Published: April 15. 2010 4:00AM PST
Orchard grass or alfalfa. As goes the price of feed, so goes the price of beef and lamb and the cost to keep, of course, a horse.
According to Rick Byrd, of La Pine Feed, orchard grass is going for $10 per 85-pound bale these days. Alfalfa is running $18 for a 160-pound bale. Each year, the cost varies according to the supply and the demand.
If the mule deer out in the fields near Silver Lake were any indication, demand is high. They streamed down out of the junipers to spread out across the fields in bunches of 20 to 40 animals between the irrigation wheel lines, nibbling at the green showing between last year’s dried-out stalks.
Other critters had their eyes on the commodity.
Russ Scott peered out across the field and smiled. A sage rat streaked for his hole, head low to the ground. Another stood on his haunches like a picket pin, about eight inches high.
They were hard to see at first, blending in with the dried stalks. But then a darker patch would show against the grass, the cheek and head of a squirrel, a target no bigger than a silver dollar.
Charlie Lake lifted his 10x Leu-polds. “They’re all over the place.” Dave Wilcox lifted the lid on his cargo carrier and handed out the hardware. Sam King, 14, was supposed to start out with an old single-shot Savage with open sights, but he cast a favoring eye across my Trijicon-topped Ruger 10/22.
Since I toured their Tualatin factory for the first time, about six or seven years ago, I have been using Warne Scope Mounts on my rifles. When I ran into Charlie Lake at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas last January, we decided we should try to do our part to keep the cost of hay affordable. I had called Russ Scott at Lake in the Dunes (www.lakeinthedunes.com) and we set up an early April hunt.
We settled in with an irrigation line at our backs to shoot north and south. Lake propped his Tactical Solutions .22 on a tripod and dialed the elevation up to compensate for shots that would come between 75 yards and 225. Wilcox used the back of a camp chair for a rest while Sam and I opted for Bipod Shooting Sticks. I started with my bolt action CZ 17HMR.
For a few moments nothing moved, save the tops of the grass. From each mound, trails radiated into the field like wheel spokes. There. A sage rat, crouched in a furrow, his back brown against the yellowed livestock fuel, magnified to 6x in my scope.
Safety to “fire.” Crosshair on squirrel hair. Squeeze. A puff of Silver Lake soil drifted away on the breeze and the squirrel dashed for his burrow.
In the sagebrush, rimrock and junipers, ground squirrels don’t grow out of balance, but give them a cultivated field of orchard grass or alfalfa and they quickly populate it, streaming down out of the hills like the deer and elk. And they don’t head back for the high country like the ungulates do in May. Instead, they burrow down, boring tunnel complexes beneath the fields.
The Belding’s ground squirrel (aka sage rat) is an eating machine that emerges sometime in the month of February or March. The males spend the most time above ground early in the season. Females give birth to a litter of five to eight young, which are reared without the help of multiple sires (aka deadbeat dads).
Squirrels eat the above-ground parts of the plant and cover the crop with dirt. Mounds damage mowers and burrows in irrigated fields lead to water loss, weakened dams and erosion.
One study showed that a single squirrel can consume 14.55 pounds of alfalfa in between March and June. We figured if we could get there early, we could keep the price of beef down with some well-placed projectiles administered at long distance.
Several months had passed since my trigger finger had spent this much time caressing the quarter moon of one of my favorite rifles. Muscle memory returned and eyes adjusted to calculate the effects of wind, distance and gravity on the 17-grain bullet. After 50-some empties lay spent, I switched to my scoped Ruger Charger 22. The bigger bullet bucked the breeze better, but the handgun took more concentration to score at 100 yards or better.
After about 100 rounds, I switched back to the CZ and felt my groove coming back.
Sam walked by from time to time to pick up more cartridges. Taking his job seriously, he spent a lot of time in the scope, dialing long distance for Silver Lake diggers.
By my calculations, we saved 2,503 pounds of hay. You’ll see the savings in the meat department.
Gary Lewis is the host of “High Desert Outdoorsman” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “Black Bear Hunting,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com