Saturday, September 14, 2019


          I’ve just finished reading a full-page article in Bloomberg Businessweek about the correct length of pants.
“The correct length of a pair of pants, like a well-made martini, is a question of proportion.  And like martinis, there are strong feelings about the right way to blend taste, trend, and tradition.
          Historically, a wider trouser has been worn long enough to rest on the top of the shoe, which creates a break in the fabric in front of the shin.”

          The article goes on – and on – about what was once considered to be “a good break”, and the modern “fashionable” trend for shorter “slim-fit” pants that expose even the ankles.

          I’m a cowboy.  I don’t care about “fashion”.  I care only about practicality.
I wear only Wranglers.  I wear blue denim Wranglers for work on the ranch, and colored Wranglers when operating incognito as a healthcare administrator and business executive. I’ve worn black Wranglers and a wool frock coat to the governor’s inaugural ball. I’ve worn black Wranglers and a tuxedo coat to a wedding.  And I’ve recently purchased a light merino wool and silk dress-coat that I plan to wear with brown Wranglers.

My pants don’t “break” – they “gather”.

Cowboys don’t wear their jeans long to make a fashion statement.  They wear them long because they spend time in the saddle.  When knees are bent to provide proper support in the stirrups, all the slack in those pants legs is taken up.  When cowboys stand upright, those jeans – which were the proper length when ahorseback – are now a couple of inches too long for the “good break” that was once demanded by “fashion”.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Trips to Town

            I make the trip to town as seldom as possible.  The ranch is on a rough gravel road that literally beats a pickup to pieces.  Every trip to town takes up an hour and a half of my time, and consumes expensive tires and fuel.  But yesterday I went to town not just once – but twice.
            In the early days of this ranch, Grandpa went to town only a few times a year.  Once in June to haul in the wool sheared from his sheep, and once in September to trail in his lambs to sell.
            In my early years as a cowboy, we went to town every month to cash my paycheck to buy clothing and groceries.

            Yesterday I was finishing up the last of the hay-stacking when a chain on my stackwagon came apart.  I had no repair parts on hand.
A call to the parts store in Big Timber assured me they had the master link and half-link that I needed. 
Big Timber is a smaller town than Livingston, but the road is much better: only six miles of gravel and sixteen miles of paved highway – a half hour driving time.  They had the parts laid out for me, but I still had to stop for fuel.
But when I started to repair the chain, I found that they had sent a #60 half-link rather than the #2060 I had requested.  The links were in plastic packages with printing on both sides, and I hadn’t examined them carefully.
I made another call to be sure they had the 2060 half-link, and it was 5:30 when I arrived back at the parts store.  Someone had put the #60 link in the wrong bin, they told me apologetically.
I was able to make the repair and finish stacking all the hay before dark.

What with meetings, town business, and parts runs, I end up in town a couple of times every week these days – even though I hate to make the trip.  But I had reason to do some work with the road department in Gallatin County a few years back.
Bozeman is the epitome of urban sprawl.  People move there to enjoy the “rural” lifestyle.  But these people apparently don’t enjoy the rural environment enough to stay in the country.  With mom and dad driving to work, and the kids in sports and dance class - the road engineers in Gallatin County figure the average “rural” family makes four trips per day to town.

I would be happier if I never had to leave the ranch.  Why do people bother to live in the country if they are going to spend all their time in town?

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”.