Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Smooth Operators


          Branding this year was another smooth operation.  A major contributor to this event was my old Wilsall Ranch Rodeo partner Darin Veltkamp – and his older three progeny.
          I bonded with the Veltkamp boys nearly 25 years ago when I had reason to sort some cattle with Darin’s twin brother Phil.  We share the same style of cattle-handling – which is what led to our teamwork in the Ranch Rodeo competition among 40 of the top cowboys in Park and Meagher counties.  Darin and his kids have been working cows with me for 20 years, and the four of them are now a major component of the branding roster.
          Gathering the cattle for the branding is usually a non-event, as the cattle are still near the corrals.  The next step is far more important – that of sorting the cows away from the calves.
          Darin heads up the contingent sorting cows out of the “bridge trap”.  They throw open the gate into the bull pen and cut back the calves - allowing only the cows to leave the trap – ending up with a big bunch of mostly calves.  I generally take half of the cows into the corrals to sort up the alley.  I have the option of letting a group of cows out through another gate into the bull pen, or turning a sort of calves into the branding corral. 
It’s a competition to see who can sort their bunch faster.  The slower group is subject to the hoots, hollers, and helpful advice of all the members of the group that finishes first.
All of this, of course, is done ahorseback.
With the calves corralled, the next operation is to run the cows through the chute for their annual vaccinations.  Darin usually heads up the operations at the chute, while I work the back end, keeping his chute full of cows.
Then the branding.
We believe that the fastest, easiest, and least stressful on both man and beast is to heel the calves out to the fire.  Three or four ropers ride into a pen of some 50 feet square, flick a loop around the hind legs of a calf, and drag them to the waiting crews of wrestlers.
As the title of this essay implies, this operation went smoothly.  We branded and vaccinated some 150 calves in about an hour and 50 minutes.  Then we went to the house for lunch.
We’d already branded Darin’s bunch, and then Craig’s bunch, a few weeks past.  We had much the same crew – and much the same fun.  This was in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when much of the world was on lockdown.  Yet we all worked together, ate together, drank together, and told stories together - without the benefit of facemasks or hand sanitizer.

The operation a few weeks later was not so smooth.  There were about ten calves that were born too late for the main branding.  We called a neighbor, and set up again to get this last little bunch.  I was the designated roper for this event.
The last ten head at any branding are caught at a much slower rate than the bulk of the calves.  The assumption has always been that it is because these are all the ones who have jumped and kicked and evaded all of the previous loops thrown at them.  But this little exercise proved to me that it is simply harder to get an effective shot at some heels when 1) there are fewer heels from which to choose, and 2) the remaining calves have far more latitude to jump and run. 
One always prefers to catch a calf by “two hocks” – both hind feet.  It’s easier on the calf, the horse, and the wrestlers.  In fact in some neighborhoods now, a roper is expected to drop his loop if he picks up only one hock.  Of these ten calves I caught four by the traditional two-hock method.
I caught two more by throwing a head-loop, then waiting until the loop fell back onto the hind legs before I dallied. 
On three calves I jerked my slack on just one hind leg, and let my wrestlers deal with it.
Rather than chase the last calf round and round until he presented his hind legs, I simply dropped on a head-loop.  He sprang away too quickly to finesse the loop down to his ankles, so I pulled my slack and went to the fire.
He jumped and ran and circled my horse until I had to tie off to my horn and go down the rope to help the wrestlers throw him.  It took as long to brand these ten as it had taken to brand 100 a few weeks before.
It didn’t go any better after this mini-branding when we went out to catch a neighbor’s bull.
We don’t turn in our bulls until mid-June, so that we begin calving in mid-March.  This bull would be throwing calves in February – and he wasn’t the sort of bull with the genetics we desire.
But when we went after him, he threw up his head, pushed past the horses, and ran the other way.  We tried to hold him together with a few cows, but failed at that also.  Had I some backup, I’d have roped him and taught him some respect!!
I called my sons – who are both proficient with bull-whips.  They couldn’t make it up to the ranch.
I called my neighbor Lonn, who is a proficient roper.  He wasn’t home.
I called my granddaughter. She had more pressing projects.

Eric and I went out a few days later.  Our first mission was to move the yearlings to fresh grass.  That didn’t take much longer to accomplish than it takes to tell about it.  Then we went hunting for the bull.
That field is only some 300 acres, but it’s rough, rocky, and steep.  We had, however, picked our two best horses for open country cow-work.
We found the bull in the far southeast corner.  We were able to throw a dozen cow/calf pairs together with him, and took the works right down the east fence.
We’d left the gates open, and the group traveled nicely the whole mile or so back to the river, with the bull in the middle of the pack.  They all crossed the bridge; the bull went into the corral with one pair; the pair cut back nicely; and he was caught!
There were two escaped yearlings in this little bunch of cows, and we headed them all back from whence we’d just come.  When we reached the gate where we left the yearlings an hour or so before, it was easy enough to cut the yearlings back and push them through the gate to join their peers.  We returned to the barn with smug smiles.
Saturday had gone anything but smoothly for us.  Yes, we’d gotten the job of branding the tail-enders done, but we weren’t proud of way we’d accomplished it. 
Today, however, we’d made one big efficient circle:  We’d picked up the yearlings and put them on fresh grass;  We’d continued the circle to ride through the cows and find the bull;  We’d come up the far side of the circle with the bull, and captured him in the corral;  We’d returned to the field with the cows we’d used to accompany the bull; We’d gathered some escaped yearlings and threw them back with their bunch. 
We’d accomplished a smooth operation – and we’d recovered our pride.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

True Detective


Caution – This post contains graphic descriptions that may be offensive to some people.

          About 22 years ago I sent a message to my brother that I had been dating a gal who thought she could make me politically correct.  He messaged back that she should settle for socially acceptable.
          I can’t make any sense out of why most people do what they do.  In fact, I don’t much care what people do.  But I do study the behavior of cattle and horses.

Our calving operation is designed to take advantage of the natural behavior of cattle.  The entire calving field is visible from my kitchen window.  We feed and bed at one end of the field, knowing that two hours after feeding the cattle will break for water.  Most of the cattle will then drift back to the feed and bedding – but those few that are beginning labor will drift to the end of the field away from the rest of the herd, and toward the calving shed.
This evening I noted one cow traveling away from the herd in the suspicious manner of one that is beginning labor.  It was plenty cold, and it would be beneficial to put her in the shed before dark, where her new calf would have a much warmer and drier environment for those first challenging hours of his life.  I fell in behind her.
As I followed her toward the shed, I began my detective work.
Pregnancy in a cow is not obvious as it is in a human.  A cow eats a large amount of course roughage every day, and the volume of that feeding is about as much as the fetus growing inside her.  There is only a subtle difference in the position of her distended rumen higher and to the left versus her distended uterus lower and to the right.
Immediately after calving one can see the reduction on the lower right side; and a cow also goes off feed for the first day, reducing the volume on the upper left side.  So her figure does change quickly – for a day or two.
As I followed this cow, however, her profile was ambiguous.  Her lower right side was not so pronounced, but neither could she be described as gaunt.
As a cow comes within a week or two of calving, her labia become relaxed and swollen.  Her udder begins to fill up
The labia of this cow, however, was not typical of a cow near to term.  Nor was her udder tight and swollen.
There was no accumulation of amniotic fluid on the tail to indicate that she had recently calved. 
As I drew along side of her I could see that in fact two of her teats had been sucked, and the fullness of her udder had been drawn down by a calf.  Why was she leaving the herd in such a determined fashion?
As we rounded the corner of the shed, the answer became apparent.  Her calf was stashed in the brush behind the shed – as far as it could get from the rest of the herd.
All those signs immediately added up.  She had calved a couple of days before, and hence her labia were healing and returning to normal.  She had just filled up with hay.  She was leaving the feed-grounds to return to her calf.

Mystery solved.  Another case closed in the life of a cowboy.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hot Box


            We’re right in the middle of calving, and they’re popping out at the rate of about 5 per day.  That’s real nice when the weather is good – but we just got hit with another winter storm.  It was 17 above when I went out this morning for my first check, with another 2” of fresh snow.
            We had put out straw last evening, and the cows were nicely bedded down – except for one.  She had chosen to “socially distance” herself from the crowd, and calved a hundred yards away in a snowbank.
The calf was still pretty fresh at 0600, and I left Mom to finish her job of cleaning him up.  But after I had made coffee and eaten breakfast, I could see from my kitchen window that the calf was still not up and sucking.
A new calf can stand an amazing amount of cold if he is licked off and gets a belly-full of milk.  But that belly-full of milk is essential.  When I went back down, the calf was still lying in the snow, and was now shivering.  I went to the shed for the sled.
I rolled the calf in and started back toward the shed, with the sled at the end of a 25’ rope behind the 4-wheeler.  The mom was very attentive, and followed the calf all the way into the shed.
There I fired up the generator and transferred the calf to the ‘hot box’: a tall plastic affair with a big front door and a slatted floor.  The 220-volt heater blows warm air up through the grate to warm the calf up. 
Left out in the snow, the calf was rapidly becoming hypothermic.  He would quickly use up the meager store of sugar in his bloodstream, and become hypoglycemic as well.  Only an hour before he had been happy and warm inside his mother’s womb.  But he was rudely dumped out in the cold, hard, world, with his source of nutrition abruptly disconnected.
In the meantime, two more cows had calved.  But these two chose the warm straw and the company of the other cows.  Their calves will be fine.

An hour later I pulled the cold calf out of the hotbox, and he was soon filling his belly with fresh warm colostrum.  He’ll be fine.



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Monday, March 30, 2020

Branding

          Went to my first branding of 2020 at the ranch of my old Wilsall Ranch Rodeo Partner, Darin Veltkamp.
          Here are some of the pictures taken by my grandaughter, Taylor Veltkamp:

Veltkamp branding 2020

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ah, Straw...


          If you stop to think about it, the survival of a newborn calf is a miracle.
          After living for 9 months in a zero-gravity, fluid-filled, temperature-controlled environment with his nutrients automatically provided through an umbilical cord, a calf is suddenly and forcefully expelled onto cold, hard ground.  Within minutes he is up on his legs and searching for the new source of his nutrients – his mother’s udder.
          A human baby has a similar experience of expulsion – but he is born into another temperature-controlled environment, where he is lovingly caught in a warm blanket, and delivered directly to a breast. 
This human baby can go nowhere on his own for months!  He is carried from one place to another; picked up often and held to the breast (or a damned rubber nipple thrust in his mouth) multiple times a day; he lives indoors, and is covered by a blanket.
It is 30o today in Montana, with 6” of fresh, wet snow.  And yet that calf hits the ground, struggles to his feet, and finds a teat.  Once he is dried off and has a belly full of milk, he is good to go.  In two days he can outrun a man afoot.
If the calf has a good mama, she immediately goes to licking off that months-old slime that permeates his haircoat, and she stands patiently while he searches up and back along her underline until he finally connects.  The job of the cowboy is to assure that every calf is successfully expelled, licked off by his mother, and finds that life-giving fluid.
But the title of this piece is straw.

Most of you know that hay is forage that has been cut, dried, baled, and stored.  It is harvested in the summer when there is an excess, and is spread out in the winter when there is a dearth.
Straw is slightly different.  It is the stalk of the plant which is harvested for grain -usually wheat, barley, and oats.  This is cut in the fall after the plant is mature and has turned yellow.  The valued part of the plant is separated in the ‘combine’.  The grain is hauled one way, and the remainder is baled up as straw.
While good hay may be as high as 15% protein, straw has had its primary nutrient package removed.  Straw is likely to be around 5% protein.  It’s not particularly good feed.
In the winter, we put out straw when the temperature drops below zero.  The cows eat it, and the inefficiency of digestion helps keep them warm.  Whatever is left on the ground helps to insulate their underside.
In the spring, we put it out for the purpose of keeping the cattle up off the cold, wet snow and mud.  The cows find it quickly.

What is amazing is that a 24-hour old calf can seek out that nice warm bed, and propel himself to it!



Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ah, Spring!


          I have mentioned before that “Spring” is pretty fickle in Montana.  It can be 65 above or 10 below on any day between the first of March and the first of June.
          On the ‘official’ beginning of spring this year, it got to 55o.  A few days later it is 30o with a fresh 6” of wet snow.
          Last week we began calving in earnest, and cut in some 40 head of heavies to the calving field.  Today we began turning out those new pairs into a bigger field where they can maintain a more adequate “social distance” to avoid an accumulation of mud and manure, and to minimize transmission of disease.
          There were 19 pairs in this first sweep of the field we call “the rocks” into which we turn newer pairs soon after they calve.  We pushed these into the “bridge trap” to sort.  One calf needed to be caught for the application of a band to his testicles.
          I was riding the Blaze colt, from whom I have done very little roping.  He had been quite a challenge to break, and I still wasn’t certain about his reaction to throwing a lariat.  But he has settled in nicely, and handled well to catch that calf.
          One must be careful when turning out new pairs to be sure that every calf follows his mother across the bridge and into the new field.  We paired them out slowly and deliberately.  But most of the calves were a couple of weeks old, and were solidly following their mamas.
          Then we swung around and cut 14 new pairs out of the calving field, and into the now-empty “rocks” field. 
          Light snow was blowing in our face the whole time, but the temperature was hovering around freezing – not particularly unpleasant weather.  Two cows were obviously going into labor, so we pushed them on down into the calving shed.  There’s no reason for a new calf to be born into a snowbank when we have an empty shed with a nice straw-covered floor.  It’s bad enough to be rudely thrust from a weightless, 103o environment out onto a cold hard ground, when we can temper it with warm, dry straw.
          And we elected to spread more of that warm, dry straw out into the field for the rest of the heavies.
          There had been one calf born earlier in the day up on the hillside in the calving field.  Once a calf has dried off and had a good suckle, he can stand a lot of cold.  But there was a second cow nearby.  I called Eric.
          “It’s snowing too hard to see if that second cow has a calf,” I said. 
          Eric was just heading out to throw off the late feed for those heavies.  He soon radioed back that she had a new calf.
          I rummaged around in the glove-boxes for a pair of rubber-palmed gloves, jumped on the quad, and headed down to the shed to tie onto the sled.  The calf lay quietly in the sled, is mother followed along easily, and now we had our fourth calf for the day, safe and warm in the shed.

          Ah, spring.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Too Cold for CoronaVirus


            In fact, it’s too cold for my old bones.  But the work goes on. 

            Calving is just taking off on our ranch, with three calves born yesterday. It’s 20o today, with a cold wind blowing snow out of the northeast.  Too cold for a horseback ride – yet we did it anyway.
            Our two-year-old heifers are out in a field across the river, and these girls are the high-risk group for calving.  We needed to sort through them to bring in the ones approaching calving – a job we try to accomplish every five days or so.

            My first stop ahorseback was back to the house - where I traded my felt hat for a wool ear-lap cap, and my insulated gloves for mitts with knitted wool liners.  Then it is a mile ride out across the bridge and upriver into that wind.  (A long trot is 11 MPH; the wind at 11 MPH; total “wind chill” at 22 MPH. 
            The heifers followed the main trail down across the gulch, but pulled up short at a deep snow drift on the brow of the gulch on the other side.  The flow was disrupted as we followed them up the gulch to the road crossing. 
            We held them up in the “bridge trap”, where we cut out the ones showing “heavy” – that are likely to calve in the next week.  There were 8 in today’s cut.
            As we sorted, I noted that although most of my toes were numb, I could still feel my big toes.  I remember rides where everything below my knees was numb.  And today the ride was all within sight of the house!
            My little dog NiƱa abhors the cold.  She has the short-haired blue coat of her Blue Heeler father.  But she remained right behind my horse until each time I sent her out after a laggard.
           
            On the return trip to their pasture, the heifers piled on down through that snowdrift on the brow.  And the horses picked up a lope after we dropped the heifers home and turned back toward the barn.  They chose to climb back up through that snowdrift - rather than take the longer, easier way home – and we let them.

            I read in my newsfeed that most of the US is shut down.  The governor of Montana has closed the schools, restaurants, and bars.  My wife reports the shelves of the local grocery stores to be scant.
            Looking out my window, however, I see none of this.  There is food in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.  There are still two rolls of TP in the closet, with a roll and a spare in each bathroom.  My discard pile has enough newsprint for months more.

            The price of live cattle is down $20 per hundred-weight – but the price of “boxed” retail-ready beef is UP $20!  People are suddenly buying less from the restaurant trade and more from the grocery stores – just as they did in my childhood.