Friday, September 22, 2017

Hauling Cattle

            A familiar sight on Montana’s highways in the fall is the “Pot” – a possum-bellied double deck semi-trailer hauling cattle.  Also known as a “bull-rig”, there are thousands of them scattered around each of the Western States – and all of them are busy in the fall.

            Most ranches in the inter-mountain West are termed cow/calf operations:  a herd of cows is maintained year-around; they calve in what is loosely called “spring”; the calves run all summer gaining weight on grass; and the calves are sold in the fall to the big feedlots in the Midwest, where they are fattened to supply the meat section of your grocery store.

            A calf with a birthweight of 70 pounds spends all summer with his mother – both of them eating grass.  The calf nurses at his pleasure, and gains as much as 3 pounds per day on this rich, natural & organic, environmentally correct, and sustainable diet.  By fall he weighs over 600 pounds, and is ready to leave the nest and move on to the next phase of his life – a feedlot where he fattens on a ration of hay, straw, silage, and some grain.  This calf gained some 600 pounds in the first 6 months of his life, and will gain another 600 pounds in the feedlot – mostly on materials that are not digestible by humans.

            Everyone is familiar with the “cattle drive” as depicted in such TV series as “Rawhide” and “Lonesome Dove”.  In fact, trailing cattle was once the only way to move them to summer range or to a shipping point.  But just as ATVs are rapidly replacing horses in gathering the cattle, semis and gooseneck stock trailers have mostly replaced the trailing of cattle.

            In the fall, these bull-rigs can be seen everywhere.  Cows are hauled home from summer range, and calves are hauled to market.  Trailers of all sizes haul calves in from the ranch to a sorting-yard where they are weighed and sold, and another set of semis is waiting to haul them to the feedlots of the Midwest.  The regional livestock auctions are swarming with trucks of all descriptions as cattle come in from the ranch, and move on into the food chain.

            And thus another year in the cycle of ranching is completed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Smooth Move

            The truck was set to arrive at 9:00 on Monday – but we were still a few head short. Eric had spotted a missing bull and a wayward yearling heifer in the far north pasture while he was salting the cows earlier in the week. We left early on Saturday to bring them down.

            It was a couple of miles up and over the top and across the next field to reach these two head.  We usually rode our horses up, as it was faster, smoother, and easier than driving.  And we had just trailed down from there with the main bunch of yearlings.

            But this bull had already evaded us in the last two gathers, hiding in the brush at our approach.  He would be hard to control without the draw of other cattle.  And the yearling that was with him would keep one man busy holding her together with a slow-moving bull.  It would be far easier to trailer them.

            And there were the two cow/calf pairs that had come over the rim and down into the hayfield.  We wanted them back up with herd over on Sick’Em Creek.

            It didn’t take long to bring in those two pairs to the bottom corrals and throw them in the trailer.  Eric jumped his horse in behind them.

            We would need to ride through the cows in the Sick’Em Creek field  to look for any yearlings we had missed.  It was a big field – some 650 acres cleft into three parts by the two steep forks of the creek.  Eric would drop those two pairs on top and begin riding there, while I headed out from the lower corral, through the hayfield, across “The Desert” pasture, and rode up from the bottom of Sick’Em Creek.

            That was a lot of ground for two of us to cover, and neither of us could know where we might find what cattle.  We each took a radio.

           It was nearly a half-hour jog for me to get to the bottom of Sick’Em Creek – and even longer for Eric to drive to the head of the creek.  I worked through the steep and heavy timber, and picked my way up the creek – switching back to ride through all the cows in that part of the field.  

  I was almost up to the stock tank when the radio crackled.

            “How about you Boss?  I’ve got the bull and the heifer over by the middle gate into Mendenhall.”

            “I’m almost to the tank,” I replied.  “I’ll come up that middle coulee and join you.”

            By the time I dropped down, crossed the creek, and climbed up the gulch into the big meadow at the center of the field I could see Eric circling around the heifer on the other side of the gate.  I arrived just in time to close the gate behind him, the bull, and the heifer.  It took both of us to trail the two head the last 3/4 mile back up to the corral, where we loaded them into the trailer, closed the divider gate, and jumped our horses in behind.

            The morning was still cool when we dropped our horses at the barn, on our way to throwing the bull in the corral, and dumping the yearling out in the field next to the shipping corral.

            In just over 3 ½ hours we had picked up two pairs, dropped them back with the main herd, ridden through some 300 head a couple of miles from headquarters, and returned with a bull and a yearling. 

            We were satisfied with our morning’s work.

Thursday, August 31, 2017



            A motorist on Interstate 90 saw smoke high on the ridge south of the Yellowstone River.  He pulled in to the next ranch.
            Jim, at Felton Angus, didn’t have a good view of the ridge above him, so he called his brother-in-law across the river at the Lone Star Ranch.  Scott saw the smoke, called his brother on Mission Creek, and 911.
            I had just returned to the ranch on the opposite side of that same ridge, and was still in my town clothes, sitting on Eric’s deck, and catching up on what he had accomplished while I had been gone.  Jenn said “What’s that?” pointing to a huge plume of smoke coming over the ridge.
            Eric and I ran to the Quonset for radios; Eric jumped in the Rhino and sped out into the field where our “fire truck” was parked.  From there he had a clear view of our “Pine Ridge”, and flames coming over the top from the other side.
            I raced to the house to throw off my town clothes and make some phone calls – the first call being 911.  It had been a moist spring that had grown some lush grass, followed by a dry summer; we were ripe for fire, and needed all available resources to stop this one as quickly as possible.
            We had an older 1-ton flatbed truck that we used for feeding the ”mid-sized” 3’x3’x8’ bales that we bought to supplement our home-grown supply of small square bales.  Come summer, we set that truck up with a 300-gallon tank, pump, and hoses.
            Eric stopped at the house just long enough to tell me what he could see, then headed past the barn to come in at the fire from its west flank.
            The road to the top of the ranch is long, steep, and rough.  In fact one can reach the backside of the ranch faster ahorseback then he can on wheels.  It would take Eric 45 minutes to get to the fire in that stiff-riding truck.
            My next call was to the McLeod fire captain – no one answered so I left a message.  Then a call to my next door neighbor, Brian.
            Marianne answered and said Brian was already on his way up in a McLeod fire truck with Bill Brownlee, a rancher on the Main Boulder.  They were going by way of another road to the top, directly below the fire.  This road was even steeper - but shorter, smoother, and straighter.  I was reassured to have Brian on the radio in the middle of this fire, as he had ridden our ranch, and knew the country.
            I was still in the house when Stuart – McLeod Fire captain – called.  He was speeding back from Bozeman.  Stuart asked me to stay down on Swingley road and direct responders from there.
            Now appropriately attired with hat, gloves, and heavy lace workboots, I grabbed the radio and binoculars, and took the four-wheeler out to the end of our lane on Swingley Road.  From there I could see the flames coming over the top and down in the West Boulder Valley.
            Soon, Jenn showed up in the pickup.  Eric had left the Rhino sitting out in the field where the fire truck had been parked.  Did I want her to go get it?  Yes!
            Cody, from the Burnt Leather Ranch a few miles up the West Boulder, had not answered his phone when I called.  But he was the first to show up.  We had a brief discussion about the location of our cattle, and he offered to run back home for a horse.  Yes, the cattle were in the very field where flames were now evident, but the wind seemed to be pushing the fire away from, rather than into, the field.
            “No”.  “Jenn, take Cody in the Rhino and drive up to Eric.  Throw all the gates open as you go.”

            Next came two units from Park Rural Fire.  This fire was in Sweet Grass County, but right on the line with Park County – and nobody cares about county lines in a fire!
            The fire was still a mile away from the river, but coming fast.  The house at the bottom of the ridge – a place named “Twisted Stick” – was the first structure in danger.  I sent them on down the road and gave them directions to the bridge.  Brian & Bill and Eric & Cody seemed to have that west flank contained on our land.

            More crews came in from the Park Rural Fire station in Livingston, and I sent them on down Swingley as well.  The first trucks would have flagged the bridge.  I knew there were three more trucks at the McLeod fire hall, and more coming from Sweet Grass Rural Fire in Big Timber.
            But I couldn’t see what was happening over the ridge.  Eric was visible working the west flank of the fire, but he radioed down that he was almost out of water.  He would have to get back to the Harwoods stockwater tank at the head of Mendenhall Creek to refill.
            We carried suction hose on the truck.  He could back up to the tank, change a couple of connections, and pull up water out of the stock tank and into the tank on the truck.  The time-consuming part was getting there.
            We mostly cover that country ahorseback, and don’t often need a vehicle.  But the track has several places that cross steep side-hills.  I had often thought about pushing through a level road, but it would take a bulldozer.  Would the benefit be worth the cost?  No one else in the 125-year history of the ranch had thought so. 
But then Grandpa Elges, who had homesteaded the place, had run sheep.  And he had occasionally burned off some of that country.  Controlled burns are themselves expensive nowadays, and fraught with liability concerns.  I’d not yet had the resources - nor the fortitude - to attempt a burn up ‘on the mountain’.
Taking salt across those sidehills was not much of a distress.  We’d even hauled in a dump-truck of gravel to armor around that stock-water tank.  But water slopping around in that truck-tank, mounted high on the flatbed, would make even Eric pucker up.
My worries about the north flank of that fire were allayed a bit when a spotter plane arrived.  He could see the entire perimeter, and could direct resources as needed, by radio.  I assume he was dispatched by the Montana Department of Natural Resources.
In fact, several of the trucks on scene were DNRC.  Many of the small local volunteer units in Montana – including McLeod - have trucks issued by DNRC.
            There are many types of fire engines: pumpers, ladder trucks, airport crash trucks…  They are classified by water capacity, pump output, equipment carried, and capacity for such things as foam or wetting agents. Ours would be considered a Wildlands truck – maybe a Type I.  I assume that air resources such as retardant tankers and helicopters have their Type ratings also.  Fire crews, Incident Command, and dispatchers know that stuff - I’m none of the above.
            I could see the fire descending toward the Twisted Stick.  It hit steep pockets of heavy timber, and exploded.  But we had no wind, and it was headed downhill – distinct advantages to firefighters.  I didn’t know how Trisler was doing down there, but I did know that there were plenty of resources to do everything possible.
            Then the tankers arrived!  I couldn’t see much through the smoke, but there must have been a couple of twin-engine retardant planes and a couple that were dropping just water.  I don’t know where they picked up their loads.
            I’d only seen the resources coming in from Livingston on Swingley Road, and the air tankers.  I assumed there were just as many coming in the other direction from Sweet Grass County.  What I didn’t see were the resources coming up Mendenhall Creek on the opposite side of the ridge.
            There were two or three helicopters dipping out of our “Pothole Lake” on top of the ridge.  There were two or three bulldozers and a couple of road-graders plowing fire lines.  But I realized how seriously the fire control officers were taking this incident when a huge DC-10 thundered over the house.
            This plane had apparently come from Billings, 100 miles away.

We had first seen smoke at 1:00.  With the help of neighbors, Rural Fire volunteers, and then air support, the perimeter was controlled by 5:00.  What could have been one more disastrous fire was quickly contained.

            For most of the year one can look out across the West Boulder Valley and see no human movement at all.  But when fire threatens, there are suddenly men and equipment everywhere you look.  You are grateful – and you wonder where they all came from, so quickly.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Deck

            In baseball you have one batter “up”, one “on deck”, and one batter “in the hole”.  This year, Blaze is my horse “on deck”.

            As I wrote in my post Horse Poor – 99% of the time a man has too many horses, and 1% he doesn’t have enough.  In that same post I wrote about a new horse in the string – the “Copper” buckskin.

            And I have written about the advice many years ago from Harry Yeager:  “You can’t camp on one horse; You never know when you’ll need another horse; You always need to keep another horse hard”. 

            That post was written five years ago.  The Copper is now a solid, broke, cowhorse that nearly anyone can ride and get the job done.  My top horse, Thunder – AKA “The Kentucky Colt” – is now 17 years old.  And I have a new horse on deck: Blaze – AKA “The Medicare Colt” – because I intend to be riding him in my Medicare days.


            Very few people appreciate the “handle” of which a finely-tuned cowhorse is capable: the ability to negotiate any sort of terrain, the ability to blast out after a bunch-quitter and then shut down to turn her, to rope a calf and hold him, to stretch out a cow to be doctored, to sort cattle in the pasture or in the corral, to open and shut corral gates or wire gates, to heel calves to the fire…. 

Even fewer people realize what it takes to make that horse – and what it takes to maintain that handle.  And too few people recognize that you must always have a horse in the pipeline to replace one that is injured or who is just too old.

            Even at seventeen, Thunder is still my “go-to” horse when the going is tough.  If I go out after it, the “Kentucky Colt” will bring it home – one way or another.  I ride the Copper to tune him up in between the various riders who need a quality horse when they visit the ranch - but my focus now is getting the Blaze trained up to take over.

            I am now riding the Blaze whenever the job allows a not-so-broke horse - and Thunder when I have a tough job and need the handle of a well-broke horse.  With each succeeding ride, the Blaze becomes more responsive – he moves out nicely through the sage, turns easily to handle cattle in the pasture, and I was opening gates on him yesterday.  By fall I hope to use him to do some corral sorting.

            This “on deck” horse is a beautiful horse, and a willing horse, and he has lots of personality and lots of potential – but he is still green.  He doesn’t yet understand the job, and he must be continually guided.

            Perhaps in another year he will have sufficient experience to work cows like the Kentucky Colt - with no conscious effort on the part of the rider, whirling and spinning to the music of the West, each of us enjoying the cowboy dance.