Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Slowing Down

The calving is slowing down: eighty calves on the ground over the last three weeks, but only one calf today.  There are twenty-five heavies in the calving field now, and the last twenty-five that I haven’t brought in yet. 

I am anxious to see how this lull plays out.  It corresponds with the loss of three bulls last summer: one lame, one injured, and one that just quit the cows to go lay in the shade.  I had scrambled to buy one more bull, but the cows were scattered over hundreds of acres and only three bulls left to seek out whatever cows came in estrus. Fortunately most of the cows were bred before the bulls petered out.

The snow had been gone from the flats ten days ago, then we got that storm a week ago that dumped a foot here in 24 hours.  Between the calving and fighting snow I was kept pretty busy for a few days.

The temperature has been hovering around 32 since that storm.  There has been enough frost first thing in the morning to firm up the mud and snow while I get the feeding done.  But mud has been a big factor in the afternoon when I feed the heavies.  (Cattle tend to calve in the hours before they are fed, so a late afternoon feeding promotes cattle born in the daytime versus in the night.)  The snow has been slowly melting until there is only a few inches now.

There are always plenty of projects waiting to be worked on, but mud and snow make outside work an unproductive hassle.  It was a good day to slip away to town between feedings.

Among my missions were the accountant, the banker, the grocer, and the feed store.  The county road had dried enough that I stopped at the car wash to blast off several hundred pounds of mud from my pickup.

And we’re one day closer to spring!

Monday, March 28, 2011


I’ll be the first to admit that I am lazy – I’m always looking for the easiest way to get things done.  And in a recent post I explained that it saves me time and effort in the long run to spend the time and effort every few days to sort heavies into the calving field and sort the pairs out.  And of course the easiest way to do those jobs is ahorseback.

But like most other ranchers I have incorporated a 4-wheeler into the operation.  It takes only minutes to step out the door and onto the machine to take a quick tour through the heavies to check on anything that may be calving.  And the 4-wheeler is the transportation of choice to do the tagging:  it carries the tags and marking pens handily, and it stands quietly while I catch and tag a calf.  It even works well enough to run a cow into the shed or to pull the sled with a new calf.

When I fed the cows on Sunday afternoon I noticed two calves lying along by themselves along one fenceline, and another in the corner of the stackyard.  They weren’t bawling, and didn’t seem in any distress – their mothers were simply off eating hay.

This morning, however, those calves were still laying there by the fence with no cows around.  I watched for their mothers as I tagged other calves in the field.  Later in the morning I saw two of those calves poking around a cow that had just given birth to her own new baby.  Where were their mothers?

Still on the 4-wheeler I ran in the horses.  Ahorseback now, I headed back into the calving field - and things began to sort out.

I cut off one of the lone calves and started him for the calving shed.  Soon there was a cow across the fence bawling for a calf.  It took only minutes to determine that this calf was hers and to push him through the fence to join her.

Another cow came bawling to see what the commotion was about, and quickly paired up with the calf lying by himself in the stackyard.

Riding back through the rest of the cattle I found a 3-year-old heifer that had calved, but was standing in a group of cows and showing no interest in locating her own baby.  I got behind her and took her to the shed.

There was still one calf not paired up so I hog-tied him and threw him into the sled for a trip to the shed, where I put him in a jug with the 3-year-old.  She recognized her baby and began to talk to him.

I had been watching those three calves for nearly 24 hours - making a half dozen trips past them with the pickup and with the 4-wheeler - without ever seeing them pair up.  And every trip across the field was tracking up the snow and cutting deeper into the mud-holes in the gates. 

But as soon as I got among the cattle ahorseback it took only half an hour to shape everything up.  I wasn’t burning gas, tracking up the field, or violating the peace and quiet, and my boots were staying clean.  All the work to run in a horse, catch it, throw on a saddle, and ride out to the field was certainly well worth the effort!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pairing Them Out

I’ve been throwing the pairs  from the calving field through the gate into the next field as they accumulate, and that field was beginning to get congested.  It was time to move those older pairs out across the bridge into the big wide world of the Coyote Gulch field.

Moving a bunch of young pairs is always an exercise.  They haven’t yet learned to hunt up their mothers when things start to stir, and there were also a bunch of first-calf-heifers that didn’t yet understand the game.

The first challenge is to get the whole group moving.  The calves are bedded together in several different parts of the field and the cows are scattered.  The calves don’t understand that we are on the move, and they’re waiting for Mom to come and get them.  It takes a lot of hollering and threatening to get them to stand up, stretch, and actually begin to leave the place that has been home for most of their (very short) life.  They’re more curious about the dog and the horse than they are fearful.

At last most of them begin to get the idea that this is no longer a quiet and safe place to be, but there are enough rocks and ridges in this field that it takes a lot of running back and forth with the horse before they finally they begin to form up and move toward the far gate.  Some of the calves aren’t moving out well, and it’s better to leave them behind.  We reach the bridge-trap with a motley assortment of bawling cattle.

It is now essential to pair the cattle up to go out across the bridge into a much larger field.  If the cow and calf aren’t together when they leave, each of them will be back looking for the other.  So we stand guard near the gate out across the bridge and cut out each pair as they find each other.

Some calves think that was their mother leaving and try to follow, and likewise some cows haven’t yet found their calves in this group of 85 head.  (Note I said 85 head – an uneven number.  And they have to go out into the next field by pairs an even number.)  So the rider must be vigilant in turning back the singles and only allowing solid pairs to leave the trap together.

Pair by pair they walk across the bridge - just as the animals walked pair by pair off the Ark after the flood – until nearly all have gone.  The few animals left must be returned to the field from whence they were gathered to mother up and form a more solid pair-bond.

With this first 40 pairs now spread out over several hundred acres, we now can make a fresh sweep of the calving field to cut out the new pairs and clean up the clutter- and thus goes the cycle for the two months of calving: cut in heavies from the outside cows, cut out pairs to the near field, turn pairs into an outside field, and bring in more heavies.

It does take more time to keep the cattle rotating in this manner, but it minimizes the psychological clutter of having an overwhelming number of cattle confined, as well as minimizing the accumulation of mud and manure.  The older pairs are now spread out where disease transmission is minimal, and they are learning to keep track of mother – all resulting in a net reduction in work and stress overall.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Montana weather is notably fickle, and what we call “spring” is no exception to that rule.

Monday was pleasant and warm.  Most of the snow had melted off, and there were actually green shoots at the base of some of the grass plants.  I took the opportunity to sort off some more heavies into the field in front of the house, and even threw up a length of electric fence to give the heavies fresh clean ground.

On Tuesday I was glad to have made that cut when I did, as we received a foot of fresh wet snow.  Cows have a tendency to calve ahead of a storm, and there is often a lull during the next day or two. 

Wednesday was a time to dig out from the storm.  I rescued the pickup from its precarious perch on the sidehill, dug out the drift blocking the front door, and made a couple of passes plowing snow off the lane out to the county road.  There were a few calves to tag, and I ran a couple of cows in the shed where they could calve on dry ground. 

The cows kicked back into high gear today, delivering 7 new calves so far.  Six of them accomplished their task without any fanfare.  One, however, was another of the two-year-olds who needed a little help getting the job done. 

I logged a couple of hours of horseback time checking the calves and bringing in the heifer bunch for another sort.  There were nine head yet to calve among those heifers – four of them went into the heavy bunch, and five went to the outside cow bunch.  That leaves only the yearling heifers in that field, and now I can begin throwing pairs out with them where they have plenty of room to spread out on clean ground.

As we ate supper I could see another cow in active labor.  A check just before dark showed a new wet calf wobbling around looking for an udder.  His mother was considerate enough to bear him on an island of straw, giving him the advantage of insulation from the heat-sapping wet snow.  It may get down to twenty degrees tonight, but with an attentive mother he’ll do fine.

My goal is for two-thirds of the cows to have been bred in their first heat cycle.  I’ve only been calving from my bulls for two weeks now and already have over half the calves on the ground – it looks like I’m on track to accomplish that goal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Whew!  What a day!

There had been an ominous cloud in the northeast at dark, but there were still stars shining in the south.  By morning there was 8” of fresh snow.

The temperature was sitting right on 30 and there was only a slight breeze.  I put on both sets of tire chains before I pulled the pickup out of the quonset.  But traction wasn’t so much of an issue this morning as was visibility.  While such features as trees and fences were easily recognizable, the heavy blanket of snow covered all of the rocks and ditches, and the steady snow made navigation through the fields fraught with peril.

The West Boulder valley is aptly named – there are rocks everywhere.  The roads and trails through the fields wind around to miss the worst of the rocks, and these trails were now completely obscured.

I felt my way through the snow to feed the first bunch of cattle and found one big rock rounding the end of a ridge.  I knew it was somewhere nearby, and was going slow enough to stop quickly and alter course.

Even in the four-wheel-drive tractor the navigation was hazardous.  Returning from the stack with a wagon-load of straw I struck a 3-foot tall boulder while trying to follow the main road  back to the shop.  After spreading 1000 pounds of straw in the snow for the heavies I headed back out with the pickup for more hay. 

On the return trip however, I missed the road again and got buried in an old snowdrift.  The pickup was belly deep and the tires spun free even with chains.  I dug for awhile before walking the mile back to the shop for the tractor.

Even with the four-wheel-drive tractor it took a lot of rocking to finally extricate the pickup.

I put off most of the load of hay and was headed for another bunch of cattle when I ran off the road again – this time on a steep bank.  Again I had to walk back to the shop, and then all the way out to where I’d left the tractor after freeing the pickup from the snowbank.  Even afoot the visibility was so poor that it was hard to see the tracks of the tractor where the walking would be a little easier.

But after returning with the tractor I evaluated the position of the pickup and decided that it was too precarious to deal with in a snowstorm.  I went to the house and spent a half an hour digging out my good pickup and putting chains on it all the way around.

There was one new calf in the heavies, and I took the four-wheeler out to sled him into the shed.  The cow followed along easily. 

It wasn’t really cold, and the snow was heavy with moisture. By noon my gloves were soaked and my overalls were wet to the knees.

I’d only given the cattle a partial feeding in the morning so that the hay wouldn’t get covered by snow.  Afternoon I took the other pickup for another round of feed.

Two cows were calving and I ran them in the shed with the four-wheeler.  Neither of them were willing to leave the other cattle and it took a lot of running around afoot to get them started.  Once the they were headed in the right direction I was able to follow them most of the way with the ATV, until they headed off down the rocky ridge above the shed.  Then I was afoot again in the heavy wet snow strewn with rocks underneath.

Then I spread another of the 3’x4’x8’ bales of straw for the pair-bunch from the wagon behind the tractor.

The snow was ending and the sky getting brighter as I finished.  I was just starting supper when I realized that the furnace had quit.  Making the rounds of the house I turned up each of the baseboard heaters and wall units.  Then I shoveled across the deck to liberate the firewood stack.

It was after dark when I made a trip out to the shed to check on the last two cows calving.  Out on the county road I noticed the glare of headlights which did not seem to be moving.  Taking the pickup I headed out to see who might be in trouble.

It was a neighbor from about 7 miles west who was trying to get home.  By the time I arrived he had already shoveled himself out of a long drift that blocked the road and was heading back to take the long way around through Big Timber to get home to Little Mission Creek – about 45 miles out of his way.  Like most serious back-roads travelers, he was equipped with two sets of tire chains, a scoop shovel, and enough clothes to face the weather.

Wednesday morning brings sunshine.  It is 25 above and calm. The calves are all happily bedded in straw. Unless the wind comes up and starts the snow to drifting, it should be a pleasant day.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Joyous Buddies

The weather was mild this morning as I led my horse out to make another cut of heavies.  Thunder, Max, and I have been making this sort together for several years, and we never tire of the thrill of working cattle together

Thunder and Max were especially eager this morning, after having Sunday off, and both were working the cattle harder than necessary.  But I couldn’t be too hard on them, hating to dampen the joy they both were expressing in the job.  After we sorted off the newest bunch of heavies we went on to cut out some pairs.
There is real satisfaction in leading such a team as this - Max taking his cues by watching me and listening, and Thunder reading my intentions by the position of my body and the movement of my hands – all of us in tune with each other and each contributing to the process in his own way. .  (This cowboy dance is described in more detail at

The horse-work is fun but there were the other tasks to be accomplished today: feeding and doctoring a sick calf, ear-tagging, feeding all the cows, and throwing up another section of electric fence to give the heavies more clean ground on which to calve.  Thunder couldn’t be any help on those jobs, but Max was always nearby, looking for a reason to jump in and heel any cow or calf that looked to be out of place.

The snow is mostly gone, and I was able to wear leather boots and work in my shirtsleeves this afternoon.  That’s a welcome treat, but sure not to last long – the forecast is for more snow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Yesterday was the first branding of the season. 

Darin – twin brother to my son-in-law Phil – calves his angus herd in January, and his calves are growing.  We gathered at his place with a pretty good crew to get the job done.  (More about brandings at )

Some folks believe that branding is a barbaric custom.  Many of those same folks have their sons circumcised and their daughters pierced, and may sport tattoos themselves.  They have their children immunized and their pets neutered.  Any one of these procedures inflicts more stress than branding a calf.

A good brand takes literally three seconds.  It produces the same cherry-red skin color as a summer sunburn, and peels in a few days like the skin off your nose. 

Sending a calf out into the world without a brand is as risky as signing a check with Pay to the Order of left blank.  Anyone can haul that animal to the stockyards and take home the money.  Branding takes a lot less time and stress than putting a microchip in your pooch – and much less than worming your cat.

A brand also provides protection for the consumer: it makes a positive identification as to the source.  Should disease be detected anywhere along the supply chain, brand records allow officials to trace back any animal to its source ranch.

After the branding the calves seemed none the worse for their experience – they quickly searched out their mamas and went right to sucking.  The men, also, went right to sucking – on their beers; moving on from there up to the house where Gloria served a fine lunch.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cutting Pairs

We got 3” of wet snow yesterday, but by this afternoon it was a balmy 38 above and the water was running off the hillsides.  Cutting out pairs is a fine occupation for a day like this, and it’s excellent training for a budding cowhorse.

As new calves accumulate in the calving pasture, they clutter up the landscape.  A cowboy has to sort through who’s who, who’s new, and who belongs to whom.  The presence of those cows with calves among the heavies is now not only redundant, but counter-productive.  They need to be cleaned out regularly.

Of course the best way to do that job is ahorseback.  And Max the cowdog can’t stand to see a horse among the cattle without him, so he is always nearby.

The trick is to throw open the gate into the next pasture and pair them out, keeping cows and their calves together without losing any of the heavies.  It didn’t take long to cut out 10 pairs, and the rest were not yet traveling well enough to send out.

In the field of pairs was the calf I had grafted a few days before.  A young cow had lost her calf at the same time an old cow calved.  The calf would do better on a younger mother, and the older cow could fatten during the summer without a calf. 

Cattle recognize each other by their smells.  The young cow would only let the new calf suck if he smelled right to her.  So I skinned the hide off her dead calf and slung it on the live one – the cow immediately began talking to “her” new calf, and a match was made.

It had been a few days now, and they were doing well together.  The smell of the hide and the milk of his new mother would have permeated the calf, and it was time to take off his hide jacket.  I shook out a loop in my lariat and gave chase.

A well-broke rope-horse will put you right up on a critter and “rate” him – maintain a perfect distance for a throw.  If your aim is good it shouldn’t take but a few yards to have the little bugger caught.  With the calf on the end of the rope I tied off to the saddle horn, stepped off, and tied my reins to the outstretched rope to keep the horse looking in the right direction while holding tension on the rope as I pulled off the hide “jacket”.

The pair-sorting and calf-roping were a pleasant interlude - and then it was time to go back to the pickup for the afternoon feeding.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Calving Chronicles

 It had been raining in the night – another ¾” of precipitation to augment the mud.  My first circle revealed a new calf in the night and a 2-year-old trying to calve.  I ran the heifer into the shed and returned to the house for a jug of warm soapy water.

The heifer had made no progress, and her behavior suggested that she had been in labor for awhile, so I ran her into the stanchion and went in after the calf.

The calf was indeed a little large, and the heifer’s contractions were getting weak.  When I had the calf out I could see that his head had started to swell from pushing up against the pelvis.  But he was strong and healthy - another death averted.

The rain had turned to snow when I brought in the heifer bunch to sort off heavies again.  My buckskin mare handled the job well – she’ll be a genuine cow-horse by the time calving is finished.

By evening the snow was starting to accumulate, and a cow was acting suspicious in the far corner.  Sure enough, she had licked her calf under the fence.  I drug him back under the wire, loaded him into the sled and headed for the shed with his mother following.

Had she calved on a flat spot, she’d have licked the calf off and he’d have nursed already.  But she’d gone as far away as she could go to give birth, and the calf had slid out of her reach – he was still soaking wet and had already expended critical energy reserves trying to maintain body heat.  With an attentive mother and dry ground beneath him he would soon be refueling from his mother’s udder.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Joyful Reunion

It’s pretty amazing when you compare calves to human babies.  Most calves are up on their wobbly legs and looking for their first meal within an hour after they are born. Once they get dried off and fill their bellies, they can stand an incredible amount of cold.  And within a couple of days they are running and bucking and playing!  Number 803 is an example of how tough a calf can be.

I first noticed the cow bawling on Friday, and she seemed to be looking for her calf.  But there were calves lying here and there around the field, any one of them could have been hers, and she shut up as soon as I spread hay.  Maybe she was just hungry.

On Saturday I noticed her again.  She still seemed to be looking for a calf, and her bag was tight.  All the calves in the field looked bright and healthy, and I made a quick tour around the perimeter of the field, thinking he might have crawled trough the fence.  But I was in a hurry to get to a bull sale, and didn’t have time for a thorough search.  Some cows are lazy, and will just stand in the middle of the field and bawl rather than go looking for their calves.

On Sunday the cow was still bawling.  I looked up her number and discovered that she had calved up west before I made my first cut of heavies on Thursday.  I recalled having cut one pair out with the heavies, but hadn’t seen them when I gathered the cut and took them up to the calving field.  The calf must have been lying behind a rock when I brought the cows in and was left behind.

It had already been three days since that calf had sucked.  I headed out ahorseback looking for him.  I didn’t really expect to find a live calf, and was on the alert for an eagle or a bunch of magpies rising from his carcass.  The country is steep, rocky, and brushy, with infinite hiding places - I found nothing.  I cussed my lack of diligence in following up on the bawling cow.  But I also cussed the cow that had simply stood there, bawling intermittently, rather than making an effort to get back to where she had last seen her baby.

The calves were coming pretty fast and I wanted to cut out more heavies.  That outside bunch of cows was ranging over hundreds of acres with a mile of river bank, acres of brush, and thousands of rocks.  Wolves could be expected to come through anytime, and it was a long way to bring in anything that was having trouble.  On Tuesday I brought the herd in again to cut more heavies.

There were some 6 calves in the bunch that had been born up west before I started bringing them in for calving.  As I sorted off heavies I noticed one calf that was being kicked off by another cow as he tried to sneak a suck.  He was gaunt, and moved in that floppy, loose-jointed way of a starving calf.  Number 803!

I threw him together with another cow and took him out the gate.  I was careful this time to keep track of him as I took in this new bunch of heavies.

His mother met us at the gate, searching through the herd for sign of her baby.  It was only seconds until they had a joyful reunion.  The calf had only been three days old when he got separated, and for five days more days he had been on his own.

When I fed those cows later in the afternoon, #803 was standing next to her calf.  She left him only long enough to eat, checking back constantly to be sure he was where she had left him.  I doubt they will get separated again.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Making Wages

This morning started a little later than usual - by the clock.  With daylight savings time, first light now comes at 7:00 when I make my first round through the heavies.  The temperature was 45 degrees and all was well. 

Because it was still dark, I ate breakfast before I went out, rather after the first circle, then went on to feed the horses and the heifers.  I loaded up hay for the outside cow herd, and was headed to the barn to catch a horse.  My plan was to feed those cows closer to headquarters this morning and cut heavies again.

It was drizzling rain however, and I remembered a couple of phone calls I needed to make, so I put off the horse-catching for awhile.

Then a real squall blew in with wind and snow, and it was almost time to start lunch.

Those cows were still waiting to be fed, and I especially wanted to cut out heavies if the weather was going to be bad, so after lunch I donned chaps, down vest, and a slicker and headed out to do what needed to be done.

I'd just gotten started down the road toward the cows when the pickup suddenly dove toward the bank.  Cranking the wheel back toward the middle of the road I gunned the engine and tried to power out of it, but the back end slewed toward the edge and a hind wheel dropped over.
I had only gone a few feet with the tire over the edge before I shut it down.  If a second tire were to slide over the bank the pickup would surely roll down and stop downside-up in the irrigation ditch below.

The soil on the West Boulder is predominantly a fine glacial silt.  It is good rich soil - around the rocks - and grows nice grass and hay.  But it is fragile: when it is wet it turns to pudding, and when it is dry it turns to dust.  Erosion is a real threat, and I make every effort not to wear out or break through the sod.

It had been warm for several days - the frost was coming out of the ground and snowbanks were melting.  Tire chains probably would have kept me stable on this road to the west side of the ranch, but they would also dig deeper into the mud and make things worse for next time.

As I hiked back toward the shop I weighed my options.  Lying in the mud and putting on chains was one option; The  four-wheel-drive tractor was another.  It was the precarious position of the pickup with no margin for error that made me opt for the tractor.

After connecting to the hay wagon I pulled in on the uphill side of the pickup and threw the hay out onto the wagon.  I was about to head out to continue my feeding when I heard the rumble of the neighbor's pickup.  He had picked this very time to stop by and pay a visit to my mother-in-law.

Dropping the wagon on the road ahead I returned to the pickup and connected a heavy chain to the rear bumper.  With Stuart at the wheel I raised the rear of the pickup and hoisted it back up onto the road.  In the meantime, both front wheels slid over the bank, swinging the pickup down by its tail toward the ditch below.

But the tractor was bigger and more powerful, with more traction.  We soon had the pickup back on level ground.  Tragedy averted!

In the meantime the rain had turned to snow.  I tied my horse to the back of the hay wagon, fed the cows, and cut out the heavies.  Mission accomplished.

As I fed the heavies I noticed a heifer calving.  When I returned a half hour later she was up again and walking around.  I ran her into the shed.
An hour later I returned, armed with warm soapy water.  The heifer still hadn't gotten the job done so I ran her into the stanchion, trapped her head, and pulled a gate tight against her side.  Stripping off my coat and watch and rolling up my sleeves, I pulled on a pair of arm-length veterinary obstetrical gloves and went in after the calf with a set of calving chains.

(These chains are very similar to a dog's choke-collar, 2-3 feet long, with loops on both ends.)

Both feet were in the birth canal, but there wasn't much room.  This was just a 2-year-old heifer who hadn't reached her mature size, and the calf was relatively large.  It took some struggle and manipulation to get the loops positioned above the calf's wrists, but I was encouraged to feel him wiggle as I worked.

When both feet were snared I reached for the calf-puller - a metal rod about 5 feet long with a yolk at one end to fit around the heifer's thighs. 
Ratcheting the chains up tight, I waited for a contraction - then applied downward force to pull on the calf while his mother strained.  When the contraction ended I used the ratchet to snug up the distance we had gained, then pumped on the handle of the puller again with the next contraction - just like landing a fish.

It was a tough pull, but successful.  The calf was soon out in the cold bright world breathing on his own.

Had I not assisted in a timely fashion the calf would have died.  And without intervention, the mother would also have succumbed in a few days.  This calf will bring some $750 come fall - I made wages today!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cutting Heavies

The cows are starting to calve.  Most of them do the job themselves without any problem, but a vigilant cowboy can often enough make the difference between life and death for a cow or a calf.

The bigger ranches - say 1000 head or more - calve their cows out on the range, with cowboys riding through them regulary to look for trouble.  I've done my share of range calving, and that is still my preference.  But weather can sometimes play havoc - see the story "Blizzard" at

The medium-sized and smaller ranches usually gather their cattle into a smaller field, or even a corral, to calve.  One calf represents a much larger percentage of income to the smaller operator, and smaller outfits more likely to be doing their cowboying afoot - thus they elect to contain the cows in a smaller enclosure where a horse isn't necessary.

There has also been a marked trend toward earlier calving - some people start in January, and many in February.  The nights are long and the temperatures can easily be far below zero.  In that case it is necessary to have a shed to protect the new-born calves.  Most of those folks run their cattle into a shed at dark, and check them through the night.

When cattle are concentrated into a small lot, their impact is also concentrated.  The ground can quickly become ankle-deep muck.  Cows eat their hay from that muddy ground, and lie down in it.  That transfers the good "organic material" to their udders, and the calves can ingest it.  If the entire herd is confined from the beginning of calving, some of those cows will have been making their contributions to the muck and confusion for nearly two months before they calve.  If the cows are run in the shed at night, they are wall-to-wall early in the season, and straw must be continually added to keep the floor reasonably sanitary.  A better system is to bring in only the cows that are showing to calve soon, leaving the rest in a farther pasture.

On our ranch we calve in a small field that is entirely visible from the house.  It has good sod, and we are careful to keep it intact so that the cows can calve on relatively clean ground.  We limit the number of cows in the field by cutting in only the heavies, and cutting out the pairs as the cows calve.  Most of the herd is back out on the range, and even the calving field is relatively clean.  Keeping the cattle spread out minimizes stress and disease.

Today I made my second cut of heavies.  The weather was mild, I was on a good horse, and my dog was at my side - cowboying at its best!

I led my horse beside the pickup to the place where I would feed them near a gate.  After throwing off a line of hay, I climbed aboard my horse and headed out to bring in the main cow herd from the big field up west where they range over hundreds of acres.  While the cows were eating hay, Thunder, Max, and I rode up and down the line cutting out the cows that were bagging up and getting ready to calve.  We took off about a fifth of the cows and threw them into the calving field.

I was sure greatful for the fresh set of sharp shoes I'd nailed on my horse.  The temperature was 50 degrees with a stiff breeze and the hillside was melting.  Several of the cows slipped and fell trying to dodge past us, but my horse and I were just having fun.

The forecast is for rain turning to snow about midnight.  That weather is harder on calves than cold dry snow.  We have only the cows that are near calving, and it will be easy to run them into the shed last thing before bedtime.  The rest of the cows and the older calves will take cover in the brush, and wait out the night.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bull Sale

I had lost 3 bulls last year in the middle of breeding season: one went lame, one got injured, and one just quit the cows.  I had scrambled to find a replacement.  So this year I am in the market for two more.

There was a Red Angus bull sale today at a ranch just 5 miles north.  It took most of an hour to get there, however, as I had to follow the gravel road down the West Bouler to McLeod, then the state highway into Big Timber, and take the interstate back up the Yellowstone.  It would have taken about the same amount of time had I gone straight over the mountain ahorseback, and it would have saved some cost, but the drifts up there can be pretty deep this time of year.

Buying bulls is quite a bit more sophisticated now than simply looking them over and making a choice.  Each bull is presented with a set of measurements as long as your arm: Birth Weight, Adjusted Weaning Weight, Yearling Weight, Average Daily Gain, Rib Eye Area (measured by ultrasound), InterMuscular Fat, and Testicular Circumferance.  Along with these are a set of statistics regarding the Estimated Progeny Difference, which predict how the genetics of this bull will compare with herd averages for all the above measurements, plus Calving Ease Direct, Milk production, Total Maternal, Maintenance Energy, Heifer Pregnancy, Calving Ease Maternal, and Stayability.

No bull is perfect, and some bulls have better genetics for growth performance while others excell in maternal characteristics.  Each buyer must decide which statistics are most valuable to his particular breeding program and how much he can afford to spend for better genetics.

Before the sale the pens were dotted with men looking over bulls and making notes in the sale catalogue.  Lunch was served in the shop.

The auction started with the bulls that had the looks and the genetics that are most in demand. Some two hundred buyers were in the stands, with another hundred standing by their phones to call in bids. 

The first four bulls at this sale sold for $12,500 apiece!  Now assuming that they will each breed 20 cows a year for 5 years, that's a mere $125 for each calf they sire - plus, of course, the cost of interest, feed, vet bills, and the risk of injury.  A little high for my budget...

One bull had caught my attention.  I liked his looks and I liked his numbers, and I was ready to bid when he came through the door.  But there were some other people who like him too, and the bull went for $7250.  Still out of my price range.

Finally a bull came through that wasn't commanding much interest.  He wasn't as impressive as some of the other bulls, but he wasn't bad.  His mother was a young cow, and he was born a little later than some of the other bulls. His EPDs were above breed average in those traits I consider to be most important to my program. I bought him for $1500.

The one I had liked best was expected to be a better bull.  But was he five times better?  I don't think so.  Was I penny wise and pound foolish?  I hope not.  Would the future production of the daughters from the better bull pay for his higher cost?  Maybe.  Am I second guessing myself?  Definitely!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bright New Day

The first circle in the morning is the most important trip of the day during calving.  By March there is light enough to see at 6:00, so we head out into the frosty air to what has transpired during the night.  If there are any new calves that might be chilled I want to find them and get them to warming in the shed as soon as possible.

There is evidence that cattle tend to calve in the hours preceding mealtime, so I feed the heavies late in the afternoon.  All day long I can monitor calving behavior anywhere in the field, but checking cows by flashlight is not very productive.

These days I do these pasture checks on a 4-wheeler.  ATVs have become essential equipment on the ranch, and more ranches now have them than have horses.
While town people buy them for recreation, a rancher uses them continually for all manner of work: checking cows, irrigating, fixing fence, and running in horses.  They are one fourth the price of a pickup and have one fourth the environmental impact.  They are quick and easy for many small jobs.

But as my friend Pol Haldeman said, they are the beginning of the end for horses. 
"First you get one to do the irrigating," said Pol, "and you find out how useful they are to run in the horses." 
"Then one day you figure that you could be there and back on the 4-wheeler in less time than it would take to saddle a horse."
"And when you finally do need a horse, he's so fat and out of tune that you can't get the job done anyhow."

We use that 4-wheeler anytime it's appropriate, and are grateful to have one.  But It can never take the place of a horse on this ranch.  The folks that named it an All Terrain Vehicle hadn't tried to negotiate the topography of the West Boulder.  It is just too steep and to rocky in most places for the 4-wheeler to go. 
The horses are safe here for another generation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Back in the Snowbank Again

This morning dawned with a temperature of 20 degrees, and with 5 inches of new snow.  The thing that made it a little different was a smooth, even blanket of white - there had been no wind!

A quick check of the heavies revealed no new calves during the night.  The more recent calves were weathering the brief storm without a problem.

I had been joined yesterday by my older son Ben, who frequently leaves the confines of the city of Bozeman to refresh his psyche in the clear and quiet air of the ranch.  Together we set off to feed the cattle.

The hay had all been pitched off to the waiting cows and we were headed over the ridge to check the water when we bogged down in a snowbank that had been camoflaged by the new covering of snow. 

I had considered putting on a pair of chains before we left the shop, but there had been no wind to cause drifting, and 5" of snow wouldn't be a problem for the four-wheel-drive pickup.

The pickup was now empty, and this old snowbank had supported the weight of the pickup until we were out in the middle, when we broke through the crust and found ourselves high-centered.
After several rounds of the pickup to dig the snow from behind the tires, and several attempts to rock the pickup free from the snowbank, I finally decided it was time to resort to chains.

It takes less than 5 minutes to put on a pair of chains - if you do it before you are stuck.  But now there was a foot of dense, heavy snow all around the pickup.  We had to dig all the way around the rear tires - including under the pickup box on the back side of the wheels.  That took well over 15 minutes! Then we had to wallow flat-out in the snow to reach clear under and around behind the tires to catch the tail to connect the back siderail before we could connect the front.

Fortunately it was a relatively warm morning.  Despite a temperature that was still in the twenties, the radiance of the sun and the lack of wind made for a pleasant day.

Even with one pair of chains it still took a little bit of rocking back and forth to free the pickup from the snow bank.  After we were clear we elected to leave the chains on, merely tightening them up now that we were on solid ground.

Driving back along the line of  hay, we looked over the cows and discovered another new calf that had been born out in that snow and cold, and who was doing fine.  These cows had started calving a week before my projected dated, and the color of this newest calf confirmed a suspicion that had been growing in my mind.

Our herd is nearly all Red Angus.  We had used nothing but Red Angus Bulls for the last two decades.  Yet one or two per cent of the calves were always black.  The Red Angus breed was started from red cattle that were a genetic mutation in the Black Angus breed, so it is expected to have a few throw-backs.  But already three of these new calves had been black - 50% - too high for mere statistical probability.  Now this newest calf - born to one of the few black cows in the herd - was grey!

That indicated a white Charolais bull.  Our neighbor runs about half Charolais bulls and half Black Angus bulls.  It was now obvious that there had been a little "tipi creeping" going on before we had turned out our own red bulls the previous summer.

The rest of the day was relaxed.  The cows were fed, the weather was moderate, and the heavy two-year-olds were all in plain sight in the small calving field outside the kitchen window: an occasional glance with the binoculars was enough to assure that all was quiet on the western front.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bright New Day

It was 20 above, clear & bright, with an inch of new snow when I headed out on the 4-wheeler for the first check of the heavies this morning.  I was especially eager to check on a calf born late yesterday afternoon.

He'd been lying on a bare ridge-top with a nice cushion of dry grass and the weather was still above freezing at dark.  I elected not to sled him into the shed for the night, prefering not to upset the bond that was developing with his mother - a two-year-old who was caring for her first calf.

They were fine in the morning.  It's amazing the weather a calf can stand if his coat is dry and his belly is full.

The whole scenario of a new-born calf, continues to amaze me.  After living 9 months in a dark and warm environment, that calf is suddenly thrust out into the cold and the light.  Within an hour he is up on wobbly legs searching for a teat - a miracle that is repeated thousands of times every day. 

How can that calf survive the drop in temperature?  How can he figure out how to stand?  How can he know where to look for an udder?

A human baby is helpless when born - entirely at the mercy of his caregivers.  It is weeks before he can move himself, and months before he can walk.  Yet a calf is on his feet in minutes, and can outrun a predator within days.  He can find his mother among a thousand other cows, and trail along with her for miles.

Of course not every calf slides right out and jumps right up, and not every mother is attententive. And so for two months in the spring a cowboy maintains his vigil, intervening only occasionaly to give Nature a nudge.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Stuck in the Snow

I had just pulled the chains off the pickup yesterday - and got stuck in the snow today... 

I was feeding hay out the back of the pickup when it bogged down in a patch of snow in the middle of the field.  It was only a foot deep, but solidified by the wind and warm weather - and there is only 8” of clearance under the differentials.  My scoop and chains were buried under a ton of hay.

After pitching off a few bales to the hungry cows I was able to dig out the scoop.  But the hard-packed snow was too much for the aluminum and bent the neck.  It took 20 minutes to dig through 20 feet of snow to reach bare ground again.

The welding didn’t go much better.  When I struck an arc to attach the borium studs to a horseshoe, my helmet failed to darken and it flashed in my eyes.  I had just put in new batteries, but the low battery light was flashing again. 

I was already feeling out of date using an ancient arc welder rather than a modern wire-feed.  Now I even had to go back to the clunky old helmet with the 2” x 4” window. 

I’d felt a little guilty 5 years ago when I bought this expensive new helmet with a large clear window.  But it allowed me full vision as I positioned the arc rod, then darkened automatically when it struck an arc.  That sure was better than raising the mask to see the position of the rod, then nodding your head to drop the mask and hoping your rod hadn’t moved.
But the price and reliability of these electronic masks has come down markedly as the windows get larger - just as the price has come down on lap-tops with bigger screens.

As I was getting ready to shoe up a couple of horses for this year's calving I ran across an old pair of winter shoes that brought back the memories.  They were the remnant of two sets I had made up 30 years ago.  Dude and Sam were my top horses then.  I’d lost some of those shoes over the years, built the remaining ones up again with hard surface as they wore, and reshaped what was left for other horses along the way.

But it’s a new year with new horses, and another new calf today!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Plowing snow

It was a brisk 10 above when I went out at first light to check the heavies.  Some of those girls are looking close, but no more new calves.

Plowing snow is risky business in this country where wind is prevalent.  Any berms or snow-piles pushed up by the tractor will catch snow and make a new drift when the next storm comes.  But I couldn't get down to the calving shed with a pickup, and there were
several places where I was forced off the road and out into the field by heavy drifts.  So I cleared off the roads, pushing the snow out into the field and spreading it to minimize future problems. 
Four-wheel-drive tractors are now as common as 4wd pickups, and they sure are a blessing.  There was an awkward era between the end of work-horses and the beginning of 4wd when a lot of tire chains and scoop shovels were used up trying to get around.

The main cow herd had been spread well up the side of the mountain in the morning, eating the grass exposed by the wind on the south slope.  I knew they would be down for water at noon, and I knew that there was a lot of snow piled up in front of the water tanks.  So after lunch I threw 6 sacks of thumb-sized grain-based range pellets in the loader bucket and headed up west with the tractor, rolling snow off the road with the back blade as I went.
With the tractor in gear I kneeled in the bucket and trailed the cake on the ground for the cows that came running.  Then I pushed and scraped snow away from the tanks, and bladed more snow off the road on the way back.
By the time I returned with the tractor a Chinook had blown in and the temperature was up to 45.  I was glad to have a lot of snow melting beside the road rather than on it!  With the worst of the drifts opened up and the bare spots turning to mud, I pulled the tire chains off the pickup.  No use to wear them out and tear up the turf with the snow at bay.

I had pulled the shoes off all my horses in December, and Thunder winced a few times as we worked cattle yesterday.  It's time to get a couple of horses shod up again.  I began sorting through my stash of shoes and drilled several pairs to insert borium studs.  We'll be doing plenty of running and cutting over the next few months and I want my horses to have the best footing possible.

The days are getting significantly longer - dawn at 6 AM and still plenty of daylight at 6PM.  It doesn't yet feel like spring, but we're gaining on it!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again -

It's been weeks since I've had a reason to be on a horse - but today was the day.
A two-year-old heifer was the first to calve for the year.  Even though it was only 20 degrees, mother and son are doing fine.  But there are more calves on the way, and the herd was being wintered a mile from the calving shed. 
Two-year-olds are not fully mature, physically or mentally - something like a girl in junior high.  They are more likely to have trouble calving, and less likely to take care of their calves, so it is good practice to have them nearby where they can be watched and taken in to shelter if the weather gets bad.
Max started barking when I fired up the 4-wheeler - he knew what was coming next!  We ran the horses in, and I saddled Thunder.  He was as eager to go to work as was the dog.
We brought the bunch of heifers into the trap-lot next to the corrals and started sorting off those who were showing to be near calving.  In the cutting horse competitions there are two other people ahorseback to hold the herd while each cow is cut out. I had only Max and Thunder to help.  So the three of us had to work a lot harder to hold the herd at one end of the trap, ride through and cut out the heavies, and keep our sort from mixing back into the herd.
We took those first twelve heavies that we cut out and put them by the calving shed - and now the calving season begins.  Last thing before I go to bed I will check those 12 heifers and lock them in the shed for the night, and will return first thing in the morning to check them and let them out.