Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bear Scat

                Seen regularly this time of year along sections of the road to town are piles of bear scat filled with chokecherry pits. 
One reason we notice the piles of scat is that we ’ve been making more trips to town then usual.  Our attention has turn from haying and irrigating to some other projects – like getting gravel on the road.  The smallest “gravel” that we can find on the West Boulder is about the size of your head, so we must go to town to buy crushed gravel to spread on the road.  So far we have seven loads, and it will take many more to fortify the dirt that we hauled in to build the road back up to grade after our spring deluge:
Chokecherries are a native fruit about the size of a pea that hang in clusters from bushes that are common along the roadsides.  I assume they get their name because they look like small cherries, and they are quite bitter.  Combined with sufficient amounts of sugar, however, their flavor is excellent and the fruit is often used in jelly, syrup, and wine.  In fact, we picked about 5 gallons of them last week when they were at their peak, after a hard frost.
                Competition for chokecherries is intense, with birds, bears, and humans all eager for them.  Black bears are especially obvious in their consumption, and they are often seen in the middle of chokecherry bushes clawing the bunches of berries into their mouths.
                As I said, the berries themselves are pea-sized, and their pits are about the size of a corn – not much fruit around the seed!  Bears scoop them in whole and let their digestive system sort it out, so their piles of scat are filled with pits.
                Native Americans used them, sometimes pounding them together with jerky to make “pemmican”.  Chokecherry syrup will turn the worst batch of pancakes into a feast.  And the wine warms the soul!
                Bears are not at all discrete during their fall forage.  They are intent on building up enough fat to carry them through hibernation.  Bears will climb into an apple tree or chokecherry bush, breaking branches without compunction, and pull everything they can reach straight into their mouths.
                But we have our share bubbling in a crock in the basement – purely for medicinal purposes you understand.

Monday, September 26, 2011


                This ranch is twenty rough miles from town.  We try not to make that trip any more often than necessary, and take some pride in being relatively self-sufficient.
                Neighbors are few and far between. Our water is gravity flow from a spring up the creek.  Even the cows drink from tanks fed by springs.  We have a freezer full of food, and two refrigerators to accommodate the groceries from infrequent trips to town. There are 350 tons of hay stacked nearby.  Diesel and gasoline fill two 300 gallon tanks.  Firewood and wild game abound. 
                But our noble feelings first got jerked up short a week ago when the power was off for the afternoon.  Ted had to abandon his construction project as his circular saw no longer worked. The next task we attempted was impossible as it required electricity to run the air compressor.  The cordless phones don’t work without power, and the stove is electric.  One by one our jobs were canceled because one step or another required electricity.
                We do have a generator, but it would have taken more time than it was worth to retrieve it from the calving shed and connect it to our various tools.

                This week it was my computer:  the hard drive crashed.  We quickly learned how tethered we are to that technology.
                We couldn’t check email, and we couldn’t check the weather.  There was no way to get on-line to look up parts for the baler or search for an engine for the tractor.  I couldn’t look at the pictures of the used swather offered by the dealer in Lewistown.  My bookkeeping and records are all on the computer, and it grieves me to write checks by hand when I have to re-enter all that information later.  The resources available at the touch of the keyboard are almost infinite, yet we couldn’t access any of them.  And I couldn’t write for this blog.
                After four long days of being disconnected I made it in to Bozeman, where I found a heck of a deal on a new computer.  This one was a passé model on clearance, yet much faster than the old one, and with a far bigger screen.  It was the cheapest one I could find, yet it has capacity and features that I hadn’t even dream of.

When is that we became so dependent on technology?  Do these things really save us effort, or are they just new ways to spend time?  People used to visit their neighbors in the evening – now everyone sits home with their computer or their TV.
The wood cookstove is still connected in the old house, and there are a few kerosene lanterns around.  The old Maytag washing machine with its gasoline engine stands nearby.  The springhouse - that kept food cool with its running water - has dried up, however.
But I’m not interested in going back.  The “good ol’ days” may sound romantic to some folks, but I like my hot shower.  And I’m certainly not willing to live in the time before anesthetics, analgesics, and antibiotics.
Every era has its joys and sorrows, opportunities and frustrations.  We just do the best we can…

Sunday, September 18, 2011


            Fall finally fell at the ranch this week.  I don’t make this pronouncement based on the calendar – or even the weather.  It wasn’t a change in the weather, or in the length of the days, but rather a change in how priorities are assessed.  The fall season on the ranch is the only time of year when a fellow can relax a little, and not feel so crowded by time.
            During the spring and summer, every day - and sometimes every minute – counts.  During calving, those minutes can make the difference between a live calf or a dead one.  The earlier you get a crop seeded, the better will be the crop.  If you are a week late getting the irrigation running it will cost you hundreds of dollars in yield.  A week’s delay in spraying weeds makes the job harder and more expensive.  The cows have to moved in a timely manner to protect the young growing grasses.  Hay that must wait a day in the windrow loses leaves and quality, and even gets moldy if rain moves in.  Every day that those bales lie in the field makes them looser, and damper on the bottom – and slows the process of picking and stacking them.
            So many of the jobs of the spring and summer should have been done yesterday, and a fellow is always in a hurry to accomplish as much has he can as quickly as he can to maximize the effectiveness of his efforts.  But in the fall, the only real push is to get things drained and put away before they freeze or get covered up by snow.  There will be another warm and sunny day as good as this one, and we’ll never get everything on our list finished anyway.
            We’re still irrigating - but only to green up some dry spots rather than to grow hay.  We’re still fixing equipment – but only to be ready for next year rather than to put up the hay that is deteriorating in the field.  We have cattle to move to new pasture – but a few days won’t make any difference.  We have fence to fix – but we’re not in danger of spilling cattle into a growing crop or haystack.
            The heat and hurry of the summertime are past.  It’s time to dawdle, visit, take a day off, and generally enjoy the country lifestyle as most city people seem to perceive it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Horse Transport

            It happened again: a “neighbor” offered a horse for working cattle.

            The offer was made at the local pub at McLeod.  The reason I put quotes around the word neighbor above is that person offering the use of the horse was one of the folks who are summer residents of one of the 20-acre tracts down the river from us.
            I’ve had that offer before, and always politely decline.  Their horse would be absolutely no help in the job of working cattle.  For most people, horses are simply a mode of transportation – like a motorcycle, or the 4-wheeler which is now ubiquitous in our country.
            Most people simply sit on a horse as it walks along from one place to another.  There are thousands of horses on dude ranches and hunting outfits in Montana that are judged by their ability to walk quietly behind the horse in front of them.  It seems as though most people think of “working” cattle as following along behind as a herd is trailed to a new pasture.  But I have six horses on our small ranch, and the only one in the herd that is expected to follow quietly behind at a walk is the pack-mule.
            I tried to capture a little of what our horses do in the story “Pulling Leather” - - and that records only one of the jobs we ask of them.
            In fact, we don’t spend much time walking at all.  When we are headed out to a job we usually travel at a long trot.  A horse – as well as a dog or a wolf - can travel this gait all day on the level, and can easily make 20 miles.  We walk once we get to the cattle and have them moving, but we often kick into a lope to get around something that is trying to escape, or to get around another group of cattle to throw into the bunch that is already moving.
            At a walk, a horse isn’t that much faster than a man afoot.  But at a trot or a lope he can go much farther and much faster.  A horse can jump sage brush and cross streams; with his four legs he can traverse mountainsides and bail down off steep hillsides where an “All Terrain Vehicle” would be helpless.
            Cutting and sorting is a skill that takes time to develop.  Most cattlemen do this afoot.  But our horses are quicker; the view is better from atop a horse; and we don’t want to get manure on our boots.  All our corral gates are made to open from ahorseback, and we rarely get off.
            These horses let this three cows by, and jump in front of that heifer, responding to the slightest change in posture of their rider.  And if a critter doesn’t pay attention, you can always rope her.
            When an experienced cowhorse sees you swinging a loop, he knows to follow the calf on his left side and a little behind so you can dab on a loop.  Then he knows to hold the rope tight as you throw the calf and doctor it.
            No, horses are not mere transportation on our ranch.  In fact they are the reason I am in the cow business.  Fifty years ago I was content to be sitting on a horse walking down the road.  But now I want to be atop a horse that is “whirling and spinning to the music of the West” – and the cows are just an excuse to be riding a first-class horse.

Hay-Wire Outfit

            For centuries, hay was put up loose.  It was cut and left to dry, then piled up.  Technology improved from a scythe and wooden pitchfork to a horse-drawn mower and ropes and pulleys to get the job done faster and easier.
            It was little before my time, but I think balers became common after World War II.  The first ones tied with wire.  Soon after, every ranch had a growing pile of baling wire.
            Baling wire is strong, flexible, and was plentiful at the time, so it was used in all manner of repairs.  It is from this era that came the saying “things went hay-wire”, in reference to a situation of anything broken down,  and an operation where maintenance was a little lax was referred to as a “hay-wire outfit.” 
            The wire-tie balers are all gone now, and the supply of hay-wire has dwindled.  The repair material of choice in the new millennium is duct tape - but this week I ran into some equipment that had been repaired with fence wire.
            I had bought a used ‘big gun’ sprinkler set-up this spring that had been replaced by a center-pivot sprinkler.  (This big gun is a giant RainBird that shoots a spray of water 150 feet, and drags itself through the field along a cable.)  Between the excessive precipitation that delayed the need for irrigation, the extra worked caused by deluge, and a series of breakdowns in my pickup, I didn’t get much of the equipment hauled home until this week.
            I also had my “new” self-propelled baler delivered to the mechanic at Clyde Park for repair of the air conditioning unit.  In one trip I dropped off the baler and took the trailer on to pick up the first load of aluminum main-line pipe to haul to the ranch.
            It was too late in the season to accomplish any effective irrigation of hay, but we wanted to at least set it all up to learn how it worked and to discover any missing pieces.  After an exceptionally wet spring we have had an exceptionally dry summer.  I had just seeded a hayfield last week, and the soil is too dry for the seeds to germinate well.  Irrigating that field would be a good test of the “new” sprinkler.
            I had always considered the ranch from which this equipment came to be pretty well-run.  They had a big shop and lots of tools, and I assumed that they were on top of their maintenance program.  But as we set up the pump we noticed a splash of liquid which turned out to be diesel fuel.  We discovered that the series rubber fuel return lines had all ruptured at the joints.  I began to list the supplies we would need to put it into shape.
            Then we looked at the sprinkler carriage and found that a large chain had de-railed – the idler sprocket was loose and skewed.  After spooling out the hose I pulled the carriage up to the shop.
            We spent the rest of the day disassembling the hose reel to get at the idler sprocket.  In the process we found several bad bearings and a broken idler pivot – that idler sprocket was literally secured by a piece of fence wire!

            We did some cutting, ginding, hammering, drilling, and welding to affect the repairs.  After straightening some pieces and securing some others, I had to remove an extra spacer and replace a bolt that had been part of the jerry-rigged hay-wire fix.

            In the meantime, we took delivery of several loads of gravel on our road.  During the building boom a couple of years ago there was quite a demand for landscape rocks, and the West Boulder is well supplied with them.  The contractor who was hauling them never gave us any cash, but instead used his equipment to accomplish a number of jobs for us, including fencing and a major project to install water tanks to supply the cows with a source of winter water.  Currently he is hauling in gravel as he hauls out rocks.  He also brought us up a leveler to smooth out the gravel onto the roads.
            We also started up some irrigation water in two hayfields, to hit some dry spots.  These were places where a siphon tube quit, or where we hadn’t opened enough gates in the pipe to cover a high spot.  It’s a little cool on wet hands in the mornings, but we’re still getting into the 80s in the afternoon.
            The horse barn is now solid.  We have removed the beam we’ve had supporting the upper story for the last five years and cleaned out all the extraneous rocks.  There is still some work to do on the corral, but the barn is good for another fifty years.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


            One of the “joys” of ranching is putting up hay.  There are three reasons for this:  1) the grass grows too fast in the summer for the cows to utilize effectively, 2) the grass doesn’t grow at all in the winter, and 3) what grass there is left in the winter can be buried under the snow.
            As I said in my previous post, alfalfa is a wonderful crop for hay.  (Cattle can’t graze it fresh, however, as it will bloat and kill them quickly.)  A fresh seeding of alfalfa might yield 5 tons to the acre while native grass does well to produce more than a ton.  But production begins to decline after a few years, and it pays to plow each field and reseed it every 7-10 years.
            I had plowed up a small field this spring, and had worked it a few times over the summer.  We pulled the leveler over it a couple of times last week and had it ready to seed.  My neighbor Stuart is a far better farmer than I, and he had recommended seeding it yet this fall.  If the plants get enough of a start before winter, they are up and growing already at a time in the spring when the fields are often too wet to farm, and when we have more other work than we can get done.
            The newest thing is a winter wheat that has been bred to produce leaves rather than heads.  I planted it yesterday together with alfalfa and brome grass.  The wheat is an annual that will shelter the hay plants from cold and wind, and will yield a nice hay crop next summer.  Then the alfalfa and brome will take over to provide hay for the next ten years.

            Tearing up an old hayfield can be a challenge.  One method is the tried and true moldboard plow, which cuts off ribbons of sod and rolls them over on their sides.  But that is slow, hard to accommodate to irregularly-shaped fields, and still requires numerous trips to incorporate the residue and smooth it enough for replanting.  All of that costs money for fuel, wear on expensive equipment, as well as time.
            Another technique is to spray out the old hay, so that the plants and roots can break down over the winter.  By spring a guy can pull through the field with spikes, at a much faster pace, and leaving a much smoother surface.  But of course the spray is expensive too.  As I don’t have a big enough tractor to pull a moldboard plow well, I opted to spray.

            This is not without its frustrations, but it is quicker.  As with calculating the capacity of culverts, figuring the mixture of spray utilizes elementary school math.  Charts provide the gallons per minute delivered by the spray jets at a given pressure, and one must figure the width of the spray and the speed of the tractor to get gallons per acre.  Then he decides on the rate at which the chemical should be applied, and figures out how many gallons in the tank, and how many ounces, pints, quarts, and gallons of the various components to add.
I put it all into several spreadsheets to know my ground speed in each range of each gear of each tractor.  I can bring the spreadsheet up on my Palm to know the proper proportions for the tractor sprayer, the ATV sprayer, and the backpack.  My spreadsheets even convert ounces to cups to pints to quarts to gallons. 
All of my calculations were wrong.  I had measured the output of the backpack and the ATV sprayer, and was quite confident of their calibration.  But I had accepted the charts provided by the manufacturer for the tractor sprayer, and I am now convinced that – for whatever reason – it is putting out twice as much as the charts say it should.  And since I had added chemical based on the stated rate of 10 gallons of spray per acre, and since it seems to be putting out close to 20 gallons per acre, I was applying my herbicide at a gallon per acre rather than 2 quarts.  So it was costing me $20/acre for spray rather than $10!
Of course I don’t know precisely the size of the piece I was spraying.  My estimate was based on an old conservation map from the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service, which was based on aerial photos from years past.  But now I have taken a measurement in Google Earth, which yields about the same acreage.
The best measure comes from the counter on the grain drill.  But I won’t be drilling it for another year, and even that measure is exaggerated by overlaps on each pass - and especially on the corners.
But I am excited to get this (approximately) 20 acres producing up to capacity, and excited that next year I will again be irrigating some of the best hayfields on the ranch with my newly-acquired sprinkler set-up – even if it does mean farming.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Second Cutting

            Alfalfa makes wonderful hay.  It is delicious, nutritious, and prolific.  We cut it the first time in July, then poured on the irrigation water and cut it again.

            We were late in getting the water back on the hay, so the production on the second cutting was only a fourth of the first cutting.  But the new crop is finer than the first cutting, and it has substantially more protein and energy, as well as palatability.  It is just the stuff to feed late in the spring when the cows’ nutritional needs are the highest, and when they are tempted by the green grass that as yet has very little feed value.
            I cut the first field a week ago, when the temperature was in the 80’s with a dry wind.  But one can certainly tell that the days are shorter and the nights are longer and cooler.  Where first cutting may take 36-48 hours to dry enough to bale, this scant crop took four times as long.  In fact, there was a heavy frost this morning!
            Another factor in the drying process was a series of thunder-showers.  They weren’t really enough to wet things down and green things up – just enough to get in the way.  The weather is forecast to be in the 70’s for awhile now.  Ted and I appreciate the cooler days.

            One of the other projects for the week was to begin bedding a culvert for a new crossing into the hayfield below the house.

            Access to this field for the last hundred years has been a ford further down.  It drifts in badly during the winter, however, and requires the balewagon to drop down into the creek and climb back out with every load of hay.  Now that we have a dump truck, and have found a couple of sources for dirt, it is time to upgrade.
            I was quite embarrassed, however, when we dropped the first 24” culvert into the creek.  I had been contemplating the project for ten years, and always figured that I’d better put in two 24” culverts.  The creek very seldom runs enough water to fill one, but it is wise to provide for the anomalies.
            We had no sooner dropped the first 24” culvert in the creek than I had an epiphany. I pulled up the calculator on my Palm and did some quick math.  One 36” culvert would carry more water than two 24’s I confirmed – and it would be faster, easier, and cheaper than two 24’s, as well as far less likely to plug up.  I quickly hooked up to the trailer, loaded the two 24’s and hurried to town to trade for 36” culvert.
            Many people don’t appreciate “book-learning”, but here was the practical application. The formula πr2 was burned into my brain 50 years ago, and now it would save me both time and money!
            Ted continued to haul dirt from the knob in the hayfield up west and deposit it atop the culvert, and in the roadway.  The roadway had been eroding for a hundred years, and was significantly below the level of the contiguous fields.  That made it the natural pathway for excess water – which resulted in the massive erosion event of this spring.  It had also been subject to drifting snow.  Now that we had a source for dirt, and the means to haul it, we continued to add fill to bring the road back up to level.  The next step will be to top it with gravel hauled up from town.
            With the horsebarn wall completed we began the process of cleaning up.  For five years or more we have had the loft floor supported by jacks, posts, and a massive beam.  Today we were able to dismantle that support structure – the barn is now sitting on a solid foundation again!
            The weeds are still giving me grief!  I found another patch of knapweed this week, and expended another two back-packs of spray.  A fellow can seldom get all of the plants in any patch of weeds, and sometimes a new patch can go for several years before it is discovered.  And of course any weed that is allowed to go to seed will keep the infestation regenerating for another three years. 
            Another project has been the removal of some of the accumulation of scrap metal.  There were three old pull-type combines littering the landscape, that had been bothering me for years.  I hauled the first one to town on my way to get a load of gravel, and two more were hauled away later.  Scrap metal prices are high enough that it pays to cut it up and sell it.  It is soothing to my soul to look at grass rather than rusting hulks!

            And thus goes fall on the ranch: dozens of small projects – each of them according to weather and opportunity.  Boring, it isn’t!