonight there is excitement in the air since we’ve been seeing a bear on our game cameras up the mountain on the Dead Pile. And, yes, it is exactly what it sounds like!
It’s a sad fact but a real-life-on-a-ranch fact is that we have animals that die. We try our absolute best to give the best care possible to any animal that is sick, but sometimes it’s unavoidable that one dies. When they do, we haul them up the mountain to let nature take its course. We have motion sensor cameras on the Dead Pile to see what kind of wildlife we have up there on the ranch. And there has been a big black bear the last few nights – he even tried to eat the game camera off the tree and we got a good shot of the inside of his mouth!
Recently Francie and Maisie found a four and half foot rattlesnake by the Dead Pile. The kids are obsessed with all the wildlife at the ranch! It’s like Wild Kratts but in real life!
We have a rule around here, and that is that we feed and take care of our animals before ourselves. So we eat dinner usually late, sometimes VERY late! We use the slow cooker often so dinner will wait for us, but we don’t mind sitting on the porch and BBQ’ing up some hard-earned steaks, either. We cook our own meat and eat our own vegetables almost every night; it’s a treat and a fruit of our labor that feels well deserved, too.
We started ranching this way because we believe so strongly in feeding our children really good quality meat raised the right way. You can’t cut corners. Our animals live their whole lives on our green pastures in the California mountain air and sunshine. While we exceed many animal certification standards, we do not really believe in labels and third party certifications. Our customers know and trust that we are providing the best husbandry and quality possible. All-natural is the name of the game, and we go the extra mile to dry-age our beef for 28 days which is pretty unheard of — but, boy, can you taste the difference in flavor and texture!
And we are really excited to be shipping this meat out to any family in the US right now! We ship all of our product by the cut and also offer monthly boxes of 10-25 pounds of a variety of cuts to keep their freezers stocked with the best pastured beef, pork, and lamb they can buy.
It’s a bit like a CSA model but customers don’t have to go anywhere — it comes right to their doorstep. We know how busy family life is and we hope to make it a little easier and more accessible to feed their families quality meats you can’t buy in the grocery store. Thanks to social media, a lot of our customers say they really enjoy buying our meat since they follow along on our ranch adventures and see all the animals first-hand on Instagram! Our ordering site has lots of options for gifts to send family at friends for the holidays, too!
We try to end our day with time together, even if it’s just riding around for one last check on our animals. This is about the time of day I like to make my M5 Sidecar ! It is a favorite around here, especially after a long day’s work. It’s actually evolved and it’s not really even a traditional Sidecar anymore, but we take creative license!
The recipe is equal parts fresh squeezed lemon juice, preferably from Meyer lemons, bourbon, and half as much Cointreau. Shake over nugget ice, and pour in a cold mason jar. On a hot summer day I might add a little sparkling water to lighten it up, and on those cold winter nights I trade the ice for hot water and add honey. It’s a pretty standard request around here now!
I go to bed every night pretty exhausted, but the kind of tired that feels good in your bones. We’ve always worked hard, but have never worked harder than this. We are together seven days a week from sun up to sun down, but working hard and working as a family has never felt so good.
I feel humbled to be taking care of all of these animals, side-by-side with my husband and children. I worry a little before I fall asleep whether the animals are all okay out there in the pastures for the night while we sleep. It’s a job that you can really never rest from or stop worrying about…much like parenting, I guess!
Yes, it sounds A LOT like parenting! Minus the bears, mountain lions, and coyotes! I love the idea that you’re all working together on your family’s dream; it makes me smile, especially when I catch scenes from your Instagram stream showing all your Marys, muddy but definitely merry and thrilled to be working hard by their parents’ side! Well done, Mary.
I also love the idea that the Heffernans up and sold their successful businesses to chase after their dream, don’t you? If you could change your path tomorrow, what would your new life look like? Think about it…it might just be the first step toward a new life leap!