Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Management Intensive Grazing

In the old days the buffalo roamed wherever they chose, and the cattle that replaced them did likewise.  But we have learned a lot about range management since then.
Left alone, animals will eat the most tender and juicy forage they can find.  Early in the summer, those leaves are quickly replaced by new leaves that are even more tender and juicy – and the cows will return to bite them off again.  In the meantime, the less desirable plants grow bigger and tougher every day.
The grass leaves are the factories that turn sunlight into food.  So when those factory-leaves are bitten off, the plant must utilize root reserves to re-grow those leaves until they are of sufficient size to begin producing again.  If cattle are still in that field, they are likely to return to those same young and succulent plants again and again until the root reserves are depleted and the plants die.
Under Management Intensive Grazing the cattle are confined to a small enough area that they bite off all the individual grass plants - then the cattle are moved away so that the plants can recover.  Such a program actually invigorates the plants, and they produce more forage than if left ungrazed.  And the cattle are forced to graze off the older and less desirable grasses in each field, to be replaced by fresh young leaves.
Such intensive grazing, however, requires a level of fencing and access to water that is sometimes impractical in the western United States.  On our ranch it takes 5 acres of grass per month to graze a cow, and the land is steep and rugged.  Watering points are limited, and moveable electric fencing is impractical in the higher country.  So we have found a compromise.
With the help of Matt Ricketts, Regional Range Management Specialist for the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources and Conservation Service, we have instituted a “twice through” grazing system that has added at least 50 pounds to every calf we sell every year.
When we first turn out our cows out to grass in June, we move them every week to a new pasture.  We have five fields through which we rotate them, giving five weeks of re-growth before we return to the first pasture.  That allows the plants that were bitten off in the first pass to grow out, mature, and set seed before the cows come back.  These mature plants aren’t as sweet and tasty as new growth, but they provide adequate nutrition for the cows and calves to grow fat and sassy after the plants have stored adequate root reserves for next year’s crop.
Such a program does require us to drop whatever we are doing and get ahorseback among the cows on the mountain every week – rather than doing the more mundane mechanical jobs down along river.
It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.  And the economic rewards are substantial, both in the near term - increased pounds of calf to sell each year, and in the long term - improved forage quality and quantity into the future.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Picking Rock

            The West Boulder valley is appropriately named – the experts say that a glacier moved through the area some years back, leaving behind a large supply of rounded stones littering the landscape.
            The soil on the West Boulder is a nice deep silt, and there’s plenty of it, so the hay is abundant in the fields along the river.  But rock-picking is a time-honored tradition, and there are piles of rocks beside every field where four generations have tried to keep the surface relatively clear.
            This good silt, however, is subject to erosion, and our May deluge washed a huge rut down through the road near the shop.  It will take months to gather enough material to fill the road back in, and I bought a dump truck to help with the task.
            Normally in June we are primarily occupied with irrigating and fencing.  But the unusually wet weather has eliminated the need for irrigating the hayfields, and a muddy road has kept us down off the mountain.  There are still plenty of weeds to spray, but we have been working as time allows at filling in a crossing to allow direct access across the washout and up to the house.

            We began by cleaning up a litter of rocks that had rolled down off a ridge in Coyote Gulch.  One of us would drive the tractor while the other directed the position of the loader and threw in loose rocks.  Twelve bucket-loads of rocks was enough weight in the dump truck to make a load.  After six truck-loads of rocks we had cleared off several acres, and had sufficient base for our crossing.  Then we went looking for some larger rocks.

            A neighboring rancher was in danger of losing a pond to erosion and needed some rip-rap.  We hauled him a load of big rocks, and he in turn loaded us from a pile of smaller debris that washed down the creek and into his pond.  This debris worked well to fill in over the rock we had already dumped into the rut.  The next step will be a load of gravel hauled out from town, and we will once again be able to drive directly up to the house.

            We spend days picking rock every time a field is plowed - frost continually heaves rock toward the surface. Yet this year when we have a need for that rock we have nothing plowed up.  No one has ever picked rock off the sod before, so it was quite satisfying to clean up a few places where loose rock was littering the grass. 
But now we’ve gotten the easy stuff, and the return on our time and fuel is diminishing.  We’ll finish our crossing, then turn our attention to haying.  I have an idea of a source for fill material from a hayfield up west - a rocky knob that juts out into the field.  That will be a project for the fall.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cummins Turbo Diesel

            My Dodge ¾ ton pickup is indeed a “Cowboy Cadillac”.  It takes the gravel road out to the ranch as well as any luxury car, yet accommodates chains on all four tires and pulls a ten-ton load of hay effortlessly.

            It is smooth and quiet on the highway, and gets 21 miles per gallon at 70 MPH.  It handles a trailer load of cows so steadily that you almost forget they are behind you.  Usually....
            I was on my way to the auction this week with 9 dry cows in the trailer when I felt a jerk.  It happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to figure out whether it was engine troubles, tire troubles, or just what.
            But within a few miles it became obvious that it was in the transmission.  I crawled under and found it to be hot, with oil pouring out of a side plate.  By that time even the stick was feeling very strange, and it didn’t shift properly.
            Cellular coverage was marginal at the RV park where I pulled off, but I was able to make a few phone calls and soon had help on the way.  In the meantime, a traveler from Switzerland came over to visit, and I ended up drinking beer in his shade.
            My wife arrived in a rented pickup at the same time as the tow-truck.  I had the trailer jacked up, so we pulled my pickup out and backed under with a new one, and soon we were back on the road to Billings.
            By the time we unloaded the cows it was time for supper.  We found a restaurant with a patio where Max the cowdog could join us, and enjoyed the evening.  On the way home we stopped at the RV park to visit further with the Swiss, and invited them out to the ranch.
            My pickup has a six-speed transmission that has served me well for 200,000 miles.  But I now learn that it is notorious for bearing failure while pulling heavy loads in 6th gear.  The seized bearing usually ruins the aluminum case – good used replacements are rare, and repair is expensive.
            It would have cost me $600 to hire a semi to haul these cows.  Because it has the capacity for 50 head, it would have been nearly empty with my meager load of 9.  But for the price of a replacement transmission I could have paid for that trip on a semi – SIX TIMES.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

No Fear

That was the title of the post that was forming in my mind.  I was pretty proud of the fact that I had taken the starter out of the riding lawn mower, discovered that the wire to one of the brushes had been routed wrong and was hanging that brush up, so it cost nothing to fix it.  I was going to wax eloquently about how we often tear into a piece of equipment with which we have no prior experience, figure out how it works, and order the parts to fix it.  The point being that we aren’t afraid to take something apart.
But after fixing the starter and re-assembling the mower, the starter worked great, but now the mower doesn’t run well.  And I had failed to tighten the flywheel nut and thus sheared the key – throwing the engine out of time.  I built a new key out of material cut from a broken baler tine, but the engine still won’t run well enough to mow.
And today didn’t go any better.
I had to run to town yesterday, and heard a screech the first time I applied the clutch.  It was apparent that my throw-out bearing is shot.  I went on into town, using the clutch only to start the pickup, and shifting the pickup like a “big rig” - not using the clutch between gears.  I ordered a new throw-out bearing and picked it up this morning.  But when I crawled underneath to put the bearing in, the fear overwhelmed me.
It hasn’t been that many years since I could have changed that bearing with just two wrenches: a ½” wrench to take off the drive shafts, and a ¾”  wrench to take out the four bolts holding the transmission to the bell housing.  But in this newer Dodge pickup the job is far more complex.
First off, I had to jack it up because there isn’t enough clearance to get under the pickup with it flat on the ground.  And now the bolts are all metric, so I can no longer eyeball them and pick up the correct size.  One end of the drive shaft uses torx screws, and the whole bell-housing has to be taken loose because some of the bolt-heads are on the outside and some are on the inside.  And that transmission and transfer case weigh as much as some cars. 
Many times it isn’t practical to take ranch equipment to a mechanic for repair.  It would take far more time and effort to get it to town than to just repair it where it sits.  Add to that the cost of their shop time, in addition our cowboy wages to get it there and back.  So we do a lot of mechanic work here at the ranch.
But here is a job I am afraid to tackle lying on my back in the dirt with what tools we have at the ranch.  We’ll let the professionals handle this one.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Trailing to Summer Range

            The day began with the mundane task of hauling a load of gravel out from town.  The West Boulder valley is appropriately named – there are plenty of boulders.  The soil on our ranch is rich and silty, and it grows excellent crops.  But it makes lousy roads.  The run-off we’ve had in the last couple of weeks erodes things badly.  And we have no gravel to give the silt some body in the places we need to drive.  So I bought an old used dumptruck to bring out some fill material from Livingston.
            The county road is steep and winding, and uses all of the torque in the Caterpillar engine and most of the 13 gears in the Fuller transmission.  What takes 35 minutes in the pickup takes a full hour in the dumptruck.  And a load of 12 tons doesn’t go far.  So I intend to take the dumptruck every time I go to town all summer long to patch up the damage done by the spring run-off.
            With the load of gravel placed in several low spots, I used the tractor to spread and level the material.  And thus I used up most of the morning.
            It was time to move the cows up off the river and into the first of the mountain pastures.  But before I could set off across the rock-strewn landscape, my horse needed a new pair of shoes.  And then a thundershower blew in, with lightening too close for comfort.
            It was mid afternoon before we headed out to gather the cows.  They were bunched close to the gate, and we soon had them in the trap next to the corrals.
            We held them up there for awhile as we cut out four head of the neighbor’s cattle, two dry cows, and a cow with an overgrown hoof.  One of the neighbor’s steers blew by my horse a couple of times.  On the third pass I dropped a loop on him and led him to the gate the hard way.  The cow with the bad hoof lost her calf somewhere in the herd, and insisted on going back to find him.  We had to run a few more cows into the corral with her, then cut her out and ran her into the chute.  There we used the hoof trimmers - with handles like a pruning shears – to lop off the extra growth.
            With the herd shaped up we headed them out for higher ground.  First stop for the summer is the “desert” pasture – only a half mile behind the house, but involving a quick gain of some 500’ in elevation.  This field was added to the ranch in the 1919 under the provisions of the “Desert Lands Act”.  From certain angles the old ditch is still visible that brought in the water to prove up on the land.

            In fact it wasn’t much of a trail – only a couple of miles.  But such is the nature of modern day ranching.  The horses put on quite a few miles more, circling the pasture from which we gathered and working back and forth to gather the cows and head them through the several gates.  Then they did a little fancy cutting at the corral.  So we got several hours of lively horse-work in between thunderstorms, before we sat down for a comforting glass of whiskey.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Essential Equipment

One might assume that every ranch has horses.  In fact, I have done a little work – very little work – on two Montana ranches that took pride in the fact they had no horses.  Each of the owners pointed out that they were in the business of raising cattle, and that horses eat more grass than a cow.
Not all ranches have horses, but every ranch has a welder.  My first task for today was to fire mine up.  During last week’s deluge water was running through the shop.  The high-water mark was about 4” up the side of the welder, and I was sure that there was silt deposited inside of it, as there was over all of the shop floor.
So I slid the unit out into the open where I could access both sides, and took out enough screws to remove the top and sides.  There was indeed a layer of silt, which I scraped out with a trowel.  Then I applied compressed air – from another piece of essential ranch equipment – and blew it clean.  Now I was ready to do a little welding on the harrow I used on Monday, before I put it away.
Another project was to weld up another pair of shoes for my top horse.  I always apply hard-surface to the toes and heels of the shoes I use on the West Boulder.  That build-up gives them a little more grip, and keeps those toe and heel calks from wearing out between shoeings.

With that accomplished, I went to work on the tractor brakes. 
A couple of years ago I had a hired man rebuild the brake master cylinders, and they worked well for awhile.  But lately one brake has only worked when you pump it, and then it faded quickly.  I ordered a kit for it, and took it apart recently, only to find that it was missing a little ball and spring checkvalve.  It took a week to order the parts, and a total cost of $3.79.
When I had the tractor back together it was time to saddle up and rotate the heifer bunch to new pasture.  Yearlings are always fun to move because they move.  A fellow is often at a lope to keep the cattle lined out in the right direction. When I had the bunch in their new field we had to do some fancy footwork to cut out a dry cow that had somehow gotten in with the yearlings.  That kept the ride interesting as we brought the cow back to throw in with the rest of the handful of drys up near the house.
The next project was to attach the backhoe and clean out the debris that had clogged the culvert near the horsebarn.  Rocks washing down the creek had plugged the culvert and diverted the water around it, cutting a new creek that had to be crossed by jumping.
So ranching is not just about cows and horses – it’s also about welders, tractors, air compressors, and mechanic tools.  But a fellow seldom gets bored!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Overshoe Stirrups

Most people in the United States are familiar with the so-called “Cowboy Boot”: pointed toe, high heel, and tall top.  Ralph Moody talks about getting his first pair of these “Spanish” boots somewhere along 1910.  George Leonard Herter referred to them in his “Expedition Outfitter” catalogue of 1970 as “Spanish dancing boots”. 
I still cling to the old-style tall boots with leather soles, pegged steel arches, and high heels, although most folks in the horse industry have gone to a shorter style with low heels and flat, soft soles.  The difference is in the style of riding.  I like the old thin ox-bow stirrups, and I drive my feet “home” until the stirrups lie deep in my arches, up against the high heels.  Show riders seem to ride with their feet a polite distance into the stirrups, with their weight on the ball of the foot.
But today I was back to ‘overshoe stirrups’.  These are made larger than traditional stirrups to accommodate .... overshoes.  In fact they are on my saddle for at least half the year.  In the winter I ride with a style of felt-lined pacs, which need more room than my “summer” stirrups provide.

Obviously I was wearing overshoes today, and I was wearing my bib overalls also.  The same ones I just washed and put away last week.  It was cool and showery and I had to ride.
I was working in the shop when a neighbor pulled in to ask if I was missing a bull.  He pointed to a black dot on the hillside across the way in one of his alfalfa fields.  He speculated that one of my bulls had been out on the road and someone had done me the favor of running him in the next open gate, which happened to be the neighbor’s hayfield.
This was troubling on two counts: 1) the bulls need to be with the cows doing what bulls are raised to do, and 2) young wet alfalfa is the best way there is to bloat – and kill – livestock.
So I changed into riding boots, donned overshoes and a raincoat, caught a horse, and trotted off across the countryside.  When I arrived I determined that it was one of his own bulls that he had seen, not mine.  But I put him back across the fence with his own cows while I was there, then made a circle of that field to be sure I didn’t have another bull out.
That was a refreshing interlude, then I was back to working on equipment in the shop.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Washing of the Bibs

I put my insulated bib overalls in the wash on June 1.  I also stored my bucket with two sets of tire chains and the tub with pacs, bib overalls, wool, coat, wool cap, and insulated gloves that I keep in the pickup for more than half the year.  This is a real leap of faith that I won’t need any of them for awhile.  In fact, I had worn the bib overalls a few times yet in the latter part of May.
These heavy bibs are an important part of my wardrobe.  I wear them regularly, and have for the last twenty years.  That was a major change from the first twenty years of my cowboy life when I wore wool underwear instead.  http://www.montanacowboycollege.com/woolunderwear.htm

But wool underwear are hard to find these days, and the bib overalls have the advantage of keeping your clothes clean, and of being able to add or subtract a jacket or coat to regulate temperature.  When you come in the house you can peel off the bibs and be both clean and comfortable.
And thus comes progress – even to an old cowboy.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


            We had been trying to get branded for the last 3 weeks but the weather wouldn’t cooperate.  The forecast for today was finally for bright and sunny, and I had a crew lined up.
            There was frost this morning, but as the weatherman had forecast, it was bright and sunny.  I had shed my vest by 8:00, and my chaps by 9:00.
            The cows were in a field along the county road, so my son-in-law Phil jumped four horses out of his trailer at the far end, and Cody drove the rig on up to the house.  Cody and I did some last minute work on the chute while the four riders brought the cows in.  I had my horse tied up handy, and mounted up for the last little push to bring the cows across the river and into the “bridge trap”.
            The first task was to cut out the bulls and run them through to the bull pen where they would be out of the way.  Then we pushed a blast of cattle into the corral.
            I tied up my horse and grabbed my granddaughter and her cousin to help record weights and give the cows their spring vaccinations.  My son-in-law and his brother ran a bunch of cows into the alley and sorted the cows up the chute and the calves out into the next pen.  We gave the cows a combination vaccination for a couple of reproductive diseases, a couple of intestinal diseases, and a couple of respiratory diseases.
            We had begun gathering mid-morning, and it took a couple of hours to get them in the corral, sort off the calves, and run the cows through the chute.  We finished up about 12:30, and the crew loaded up in a couple of pickups to run up to the house for some lunch.
            With full bellies, we were all a little slow to get down to the real work of branding.  But we lit the fire in the propane branding pot, drew up a couple of vaccines for the calves, and sent in the ropers.
            There were two men in the pen heeling out cattle and three teams of two wrestlers.  I put a neighbor to branding and a couple of the ladies to vaccinating.

The ropers were hot, and they were bringing out calves with both heels in the loop as quickly as we could get them wrestled down, vaccinated, and branded.  We had the usual number of wrecks – calves that got away from the wrestlers and bowled someone over.  A couple of calves broke free before they were branded and had to be roped and drug back to the fire.
When the first two ropers began to tire, two more of us went in ahorseback and gave them a rest.  Things went pretty quickly until the first propane tank began to peter out.  That gave us a good excuse to stop and drink beer for awhile.
We tried to pick up both heels with our loops, then drag the calves across to the wrestlers, who laid the calves on their sides and stretched them out between them.  Then the ropers could go back in for another.  There were a couple of big calves, and a couple that were only caught by one heel, so one of the ropers dropped a loop on the head also, to control the calves until they were secured by the wrestlers.
Kathi brought down some goodies late in the afternoon to keep up our energy, but we were finished by 4:30.  We had yet to cut the yearling heifers out of the herd of cows and calves.
By 5:00 we had the cows turned back out into their pasture, and the yearling heifers turned into another field with a yearling bull.  Then it was time for one last beer for the road, and the pickups pulled out for home.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Turn 'em In

         Two important dates that a cattleman writes on his calendar are when he turns out to pasture and when in turns in the bulls.  I turned the bulls in today, mostly by accident.
        Turn in date varies from ranch to ranch based on the optimum time for calving in that particular operation. 
Some ranches choose to calve in January.  The weather is often dryer then, and the calves are big enough take maximum advantage of the grass come summer.  But the days are shorter and the nights are colder.  January calving requires more feed, more labor and more shed space, as there are many sub-zero nights when a calf can quickly freeze if any thing goes wrong.  Cows are usually checked at least every four hours around the clock.
Probably half of Montana ranchers begin calving in February.  The weather is a little warmer, the days are a little longer, yet you can get the calving out of the way before it’s time to start farming.
I like to begin calving the middle of March.  Although there is often more snow in March, I only had to use my calving shed a few times this year, and rarely checked the cows at night.  The nutrient requirements of cows escalates as they near calving.  Because I calve later, I delay that higher plane of nutrition and leave the cows out on grass longer into the winter.  I can check the cows at last light and first light, and let them calve outside unless it is storming.
My plan was to keep the bulls in for another week.  Gestation for cows is about 285 days, and I’d have liked to turn the bulls in around June 7. 
But we don’t have enough fences to keep the bulls separate from the cows when they are in the mood for love.  The river is the only division between several of the pastures, and two bulls crossed it, even in high water.  It would have been a major battle to bring those bulls back in out of the cows, and the timing is close enough.  I ran in the rest of the bulls, branded the two new bulls purchased this year, and turned them all in with the cows.
The common ratio during breeding season is one bull to 25 cows – which reminds me of George and Myrtle:
These two had a long and reasonably happy marriage.  The only real source of contention between them being that Myrtle was a good Christian who believed in Heaven and Hell, while George was rather an ecclectic fellow who believed in reincarnation.
When George died, Myrtle was just itching to prove her point.  She waited, however, a respectable time before she consulted a spirit medium.
Myrtle paid her money, the medium lit the candles and incense, and she mumbled a few words.  Soon Myrtle could feel George’s presence right there in the tent with her.
“So how is there where you are?” she asked George.
“Oh, it’s beautiful.  The sky is blue, the grass is green, and there are lots of the beautiful, willing brown-eyed things everywhere I look!”
“I had no idea Heaven would be like that,” said Myrtle in surprise.
“Oh, this is heaven alright.  I’m a bull on a ranch in Montana.”