Sunday, August 18, 2019

Spud Patch

            Yesterday I baled the hay in what my mother-in-law always referred to as “The Spud Patch”.

            It’s a small field that lays in a bend of the river under an irrigation ditch.  It represents only 1.5% of our hayland, and .01% of the ranch.  It puts up enough hay to feed our cows for only one day in the winter.  But in the early years it fed a very large family.

            The spud patch has some pretty good dirt.  And it can be irrigated from the ditch just above it.  That tiny field could produce many hundreds of sacks of potatoes.

            Those potatoes were an important food source for the family of William Elges, who homesteaded on the West Boulder River in 1896.  He went on to raise 11 children there. 

            Everyone worked hard then.  From daylight until dark they were busy plowing with horses and pitching hay by hand.  The water was carried in buckets from the springhouse and heated on a stove fueled with wood that was felled and bucked with a two-man crosscut, hauled in with a team, and split with and axe.  They burned a lot of carbs in those days!

            During the Great Depression of the 1930s much of the West was in the grip of a drought.  Times were tough.  But this little spud patch had been prolific – kept green with water that had been diverted from the river.

            In the early fall, Papa would have hitched up a horse to a moldboard plow to lift the potatoes out of the ground.  The whole family would have been scratching through the ground with spud forks and gathering the potatoes into burlap “gunny sacks”.  Those 100# bags would have been thrown up into a horse-drawn wagon for the mile and a half trip back to the home place.

            As many of these potatoes as possible were stored in the root cellar and in the basement of the house.  They were fried, mashed, boiled, and baked.  Many would have been fed to pigs and thus converted to meat.  And there were surely enough left over to sell in town or trade to neighbors.


            That small field is insignificant in today’s operation.  But it was a major source of ‘meat and potatoes’ to a generation now past.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Plan 'A'

            I’m not a big planner.  I’m a strategist.

            Strategy may be defined as a “course of action”.  It’s a framework within which plans are made.  My strategy is to harvest the grass on our ranch, using cattle, in an effective manner which has recently been given the title “sustainable”.

            Part of our ranch strategy is to harvest the over-abundance of grass which grows in June and early July – to preserve its nutrients, and to feed in the winter when forage quality is poor, and often covered by snow.
            We could plan to begin cutting on June 20.  But what if its raining?  What if its been a cold spring and the hay is not yet ripening?  What if there’s a funeral that day? What if the granddaughter has only that day free to help move cows?

            As part of that “sustainable” strategy, we move cattle often in the early summer to protect those growing grasses from the damage caused by frequent repeated grazing.  We aim for a 7-day rotation.  But maybe an irrigation ditch blew out.  Maybe we could only get an excavator on Tuesday.  Maybe the swather broke down.  Maybe we got the horses in and found one with a thrown shoe.  Maybe there is lightening.

            My strategy is simple when we do go into a field to gather cows: get them all from here and put them there.  But I’ve had a number of people ask for a plan.
            For me, a plan is too much work.  We don’t know where the cows are in the field – how many are here and how many are over there.  We don’t know what the weather is going to be like, and we don’t know toward which gate they are going to line out.  We don’t know if the fence got down and some of our cows out or the neighbor’s in; we don’t know if one is sick or lame.
            Sure, we could crowd them in whatever direction we chose – but it would be hard on the cows and hard on the horses.  It’s better to start them moving and bend them toward whichever gate accomplishes our objective with the least amount of effort.

            I once had my son-in-law lined up to help with some cow-work on Thursday.  He called the evening before to check on the plan.
            “So far as I know it’s still Plan ‘A’”, I told him.
            “Hey Amy”, he shouted over top of the phone!  “Listen to this: Your dad’s still on plan ‘A’”!

            It was years later that I finally received some positive affirmation for my “flexible” style.  Improvise; Adapt; Overcome”, I was told, is a slogan of the U.S. Marines.

            Yes!  That’s me!  After 20 years as a cowboy I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome a broken back by going back to school and entering the health care profession.  I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome when called to manage a hospital, three ranches, a dozen nursing homes, and hundreds of emergency ambulance calls.

            And I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome my wife’s broken printer as I tell in this blogpost:


Friday, August 2, 2019

Fire Season

            We’re still in the middle of haying, and the grass on the hills is still green – but it’s now fire season.  Our local volunteer fire crew - of which we are members - has been paged out three times this week.

            Haying is running over a month behind due to an extremely cool, wet summer.  We’re usually finished with the first cutting early in July, but we didn’t even start until the 12th of July.
Before that hay had a chance to dry, we were hit with another series of afternoon showers.  In an average year, it takes about three days for hay to dry enough to be baled.  Those first three fields laid in the windrow for 12 days before there was enough break in the weather for them to dry. 

On Tuesday, a rancher mowing along the road sparked a small fire. 
On Wednesday, lightening caused a fire in a deep, forested coulee.  It took some dozen trucks, several dozen firefighters, two retardant tankers, an overnight standby, and a day to mop up the hot-spots.
On Thursday, we put together our own ranch ‘fire truck’:  a 300-gallon water tank on a flatbed, with pump, hose, and fire tools.  I was just getting ready to go out and bale hay when a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped ¼” of rain.  After it passed, we saw smoke on the ridge across the river.
Four of us went up from the bottom as far as we could on ATVs, then hoofed it up the rest of the way carrying fire tools and a chainsaw.  We had it contained to a small area when the trucks reached us from above, and laid enough hose to extinguish it.

The wet summer has grown some lush fuel that will become more and more dangerous as the summer progresses.  Lightening strikes are common.  We’ve used our home-built rig on two fires in the past, and take some comfort in having that water standing by for a quick response.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

We Fix Things

          “That’s what we do here – we fix things,” said Eric as we packed up the tools from our latest repair job which happened to be on the lawn mower.
We’d spent the last two afternoons putting the baler back together, to be ready to begin haying next week.  I’d just finished fixing a plumbing leak.  Eric had sharpened the blades on the 3-point tractor mower.  Last week we’d repaired the broken chain on the seed drill.  We’re always fixing things.
I’ve told the story of my grandkids who were raised on a feedlot over in the Gallatin Valley, where there are four implement dealers within 10 miles.  When something breaks down on their home turf, the first question is whether the equipment is still under warranty.
Those boys haven’t spent much time up here on the West Boulder, where the nearest dealer is miles away.
On our ranch we put up only one-tenth the hay that their father does – and thus we can only spend one-tenth as much on equipment.  This baler on which we’ve been working is a 1991 model – the very last of the self-propelled small square balers.  When it breaks down we don’t have a question about the warranty – what we want to know is if we can still get parts!
The lawn mower we’d just repaired was a fairly new Craftsman.  I’d said – purely in jest – that we should just call Sears.
But the local Sears store has recently closed.  A repairman would have had to come out of Bozeman - an hour and a half away – and we’d have been charged mileage both ways.  He’d likely have ordered a replacement for the bent part; it would take a week to arrive; and we’d have to pay for another trip out.
Instead, we put a toolbox in the Polaris and drove out onto the lawn where the broken mower sat.  We picked up the front end, set it on an empty 5-gallon oil bucket, and took off the damaged steering sector.  It took an extra trip back to the shop for the big punch, which we inserted in the hole.  Prying down with a big wrench, we returned the bent mounting plate to its original angle.
Before long, we had the mower running again.  No wait, and no bill.

This ranch was homesteaded in 1896 by my wife’s grandfather.  It’s only a half-hour drive to the machine shop now.  But a hundred years ago it took a sharp team 3 hours at a long trot to make it to town.  Grandpa had his own forge and blacksmithing equipment.  He survived because he could fix his own stuff.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Irons in the Fire

          I have too many irons in the fire – both literally and figuratively.  But most people don’t understand from whence came that saying.  I literally had too many irons in the fire at branding this year.  
Every cow owner in the West has a brand registered in his name with the state.  I don’t know how many thousands there are in Montana.  The brands are registered in a specific pattern, in a specific location on the animal, and in the specific county where these cattle will run.  At our branding we had calves from three different owners besides the ranch.  So we began the branding with four different irons in the fire.
Our branding pot is propane-fired, and has only so much room.  Those four different irons were too many for the available space: too many irons in the fire.

That saying also applies to the rest of my life.  Because our ranch is “too big for a hobby and too small for a living”, I do a lot of work off the ranch.  I write, I take interim jobs as a healthcare administrator, we have a formalwear business, some commercial buildings, and a small place in the Shields River Valley.  I have figuratively too many “irons in the fire”.

“And now – as Paul Harvey used to say – you know the rest of the story”.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Hay-Wire Outfit

            “Hay-wire outfit” is a dated western term for a ranch that has a lax maintenance policy.  It comes from the use of the wire - once used in tying up haybales – to hold things together
            I haven’t seen wire-tie bales in 50 years, but at one time there were operations that had piles of it.  Baling-wire was used to repair fences, reinforce shovel handles, and hold the steel tire onto a wooden wagon wheel.  In modern times you are more likely to see duct tape or nylon zip-ties to make repairs.  But I have a couple of new entries to the category of fix-it materials: rubber bands and paper clips.

            It was a couple of years back when our balewagon quit right in the middle of the county road.  We cowboy-mechanics determined that a spring had broken in the carburetor.  It was only a half mile back down the road to the mailbox, where we snagged the rubber band holding the every-other-day packet of mail. 
            We substituted the rubber band for the spring, and were then able to drive the huge machine out of the road and back to the shop where permanent repairs could be made.
            This week I made a repair on the printer in my wife’s office with a paper clip.

            Computers are a fact of life in this new millennium – and printers are essential equipment – even on the ranch.  Office machines are not really my forte, but it didn’t take me long to understand the problem: a tiny piece of plastic – which held the paper roller in place – had broken off.
            Carefully bending a paper clip to the exact angles, I threaded it thorough a small opening and into a narrow slot.  Using a pair of needle-nosed pliers, I bent the other end around an anchor-point on the backside.  The paper clip accomplished the same task as the broken piece of plastic.

            Thirty-six hours later, my repair is holding.  Tell me again what that repair part will cost, how long it will take to be delivered, and what that office machine technician gets per hour (plus travel time)?!?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Smooth Move

            We’ve had plenty of moisture, and June in Montana brings long days - the grass is growing quickly.  We try to get the cows out of a field before the grass has grown tall enough for them to take a “second bite” from any plant, so that there is time for it to grow new leaves and replenish its root reserves.  That’s only a week or ten days in June.
It was time to move the cows to the next pasture further up the mountain, and also time to put in the bulls.  We had a lot of country to cover, and I’d invited several people to help, but it ended up to be just Eric and me.  We saddled two of our best horses and we each went a different direction
            We’d just received a new yearling bull who was still in the corral. The yearling heifers were west of the barn.  I set the gates to run him through, and headed to the corrals for the new bull.  Eric headed a mile up west to gather the older bulls.
            I ran my one yearling bull out into the pasture where the yearling heifers were awaiting his services, and changed the gates so that Eric could bring his bulls past the east side of the barn, out through the orchard, and take them up the hill and into the “desert” where the main cowherd was camped.
            Circling back around, I came up on the outside of the fence along which Eric and his dog were bringing his bunch of bulls.  He’d already ridden out a mile and a half to gather those bulls, and was now halfway back.  I told him that the gates were set for him to pass through the yard and out into the south-west corner of the desert.  I had seen cows out in the hayfield, and would pick them up and head up through the south-east corner.

            So while Eric pushed his bulls up the hill on the far left of this picture, I gathered some fence-crawlers in the hayfield and pushed them up through a gate at the far right of the picture.
            I was just breaking out of the coulee on the far right, when Eric's bulls joined us from the hillside on the far left.  So eager were they to resume their duties in breeding all those beautiful brown-eyed girls, that they had quickly climbed up the hill on the far left, and followed the contour trail around to meet us on the bench at the far right.
            The bulk of the cows were on that bench.  I and my dogs gathered them, and started them up the fence which follows the ridgeline at the top of this picture.
            In the meantime, Eric was gathering the basin to the left of center in this picture.  I was about halfway up the fence with some 125 pairs, when Eric’s gather from the basin joined them from the left.
            Just over the top of the ridge is a gate into “the pothole”.  We dropped the cows through, then set off at a long trot on to the west and south, following the trail back down the mountain. 
            Returning through the Elges Creek field, we picked up the yearling heifers and started them back to the east.  With Eric behind the first bunch we gathered, I circled the east side of the field, checking all the timber and blind pockets on the way down, opening the east gate as I passed by.  Then I headed west up Elges Creek on the north side.
            From my eastward circle, I could see that Eric had about half the yearlings in a bunch, and that he had them headed toward another bunch further down.  He would throw them all together and push them on down the road on the south side of the creek, and on toward the gate on the east.
            But as I neared the northwest corner of the field, from my position on the north side of the creek, I could hear bawling - and watched helplessly as Eric’s bunch split up and headed back to the south.
            Then four yearling heifers came toward me on a steep, rock-strewn hillside high on my right.  I waited them out. 
            When they had passed, I got behind them and shoved them on east toward the gate.  More bawling to the south of me – but all of us emerged from the brush and timber simultaneously. We counted the entire bunch of 30 yearlings strung out toward the gate.
            I had to make one run to head off the few that hadn’t found the opening, but we had them quickly shoved out the gate and into a new pasture.
            It hadn’t been that big a ride.  We’d been only a mile and a half, at most, from the barn.  The route covered maybe 8 miles.
            But we’d been up and down and back and forth over steep, rocky, and brushy terrain.  We’d done some trotting, a lot of walking, with a few short bursts to turn various bunch-quitters.  We’d handled the cattle gently, we’d passed our gathers back and forth seamlessly, and we’d covered some 1000 acres without missing a single head. 

            It was a smooth move.