Monday, October 31, 2011

Working Heifers

In the old “open range” days, the term “working cattle” usually referred to going out with the “round-up wagon” and gathering  each section of the range onto a holding ground to brand the new calves and to cut out any cattle that were ready to ship.  These days “working cattle” generally has to do with corrals, chutes, and vaccinations.
We “worked” our calves in early October to weigh and vaccinate them before shipping.  Several weeks later we gathered the herd from summer range, cut out the yearling heifers, and then cut out the replacement heifer calves before shipping the rest of the calves.
We’d been mostly been working on fence this week, but on Friday we “worked” the yearling heifers:  We ran each of them into the head-catch, weighed them, vaccinated them for respiratory and reproductive diseases, poured on an insecticide/wormer, and palpated them for pregnancy.  Those that aren’t bred will be sold for beef.
On Saturday I helped a neighbor work his cows.  In the corrals we first sorted the cows off from their calves, then ran the cows through the chute for vaccinations, “pour” (pour-on insecticide), and preg testing.  My cow-dog Max was at my side for the whole performance, keeping the cattle moving and saving me lots of steps.  Afterwards, however, he had to submit to a bath before he was allowed to ride inside the pickup with me for a trip to town.
While we were working these cows I was reminded of a fall many years ago when I helped work cattle on one of the larger ranches, where the cows were all “dipped” in a vat every fall – primarily for lice.
The vat was a long narrow concrete tank in the ground, and the cows were run single file up the chute leading down into the vat.  Men were stationed along the vat with poles that had hooks on the end, to be sure that every part of the cow got wet, and to pull them out if necessary.  At the other end of the vat were two pens with concrete floors that drained back into the vat.  A man sat on the fence between them, swinging a gate to fill up first one pen, and then the other, with cows fresh out of the vat.  When the first pen was full he would swing the gate to direct the next cows into the second pen.  In the meantime, men would open a gate out the back of the first pen to move the cows along and make room for a fresh load of cattle still dripping insecticide.
We have yet to work our cows this fall, and the heifer calves.  I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pounding Posts

Fencing is one of the essential tasks of a rancher.  Posts rot off, wire rusts, snowdrifts bury, cattle and wildlife break through.  There is always fence to fix.
The first big push of fencing is in June when the cattle are turned out to summer range.  Someone has to ride or drive around each field before the cattle are turned in to put in a few staple here, splice a wire there, and drive in a few wood posts.
I’m not a big fan of steel posts – they’re quick and easy and cheap and last forever, but they bend and they grip the wire so tightly that you can’t pull it through to tighten a section and the wire often breaks where it is clipped against the post.  I prefer wooden posts.  The 4” drivers I use are four times as strong as steel, so it takes half as many.  The wire can flex through the staples to absorb the shock when an animal hits it, and you can tighten the wire and stretch it for quite a ways up the line.  The downside is that you need a hydraulically driven pounder rather than just the simple man-powered capped length of pipe used for driving steel posts.

We had three sections of fence to rebuild this fall near the calving shed.  The first task is to set up the braces at each end.  We drove them where we could, and dug the holes by hand to set the posts where there were too many rocks to drive posts.  After the braces were set we could stretch up one wire for a guide, then drive along pounding the line posts.
With all the posts in the ground for these new stretches of fence, we can relax a little and get on with working cattle; we can come back and stretch up the wire anytime – even after the snow comes and the ground freezes.
Tomorrow it’s back to the cattle: a neighbor just called to tell me he had pushed some more of our cattle out of his summer range and back into ours.  We will head out ahorseback first thing in the morning to bring them down off the mountain, then get in the yearlings for their fall work of vaccinations and pregnancy testing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


We had a neighbor show up at our doorstep the other day – afoot!  He had gotten his pickup stuck in a surprise mudhole while out checking cattle.
It was a long walk for him – more than a mile for a 70-year-old-man– and we were the closest neighbor.  And of course I dropped what I was doing to give him a ride back to his outfit and pull him out.  And of course we were both equipped for such an event:  he had a chain and I had a tow-strap.

The neighbor was apologetic about bothering me, but I was glad to be of assistance, because I know that my turn will come!  In fact, this same neighbor had helped me get my pickup back on the road after I slid off in deep snow last winter, and had helped me with a stuck tractor the winter before.

A neighbor called from a different direction last week.  This one had one of our heifers in his corral.  Our Red Angus yearling was obvious when he gathered his black pairs, and he had put her in the corral for us until we could come by with a trailer and haul her home. 

And  this neighbor was lamenting that he was short 25 pairs from his fall gather.  But he was confident that they were mixed in with the cattle of another neighbor, who would call him as soon as he gathered.

Neighboring covers lots of miles in Montana, where ranches are well scattered.  I spoke last night to another neighbor, whose husband suffered a subdural hematoma when his horse fell, and assured her that I would help with pregnancy testing.  And this evening we will attend a benefit supper and pie auction for a neighbor whose family was involved in a horrible automobile accident.

The radio commentator Paul Harvey had once explained that in most places the word “neighbor” was a no­un used to describe a person who lived nearby – but in the rural west it is a verb: as in “to neighbor”.  For as independent as a western rancher is seen to be, he knows that he can’t always do it alone, and that neighbors are essential to his survival.

Most people in the West don’t keep track of who owes a favor to whom.  And in fact, I’d much rather die having  a lot more favors done for neighbors than done by neighbors, because you never know when your turn will come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Shipping Day

Today was shipping day – the big paycheck for the year.

Ours is a cow/calf operation:  We run a herd of cows year-round, feed the dry cows through the winter, calve in the spring, and sell the calves in the fall.  From here they go to a feedlot in Iowa to be fattened for slaughter.

As I reported in my last post, our week began on Monday with gathering the herd from the summer range on top of the mountain.  On Tuesday we ran the herd into smaller lot from where we cut out the yearling heifers.  On Wednesday we cut out the replacement heifer pairs.

These cattle we cut out on Wednesday were the better half of the heifer calves, along with their mothers.  These heifers will be kept over and grown out to replace older cows as they leave the herd.  Since they won’t be shipped off the ranch, we cut them out of the herd early, and move them to a different field so we don’t have to deal with them on shipping day.

I ordered a truck for 10:00.  Ted and I – and of course the dogs - headed out ahorseback at 8:00 to gather the main herd from the 360-acre pasture and into the corrals.  The next task was to sort off the cows, leaving only the calves. 

 As useful as my dog is in gathering the cows, he is even more useful in the corral.  He stays close behind my horse as I cut off a group of cows, than comes out to take my cut on down the alley and out the gate, giving the cows some real incentive to keep moving, saving my horse and I a lot of steps.  When the truck arrives, Max works the outside of the chute, reaching through the slats to grab at the ribs of any calf that hesitates to go into the trailer.

The first truck takes the calves into the shipping corrals in Big Timber.  There they are sorted and weighed, inspected for brands and health, then loaded into long-haul trucks for the trip to Iowa.

The shipping corrals  in town are a beehive of activity during the fall.  At any given time there may be a dozen each of semis with their pot-bellied stock trailers, pickups with their goose-neck stock trailers, and various other vehicles transporting buyers, brand inspectors, veterinarians, and ranchers.  There may be 1000 calves being unloaded, sorted through the various pens and alleys, inspected, and reloaded for the trip to their new homes.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands on any given day.

The price for calves is up from last year’s $1.20 per pound to $1.35 and as much as $1.50 per pound.  But weights are light.  While grass quantity was good this year, quality was low are calves are down 10% from last year.  And we are still short some calves. 

There is evidence of wolf activity having scattered cattle all through our foothills.  We retrieved one yearling from a neighbor 5 miles away, and he reports being short 25 pairs yet.  We both hope that our missing cattle will turn up when another neighbor gathers the timbered ridges between us.

We still have cattle to work, and plenty of all fall projects to complete, but our year’s harvest is finished and the check is in the bank.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall Gather

The calves are set to ship Thursday, and we brought the cows down off the mountain this morning to begin shaping up the herd.  We have the next two days to gather the stragglers and to sort off the yearling heifers and the heifer calves we will save for herd replacements.

It was brisk this morning, but the ground was bare – there have been years when we accomplished this gather in a snowstorm.  In fact we’ve had a foot of snow in October each of the last two years.  Last year I plowed snow from the county road to the corrals twice before we got the calves out.

We wore chaps and necks-carves this morning, and not for decoration.  Our legs needed protection from the cold and from the brush, and those silk scarves make a big difference on a frosty morning.  The sun was shining, but the wind was biting.

It was really a quick ride – only a few hours.  The cows were all grazing out in the open, and they all threw up their heads and lined out when they saw the horses – they knew it was time to head for their winter home on the river bottom.  The lead cow was far ahead of us, and waiting impatiently for someone to open the gates toward home. We were all a little disappointed – the dogs, the riders, and the horses – that we didn’t really get an excuse to do serious cow-work.

It was still a steep climb up into the summer range, and we were grateful to hear the sound of the horseshoes that buffered our horse’s feet from the rocks.  Then that glorious view from the top of the mountain.  But the real fun will come in the sorting that is yet to be done.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Long Trot

When we vaccinated our calves a couple of weeks ago we came up short about a dozen.  That isn’t a big concern yet, as the neighbors will call us if they are mixed in with their cattle when they gather.  But we are shipping next week, and it will be better if we have all the calves on the truck.  So we elected to make the outside circle to see if we could find the missing cattle and throw them back into the bunch.

This would be a long ride, and we’d have some cutting to do when we found the strays, so we saddled our two toughest horses.  As usual, we left the barn at a long trot.

A trot isn’t the smoothest gait, but it eats up the miles without tiring a horse excessively.  Like a wolf or an elk, a horse can trot for hours.

In the first mile we had only to ride east across a hayfield and climb up onto the plateau of the field we call “the desert”.  (This field is so-named because my wife’s grandmother took up a “desert” claim on the land after her husband plowed in a ditch to bring in irrigation water.)

Leaving the desert we dropped steeply down into the aspens along the bottom of Sick'Em Creek, then began the long pull back up the east fork toward the pine ridge.  We made most of the second mile at a walk as it is steep and rocky, and we were dodging brush and limbs.  The horses were breathing hard and had up a good sweat when we hit the saddle of the ridge above Mendenhall Creek, but they stretched out into a trot toward the next gate with no urging.

Now we were heading into a neighbor's field, in country where we were not familiar.  We strategized as to how to cover it.  Ted would take the ridge-top and I would go on down the middle fork of Mendenhall Creek, hoping to meet up at the north end of our ranch.

The next couple of miles for me were pretty quick and easy.  The creek bottom was wide and open, and we trotted on until I hit the next cross fence, which we then followed back up until I hit our north fenceline again.

This was open country, but rough.  I didn’t see any gates out there in the neighbor's field which would allow me across, nor any smooth route, and I saw no cattle.  So we climbed back up onto the bench inside our fenceline and circled around to the gate in our far southwest corner and out onto Peterson Creek.

This was rough country too, and heavily timbered.  I found a logging road and followed it south, paralleling our west fenceline.  In two more miles I found a bunch of black cattle, with five red critters obviously out of place.

We’d already covered well over 8 miles, mostly at a long trot. But as soon as I turned Thunder into those cattle, he was up and ready.  We drove them up the swale towards our corrals at the top of the mountain.  Of course that took plenty of working back and forth to hold our cattle together and cut the neighbor’s back at every opportunity.

When we hit our fence corner I rode around the cattle and threw open the gate as they drifted away, then raced through the sage to get back around them.  After they were out the gate and back into our field,  I had to jump down and shut it, then race around them again to turn them into the corral.  And thus we made another mile, this time much of it at a run.

But one of these cows that I picked up was missing her calf.  I had turned back once already to look through those black cattle again, thinking the red cow could have a black calf.  But now I turned out the two-and-a-half pairs into our field with the rest of the cattle.

It was getting late in the afternoon – I was tired and my horse was slowing down – but we had a few more miles to go.  I actually had to rein thunder to turn back west up the fenceline away from home!

As  we rode along this fenceline I got some insight as to why these cattle were out.  In one place three of the wires were twisted together, leaving a large opening underneath.  Many of the clips were missing that hold the wire to the steel posts. 
And a wire was broken at the gate.

I had just rebuilt that fence the year before, with all new wire. It was obvious that cattle had hit this fence at a run.  Then I recalled a similar broken place that we had seen clear back at Sick'Em Creek.  It was now obvious that the cattle had been visited by a predator – probably a wolf.  It was then that I realized that we had only counted calves when we vaccinated and discovered the short count.  I had assumed that they and their mothers had simply escaped our fence.  Now arises the concern that maybe the calves have been eaten!

We’d only gone another half mile when I spotted a red calf.  Riding closer, I saw by his eartag that he belonged to the cow I had just put through the corral.  We circled around.

It would be nearly impossible to take that calf by himself, so I picked up the group he was with and started them toward the corral.  Thunder was not so eager as he had been when we left the house three hours before, but he kept the bunch together.  Back at the corner I threw open the gate, turned out my calf with a black pair from the neighbor’s, then cut the pair back and quickly shut the gate.  Then we raced across the sage to get around the calf and run him through the corral.

Out the other side of the corral we again broke into a run to turn the calf away from the fence and the sight of the cattle in the field from which we had just come.  Luckily the last bunch of cattle that I had brought through was just over the ridge at a salt barrel, and the calf was quickly reunited with his mother.  And thus we burned up another mile.

Again we headed out from the corral – westward and away from home.  For the first time today I actually had to squeeze Thunder into a trot.  But now I noticed that my dog Max was lagging behind.  While Thunder and I had put on at least 12 miles already, Max had done many more.  In the early stages of the ride he had run ahead and come back, and had been casting out to the sides.  His legs were an order of magnitude shorter than the Kentucky Colt, who is half Thoroughbred, making Max's footsteps on this circle 20 times that of the colt.

I called to Max and assured him we would stop and rest at the top of the next hill.  Those words were enough to reassure him, and he was soon back in his scout position ahead of my horse.

We made a circle at the top of the ridge, then turned and headed down the road and back to our west gate.  Once we were back on our home turf and headed toward the barn, Thunder really stretched out.  I’d like to have had a tape to measure the length of his stride as we trotted down the mountain!

I thought he had been getting tired, but I had to pull him back down a couple of times to keep him from breaking into a lope.  And I knew better than to relax.  Several times in the last couple of miles he feigned fear at the sight of an up-turned rock or clump of dirt and jumped sideways a few feet to see if I was paying attention.

Ted wasn’t far behind me.  I hadn’t seen him for several hours, as he’d been side-tracked cutting out some cattle in a different part of the pasture.  Following me in my outside circle he’d watched for my tracks to see what part of the country I’d ridden through, and then circled out to see a different part.

Like my horse, Ted’s mount had lost some of the fire with which he had begun the ride; and like my horse - even heaving for air and dripping with foam - his horse was ready to take on another cow.  But we’ve never run out of horse riding this pair.

And like me, Ted finished this ride at a long trot.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Settin' Posts

            Our ranch is not particularly big, but we have some 25 miles of fence to maintain, and some of it is a hundred years old.  
            Fixin’ fence is, of course, a regular job that knows no season.  But fall is the time when we attack those stretches that need to be rebuilt completely – either because the wire is completely rotten, or the posts.
            The most important component of any fence is the braces at each end that hold the wire stretched tight.  Through a combination of physics, trigonometry, and experimentation we have developed a brace that far exceeds the strength of those commonly used in the West, but that is the subject of another essay.
            There was a time when all the fence-posts were hand-set wood.  Then came steel posts which could be driven by hand with a simple pipe pounder.  By the late sixties, many fences were made of pointed wooden posts driven with a hydraulic tractor-mounted pounder.  The only really change in the last 50 years is that there have been some real improvements in the pounders, and the posts are now pressure-treated for longer life. 
          Wooden line posts are generally 4 inches in diameter and 6½ feet long.  Brace posts, however, are usually at least 6 inches in diameter and 8 feet long.  Driving these larger posts can be a real challenge – especially in the West Boulder.
          We do have a hydraulically driven auger mounted on the bucket of a loader tractor.  In the right conditions it can be a real labor-saver.  But if the rocks are any larger than your fist, you are back to a bar and a shovel.
          Another problem that is common is dry soil.  Our solution is - in the places where rocks don't preclude driving - to pound a steel post at the point we want a deep brace-post, and then set out a 5-gallon bucket of water to slowly drip down the hole created by the steel post.  It usually takes 10 gallons of water and a couple of days to soak deep enough to drive a brace-post a full 3 feet.
         Of course the water doesn’t guarantee that we won’t hit a rock – there are several posts in the pile whose tips have been mushroomed.  And then it’s either move the hole or go back to the shovel and bar.
          But in this age of mechanization it is the occasional hand-set post that helps maintain upper body strength and aerobic conditioning.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Working Calves

          Ours is termed a cow/calf operation:  We run the cows year-round, and they bear a new crop every spring.  These calves are run on the cow all summer, and are sold in the fall – usually going to feedlots in the Midwest.
            After running all summer under the Big Montana Sky in grass up to their bellies and a momma close at hand to provide a snort of milk whenever the calf is thirsty, he is rudely cut away from his mother and loaded into a truck with 100 other calves and hauled a thousand miles to a new home with thousands of other calves.  And he is ripe for disease.
            To minimize sickness, most ranchers now routinely immunize their calves 3 weeks before shipping.  We did that over the weekend.
            The day started with a 3-mile ride to the north end of the ranch, then a gather of 700 acres and a 2-mile trail back to the corrals on top of the mountain. 
It’s a scenic ride, and a person can see six mountain ranges from the top of the ridge.  We hit a long trot going out, then spread out to cover the whole pasture bringing the cattle back.  We had lunch at the corral, then began cutting out the cows.
         The sorting became a competition: first my son, Ted, and I; next my son-in-law Phil and his daughter; last came Phil’s brother and his daughter.  With a man afoot at the gate, two of us ahorseback would sort off a blast of either cows or calves – whatever was bunched on the outside of the herd – and push them up the alley.  The man afoot could swing the gate to turn the calves into the working alley, or turn the cows back out into the pasture.
          With the cows all out we set up the scale, filled the syringes, and began pushing calves up the chute.  The scale is electronic and takes only a couple of seconds to lock in on a weight, then the calves each got two vaccinations and they were out. 
          For Ted and I it was just another day of work.  But for Phil and Darrin – who each have cattle operations of their own – it was recreation.  Working our cattle was a chance to get up out of the Gallatin Valley and up on top of the world.  Of course they worked hard and did their best, but they were free from personal responsibility for the day, and eager to consume of the beer and whiskey which I so thoughtfully provided.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fall Maintenance

            With haying and irrigating behind us, we can now work on all those projects for which we don’t have the time during the rest of the year.  One project that finally hit the top of the priority list was re-staining the house. 

We got shingle oil on the roof a couple of years ago, but the deck and siding were desperate for some protection from the elements.  As with any painting job, preparation is the key.  We’ve spent a lot of time in the last week applying various solutions to accomplish whatever results were necessary in each particular area, and applying plenty of elbow grease with a scrub brush.  Then we sprayed on a fresh coat of stain.

The baler got a once-over before being put away for winter.  The accumulated dust and chaff were scraped and blown off, the chains were all oiled, and the rig was greased. The bale wagon got an oil change.

Irrigation has accomplished all it can for this year so we shut down the headgate at the river and opened the spill-gate to divert any water in the ditch back to the river.  We discovered a leak in the ditch, however, which we will need to address yet this fall. 

I would have liked to have made one pass with my newly-acquired big gun sprinkler, and finally had it running after numerous false starts.  But I found one more problem that required removing the gun from the carriage and taking it to someone with the capacity to weld on aluminum. I will have to drain everything soon, as frosty mornings are becoming more frequent.

One morning this week, in fact, was cold enough to leave a big circle of ice on the lawn where the sprinkler ran all night.  Yet we were sweating in the sun as we stained the deck, and it is forecast to be 85o tomorrow!

Does horseshoeing fall under maintenance?  It has to be done every couple months on the horses we are using.  This week it was Buddy’s turn.

It was plenty hot while I was shoeing him but it is that time of year, so I put snowball pads under the shoes.  I always build up the shoes at the toes and heels with hard-surface rod to give extra wear and traction.  The rubber rim pads keep snow from balling up under their feet – and it is sure to snow in the next two months that this set of shoes is on!