Thursday, April 28, 2011

So many - So wrong.

I hate big round bales.  That loathing began in 1978 when I hauled in a load of them by semi from Nebraska.
I had been making a living shoeing horses in the summer and hauling hay in the winter: 435 bales – 20 tons – I loaded and unloaded by hand every day.  Hay was scarce and high-priced in Montana that year, and we saved a pile of money by hauling it in from afar.  But we didn’t have the equipment in those days to handle these 6-foot diameter, 1200-pound bales.
We couldn’t lift those bales, so we pushed them off the truck with a loader tractor.  We drove a steel rod through the middle of them and ran a chain off each end to the bumper on the pickup and rolled them along behind.  When we cut the twines that held them together, the bales spun apart in the field where the cows could eat them.
Thirty-three years later, most ranchers put up all their hay in big rounds – and I still hate them.  I consider them to be big, awkward, and wasteful.  The only positive thing that can be said about them is that they are easy.
Ranches are larger than they were 30 years ago, and depend heavily on hydraulics to do the work that was previously accomplished largely by hand.  Even our small operation now has a tractor large enough to handle those big round bales that can weigh 1600 pounds apiece.  And now 90% of Montana ranches put up their hay in big round bales. 
How can so many people be so wrong?  I am a hold-out: one of the few ranchers left who put up small square bales.
Big round balers are cheaper, faster, and less complicated than small square balers, and out-sell small squares by probably 20:1.  But they require bigger and more expensive equipment to feed, are more awkward to haul, and waste 10-25% more hay.
But “everyone” else uses them, and I didn’t put up enough hay to get through to green grass.  The hay that was available to me nearby was in big round bales.  So now I’m feeding them myself and cussing.

More on big round bales tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Winter's not over yet!

It just gets melted off and dried up, when it snows again – three more inches and snowing yet!

            My haypile was running low.  Winter started in early with snow and below-zero weather already in November.  I had enough hay to get through to May – and I have turned out to grass on May 1st.  But this is not the year.
            A neighbor on the Main Boulder had some hay left to sell, and we had made a deal for 60 tons at $80/ton.  Another phone call lined up a trucker to haul it – he would load at 0630 on Monday, and be out to our ranch with the first load at 0800.  I still had to swap the bucket-and-grapple on the loader tractor for the bale-spears before he arrived, and fortunately my son Ben was at the ranch yet Sunday evening.  I bribed him with Wild Turkey, promised him sour-dough fry-bread for breakfast, and he stayed over to feed the cows in the morning while I unloaded hay from the semi.
            I had hoped to make it through the winter on the hay we put up on the ranch last summer.  But one of my stacks had fallen over early in the winter, resulting in a lot of moldy hay.  And one of the stacks had unexplainably light bales, so I had less tonnage than I had calculated.  And winter is dragging on as long as is typical for our elevation.
            Monday was a window of opportunity – the conditions were bare and dry – and the trucker took advantage.  Born and raised in Big Timber, Doug knows well the vagaries of Montana weather.  And he was right to get up early and ‘get while the getting was good’.  Had he delayed, he’d have had to chain up and fight snow to get me the hay I needed to get through until green grass.

            One of the caveats of this hay is that it is straight grass rather than alfalfa mix.  Without a chemical analysis, I would estimate that the protein and energy of this hay are borderline for cows suckling new calves.  This is a critical time of year when the cows need enough nutrition to heal up from calving and build up body condition to re-breed quickly.  Alfalfa hay has higher protein, energy, and palatability, but local stocks are depleted and the cost of trucking can be high.
            The solution may be in a supplement.  I ran to Big Timber on Saturday morning to pick up a load of “Roughage Buster”, which is a source of Non Protein Nitrogen that the cow’s digestive system can utilize to enhance digestion and synthesize protein.
            This is a granular product that I set out in short steel barrels, and recommended consumption is one quarter of a pound a day.  At the end of two days, however, the cows had eaten all that I had put out - one whole pound a day!
            Salt and mineral supplements are an accepted practice year-round, and my bill for the last year was about $2 per head per month. Addition of this new NPN supplement was projected at $6.25/head/month – and already the cows had each licked up two dollars' worth in just two days!
            My answer – after consultation with the neighbors who have more experience with the product – was to mix salt 50:50 with the supplement to decrease their consumption.  It will be a couple of days now before I can gauge how my cows in this environment will make use of this product.

            And it is still too cold for the grass to grow.           

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's Springtime in the Rockies.....

Saturday was a nice day to be ahorseback, and I had some sorting to do. 

We cleared another dozen pairs out of the near field and put them in the ‘gulch’ with the big bunch.  The buckskin mare did a fine job of sorting, and she stood and held the rope nicely as I ear-tagged a calf. 

We brought in the last of the outside cows and sorted off the bulls and a few more heavies, then turned the handful of late calvers into the ‘island’ field.  Then we cut another handful of pairs out of the calving field and into the ‘rock’ field.

These tasks needed to be done, but my mind was beginning to spin with all the other jobs that were suddenly crowding my agenda.  On Monday, I figured, I would take a tractor across the river and harrow the hayfield, bringing in the drill-seeder and the harrow when I returned.

On Sunday I did the afternoon feeding early so that I could make a shopping trip to Bozeman.  I was eager to buy a small harrow set-up for the 4-wheeler, some weed spray, and a part to repair the solenoid valve on my ATV sprayer.  There is a patch of grass that needs to be sprayed out before I plow up the field in front of the house.

On Monday, however, it was mixed rain and snow.  That put off the harrowing for a few days and gave me a chance to assemble both the new harrow and the solenoid valve.  In the evening I went to a meeting of the Watershed Group at the McLeod school to hear the news on the wolf de-listing and to make a deal with a neighbor for enough hay to get me through to green grass.

The country was beginning to take on a green cast, with blades of new grass appearing.  We’re weeks away from grazing yet, even if it turns warm tomorrow.  But it didn’t turn warm – it snowed instead: another 11” and counting.  Again I was feeling my way through the fields to feed, hanging up on rocks that I couldn't see. 

During the winter the cattle are fed on the hayfields.  But with the ground thawed and the plants beginning to put out new shoots, the cattle must be moved off the hayfields to protect the roots of the hay crop.  The outside fields are laced with rocks and coulees that are nearly impossible to see with deep snow and flat light. 

Even the ranch driveway meanders through the field to miss the larger rocks, but there are no features to distinguish its exact placement.  One must feel for the road judging by the list of the pickup into the shallow ditches and the rock "rumble strips" at both sides.

I have turned cows out to pasture as early as the first of May, and I have just enough hay to get there.  But more often it is closer to the first of June before we can quit feeding, and every snowstorm extends our feeding season for another week.

And now all those jobs that I was going to get working on this week are delayed for an undetermined length of time...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I hear the Meadowlarks song!

Meadowlarks, Sandhill Cranes, Killdeer, Canada geese, and Robins have all returned to Montana – all sure signs of spring!  And today I am wearing leather boots.

I’ve been wearing those heavy felt-lined pacs for months, and I left them sitting this morning.  These leather boots feel so light!    

Those pacs weigh 3½ pounds apiece. I don’t do a lot of walking, but it all adds up.  I load 75 bales of hay a day, at 80 pounds apiece.  I lift them on, and I lift them off – that’s 150 “reps” – 12,000# total. And if I only take a thousand steps a day, that’s 1000 reps at 7#, for another 7,000#.  My insulated coveralls weigh 5#, my coat 4# - that’s 10 tons a day I’ve been hauling around - no wonder I’m tired!

The snow has melted off, the ground is getting dry, and there are green shoots of grass.  It will be weeks before there is enough grass for the cows to feed, but the job gets easier and the duration shortens with every passing day.

The ground is thawed and I’ve been doing a little dirt-work.  Most of the cows have calved and are spread out in a bigger pasture – the few that are left to calve are easily watched from a distance.

As tiring as winter is, however, I’m not looking forward to the next few months.  My mind is already getting cluttered with all the tasks that should be accomplished between now and haying: farming, fencing, weed-spraying...

But there will be more brandings and more horse-work too – I guess it’s all worthwhile.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


The weather has warmed to the mid-forties and there are only 18 cows in the calving field – easy to keep track of out the front window.  Feeding takes only a couple of hours out of the day, and I am enjoying a little down-time.

Cowboys of yore are all envisioned with a pistol strapped to their hips.  A century later, I also have a leather holster on my belt.  Mine, however, holds a Palm “smartphone” rather than a Colt revolver.

The cellphone capabilities are limited out here on the ranch:  text messages are fairly reliable; cell-calls often ring in but only get out when I’m over the mountain in the summer range.  The biggest use for my smartphone here on the ranch is the Documents To Go Program:  I have a couple dozen Word and Excel documents at my fingertips 24/7.

Top of the list are the “Accomplishments” and “Cattle” files.  I keep a daily log in my Palm to remind me of how I have spent each day.  And in my “Cattle” spreadsheet I currently have five tabs: nutrient requirements, culls, notes, calving roster, and inventory.  Soon I will be adding “pasture moves”, as well as “weights” as I record them for calves and yearlings.

I have an “equipment” list that gives me model and serial numbers when I am buying parts.  I have an “internet access” list with websites and passwords.  There is an “acreage” spreadsheet that lays out all the fields by size and land classification, and a “labor” spreadsheet that automatically calculates withholding, Social Security, and Medicare taxes when I write a check to my help.

I can quickly tell you what the sale weights have been on my calves for the last ten years, how many bales and how many tons of hay were produced in each field, and how many gallons per acre of spray are put out by the boom sprayer, the jet sprayer, and the back-pack sprayer, as well as the calculations for 2,4-D, Round-up, and Tordon for each sprayer and for each weed.

There is a file that gives the criteria for Body Condition Scoring of cattle; there are notes for determining the stage of pregnancy; I can tell you the birthdates of all my children and grandchildren; my date book has reminder alarms; there are some 2000 contacts stored with snail-mail, phone numbers, and email addresses, as well as assorted notes.  And all of these files sync quickly with my computer.

The amount of information that we use on a regular basis is incredible – my organic RAM is limited, and my aging hard drive is full.  The overflow is stored in the “electronic brain” that I carry on my hip. 

But life on a ranch is hard for microchips and touch-screens.  Thus I have just ordered two new back-up units for my Palm.  Fortunately, this model is now obsolete, and the smartphones that cost $250 two years ago are now available on eBay for $20 each - delivered.  That’s less than it costs to make a trip to town....

Friday, April 8, 2011

April Showers

April showers...May flowers – it all sounds so romantic.  But when that April shower is snow – seven more inches of it – the idea isn’t so exciting.

With this fresh snow – on a base of mud – I threw on a set of chains before I backed out of the shop.  This ordeal took just under 5 minutes – including the time to grab a feed sack to lie on while reaching under the pickup to fasten the back side of the chains.

Thankfully the snow all came straight down – no drifts to fight.  But the top bales off the stack each dumped their load right down my neck as I pulled them over to load the pickup.  And with a temp hovering just above freezing, my gloves were soon soaked.  In such slop as this, I elected to split the feedings to all the cows – I gave them just enough in the morning to clean up, then returned in the afternoon with the rest of the day’s feed.

One of the cows I had run in to the shed to calve yesterday, struck out instead across the river to calve on the island.  I hunted her up today, and found mother and son doing nicely in the shelter of the brush and trees along the river.  The ones that sneak away to calve like this nearly always do fine.  It’s nearly that is the operative word.  Were she to have a problem deep in that thicket I would likely not find her.  And if I did find her, it would be struggle to get her back to the shed where I could help.

Cattle can stand a tremendous amount of cold – if they are dry and have a belly-full of feed.  I gave them all a little extra hay today, but with all the moisture in this snow and the mud underneath, dry is a problem.  So I took another bale of straw out to the calves late this afternoon.  It’s amazing how quickly a week-old calf can figure out where to sleep!

But there’s a common saying in Montana:  “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”.  Ten days ago it was bare and dry and shirtsleeve weather.  In another ten days I’ll probably be farming.  And all this snow has the mountains at 125% of normal, so the springs will be flowing and there will be plenty of water in the river come summer.

Ah! Spring!


All was well on my first circle through the cows this morning – not too cold and not too wet.  But the National Weather Service had posted a Winter Storm Warning.  That confirmed my schedule for the day.

There was a pair in the calving shed that needed attention, and a down cow to feed.  I had planned to sort off another batch of heavies, so the next task was to run in the horses.  As is my method, I led my Kentucky Colt out the window of the pickup as I drove to the far field and fed off a line of hay near the gate.  Then I parked the pickup on the other side of the gate and threw off a little more hay.

The Colt was a little miffed about going to work before breakfast – he first sulled up, then bucked a bit before he went to work.

Most of the cows have calved already so the outside bunch is getting pretty small.  And they have become accustomed to us riding through them and cutting some out the gate – most of the sorting was done at a walk.  But the Colt went to bucking again when I climbed off to shut the gate behind my cut.

This horse is 10 years old, and still likes to buck occasionally.  But he is honest – he only bucks when there is nothing else going on.  The ones that are dangerous blow up when you’re in the middle of a job or in a tight spot.  I literally put life and limb on the line when this horse goes to working cattle over, under, around, and through the rocks and brush on the West Boulder, and I am still alive to tell about it!

With a fresh bunch of heavies cut into the calving field, I turned the Colt out to eat hay with the rest of the horses and went out to feed the pairs in Coyote Gulch, then swung through to give a short feed to the near pairs and to the heavies.

The "down cow": I had found a cow up west two days ago, who had calved and couldn’t get up – she was one I had missed the last time I cut heavies.  Because she was unable to fight them off, predators had consumed her calf - leaving only a few bone fragments.  I had hauled her with the tractor into the shed where I could feed and water her and protect her from predators.  Her symptoms didn’t line up with any diagnosis that the veterinarian or I could recognize, so I gave her a dose of IV Calcium/Magnesium/glucose to correct any major deficiencies.

It had been snowing steadily but lightly all morning, but the threatened storm had not yet hit.  After lunch I caught the buckskin mare to run in a cow that was calving and another heifer who had lost her calf a couple of days before.

The temperature was still hovering around freezing, but it was warm enough that the snow was melting as it fell.  By the time I finished the afternoon feeding my gloves were soaked through and my overalls were wet and muddy to the knees.

I had just finished feeding the heavies when I saw a line of cattle coming bawling across the bridge.  I ran down with the quad to turn them back and shut the gate behind them.  I quickly loaded a bale of straw to take out to those cows to give them a little roughage to nibble on, and to provide some insulation from the cold, wet ground.

(These straw bales weigh 1000# each. They spread out in flakes of about 3" each, and the cattle nose through them looking for residual kernels of grain before they finally lie down on them and enjoy their soft warm bed.)

When I got out to the field with the straw I could see that the cows weren’t really hungry – there was still hay left from their morning feeding – they were simply as frustrated with the weather as I was.  Their fur coats were soaked through like my gloves, and the cows were just cold and miserable.

After supper I went down to the shed with the last of the bale of straw.  The mud was getting so deep that I spun the tires pretty badly to get out of there and back up onto sod.  I could put on chains, but hate to do that – spinning tires aren’t good, but chains dig even deeper into the mud and cause more erosion.

At dark Max the cowdog and I ran the heavies into the shed for the night.  This is the first time this season that I thought the weather justified locking them in for the night.  Then I took the sled out to haul in a calf born late in the afternoon – this sloppy weather is harder on livestock than colder – and dryer – conditions.

The weather service is still calling for up to a foot of snow by Friday afternoon.  I’ve done what I can to provide for my cattle – we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Calving in the Dark

I saw the heifer just before dark, restlessly pacing the fence, obviously looking for a quiet place to calve.  She was just a two-year-old, the weather was unsettled, and I hurried out on the quad to run her into the shed.

It took a lot of turning, backing, and jumping off the 4-wheeler to get her lined out down the fence in the growing darkness.  She kept turning back to check out the other calves in the field, as cows will do in the early stages of labor.

I gave her an hour before I checked on her again.  At 9:30 I filled a jug with warm soapy water and went down to the shed.  The bull that had bred all these heifers was throwing larger calves than expected and I had already pulled eight of them.

There was no moon that night and the flashlight had gone dead.  I groped by the lights of the quad to start the generator – but for some reason the overhead lights were not working either.  I drove the quad into the shed to look at the heifer – there were as yet no signs of active labor.

Shortly after midnight I hunted up another flashlight and went back down to the shed.  I tried the generator again, but the light circuit was still not working.  With a flashlight I inspected the heifer again. Her dim outline suggested that she had calved already, but I could not find a calf in the shed.  Was my diagnosis of impending birth incorrect?

In the morning I checked that heifer again – still no calf.  But in the daylight her profile was clear.  I checked my calving book and found her number – she had calved the day before.

As soon as I let the heifer out of the shed she hurried back into the field bawling for her calf.  I drove around on the quad accounting for all the calves in the field – hers was not there.  Another circle around the perimeter of the field didn’t turn up anything.  I would saddle a horse as soon as I got the big bunch of outside pairs fed.

As I drove through the gate to feed the horses I found the calf.  He had drifted with the wind of the evening before, under the electric wire, across the road, through a barbwire fence, and into the shelter of a pole-pile.  It took only minutes to throw him in the pickup and haul him out to the field where his mother was still earnestly checking out all the other calves.  He was soon sucking happily.

In my haste to beat the nightfall I had jumped to an unwarranted conclusion.  The restless behavior I had interpreted as early labor was in fact an anxious mother looking for her calf who had wandered off.  My multiple trips through the dark to the shed were worse than a waste of time – they were actually the cause of the trouble.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Evening Out

Saturday dawned bright and warm at 45 degrees, and soon warmed to a balmy 65!  I took advantage of the spring weather to sort off another dozen pairs from out of the calving field.  It was during lunch that I noticed a heifer calving.

From the front window I could see her up and down at the far end of the field, obviously in labor.  An hour and a half later she still had not accomplished her mission so I went out to run her into the shed.

But when I got closer I could see that she had a water bag showing.  That was progress, so I left her alone and went to work on another project for awhile.  By the time I was ready to go make the afternoon feeding she had a new calf, and another heifer was showing her restless behavior.

We had plans for the evening: supper and the symphony with friends from Livingston.  We were to meet them at a restaurant in Bozeman at 5:30 – I would need to be on the road at 4:00.

After feeding, I jumped in the shower then changed into nice clothes.  I didn’t knot my necktie quite yet as this second heifer was obviously in labor.  After watching her awhile longer I called my wife to tell her I wouldn’t make supper – I couldn’t leave until this heifer had calved.

It was about that time that the wind changed and the temperature began to plummet.  I pulled on my insulated overalls, overboots, and a coat and went out to run this heifer in the shed.  I chilled quickly, so after I had the heifer in the shed I returned to the house for a vest – pulling the sled behind me.  While at the house for more clothes I also filled a jug with warm soapy water.

The new calf from the first heifer was already up and looking for an udder, but he was still wet, and sleet was coming out of a darkening sky.  I hog-tied him and put him in the sled.  His mother followed faithfully as I headed back down to the shed.

The sleet pattered pleasantly on the tin roof – it was a treat to be inside out of the weather!

The second heifer hadn’t calved yet and two hours had passed since she started active labor.  It didn’t take long to run her into the stanchion and pull the calf.  With both new pairs safely in the shed I headed back to the house and changed clothes again.

It was now 5:30.  I called the restaurant and intercepted our friends to explain why they would be eating alone.  I called my wife to tell her I was heading out from the ranch to meet her in town.  We met at the drive-in restaurant in Livingston and picked up burgers for the road – not the fine dining experience we had been anticipating.
We made the symphony with time to spare.  The performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony closed in a powerful finale, complete with pounding timpani, soaring french horns, a large choral group.  We finished the evening with coffee and dessert at a local establishment, and returned home in the dark to start all over again in the morning.