Wednesday, July 27, 2011


It was time to move the cows again – off the pasture by the river and up into the “desert” field on the mountain above the house.
We were trying to hay, but my baler was broken down again so I was waiting for parts to be shipped in, and we had gotten a heavy shower the evening before, so the stars had aligned to get the job done this morning.  I did need to get a load of salt up to the field, however.
            I had 750 pounds of salt and mineral – about a week’s supply - in my pickup.  To get up into the desert with a vehicle one must go round-about across a hayfield and up the “road” that was cut with a bulldozer up into the pasture along a deep ravine .  It is steep, narrow, and rocky – and it is for this reason that I keep a pack mule.
A pair of salt barrels are located only a half mile above the house – a lot closer ahorseback than the round-about vehicular route. But that would be three loads, and I have only one mule.  I don’t have the heart to embarrass my good cowhorses with the indignity of walking in a row carrying a pack.  I determined that it would be expedient to take the supplement all in one load in the pickup while Ted was getting in the horses.
I felt guilty tracking across the hayfields.  Now the swather won’t pick up the hay that was smashed down by wheels.  And I almost got stuck crossing the little gulch at the end of the hayfield.  Then I hit a big rock hidden in the grass on the way to the gate.  I was already beginning to question the wisdom of my decision.
The road up along the gulch was still wet from the last night’s rain, and grass was grown up tall along the track, obscuring the exact edge.  Suddenly I lurched to a stop as my back end slewed down toward the brush below.
I quickly slammed the transmission in the lowest gear, turned off the engine, and set the brakes.  When I stepped out my door it was a long drop to the ground on the downhill side of that pickup! 
Had I a set of tire chains along, I could have thrown them on the front wheels and pulled myself out.  But it is July, and I generally take the chains out and leave them in the shed for the summer months.  There was nothing to do but walk the mile home.
Ted had the horses in and the morning was passing quickly.  We mounted up and headed first for the yearling heifers that were a couple of miles up west.
We had an extra rider along this morning, so once we had the heifers gathered I sent Ted and Julia toward the corral with them while I went on across the bridge and started gathering the cows that were in the pasture on the other side of the river
Max and I had made the outside circle and bunched the cows toward the gate when Ted and Julia arrived to help guide the cattle through the gates, past the haystack, and across the bridge into the corrals.  There we sorted off the bulls and threw the yearlings into the cows for the last leg of the push up into the desert.  We returned from our mission just in time for lunch.
First order of business after lunch was to extricate my pickup from its precarious perch on the mountainside.  We took the four-wheel-drive tractor, tire chains, and a tow strap.

With the tow strap slung from the tractor bucket to the trailer hitch, Ted lifted the rear end of the pickup and pushed as my front wheels pulled.  The road had dried out and the way ahead was clear – I was soon on solid footing again. 
Five hours after I started, and with the help of Ted and the tractor, I finally completed my mission.  So much for expedience...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fixin' Pipe

            We got all the hay off the first field on Sunday and started irrigating with siphon tubes.  We got the hay off the second field on Monday.
This morning I began baling the 3rd field at six o’clock, and five hours later had produced an even thousand bales.  In the afternoon we set out to get water running in that second field.
This field is irrigated by gate pipe.  This 12” PVC is a semi-permanent installation, and has been there for some 15 years.  Every year we have to replace some of the gates that are broken off by cattle stepping across the pipe during the winter, but this year we had five broken pieces.  To repair it we had to start at the end and pull each thirty-foot section loose until we came to the break closest to the headgate.

It was a struggle to grasp these awkward sections of pipe with enough force to pull them loose.  Some had water and/or mud lying in them, making them even heavier.  We had to use a nylon strap and the four-wheeler to pull a few of them apart.
On one piece we glued a patch.  On three we used a saw to cut off the break, and we replaced one joint and a 30-foot section.

I call myself a cowboy, and I run a working ranch in the foothills of Montana.  I have good horses, and I use them often.  But there are hundreds of other tasks that are essential to the production of cattle – check back with my blog often to learn about all the OTHER things a modern ranch hand does besides riding and roping.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


            I turned water onto the first hayfield this evening. Most years we have already irrigated the hay twice by July.  But most years we don’t get the volume of rain and snow we had this year.
            In this first field I use siphon tubes to pull water over the bank of a ditch that comes out of West Boulder River.  These are 3-inch shaped PVC tubes about six feet long.

            We have 9 of these tubes – we place them about eight feet apart, and move them every 8-12 hours until we have gotten across the whole field.  We are soaking an area about seventy feet wide and the width of the field, and it takes about a week to go from one end to another.          
In the next field we have “gated pipe’ – twelve-inch PVC that lies along the length of the upper side of the field.  There is a little rubber slide-gate every thirty inches along the pipe, and we open gates across a 120-foot section – again for 8-12 hours depending on how long it takes the water to run across the field.
These are both methods of “flood irrigation”.  This works well for us on the fields that are below the ditches because the high volume of water quickly fills the soil profile with moisture and it requires no power to run.  Much more common in the west is sprinkler irrigation.
“Pivots “are long steel pipes supported by towers on wheels which rotate around the center-pivot where the water is piped in.  These may be up to a half mile long, and irrigate about 600 acres in a huge circle.  Not only are they expensive to build, but they also use a lot of electricity to pump the water and keep the wheels turning.  They mostly run themselves, however, and don't require any labor to operate.
Wheel lines are also common in the west.  These are generally steel or aluminum pipes that are four or five inches in diameter, supported by a four or five foot wheel every sixty feet.  The water must be shut off to a wheel line twice a day and the pipes drained.  A small gas motor rolls the unit to the next set sixty feet away, and the pump is started again.  These have “RainBird” style sprinklers along the length of the pipe.
It took about an hour standing in the river this afternoon to shovel away the accumulation of silt which had nearly buried the headgate.  My face was perspiring as my feet were getting numb in the cold mountain water that was still snow 24 hours ago.
I will try to be out the door by five o’clock in the morning to move my siphon tubes, then go to baling while there is still some humidity in the hay from the night air.  This wet summer has been a nice respite from our normal irrigation routine which is last thing at night and first thing in the morning, sometimes beginning in May.
We usually plan for the alfalfa to re-grow for a second cutting, but I doubt we will get one this year.  The frost comes early at our elevation of 5200 feet, and with the late start we got this year the hay will likely freeze before it is ready to cut again.

Friday, July 15, 2011


            Most of the fabled romance of cowboying comes from the trail drive days right after the civil war.  Cattle in Texas had been multiplying while the boys were off doing battle, and demand had grown for beef.  So a number of enterprising fellows had gathered up wild cattle from Texas, trailed them north to Montana, and fattened them on the short, hard grass that grows there.
            But the hard winter of 1887 put an end to wintering cattle on the open range.  Thousands of cattle died in Montana that winter, as Charlie Russell characterized in his painting “Last of the 5,000”.  Ranchers began to cut hay to provide for their cattle when the snow got too deep.
            Cowboys still had plenty of work then – before there were fences – and didn’t have to stoop to the menial labor of putting up hay.  But times have changed.  Most ranch hands of today spend far more time haying then they do cowboying – and I, unfortunately, am one of them.  And while mechanization has displaced the sheer hard work of haying, fixing equipment has displaced the joy of driving a good team of horses.
            This week I’ve had far more than my share of fixing equipment.

            My son Ted had begun cutting hay Friday a week ago.  We’d had a few rain showers, and the hay was ready to bale on Monday afternoon.  I made only 600 bales before things went to hell.
            A pin fell out of one of the knotters.  The cast iron “needle” - that brings the twine up around the end of the bale – hit the knotter, breaking the needle, bending the wiper arm and the twine disc – and, of course, stopping the baler from making bales.
            Being 60 miles from the nearest dealer, I have a stash of spare parts.  But in spite of several new parts – and my expertise as a baler mechanic – the rig still wouldn’t tie knots consistently.  I spent most of the rest of the day making adjustments to the knotter and trying again.  About the time I had everything back together we got an afternoon thundershower, and I was out of business until the sun dried things out.
            The next morning the hay was wet and it was time to move the cows, but two of my horses needed shoeing (as I chronicled in my blog yesterday).  By the time I got the horses shod and the cows moved, the hay had dried and I was ready to go back to baling.  I quickly discovered, however, that the new parts hadn’t solved the problem, and spent the rest of the afternoon making adjustments and trying again.  Maybe the problem was the generic twine I had bought.
            So I made a call to the local implement dealer to set out some name-brand twine for me, took a shower, and headed to town to have supper – with margaritas – with three of my adult progeny and my brother who was passing through for a visit.
The next day I put in the new twine and tried to bale, with much the same results as the day before.  Ted and I made adjustments and tried again until I finally gave up in frustration and called the local implement dealer.  They would send someone out ASAP – which turned out to be mid-afternoon the next day.
            In the meantime, all the hay that Ted had cut was laying out in the sun getting drier and drier as the nutrients bleached away.
            Wednesday afternoon a mechanic showed up.  I’d already spent hours on Tuesday doing everything I knew how to do to that baler, and still hadn’t made 50 good bales.  Even with the new twine, the afternoon was a repeat: the mechanic spent hours doing everything he knew how to do, yet by suppertime we still hadn’t made a good bale
            Lying in bed at 5:30 on Thursday morning I had a flash of inspiration: if the twine discs were bent it would account for the inconsistent knotting we’d encountered for the last two days.  I made a run the 60 miles to the dealer and bought all the parts I thought I’d need.  It was mid afternoon by the time I had made the round trip and had all the new parts installed.  I fired up the baler and started down the windrow – and it baled!  Three days later and countless hours of frustrating work, it baled!  For a while....
            I’d only made some 25 bales when it went to missing knots again.  And again I went through a whole list of remedies that just didn’t work.  It was almost quitting time – for town folk – when I called the implement dealer again:  he would send someone out first thing in the morning.
            Now it was Friday. The hay had been lying out for a full week, and the baler still wasn’t working.  A new mechanic arrived soon after 8:00 in the morning.
            As I had already done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we worked for hours making one adjustment after the other with much the same results.  It was almost noon when the mechanic decided to bend the wiper arm to give it a longer stroke.  Two of us pulled on a prybar until we felt it give.
It worked!  We baled for awhile, fine-tuning some of the other adjustments, and the mechanic left satisfied shortly after 12:00.

            After a quick lunch I headed out and made another 500 bales.  The hay was drier than I would have liked, but I was making good, tight bales – and after four days I was baling!   ....  Until the tine bar blew apart.
            It was 4:00 when I came in the house and got on-line to look up the parts I would need to fix the new problem.  Luckily, my older son Ben was headed out to the ranch from yet this afternoon and could bring the parts with him.
            But the dealer in Belgrade didn’t have what I needed.
            Neither did the dealer in Billings – 110 miles away.
            Billings referred me to the dealer in Lewistown – who had one of the parts in stock – he would put it in the mail yet tonight.  And Great Falls had another of the parts I needed – and they would mail it tonight also.

            So here I sit: hay waiting to be baled and parts in two different directions more than 100 miles away.  The parts won’t be cheap, but the price doesn’t begin to cover the service from the dealers who have been so helpful in finding those parts and in running them to the post office to get them on their way.
            It is terribly frustrating to have wasted five days mechanicing rather than five days getting the haying done, but it is times like this when a guy really appreciates the rest of the people in his community: the dealer who sends out a mechanic, the mechanic who works in the dust, grease and hot sun to get the equipment working, the parts-men who are quick to locate what is needed and to get it delivered, and family willing to run in whatever direction to bring parts out to the ranch. 
Maybe there IS some romance in this lifestyle...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Shoein' Horses

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we move our cattle to a new pasture every week in the early part of the summer to give the grass a chance to grow out and mature.  While most ranches have gone to “Japanese Quarter Horses” made by Honda or Polaris to work their cattle, we can’t get to most of our range with any type of wheeled vehicle.  Our horses are out in a pasture of some 160 acres where we can travel with a four-wheeler, however, and with the help of a dog we can run them into the corral where they have been bribed with oats.

            When we began catching our mounts for the ride, we discovered that two of them had thrown shoes.  While most horses are never shod, ours require shoes for both protection of their feet and for traction.
            Horseshoes must be reset every 6-8 weeks.  Their hoofs are the same material as your fingernails, and grow at the same rate.  So in a month their hooves have not only gotten longer, they have gotten wider, and they now lap over the shoes.  Not only does the extra length impair their movement, but the horseshoe nails loosen up and the extra hoof can break off.  Without shoes the horses would quickly become tender-footed and unable cover the country necessary to gather and move the cows.
            Not only are their hooves shod with iron, but I also lay a bead of hard-surface rod on the heel and toe calks to give them added grip and wear.
            Everyone agrees that shoeing is hard work.  There were a number of years when I made much of the family living crouched down with a foot between my knees.  During those years I often shoed 8 horses in a day.  It’s been a few years since I have done any outside horses, but I still keep my own shod.  Today I had only two to do, and they really gave my legs a workout.  Then I had to spend a few hours riding – another pursuit that works the thigh muscles when you’re traveling at a long trot as we often do here.

            There are folks who believe that a gym membership is necessary to maintain a fit body.  But whenever I feel the urge to exercise I just go out and set a fence post or shoe a horse until the urge passes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hard and Fast

            I get regular phone calls from people who dream of the cowboy lifestyle and are looking for a job on a ranch.  There are precious few ranch jobs available, however, especially for the inexperienced.
            One fellow who called did have plenty of experience on Montana ranches - and on ranches in Texas as well.  He said he had just returned to Montana because he didn’t like the way they did things in Texas: always “hard and fast”.
            To a roper, ‘hard and fast’ means that his lariat is always tied off to the saddle horn.  I understand that most cowboys in the brush country of the Southwest use this style – they figure that if they catch it they want to keep it.
            In the northern states we mostly use the dally-roping style.  This term comes from the Spanish 'dar le vuelta' – give the turn – and refers taking a couple of wraps around your saddle horn after you have made a catch.
            But this fellow wasn’t talking about what you do with the end of your rope.  He said that’s how those folks in Texas work their cattle: hard and fast.  They seemed always to be in a hurry, and often caused wrecks among their livestock
            It’s an old adage that “the fastest way to work cattle is slowly”.  Especially when you have cows with small calves it pays to handle them gently.  (Read “Cutting Pairs” at .)
It’s easier on both the cow and the cowboy to open up a hole and then slowly apply pressure until the animal moves toward it.  Crowding any class of livestock causes them to try to escape the pressure in whichever direction seems the weakest: around you, through the fence, or into the brush.
            During the trail drive days of the late 1800s the cattle were eased along slowly so that they would graze, and the cowboys took pride in how much fat the cattle put on as they were moving from their home range to a railhead.
            There are times, of course, when a fellow has need of a fast and sure-footed horse, and those are the times that make good stories.  But the mark of a real stockhand is his ability to handle the cattle “slow and easy”.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


            There are precious few ranches left where a man just cowboy.  In fact, there are darn few ranches left where a fellow can cowboy at all.  On the typical Montana ranch a fellow does a multitude of jobs in between the times he can get ahorseback, and one of those jobs is welding.
            A hundred years ago hay was put up with horse-drawn equipment and pitchforks.  A lot of labor was required by both man and animal – the barn was full of horses and the dinner table was crowded with men.  Now the work is mostly done with a few machines.
            These few machines, however, require constant attention.  A bigger ranch might have a designated mechanic, but the average rancher must do the repair work himself.  So often do two pieces of steel need to be joined – or re-joined - that every ranch has a welder.
Most years we start haying right after the fourth of July at our altitude on the West Boulder.  And most years we have already irrigated the hay once, and usually twice before we cut it.  But with all the rain we had this spring we are going to get a terrific first cutting before we turn on the water.  And the cold wet spring set the hay back a few days in maturity.  That gave us a few extra days for other projects.
My son Ted and I are of good German stock.  We northern Europeans are better adapted to tolerate the cold winters than the hot summers.  We only put up a few hundred tons of hay a year, and can’t afford to have the newest and best equipment with air-conditioned cabs.  The tractor we use for mowing leaves the driver right out in the direct sunshine.  One day last week I noticed the teeth on the load rack of an old worn-out balewagon, and an idea sprouted.
It took a day of welding to convert those teeth into a roof for that tractor.  It may still be hot outside, but even the movement of the tractor stirs a little breeze, and a guy can now sit in the shade.

The project was really quite satisfying.  The cost was only my time and some welding rod – the tubular steel teeth were perfect for the uprights, and the same used-up machine had a pair of nice tapered rails that were ideal for the horizontal stringers.
I will work as hard as I need to, in any kind of weather, to get the job done.  But I’d rather work smarter when I can.  I did all my welding in the shade of the shop, and now the swather-man can work in the shade also.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sprayin' Weeds

            We have good soil on the West Boulder – it grows good grass and good hay, as well as good weeds.  Spraying those weeds is always major task in early summer.
            High priority on our ranch are four invasive species: Leafy Spurge, Russian Knapweed, Hoary Cress, and Woodlands Sage.  Left alone, any of these four will move in and take over, displacing the crops and grasses.  Constant vigilance is necessary to keep these aggressive weeds in check.
Also high on the list are three noxious species: Thistle, Hounds Tongue, and Burdock.  These are unsightly and stickery nuisances for which control is required by state law.
Tall Larkspur is a poison weed that has infested the summer range on our ranch in years past.  Many cattle in Montana have been killed by larkspur, and we spent several weeks each year for three successive years spraying out this plant.
The best time to spray is early in the summer before the grass gets too tall, and before the weeds bloom.  The smaller the plant the less spray is required.  Once the weeds have gone to seed it is too late to accomplish anything more for this year.
For large rangeland infestations we use a tractor-mounted sprayer that jets out 30 feet to each side.  In places where the tractor won’t go we can use the 4-wheeler with a spray boom that covers 7 feet.  But most of the spraying is done afoot with a back-pack and a spray wand.
The first step in weed control is to select an herbicide.  We mostly use a combination of two selective broad-leaf herbicides that don’t affect the grasses.  Then one must calibrate the sprayers to determine how much water we are laying down per acre.  That requires measuring the output per minute and calculating width and ground speed.  With both the tractor and the ATV we are laying down about 15 gallons of water per acre at 5 MPH.  Hand spraying puts down about 40 gallons per acre.
When spraying with jets one must gauge the distance from the tracks left by the last pass to minimize any gaps or overlap.  When spraying by hand we add a dye to the formulation to see where we have been.
It usually takes several years to eradicate weeds in a particular patch.  While the larger weeds are not hard to spot, young seedlings are easily missed among the grass.  Even if a person were to see and kill every plant that is growing this year, seeds from prior years can germinate for several years into the future.
Some of these plants can also reproduce from root runners, so one must search all around a mature plant, looking for additional sprouts.
With the mature plants that are missed, this year’s young sprouts, and seeds that are dormant in the soil, it takes a full three years to manage an infestation.   And it seems that just when you have one patch under control you find another patch that you hadn’t seen before. 
Fresh new seeds are contnually being carried in by the wind, by wildlife, and by vehicles – assuring job security for the herbicide applicator.