Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Turn 'em Out!

            Today’s the day we’ve been looking for since we started feeding hay five months ago: we turned the cows out to pasture!  For the next five months these cows are mostly on their own, doing what cows do best: converting grass which is nearly worthless into high quality beef.
            All winter long these cows are costing us money – about $1.65 per head per day just in feed.  And they also cost us the fuel and labor to carry that feed out to them every day.  During that time they are losing “condition": while their weight stays the same, they are giving up the summer’s body fat to give to the fetus growing inside them.
            Now out on this fresh green grass they are actually making us money!  The cows will start to lay on fat, and the calves are growing every day.  These calves will gain up to 3 pounds per day on grass – that commodity that you cut from your lawn all summer and throw away!
            Rather than utilizing petrochemicals to convert silicone into solar panels for the generation of electrical energy, we use grass to collect the solar energy directly, and convert that into the protein that fuels the activities of people.

            And then, after a brief interlude ahorseback moving the cows into their first summer pasture, it’s back to the mundane chores of ranching.
            The deluge of last week carried away vast amounts of soil from the main ranch road.  The culvert was washed out between the house and the shop.  It took most of the afternoon with the backhoe to bed a new culvert and transfer enough fill to allow direct access again to the shop.  There is still water running over the road to the house, and a rut that is five feet deep between the county road and the house; and we will repair the damage one... step... at a time.

Monday, May 30, 2011


Memorial Day and I’m still feeding cattle!  The rain has stopped, and now the new snow is visible at 6000’.

While I was putting out hay I noticed a calf off by himself with droopy ears.  After two days of rain and near-freezing weather it is surprising that he is the only one.  I hope I can save him.
Max is a cowdog, and he doesn’t like tractors any better than I do.  He’ll go along if I tell him to, but most days he stays in the house when I’m feeding big round bales.  When I returned for medicine however, he came to see what was next on my agenda.
“Do you want to help?” I asked.  His stump of a tail began to spin at 300 RPM and he started to bark.  He knows what comes next when I put on riding boots and chaps.
Most barn-raised horses are afraid of water, but it took only 50¢ worth of oats to sucker the remuda across the flooding Elges Creek.  I picked the buckskin mare, saddled her, and tucked some antibiotic in the saddle bags.
We found the calf a few hundred yards from where he had been lying earlier.  He didn’t move as we came up behind him and dropped a loop over his head.
I tied off the rope to the saddle horn, hitched the reins to the rope, and drew up 12cc of medication – 6 to give in the muscle, and 6 to give under the skin.  The calf had enough strength to jump up and bawl, but it was easy to throw him again for doctoring.
We made a big circle of the field to check for any more sick cattle, and everyone else seemed fine.  Then we made a pass through the handful of late calvers near the shed.

This latest storm seems to be passing, having dropped only an inch and a half of rain.  The colder temperatures higher up will slow the run-off.  The creek in front of the house is still running over the dam, but the volume is dropping.  The West Boulder River is not running as high as it will when the temperature rises and the snow in the mountains begins to melt.  The forecast is for warmer weather, and it looks like SUMMER IS AROUND THE CORNER.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Packing Salt

We’re still feeding cows.  The weather hasn’t yet warmed up enough to make the grass grow sufficiently to turn the cows out.  With water still running in ruts six feet deep in the road, with mud ankle-deep in the shop, and with flood water still pouring out into the hayfields, it is hard to accomplish any meaningful projects on the ranch.
But while the pasture grass isn’t growing well, the lawn sure is!  It’s tempting to turn the cows into the yard for a day and let them eat it down.  But then we’d have to harrow all the cow-pies, and we’d have to mow it anyway to get it all even.  Who was it that set that precedent of a neatly-manicured lawn?
So one project I finished up today – after feeding hay to the cows - was getting the lawn mowed.  Then I made a foray on the 4-wheeler out into the Clayton field to check on the progress of the grass there: still too early to turn the cows out.
The Desert pasture is on a south slope, and I was eager to see what is  going on there.  The trail up into the desert is a poor one, it requires crossing a hayfield to get to it, and the field itself is mostly too steep for wheeled vehicles. The best way to see that field is ahorseback, and we will be turning cows in there soon, so I saddled a horse and threw a pack-saddle on the mule so I could drop off a load of salt as I reconnoitered.
Salt is a bit of a misnomer.   While salt is an important component, more critical is the mineral package.  In fact, I mix one 50-pound bag of salt into two bags of mineral in each tub.  That 300# of mix – which costs about $130 - will last our cow-herd about a week.  At this time of year magnesium is an essential nutrient that is deficient in new grass.
We use our horses regularly - and more frequently than most ranches - but still not often enough to keep them worked down.  The horse, the mule, and the dog all had an excess of energy, and were all fidgety.  It took constant effort on my part to keep them all lined out as we headed up the mountain to look over the pasture and fill the salt barrels in the middle of the field.

I was disappointed that the grass was not yet ready to turn the cows in, but gratified that the poison larkspur was still well-controlled.  We haven’t lost any cows to larkspur for several years now, after spending weeks spraying the previously-heavy infestations.
The panniers weren’t big enough for six sacks of mineral, so I made two trips up the hill.  It’s less than a mile up into the field, but a rapid gain of some 500 feet in altitude.  On the second trip the animals had settled down a bit. 
One of the barrels had been rolled down off the hill, and I had to search a bit.  It was lying nearly a half a mile away – too far for a cowboy to carry it afoot.  I had only panniers on the packsaddle, and no manty-rope, so I used my lariat to lash the barrel on top of the packsaddle for the trip back up to the top of the ridge.  I would have been embarrassed for a real packer to have seen my contrivance, but we made it most of the way.
We haven’t accomplished much in the past couple of weeks.  The farming, fencing, and have been on “divert” due to weather.  And now we have a lot of unscheduled work to do in repairing the flood damage.  A fellow can never seem to get ahead....

Friday, May 27, 2011


Snowpack was already well above normal.   April brought several storms with heavy wet snow.  Then we got a couple of heavy rains in May, with 7 inches of rain falling in the last week.  The ground could hold no more!
On Wednesday there was more water coming down Elges Creek than the culverts could carry - it was coming over the banks at the horsebarn, and what remained in the creek was spilling over the top of the pond in front of the house.
The overflow coming down past the shop had already washed around the culvert so badly that we had to run the tractor two miles west and come back down the county road to feed the cows below the house.  It was gushing down the road so badly that it had eroded a track four feet deep.
There wasn’t a lot that could be accomplished at the ranch in such weather, and Ted was there to look after things, so I loaded up some tools to head for home on the Shields River to take care of a couple of projects there.  But with the road washing out below the house, I had to detour out through the hayfield and ford the creek further down to get out to the county road.  I’d been warned by a neighbor that morning that water was coming out over, under, around, and through the county road into Livingston, so I opted to take the long way around through Big Timber – a route that added 35 miles to the trip - but most of it on pavement.
I hit the interstate at Big Timber - which should have been smooth sailing.  But traffic was down to one lane where Peterson Creek crossed under to empty into the Yellowstone River.  It was rain-melted snow in Elges Creek that was flooding our ranch – Peterson Creek is the next drainage west of Elges Creek, and it was in flood from the same rain-melted snow.  I noted several trains stopped along between Big Timber and Livingston, and later heard that the railroad was washed out in several places between Livingston and Billings.
By Thursday our whole world was in flood.  All of the roads back toward the ranch were closed, so I had no choice but to stay home and work around the house.  But a phone call from a neighbor downstream summoned me to help place sandbags to divert some of the water on his property along the Shields River.
The steady rain had ended on Wednesday, with only occasional showers on Thursday; and the water was slowing on Friday.  I still had a few tasks to accomplish at “home” on the Shields River and in town, then I headed back up to the ranch this afternoon.  The roads out of Livingston were officially closed, so I came by way of Big Timber.
I noted that there was still one train sitting on the tracks, but there was a unit making progress westbound, so the tracks must be clear.  There were several places on the both the Main Boulder and West Boulder roads where water had been washing across. 
I made it back to the ranch, where I relieved Ted, who took the opportunity to escape for his other home in Bozeman.  And so I am immersed again in the “romance” of the cowboy life on the West Boulder River in Montana.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Why can’t the rain wait until you need it?  It is sunshine that we want to see now!

It’s still too wet do any farming here – although there are plenty of other tasks on the list.  One project has been to trench in a new power line to the bunkhouse.
It had been just me and the mother-in-law up at the ranch all winter, with occasional relief provided by visits from my oldest son.  With ski season over, my younger son has returned to the ranch.  But when we went to turn on the water at the bunkhouse we discovered that one leg of the power was dead.
That power line was a convoluted combination of overhead and underground feeds, and apparently an underground wire had burned through.  We used the backhoe to intercept the underground line where it crossed the creek, but the break was somewhere in the yard around the shop.  We measured up and went to the supply store for a new length of underground cable, and rented a trencher.
The trencher worked well for the first 75 feet, but we ran into rocks that were too much for that machine.  We had to finish the trench with the backhoe.
When we had finished, I swapped the trencher at the rental store for gooseneck flatbed trailer and ran up the Shields River to a ranch where I had dealt for a used ‘big gun’ irrigation system.  We were able to load a tractor and the sprinkler gun on the trailer to haul back up to the West Boulder.
I had a tractor that quit during the winter while I was blowing snow.  After unloading the tractor and sprinkler from the trailer, we loaded the up the dead tractor for a trip down the mountain to the repair shop.
And of course we’re still feeding hay to the cows. 
I had lined up a pretty good crew to brand calves this weekend, but it is not to be.  We received 2 ½” of rain in the last 24 hours, and the weatherman predicts 80% chance for today and tomorrow.  The calves are gaining weight pretty quickly, and another week of growth will make the job more challenging, but you can’t brand wet calves – a rancher is always at the mercy of the weather.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Other Side of The Fence

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and the cows are really anxious this time of year.
It has been an unusually cold and wet spring, and there hasn’t been enough sunshine yet to get the pasture grass growing.  My hay-pile ran out and I had to buy another three semi-loads.
            The cows are eating the hay, but under protest.  They pick through it and leave anything that doesn’t just suit them, then traipse all over the field searching for whatever spears of grass they can find.  The more breechy of them find weak spots in the fence and crawl through.
            It’s a hard time of year:  the cows are tired of eating last year’s dried grass, and we’re tired of feeding it to them.  But the new shoots of grass are short and mostly water – they don’t have enough nutrition to maintain the cattle.  This grass is still growing up from root reserves and doesn’t yet have enough foliage to be capable of photosynthesis. Thus, early grazing takes a significant toll on future production.
            So we do our best to keep the cattle confined where we can feed them a diet sufficient to produce milk for their calves while the cows’ reproductive organs heal from calving and prepare for re-breeding.
            Cattle have a 9-month gestation.  It is very important economically for every cow to calve on time every year.  We turn the bulls out the second week of June to begin calving the second week in March.
            The bulls are also displeased with the current situation as they must be held away from the cows until breeding season.  We try to keep the cows and bulls widely separated, but they still find each other across rivers and fences and hundreds of acres.  It takes constant vigilance to keep them apart.
            The grass in the pasture is too sparse to feed the cattle, and yet the grass in the lawn is ready to mow.  I’d sure prefer to turn the cows onto the lawn, but the women-folk don’t find any humor in that idea.  So we just keep on feeding and waiting for spring – one day at a time.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I went all day today in my shirtsleeves!  Could this be spring?

Thus far in May we’ve mostly been waiting.  Calving is about finished, feeding takes only a couple of hours a day, and there are dozens of tasks to be accomplished before haying.  But the rain and snow keep returning to impede any serious projects.
We’ve had draught for the last ten years, and it looks like it’s broken.  Snowpack is at 130% of normal and we just got another 3” of rain.  In fact there was so much water coming down the creek today that I had to fork out a bunch of weeds that were plugging up an irrigation ditch and spilling it over its banks.  What we really need now is sunshine to make the grass grow.
The calves are doing wonderfully.  Some ranches have trouble with scours – diarrhea – this time of year, but our calves are spread out over a few hundred acres of grass, and we’ve had no sickness.
One of the first jobs to accomplish in the spring is harrowing the hayfields to break up the manure and clumps of hay.  We got a start on that job before the big rain, and I’ll get back to it tomorrow. 
The cows are tired of hay and are eager for the green grass – they are looking for any kind of hole in the fence.  A handful of yearlings found a place where the fence reaches almost to the river and they made a trail around the end of it to get into the hayfield.  The alfalfa isn’t up enough yet to be dangerous, but I spent some time this afternoon with the loader-tractor and chainsaw to pile up limbs across their trail. 
I also put out a few more sacks of the granular feed to supplement their protein and energy.  This is the critical time of year when they are healing up from calving and getting into condition to re-breed.  Inadequate nutrition now can cause them to calve later next year, cutting the pay-weight of next year’s calf crop.
Further down the road they are getting some farming done.  But at our elevation we are still in a holding pattern, waiting for it to dry up enough to start getting things done.