Sunday, December 25, 2011

I tried...

It is Christmas.  I've read where some other western authors made it a point to give their animals something special on Christmas day, and I tried.

But it's 50 above and the snow is almost gone.  When I took hay out to they just looked at me.

Ho, ho, ho...    I tried.

This warm weather is sure a blessing.  We had a week or two of sub-zero weather by Thanksgiving last year, and I had already put out a lot of feed for the cows by this time.  It's a long time until June, so we're not yet worried about snowpack.  We're just glad that we haven't had to dig very far into our haystacks so far this year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fuel Pump

It was a beautiful day!  The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and there is only an inch or two of snow.  The cows didn’t need any hay at all, but I have been giving some to the heifers.  Today it was so warm that I was in my shirtsleeves as I loaded the pickup.

It was also a nice day for accomplishing another mechanicing job – replacing the fuel pump in the pickup.

The outfit has quit me several times in the last week, and I feared a long walk home.  But it always started again.  I figured it to be the fuel pump, and picked up a new one when I went to town yesterday.

I had started work on this repair a couple of days ago when I went looking for the fuel pump to determine if it was electrical or mechanical.  It took a while to find it.  Even though this pickup is 26 years old, the engine compartment is still packed with apparatus, and it took some tracing of pipes and hoses to find what I was looking for.

I found it, but I couldn’t reach it.  It took a couple of hours to remove two pollution control pumps – that had long since been disconnected - and a bunch of hoses to expose the fuel pump on the side of the engine.  Today I had only to disconnect the fuel lines and remove two bolts to get the old pump out.  Getting it back together took a little longer.

To reach the engine I was standing on a step-stool and bent deep into the recesses of the engine compartment.  Even with those two extraneous pumps and all their tubing out of the way there was still plenty of ‘stuff’ to work over, under, around, and through.  The real challenge in the re-assembly was the push-rod from the camshaft to the fuel pump drive lever: with the lever removed, that push-rod slid right down into the way of re-installing the new lever.

The hole through which that drive lever inserts is only an inch wide and a couple of inches high.  Whatever I put in that hole to raise the rod was in the way of whatever I put in the hole to hold it up.  And whatever I put in the hole to hold the push-rod up was in the way of installing the fuel pump.

I raised the rod with my fingers, but couldn’t hold it.  There wasn’t room for needle nosed pliers.  The curved-nosed pliers could raise the rod up, and a screwdriver could hold it up, but by the time I got the gasket into position on the new fuel pump and the fuel pump lever into the hole, things had shifted enough that the rod fell down out of position again and another tool had fallen into the dirt under the pickup.

I tried grease to hold the rod up.  I tried bending a piece of soft flat metal to hold it up. On my 23rd attempt I used the curved-nose pliers to raise the rod and a screwdriver to hold it.  I was able to slide the new fuel pump into place under the screwdriver, remove the screwdriver, and work a bolt through the fuel pump, through the gasket, and into the engine block.  Using a 3” extension and a wobble-drive adapter on the socket I was able to get the second bolt started.  Only minutes later the job was finished.

I let the engine idle as I was putting away the tools, and then took it for a drive up to the mailbox.  I think the fuel pump was the problem, and a new one was only $15.  I’ll tell you in a day or two if my diagnosis was correct.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Today I took my second ride on the new horse I’m starting – this time no buck.  We practiced starting, stopping, and neckreining, and it’s gratifying how soft and quick she is responding already.

The essence of a good cowhorse is that light touch on the reins – both held in the left hand – as the rider guides him through the dance of cutting out and roping a critter.  Most trainers spend weeks, months, even years developing that light rein, using a process that is unnecessary - and even counter-productive.  Let me explain:

The majority of horses in the world are trained using what the high-brows call a ‘direct rein’, and what we cowboys refer to as ‘plow-reining’.  This refers to pulling on one rein to swing the head in the direction you want the horse go – just like on a workhorse.  I don’t have any direct experience, but I am told that English-style riders want to maintain contact with a horse’s mouth at all times. 

Western riders, by contrast, need one hand free for their lariat or bull-whip.  Where an English rider steers her horse in the same manner as a bull-dozer, the Western rider handles his horse in the manner of a fighter-jet: by one hand on the “joystick”.  We ride most of the time with a slack rein, giving guidance to our horse only when he is unsure of our intention.  (Here I will refer you to my story that further describes the joy of riding a good cowhorse: )

As an example of the two systems of handling, try this little exercise on yourself: First, take your right index finger and push on your cheek until your head turns to the left; next, use your left index finger to pull your on your lip until your head turns to the left.  By which method would you prefer to be guided?

Nearly every trainer starts his horse using the plow-rein.  Western (and polo) trainers then spend weeks using both hands to transition the horse to a neckrein: pulling on the left rein while pushing with the right.  I did that also until a day thirty years ago when my daughter asked “Why, Daddy?”

Ever since then I have immediately begun reining every horse I’ve ridden with a nudge to the outside of the neck rather than a pull to the inside of the mouth – and ever since then I have also wondered why you would teach a horse to steer like a bull-dozer if you want him to turn like fighter jet.

It is amazing to most horse-people that neckreining can be taught in a matter of minutes.  But if you think about it, what sense does it make to teach a horse one method, then use both, and finally end up using the latter?  That’s like teaching a toddler French, then using both the French and English words together, so that you can eventually talk to him using only English.

The result of neckreining from the first ride on a green horse is an incomparably light rein.  Horses that have been started with a “direct rein” can simply never catch up.  And a whole month of training time has been lost in making the transition.

And as my daughter once asked: “Why?”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

First Ride

I finally made my first ride on the Arab mare.  In many years of training horses I have never done so much ground-work on a horse before climbing on.  Usually three days is sufficient with a horse that is familiar with people – five days for a horse run in fresh off the prairie with no handling whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be her age: most horses are broke as two-year-olds, or maybe three, and this mare is six.  And I have no idea of her background – she may have been badly spoiled.  Anyway she threw a serious fit the first few times I saddled her, throwing herself multiple times before she submitted to the indignity. And the first time I put some weight on the saddle and jumped up beside her she took off bucking seriously.  I’m no bronc rider and I couldn’t have stayed with her.

This is just not typical behavior – even for range-raised horses that have never been socialized with humans.  On the other hand, she is sweet and docile from the ground – not showing the fear of humans that you see in horses that have never been handled.

But it is winter and things are slow.  I have time to fool around with her.

Well I climbed on her back for the first time yesterday – there is only so much you can accomplish from the ground, and the whole point is to have a horse you can ride.  After her performance the first few times I saddled her I was confident that she would buck, so I waited until my son was around to pick up the pieces if necessary.

As I said, I’m no bronc rider.  Very few green horses buck if you’ve done your job right – even the semi-wild horses I used to get off the reservation.  But again, this mare isn’t typical.  She’s sweet and gentle and likes people, but isn’t impressed with the saddle.

As I expected, she went to bucking when I stepped in the stirrup and swung aboard - but only two jumps, and I was still aboard when she quit.  I talked to her and petted her as she got used to the weight and relaxed, then I shifted my weight around and let her relax again.

After awhile she settled down, accepted the whole deal, and began to walk around the corral, learning to stop, turn, and back.

The second time I mounted in the session she only jumped once, and soon we were striding freely around the corral with a slack rein, and she responded nicely when I asked for her head.

In my next post I’ll write about neck-reining.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Most people picture Riding and Roping when they think of cowboys.  But I’ve already told in my blog of the modern cowboy’s responsibilities in Fencing, Farming, and Feeding.

I’ve written about Haying, Welding, Irrigating, and Mechanicing – now it’s time to mention carpentering.

The calving shed is a “pole-barn” – that means it’s supported by a number of posts rather than a foundation.  Construction is faster, cheaper, and easier, but it doesn’t last as long.  The posts rot off in the ground, and need to be replaced every 50 years or so.

In June there are a whole line of tasks screaming to be accomplished at once: farming, spraying, irrigating, fencing.  But in the winter the jobs are limited by weather.  The ground freezes, and so do such things as paint.  It’s hard to accomplish much outside of feeding.

Inside the calving shed, however, the ground isn’t frozen yet, and it’s a good time to continue the project of replacing posts.  There are forty-some, and a guy will no sooner finish then he needs to start over again.

The weather continues to be warm by Montana standards.  We’ve had only one day at zero, and it’s been sitting around freezing for a week with more of the same in the forecast.  The cows are fine with grass and lick, the heifers take less than an hour to feed.

It’s sure fascinating to sit at a computer while looking out the window at a ranch that was established over 100 years ago.  Times sure have changed!  What wasn’t fabricated here on the ranch in 1900 was brought in by train to Big Timber and by team and wagon up the Boulder river. It would have taken half a day to get to town then, and would have been too hard on the horses to come back with a load yet in the afternoon.

I, on the other hand, have done all my Christmas shopping with my fingers.  The goods are delivered to the door within a week.  I frequently download documents, print them, sign them, and fax them back – all in a matter of minutes.  Even the feed supplement for the cows is delivered to the ranch.

Today’s world is far more complicated in many ways, yet simpler in others.  I’ve lived in the “good ol’ days”, but I prefer now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Drive shaft

How cowboy does this sound: I installed a rebuilt front driveshaft in the feed pickup today.  And it was only a week or so ago that I put in a new clutch slave cylinder.  Yes, I did get in a little training time with my new horse this afternoon - but only after I got the pickup back together.  Priorities you know.

A thus is the life of a modern ranch cowboy – he spends a lot more time with his equipment than he does with his horse.  But maybe that’s not all bad.  Maybe it’s the contrast that makes the time ahorseback more fun.

The romantic picture of cowboys following herds of cattle day after day comes from a short span of time over a century ago when steers were trailed through open range to take advantage of grass that greened up ever later in the season as the herd moved north.  Most of these trailhands were indeed boys – in their late teens and early twenties.  The job paid poorly, lasted only 9 months, and ended when the cattle were delivered to a railhead in Montana as winter approached.

It may sound romantic, but trailing day after day behind cattle grazing their way north sounds boring to me – and the prospect of camping out every night in every kind of weather is something I outgrew years ago.  Most of the horses those trailhands rode were truly broke rather than trained, and most of the riders weren’t any more skilled at handling cattle than were their mounts.

I love working a good team of horses, and am disappointed that I spent only one happy winter feeding a thousand head of cows with only the clop of hooves and the jingle of trace-chains to break the vast stillness.  But there is something to be said for a heated cab.  And as I pointed out a couple of months ago, the invention of hydraulic loaders sure makes life easier. ( )

There aren’t many people left who experienced what modern folks call “the good old days”.  Those old-timers are quick to point out that wood stoves, outhouses, one-a-week baths in a washtub, and kerosene lamps didn’t seem so good then.

I’ve tried it all, and I’m here to tell you that I don’t mind doing a little mechanic work now and then to enjoy this modern lifestyle.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The big winter storm scheduled for the end of last week sort of petered out. We had only about 4” of fresh dry snow before the sun came out again.
That was enough for me to start feeding the heifers.  I judged that their nutritive requirements for growing both a fetus and their own frame were teetering on the brink, and a deficiency now can result in poor breed-back next spring.  The cows are on fresh pasture now, and they should be fine on grass and lick as long as it doesn’t get too cold. 
The temperature dropped to zero on Monday for the first time this year.  We’d already endured a couple of weeks of well below zero by this time last year, so we’re grateful for the warm weather we’ve had.  I was considering giving hay to the cows, but the sun came out and the temperature rose – and it was above freezing today!
One daily task that is added when the weather turns cold is breaking ice on the water troughs.  These tanks hold 1000 gallons of water, most of it buried into the hillside, with only enough exposed for the cattle to get their heads in.  That thermal sink helps, but ice still forms in the exposed trough when the weather gets colder, and we carry an axe to chop the ice out.

At times the ice can get 2-3” thick in this trough, but that’s still a big improvement over the river.

Before we installed this tank the cows drank out of the river.  During extended bouts of subzero weather the ice got thicker while the water level dropped in the river.  At time the cows were on their knees on the ice near the middle of the river trying to get a drink.  There was always the danger of the ice breaking or a cow being pushed in.  There were times when I considered using a backhoe, or even dynamite to break enough ice to get the cattle to water.  I’ve gone so far as to chop a hole in the middle of the river and pump water out into a tank.  But it usually warms up again before long, and the problem subsides.

It’s always fun to see elk on the ranch.  There are big herds a few miles away on both sides of us and they range through on occasion.  Our hunters get a few every year, but the elk don’t generally hang here.

Training on my new horse is going pretty slow.  I don’t know her background, but she is still intent on throwing herself when I tighten the cinch.  In 50 years of horse-training I’ve never seen such a thing.  But I’m in no hurry and we’ll get through it.  She’s pretty well-mannered other than that bad habit, and it won’t be long before I can show her some country.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tire Chains

I got stuck again!  Two snowstorms and I’ve already been stuck twice.  In both cases I had backed into a compromised position where ahead was the only option.

 The problem in both cases was the warm temperature: there is plenty of traction when the ground is frozen and there are only a few inches of dry snow.  But when the snow is warmer it plugs up the tread with slick “schmear”.  When you are in a tight place and your tires start to spin, the expeditious thing is to throw on a set of chains.

Many people question my light attitude at putting on chains – but few people have my experience.  In my younger days I spent a few winters hauling hay.  At that time we put a set of three-rail chains on the dual wheels of the truck before we left the road to drive into the haystack, loaded twenty tons of hay by hand, took the chains off at the highway, and put them back on again when we left the road to unload the hay. 

There are two tricks that make putting on chains relatively painless: 1) fit the chains to the tires in the fall when the ground is bare and dry, and 2) put the chains on before you are stuck.

Every pair of tires and every type of tire chains is different, so pick a relaxed time fit the chains on a bare & dry surface.  You only want two extra links on each of the rail-chains - use a hacksaw to cut off the excess.  And you only want enough cross-links to fit down on each side of the tire footprint – use a tire-chain tool to pry off the extras to save for replacements later on.

Here is a set that needs to be cut down to fit the tires. These will clatter and bang when the pickup speeds up, and may be lost in a snowbank.

You can see that the snow is gone, yet the operator hasn't taken them off.  He was too lazy to fit them before he needed them, and to lazy too take them off when the need for chains passed. 

If you are not yet stuck, it literally only takes a few minutes to drape a set of chains evenly over the tire, slide under and hook the back-side rail chains – remember to drop the two extra links – then use the clasp to connect the two ends of the front-side rail chain.   Dust the snow off your back, and you’re off!

Of course sometimes the chains get twisted and tangled while they lie in the pile behind the seat – that can be a bit like a Chinese puzzle - and it can take a few minutes longer to get them straightened out and lying flat.

A properly fitted set of chains doesn’t need springs, twine, or bungee cord to take up the slack.  If you have gotten stuck first, it can take a little more work, as you have to shovel all around the tire.  And that’s when you may need those extra two links to get them connected.  You can take out the slack when you get back on solid ground.

The worst situation is when you need chains to get out of the mud.  I haven’t found a way to accomplish that without needing a shower and change of clothes afterwards.  Again:  put on the chains before you’re stuck.

Putting chains on a car is a little more work, as you generally have on inadequate clothes, and there is no room to slide underneath.  In that case, you will have to drape the chains over the wheels, then back up a foot (with a front-wheel-drive car) so you can reach the inside hook from the front.  It’s harder to get the chains tight this way, so you’ll likely want to stop and take up the slack before long.  Once again, you want to do this in good weather the first time to confirm the fit.

Chains wear out with use, and the constant thumping over the cross-chains can’t be good for the tires.  So I apply and remove chains frequently as conditions change.  It only takes a few minutes, and can save you a lot of time shoveling.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Winter's A-Comin'!

The forecast was pretty straight-forward: ”100% chance of snow tonight, with probable accumulation of 4 inches.  80% chance of snow tomorrow, with accumulations up to 6 additional inches.”  Snow was already falling at daylight – as was the temperature. It was obviously time for us to get prepared. I went back to my bedroom and put on my wool underwear, and put on my wool ear-lap cap as I went out the door.

It had been quite nice the day before, and we had burned off most of a field that I will plow next spring.  It was warm, but there was still some snow lying in shaded spots and I had gotten stuck while taking a fellow to look at our summer range in anticipation of taking in some pasture cattle for next summer.  We chained up the front wheels of my pickup to make it up to the top of the mountain, and had dropped the muddy chains in the grass near the house when we returned.  The first order of business was to find those tire-chains before the snow got too deep.

Ted ran in the rest of the horses while I bridled and saddled my new Arab mare for another lesson.  I would let her “soak” while we were out riding.

The cows were all out in the Clayton field where the fall grass had been excellent.  But the grass was getting sparse, protection was limited, and there are too many rocks to turn a pickup loose while you feed.  Ted wouldn’t be with me much longer, and it was time to move the cows up west.

The cows were pretty well bunched up, so it wasn’t much of a gather – and it was only a mile or so up west, so it wasn’t much of a trail.  We started out in what seemed to be an impending snow-storm that passed quickly.  What gave us a little more fun for the morning was a handful of strays that had found their way into our winter pasture.

We dumped out the cows in the field and watched them spread, then went searching for four head of black cows I had seen in our field a couple of days before.  We covered a mile or so of steep rough country before we found them bedded down in a brushy draw.
These cows jumped up and headed west - from whence they’d come - at a long trot with two of us and our dogs following at a respectful distance.  They split up at a deep, brush-filled coulee, and we all went after the bunch-quitter until we had her turned back.  I went searching for the other three while Ted and Izzy brought the fourth one back around for another pass.

I rode up and back looking down into the brush for tracks, then began hollering and whistling at the last place there was evidence of recent passing.  Max went down in the brush and I soon saw black shadows moving ahead.

Ted pushed his cow into my bunch, then opened a gate behind them while I turned them all back to him so he could turn them out into the neighboring field where they belonged.  Then a two-mile jog home across a rock-strewn hillside in time to make some lunch.

After noon we again cleaned all the fencing equipment out of the pickup and loaded it up with hay for tomorrow.  I spent half an hour hosing all the mud off my tire-chains – we were assured that the temperature would plummet, and mud frozen onto those chains would make them extremely heavy and nearly impossible to apply.

But the joke was on us.  As we accomplished all these tasks in preparation, the clouds had been breaking up.  The temperature remains moderate and we accumulated only a half inch of snow.  The cows are still eating grass, and the hay is still in the pickup.

Ah, well.  “Better safe than sorry.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Horse Training

I had traded for a green six-year-old mare, and I led her from the horse trailer directly into the corral for her first lesson.

The mare had been handled enough to be gentle, but the first challenge was in picking up her feet.  She resisted, and pulled away several times before I went into the barn for a hobble.  When I finally got the foot up I quickly buckled the strap on her fetlock and around her upper leg – when she pulled away it did her no good, as the strap kept her from setting her foot down.

She fought the strap for awhile before giving up.  Then I took it off and moved to the other side where I repeated the procedure.  When she understood that I meant to keep her feet when I picked them up, I moved to the hind feet.  The lesson had taken – she didn’t challenge me anymore.

Then I moved on to the next step: tying her head to her leg.  Picking up a front leg, I quickly took a wrap with the lead rope and tied it off.  When I set the foot down it pulled her head down.  When she jerked her head up it lifted her leg!  It took a few tries at that before she understood that if she gave her head to the pull she could stand with no pressure on her head or her leg.

A horse can only absorb a couple of lessons with each session so I turned her loose after some twenty minutes of work.  It will take a few days to gain confidence that I will not hurt her.

I repeated those two lessons the next day, and by the third day it was time to throw on a saddle.  I soon as I pulled up the cinch she exploded, laying back on the lead rope until she fell over on her side in the mud.

I gave her a little sympathy, patting her all over and putting my weight on her up-turned side.  But she wasn’t learning anything by lying there, so I gave her a slap to get her back on her feet.

Again she reared back, and again she fell on her side.  Five more times I got her up, and five more times she quickly tipped over into the mud.  And now I understood why the fellow had been so eager to trade her off.  His trainer had told him about the show she had put on when he first saddled her, and apparently it was enough to scare them both.

One more time I got her up, and this time she just stood there quietly.  She’d been running free for six years, and wasn’t interested in being bound by leather straps and cinchas.  But she’ll soon learn that ranchwork is fun, and she’ll be the first one in the bunch to put her head in a halter, eager to get to work.

Monday, November 28, 2011


I was born to be a horsetrader.  I learned it from my grandfather, and therefore it must be in my genes. 
Yesterday I accomplished another horse-trade, when I swapped two older well-broke mares for a younger green mare.  Each of these mares had been my primary horse for a few years during their prime, and both had outlived their usefulness here on the ranch.  Neither could tolerate the long miles and the rough country necessary for working cows in this location.  There was an upcoming horsewoman who needed their experience and training to develop confidence and skill in horsemanship.
Not every horse was a joy to own and ride, but it’s usually sad when you pass on a horse that was once Number  One in your string.  It is with melancholy that you remember the places you have been and the cattle you have brought in – together.  It’s much easier to focus on the weaknesses of that particular horse – and there are always weaknesses.
Every horse – and every person – has strengths and weaknesses.  One of these mares always had her ears forward and was ready to cover the country; the other was a wonderful cutting horse – always compliant to the cues from her rider.  But the traveling horse was clumsy, and the cutting horse couldn’t travel – which is one of the reasons a cowboy needs more than one horse.
So we’ll mourn over the passing of some horses that have been, and focus now on a horse that will be – and such is the nature of the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The summer’s green grass is past and winter’s a-coming.  The cows are out grazing on a good stockpile of mature grasses which provide their roughage needs, as long as the mild weather holds out.  But there is some question as to whether those dry grasses satisfy their protein and energy needs.
There have been years when we had begun feeding hay already, and it is simple enough to measure the feed value of the hay.  I have a coring drill to extract hay samples which are sent for nutritive analysis, but that doesn’t work on grasses standing in the field.  One can’t be sure which of the grasses the cows are eating, nor the quantity.  So I have used a fecal analysis to determine if their nutritive needs are being met.
The quality of our grasses this year is lower than usual – demonstrated by our lower calf weaning weights.  The theory is that the extreme moisture we received in June caused a more rapid growth, leaving the grasses taller, courser, and less palatable.  I began researching supplements.
In the past we have fed “cake” when a supplement seemed beneficial.  This is a grain-based pellet about the size of your thumb.  We poured from the back of a moving pickup in a long line from sacks, and the cows came a-running to lick their share up from the ground.  But this year the price was higher on cake, and I wanted to begin supplementing earlier in the fall.  I settled on a product called Nutralix.
This is a molasses-based syrup fed in tubs.  It provides extra energy and protein, as well as minerals.  Its consumption is limited by the addition of salt to the formulation.  The product is manufactured in Billings – 110 miles east of the ranch – which is the center for a sugar beet-growing area.

Protein is generally more expensive than energy – think meat as opposed to potatoes.  But the rumen of a cow is able to convert “Non Protein Nitrogen” into protein.  “Urea” is added to the syrup to provide this nitrogen source.
One of the components of urine is urea – which is a waste product from the breakdown of protein.  The rumen bacteria of a cow are able to take this waste product and turn it back into protein!
In fact, that is the main value of cattle: they can take what are essentially waste products – grass, corn stalks, etc. – into meat.  The largest component of their rations – roughage – does not compete with human needs for food and fuel, but rather converts the sunlight used in photosynthesis directly into high quality food!
For a while longer anyway, the cows are out grazing with minimal attention.  Maybe now I can dig down through the accumulation on my desk to find the soothing wood beneath.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fencing in the Snow

We had a long and glorious fall.  It’s been colder, however, this last week, and we’ve gotten a little snow.
I have a tractor in the shed for work on the steering.  Some new bushings had come in for the “knee” in the front axle, and I installed them Monday morning.  But I discovered that one of the “thrust washers” had broken, so I can’t put the tractor back together until those parts come in.
We had set the brace-posts and pounded three lines of posts while the weather was good, using the first wire for a guide.  I won’t really need this fence until calving time, so I can work on it at my leisure - and this week is leisure.  So I worked on that fence some, installing brace poles and stretching up wires on one of the fences.
Yesterday began rather chilly – 22o – with a few inches of dry snow.  After working on the fence for a couple of hours I set out after the horses to corral the cull cows.  My gooseneck stock trailer holds nine cows, and I loaded up the open and late cows I had cut out last week for the trip to town.
Billings, 110 miles to the east, is a regional market center.  The open cows will sell on Thursday to go to a hamburger plant, and the late-calving cows will be held over for the stock cow sale on Friday.
I went from snow at the ranch to bare and dry down-country at Big Timber.  And it was almost warm at Billings.  But the road was icy coming back up the Main Boulder highway in the evening.  It was so slick that I could spin all four tires if I applied too much fuel, and I slid right past the West Boulder turn-off.  Off the highway on the gravel of the West Boulder road, however, I had plenty of traction.
The brand rules are strict in Montana, and one cannot cross a county line without an inspection on cattle, horses, and sheep.  Because I was going to a stockyard with a brand inspector, I qualified for a “transportation permit” which I picked up at the courthouse in Big Timber.  That was turned over at the stockyard to complete a chain of ownership documentation.  So far as I know, cattle rustling is not much of a problem in Montana.
The weatherman is calling for serious snow by the end of the week.  I’ll keep you informed.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Last Sort

We had worked the yearlings a several weeks ago, and this week we worked the cows and the heifer calves.  We identified some open cows – cows that were not bred – and some cows that would be calving later than the main herd.
These opens and lates were marked with a one-inch wide grease crayon and cut out of the herd before we turned the rest of the cows back out to fall pasture.  Today I got the cull bunch in for a final sort.
The open cows will go to the sale next week, and I cut out enough of the late cows to make a trailer load.  The balance of the late calvers I threw in with the heifer calves and trailed across to join the yearling heifers.  After the culls go to town next week there will be just two bunches on the ranch: the heifer bunch – calves and yearlings – and the cow bunch.  The two bunches will each graze in separate pastures, and be fed separately through the winter.
With all the gathering and sorting done, our horse-work is mostly finished until spring.  I pulled the shoes off Buddy today, and will pull Thunder soon.  The horses will be down on the hayfields for the winter, and the rocks will be covered with snow.
But there is the occasional need for a horse through the winter, and I will keep the buckskin shod with “sharp” shoes and pads.  These shoes will have four cleats - one at each heel and two at the toe – and rim pads to prevent snowballs building up under them.  Traction is now the concern, rather than protection of the hoof.
This was also the day that I returned the bucket of tire chains to the back of the pickup along with the scoop shovel.  It isn’t often that I need them, but there are four chains in this bucket – one for each tire.  (The tow-strap stays in the pickup year-round.)  Those tire chains will remain in the pickup for the next six months.
And I dug out the tub of extra clothes.  This tub contains a pair of felt-lined boots, a pair of insulated bib overalls, a wool coat and cap, and a pair of insulated gloves.  As with the chains, it isn’t often that they are needed.  But the chance of having trouble multiplies as the temperature drops, and a person is foolish to be unprepared – especially traveling the back roads of Montana.
I put the garden hoses, the siphon tubes, and the irrigation dams in the barn loft.  The irrigation ditches are shut off.  The propane tanks are full and there is a stack of firewood.
This fall has been wonderfully warm and dry - the last two years we’ve had snow and sub-zero weather already.  One never knows in this country!
But there’s nothing more I can do.  Let ‘er rip!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Working Cattle

This was the last round of working cattle for this year.  We set out ahorseback at daylight to first gather the cows off their fall pasture, then the replacement heifer calves off the hayfield.
We hadn’t seen the heifer calves in the morning yesterday, and were afraid they’d gotten through a bad stretch of fence up west.  There was a bull in that next field, and I don’t want these heifers bred until next June, so I sent Ted after a horse.  When he found them there were a cow and a calf nearby. 
These were the last stragglers from the summer range, and they were a little wild.  So I saddled a horse, also, to corral them.  They were on a steep side-hill, and it took a lot more time than it should have.
We then headed up west, counting calves as we went through the hayfield – we were indeed ten head short.  We made a big circle through the next field without seeing the heifers, but did find that more bulls had crossed the river from the fall pasture.  We gathered them up and ran them into the corral with the cow and calf we had brought in earlier.
We hadn’t found the heifer calves, and assumed they had crossed the river to join the cows.  But when we brought in the cows this morning, there were no calves among them. So when the cows were in the lot, I sent Ted after what calves were still in the hayfield while I ran up onto the bench above the hayfield to look for the strays.
We’d already put on a few miles gathering the cows, and now I put on a couple more miles up onto the bench and back around the rimrocks – but still nothing.
I got back in time to help Ted corral the calves he had gathered, then went to the house to set up the tools, medications, and beverages for working the cattle.  In the meantime Ted rode on up to check the aspens above the barn.
He still hadn’t found them, so he went on to the top of the ridge and followed a trail just below the rimrocks which took him around and above the winter pasture up west.  There he finally found the stray calves, and arrived at the corrals just as the veterinarian pulled in.  He’d made about twelve miles in some rough country in the last 3 hours!
First we ran the calves through the chute to give them vaccinations, brucellosis tattoo, insecticide pour, and EID button: an electronic tag that can be scanned from a distance.  Then we ran the cows through for vaccinations, pour, and pregnancy testing.

We haven’t had significant cold or snow yet this year, so the cows will be on their own out in pasture for a while longer.  But we’ll still be keeping shoes on a couple of horses: winter shoes over rim pads to keep their feet from balling up with snow.

Friday, November 4, 2011


We got in a truck-load of straw this week.  “Hay” is cut green, and may be alfalfa, grass, or grain.  “Straw” is the mature (yellow) grain-stalks, after the grain-heads have been cut off  by the combine.
While hay may have protein up to 20% and Total Digestible Nutrients of 50% and more, straw is not nearly as good a feed – when the weather is good.  But when the temperature drops below zero that straw becomes a wonderful source of energy!
Cattle in Montana range out year-around – that means 100o above , or 30o  below.  At temperatures below freezing, the cattle depend on the heat of digestion to keep themselves warm – and that’s where straw comes in.
In early pregnancy a cow may only need 7% protein to maintain body weight with a small fetus developing inside her.  The native grasses – even after they have gone dormant – provide enough protein and energy while the weather is moderate.  As long as the grass is available through the snow, it will meet the cow’s maintenance requirements.  But it takes a lot more feed to keep her warm when the temperature drops.  Eating straw supplies that additional energy at  about half the price of hay.
In the winter, the ground is frozen in Montana.  When a cow lies down, that frozen ground pulls out a lot more energy.  But if she is lying on straw, her energy requirements are 30% less.  So I like to give the cows all they can eat when it is cold, plus enough to bed on.

This straw came by semi-truck, with a 40-foot semi-trailer and a 36-foot “pup” trailer – 76 feet in all.  It was in “mid-size” square bales of 3’x3’x8’, weighing 600 pounds apiece - 84 of them.
With this load of straw in the stackyard I can finally relax, knowing that I have enough feed for my cows – no matter when winter sets in and how long it lasts.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


There were a dozen or so cattle in the weaning lot: a couple of acres with a good, tight fence adjoining our corrals down along the river.  These were an assorted bunch of cattle from hither and yon that we had been feeding hay for a few days until their destiny was decided.
There was a bull who had crawled a fence to escape the pasture with the other bulls; there were a couple of pairs which the neighbor had cut out from his cattle; there was a crippled cow with a bad bag; there were a half dozen yearling heifers that had been cut out from their bunch as their pregnancy was in question.  I didn’t want to waste any more hay or labor on this handful, and the weekly sale was the next day in Billings.  We went down to the corrals to deal with them.
These cattle were in a small lot where we could corral them easily enough with the help of our dogs, so there wasn’t any good reason to run horses in from pasture.  We loaded up vaccine, syringes, and insecticide pour into the pickup and headed down.  Most people do their corral sorting afoot, and so would we.
The corrals aren’t all that big – maybe 100 feet square.  But we were accustomed to doing our sorting ahorseback, and we weren’t quick enough to cut off what we wanted while we were afoot – so we ran them down the sorting alley.
Hundreds of thousands of cattle are sorted afoot every year in such an alley, but our cattle were bunched too tight. and we were too slow – one or two got past us.  So we had to pen the ones we had sorted, then bring back in the ones that got away.  We had worked all the rest of the cattle ahorseback the week before - and hadn’t missed a one – but this time we had to take the dogs out and corral the bunch again.
I commented to Ted somewhere along the line that we were expending way to much effort on such a small bunch – and he didn’t protest.
I had already decided to sell the bull and the old cow, so the object of the sort was to cut the two calves into the sale bunch and run the yearling heifers through the chute for a conformational palpation.  We ended up vaccinating and pouring four of the heifers to keep, which left six head to go to town and six head to be put out to pasture.
I would load the sale cattle in the stock trailer for the trip to town, Ted would  put the rest out into their respective bunches on the ranch: two were cows to go out with the main herd in the Clayton field, four were heifers to go with the rest of their group in a hayfield over east.  As I laid this out to Ted, he quickly realized that it would require a horse to put out both groups.
Why didn’t we just get in the horses in the first place? Ted asked; and I had no coherent response.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Working Heifers

In the old “open range” days, the term “working cattle” usually referred to going out with the “round-up wagon” and gathering  each section of the range onto a holding ground to brand the new calves and to cut out any cattle that were ready to ship.  These days “working cattle” generally has to do with corrals, chutes, and vaccinations.
We “worked” our calves in early October to weigh and vaccinate them before shipping.  Several weeks later we gathered the herd from summer range, cut out the yearling heifers, and then cut out the replacement heifer calves before shipping the rest of the calves.
We’d been mostly been working on fence this week, but on Friday we “worked” the yearling heifers:  We ran each of them into the head-catch, weighed them, vaccinated them for respiratory and reproductive diseases, poured on an insecticide/wormer, and palpated them for pregnancy.  Those that aren’t bred will be sold for beef.
On Saturday I helped a neighbor work his cows.  In the corrals we first sorted the cows off from their calves, then ran the cows through the chute for vaccinations, “pour” (pour-on insecticide), and preg testing.  My cow-dog Max was at my side for the whole performance, keeping the cattle moving and saving me lots of steps.  Afterwards, however, he had to submit to a bath before he was allowed to ride inside the pickup with me for a trip to town.
While we were working these cows I was reminded of a fall many years ago when I helped work cattle on one of the larger ranches, where the cows were all “dipped” in a vat every fall – primarily for lice.
The vat was a long narrow concrete tank in the ground, and the cows were run single file up the chute leading down into the vat.  Men were stationed along the vat with poles that had hooks on the end, to be sure that every part of the cow got wet, and to pull them out if necessary.  At the other end of the vat were two pens with concrete floors that drained back into the vat.  A man sat on the fence between them, swinging a gate to fill up first one pen, and then the other, with cows fresh out of the vat.  When the first pen was full he would swing the gate to direct the next cows into the second pen.  In the meantime, men would open a gate out the back of the first pen to move the cows along and make room for a fresh load of cattle still dripping insecticide.
We have yet to work our cows this fall, and the heifer calves.  I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pounding Posts

Fencing is one of the essential tasks of a rancher.  Posts rot off, wire rusts, snowdrifts bury, cattle and wildlife break through.  There is always fence to fix.
The first big push of fencing is in June when the cattle are turned out to summer range.  Someone has to ride or drive around each field before the cattle are turned in to put in a few staple here, splice a wire there, and drive in a few wood posts.
I’m not a big fan of steel posts – they’re quick and easy and cheap and last forever, but they bend and they grip the wire so tightly that you can’t pull it through to tighten a section and the wire often breaks where it is clipped against the post.  I prefer wooden posts.  The 4” drivers I use are four times as strong as steel, so it takes half as many.  The wire can flex through the staples to absorb the shock when an animal hits it, and you can tighten the wire and stretch it for quite a ways up the line.  The downside is that you need a hydraulically driven pounder rather than just the simple man-powered capped length of pipe used for driving steel posts.

We had three sections of fence to rebuild this fall near the calving shed.  The first task is to set up the braces at each end.  We drove them where we could, and dug the holes by hand to set the posts where there were too many rocks to drive posts.  After the braces were set we could stretch up one wire for a guide, then drive along pounding the line posts.
With all the posts in the ground for these new stretches of fence, we can relax a little and get on with working cattle; we can come back and stretch up the wire anytime – even after the snow comes and the ground freezes.
Tomorrow it’s back to the cattle: a neighbor just called to tell me he had pushed some more of our cattle out of his summer range and back into ours.  We will head out ahorseback first thing in the morning to bring them down off the mountain, then get in the yearlings for their fall work of vaccinations and pregnancy testing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


We had a neighbor show up at our doorstep the other day – afoot!  He had gotten his pickup stuck in a surprise mudhole while out checking cattle.
It was a long walk for him – more than a mile for a 70-year-old-man– and we were the closest neighbor.  And of course I dropped what I was doing to give him a ride back to his outfit and pull him out.  And of course we were both equipped for such an event:  he had a chain and I had a tow-strap.

The neighbor was apologetic about bothering me, but I was glad to be of assistance, because I know that my turn will come!  In fact, this same neighbor had helped me get my pickup back on the road after I slid off in deep snow last winter, and had helped me with a stuck tractor the winter before.

A neighbor called from a different direction last week.  This one had one of our heifers in his corral.  Our Red Angus yearling was obvious when he gathered his black pairs, and he had put her in the corral for us until we could come by with a trailer and haul her home. 

And  this neighbor was lamenting that he was short 25 pairs from his fall gather.  But he was confident that they were mixed in with the cattle of another neighbor, who would call him as soon as he gathered.

Neighboring covers lots of miles in Montana, where ranches are well scattered.  I spoke last night to another neighbor, whose husband suffered a subdural hematoma when his horse fell, and assured her that I would help with pregnancy testing.  And this evening we will attend a benefit supper and pie auction for a neighbor whose family was involved in a horrible automobile accident.

The radio commentator Paul Harvey had once explained that in most places the word “neighbor” was a no­un used to describe a person who lived nearby – but in the rural west it is a verb: as in “to neighbor”.  For as independent as a western rancher is seen to be, he knows that he can’t always do it alone, and that neighbors are essential to his survival.

Most people in the West don’t keep track of who owes a favor to whom.  And in fact, I’d much rather die having  a lot more favors done for neighbors than done by neighbors, because you never know when your turn will come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Shipping Day

Today was shipping day – the big paycheck for the year.

Ours is a cow/calf operation:  We run a herd of cows year-round, feed the dry cows through the winter, calve in the spring, and sell the calves in the fall.  From here they go to a feedlot in Iowa to be fattened for slaughter.

As I reported in my last post, our week began on Monday with gathering the herd from the summer range on top of the mountain.  On Tuesday we ran the herd into smaller lot from where we cut out the yearling heifers.  On Wednesday we cut out the replacement heifer pairs.

These cattle we cut out on Wednesday were the better half of the heifer calves, along with their mothers.  These heifers will be kept over and grown out to replace older cows as they leave the herd.  Since they won’t be shipped off the ranch, we cut them out of the herd early, and move them to a different field so we don’t have to deal with them on shipping day.

I ordered a truck for 10:00.  Ted and I – and of course the dogs - headed out ahorseback at 8:00 to gather the main herd from the 360-acre pasture and into the corrals.  The next task was to sort off the cows, leaving only the calves. 

 As useful as my dog is in gathering the cows, he is even more useful in the corral.  He stays close behind my horse as I cut off a group of cows, than comes out to take my cut on down the alley and out the gate, giving the cows some real incentive to keep moving, saving my horse and I a lot of steps.  When the truck arrives, Max works the outside of the chute, reaching through the slats to grab at the ribs of any calf that hesitates to go into the trailer.

The first truck takes the calves into the shipping corrals in Big Timber.  There they are sorted and weighed, inspected for brands and health, then loaded into long-haul trucks for the trip to Iowa.

The shipping corrals  in town are a beehive of activity during the fall.  At any given time there may be a dozen each of semis with their pot-bellied stock trailers, pickups with their goose-neck stock trailers, and various other vehicles transporting buyers, brand inspectors, veterinarians, and ranchers.  There may be 1000 calves being unloaded, sorted through the various pens and alleys, inspected, and reloaded for the trip to their new homes.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands on any given day.

The price for calves is up from last year’s $1.20 per pound to $1.35 and as much as $1.50 per pound.  But weights are light.  While grass quantity was good this year, quality was low are calves are down 10% from last year.  And we are still short some calves. 

There is evidence of wolf activity having scattered cattle all through our foothills.  We retrieved one yearling from a neighbor 5 miles away, and he reports being short 25 pairs yet.  We both hope that our missing cattle will turn up when another neighbor gathers the timbered ridges between us.

We still have cattle to work, and plenty of all fall projects to complete, but our year’s harvest is finished and the check is in the bank.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall Gather

The calves are set to ship Thursday, and we brought the cows down off the mountain this morning to begin shaping up the herd.  We have the next two days to gather the stragglers and to sort off the yearling heifers and the heifer calves we will save for herd replacements.

It was brisk this morning, but the ground was bare – there have been years when we accomplished this gather in a snowstorm.  In fact we’ve had a foot of snow in October each of the last two years.  Last year I plowed snow from the county road to the corrals twice before we got the calves out.

We wore chaps and necks-carves this morning, and not for decoration.  Our legs needed protection from the cold and from the brush, and those silk scarves make a big difference on a frosty morning.  The sun was shining, but the wind was biting.

It was really a quick ride – only a few hours.  The cows were all grazing out in the open, and they all threw up their heads and lined out when they saw the horses – they knew it was time to head for their winter home on the river bottom.  The lead cow was far ahead of us, and waiting impatiently for someone to open the gates toward home. We were all a little disappointed – the dogs, the riders, and the horses – that we didn’t really get an excuse to do serious cow-work.

It was still a steep climb up into the summer range, and we were grateful to hear the sound of the horseshoes that buffered our horse’s feet from the rocks.  Then that glorious view from the top of the mountain.  But the real fun will come in the sorting that is yet to be done.