Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Horse Training

I had traded for a green six-year-old mare, and I led her from the horse trailer directly into the corral for her first lesson.

The mare had been handled enough to be gentle, but the first challenge was in picking up her feet.  She resisted, and pulled away several times before I went into the barn for a hobble.  When I finally got the foot up I quickly buckled the strap on her fetlock and around her upper leg – when she pulled away it did her no good, as the strap kept her from setting her foot down.

She fought the strap for awhile before giving up.  Then I took it off and moved to the other side where I repeated the procedure.  When she understood that I meant to keep her feet when I picked them up, I moved to the hind feet.  The lesson had taken – she didn’t challenge me anymore.

Then I moved on to the next step: tying her head to her leg.  Picking up a front leg, I quickly took a wrap with the lead rope and tied it off.  When I set the foot down it pulled her head down.  When she jerked her head up it lifted her leg!  It took a few tries at that before she understood that if she gave her head to the pull she could stand with no pressure on her head or her leg.

A horse can only absorb a couple of lessons with each session so I turned her loose after some twenty minutes of work.  It will take a few days to gain confidence that I will not hurt her.

I repeated those two lessons the next day, and by the third day it was time to throw on a saddle.  I soon as I pulled up the cinch she exploded, laying back on the lead rope until she fell over on her side in the mud.

I gave her a little sympathy, patting her all over and putting my weight on her up-turned side.  But she wasn’t learning anything by lying there, so I gave her a slap to get her back on her feet.

Again she reared back, and again she fell on her side.  Five more times I got her up, and five more times she quickly tipped over into the mud.  And now I understood why the fellow had been so eager to trade her off.  His trainer had told him about the show she had put on when he first saddled her, and apparently it was enough to scare them both.

One more time I got her up, and this time she just stood there quietly.  She’d been running free for six years, and wasn’t interested in being bound by leather straps and cinchas.  But she’ll soon learn that ranchwork is fun, and she’ll be the first one in the bunch to put her head in a halter, eager to get to work.

Monday, November 28, 2011


I was born to be a horsetrader.  I learned it from my grandfather, and therefore it must be in my genes. 
Yesterday I accomplished another horse-trade, when I swapped two older well-broke mares for a younger green mare.  Each of these mares had been my primary horse for a few years during their prime, and both had outlived their usefulness here on the ranch.  Neither could tolerate the long miles and the rough country necessary for working cows in this location.  There was an upcoming horsewoman who needed their experience and training to develop confidence and skill in horsemanship.
Not every horse was a joy to own and ride, but it’s usually sad when you pass on a horse that was once Number  One in your string.  It is with melancholy that you remember the places you have been and the cattle you have brought in – together.  It’s much easier to focus on the weaknesses of that particular horse – and there are always weaknesses.
Every horse – and every person – has strengths and weaknesses.  One of these mares always had her ears forward and was ready to cover the country; the other was a wonderful cutting horse – always compliant to the cues from her rider.  But the traveling horse was clumsy, and the cutting horse couldn’t travel – which is one of the reasons a cowboy needs more than one horse.
So we’ll mourn over the passing of some horses that have been, and focus now on a horse that will be – and such is the nature of the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The summer’s green grass is past and winter’s a-coming.  The cows are out grazing on a good stockpile of mature grasses which provide their roughage needs, as long as the mild weather holds out.  But there is some question as to whether those dry grasses satisfy their protein and energy needs.
There have been years when we had begun feeding hay already, and it is simple enough to measure the feed value of the hay.  I have a coring drill to extract hay samples which are sent for nutritive analysis, but that doesn’t work on grasses standing in the field.  One can’t be sure which of the grasses the cows are eating, nor the quantity.  So I have used a fecal analysis to determine if their nutritive needs are being met.
The quality of our grasses this year is lower than usual – demonstrated by our lower calf weaning weights.  The theory is that the extreme moisture we received in June caused a more rapid growth, leaving the grasses taller, courser, and less palatable.  I began researching supplements.
In the past we have fed “cake” when a supplement seemed beneficial.  This is a grain-based pellet about the size of your thumb.  We poured from the back of a moving pickup in a long line from sacks, and the cows came a-running to lick their share up from the ground.  But this year the price was higher on cake, and I wanted to begin supplementing earlier in the fall.  I settled on a product called Nutralix.
This is a molasses-based syrup fed in tubs.  It provides extra energy and protein, as well as minerals.  Its consumption is limited by the addition of salt to the formulation.  The product is manufactured in Billings – 110 miles east of the ranch – which is the center for a sugar beet-growing area.

Protein is generally more expensive than energy – think meat as opposed to potatoes.  But the rumen of a cow is able to convert “Non Protein Nitrogen” into protein.  “Urea” is added to the syrup to provide this nitrogen source.
One of the components of urine is urea – which is a waste product from the breakdown of protein.  The rumen bacteria of a cow are able to take this waste product and turn it back into protein!
In fact, that is the main value of cattle: they can take what are essentially waste products – grass, corn stalks, etc. – into meat.  The largest component of their rations – roughage – does not compete with human needs for food and fuel, but rather converts the sunlight used in photosynthesis directly into high quality food!
For a while longer anyway, the cows are out grazing with minimal attention.  Maybe now I can dig down through the accumulation on my desk to find the soothing wood beneath.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fencing in the Snow

We had a long and glorious fall.  It’s been colder, however, this last week, and we’ve gotten a little snow.
I have a tractor in the shed for work on the steering.  Some new bushings had come in for the “knee” in the front axle, and I installed them Monday morning.  But I discovered that one of the “thrust washers” had broken, so I can’t put the tractor back together until those parts come in.
We had set the brace-posts and pounded three lines of posts while the weather was good, using the first wire for a guide.  I won’t really need this fence until calving time, so I can work on it at my leisure - and this week is leisure.  So I worked on that fence some, installing brace poles and stretching up wires on one of the fences.
Yesterday began rather chilly – 22o – with a few inches of dry snow.  After working on the fence for a couple of hours I set out after the horses to corral the cull cows.  My gooseneck stock trailer holds nine cows, and I loaded up the open and late cows I had cut out last week for the trip to town.
Billings, 110 miles to the east, is a regional market center.  The open cows will sell on Thursday to go to a hamburger plant, and the late-calving cows will be held over for the stock cow sale on Friday.
I went from snow at the ranch to bare and dry down-country at Big Timber.  And it was almost warm at Billings.  But the road was icy coming back up the Main Boulder highway in the evening.  It was so slick that I could spin all four tires if I applied too much fuel, and I slid right past the West Boulder turn-off.  Off the highway on the gravel of the West Boulder road, however, I had plenty of traction.
The brand rules are strict in Montana, and one cannot cross a county line without an inspection on cattle, horses, and sheep.  Because I was going to a stockyard with a brand inspector, I qualified for a “transportation permit” which I picked up at the courthouse in Big Timber.  That was turned over at the stockyard to complete a chain of ownership documentation.  So far as I know, cattle rustling is not much of a problem in Montana.
The weatherman is calling for serious snow by the end of the week.  I’ll keep you informed.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Last Sort

We had worked the yearlings a several weeks ago, and this week we worked the cows and the heifer calves.  We identified some open cows – cows that were not bred – and some cows that would be calving later than the main herd.
These opens and lates were marked with a one-inch wide grease crayon and cut out of the herd before we turned the rest of the cows back out to fall pasture.  Today I got the cull bunch in for a final sort.
The open cows will go to the sale next week, and I cut out enough of the late cows to make a trailer load.  The balance of the late calvers I threw in with the heifer calves and trailed across to join the yearling heifers.  After the culls go to town next week there will be just two bunches on the ranch: the heifer bunch – calves and yearlings – and the cow bunch.  The two bunches will each graze in separate pastures, and be fed separately through the winter.
With all the gathering and sorting done, our horse-work is mostly finished until spring.  I pulled the shoes off Buddy today, and will pull Thunder soon.  The horses will be down on the hayfields for the winter, and the rocks will be covered with snow.
But there is the occasional need for a horse through the winter, and I will keep the buckskin shod with “sharp” shoes and pads.  These shoes will have four cleats - one at each heel and two at the toe – and rim pads to prevent snowballs building up under them.  Traction is now the concern, rather than protection of the hoof.
This was also the day that I returned the bucket of tire chains to the back of the pickup along with the scoop shovel.  It isn’t often that I need them, but there are four chains in this bucket – one for each tire.  (The tow-strap stays in the pickup year-round.)  Those tire chains will remain in the pickup for the next six months.
And I dug out the tub of extra clothes.  This tub contains a pair of felt-lined boots, a pair of insulated bib overalls, a wool coat and cap, and a pair of insulated gloves.  As with the chains, it isn’t often that they are needed.  But the chance of having trouble multiplies as the temperature drops, and a person is foolish to be unprepared – especially traveling the back roads of Montana.
I put the garden hoses, the siphon tubes, and the irrigation dams in the barn loft.  The irrigation ditches are shut off.  The propane tanks are full and there is a stack of firewood.
This fall has been wonderfully warm and dry - the last two years we’ve had snow and sub-zero weather already.  One never knows in this country!
But there’s nothing more I can do.  Let ‘er rip!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Working Cattle

This was the last round of working cattle for this year.  We set out ahorseback at daylight to first gather the cows off their fall pasture, then the replacement heifer calves off the hayfield.
We hadn’t seen the heifer calves in the morning yesterday, and were afraid they’d gotten through a bad stretch of fence up west.  There was a bull in that next field, and I don’t want these heifers bred until next June, so I sent Ted after a horse.  When he found them there were a cow and a calf nearby. 
These were the last stragglers from the summer range, and they were a little wild.  So I saddled a horse, also, to corral them.  They were on a steep side-hill, and it took a lot more time than it should have.
We then headed up west, counting calves as we went through the hayfield – we were indeed ten head short.  We made a big circle through the next field without seeing the heifers, but did find that more bulls had crossed the river from the fall pasture.  We gathered them up and ran them into the corral with the cow and calf we had brought in earlier.
We hadn’t found the heifer calves, and assumed they had crossed the river to join the cows.  But when we brought in the cows this morning, there were no calves among them. So when the cows were in the lot, I sent Ted after what calves were still in the hayfield while I ran up onto the bench above the hayfield to look for the strays.
We’d already put on a few miles gathering the cows, and now I put on a couple more miles up onto the bench and back around the rimrocks – but still nothing.
I got back in time to help Ted corral the calves he had gathered, then went to the house to set up the tools, medications, and beverages for working the cattle.  In the meantime Ted rode on up to check the aspens above the barn.
He still hadn’t found them, so he went on to the top of the ridge and followed a trail just below the rimrocks which took him around and above the winter pasture up west.  There he finally found the stray calves, and arrived at the corrals just as the veterinarian pulled in.  He’d made about twelve miles in some rough country in the last 3 hours!
First we ran the calves through the chute to give them vaccinations, brucellosis tattoo, insecticide pour, and EID button: an electronic tag that can be scanned from a distance.  Then we ran the cows through for vaccinations, pour, and pregnancy testing.

We haven’t had significant cold or snow yet this year, so the cows will be on their own out in pasture for a while longer.  But we’ll still be keeping shoes on a couple of horses: winter shoes over rim pads to keep their feet from balling up with snow.

Friday, November 4, 2011


We got in a truck-load of straw this week.  “Hay” is cut green, and may be alfalfa, grass, or grain.  “Straw” is the mature (yellow) grain-stalks, after the grain-heads have been cut off  by the combine.
While hay may have protein up to 20% and Total Digestible Nutrients of 50% and more, straw is not nearly as good a feed – when the weather is good.  But when the temperature drops below zero that straw becomes a wonderful source of energy!
Cattle in Montana range out year-around – that means 100o above , or 30o  below.  At temperatures below freezing, the cattle depend on the heat of digestion to keep themselves warm – and that’s where straw comes in.
In early pregnancy a cow may only need 7% protein to maintain body weight with a small fetus developing inside her.  The native grasses – even after they have gone dormant – provide enough protein and energy while the weather is moderate.  As long as the grass is available through the snow, it will meet the cow’s maintenance requirements.  But it takes a lot more feed to keep her warm when the temperature drops.  Eating straw supplies that additional energy at  about half the price of hay.
In the winter, the ground is frozen in Montana.  When a cow lies down, that frozen ground pulls out a lot more energy.  But if she is lying on straw, her energy requirements are 30% less.  So I like to give the cows all they can eat when it is cold, plus enough to bed on.

This straw came by semi-truck, with a 40-foot semi-trailer and a 36-foot “pup” trailer – 76 feet in all.  It was in “mid-size” square bales of 3’x3’x8’, weighing 600 pounds apiece - 84 of them.
With this load of straw in the stackyard I can finally relax, knowing that I have enough feed for my cows – no matter when winter sets in and how long it lasts.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


There were a dozen or so cattle in the weaning lot: a couple of acres with a good, tight fence adjoining our corrals down along the river.  These were an assorted bunch of cattle from hither and yon that we had been feeding hay for a few days until their destiny was decided.
There was a bull who had crawled a fence to escape the pasture with the other bulls; there were a couple of pairs which the neighbor had cut out from his cattle; there was a crippled cow with a bad bag; there were a half dozen yearling heifers that had been cut out from their bunch as their pregnancy was in question.  I didn’t want to waste any more hay or labor on this handful, and the weekly sale was the next day in Billings.  We went down to the corrals to deal with them.
These cattle were in a small lot where we could corral them easily enough with the help of our dogs, so there wasn’t any good reason to run horses in from pasture.  We loaded up vaccine, syringes, and insecticide pour into the pickup and headed down.  Most people do their corral sorting afoot, and so would we.
The corrals aren’t all that big – maybe 100 feet square.  But we were accustomed to doing our sorting ahorseback, and we weren’t quick enough to cut off what we wanted while we were afoot – so we ran them down the sorting alley.
Hundreds of thousands of cattle are sorted afoot every year in such an alley, but our cattle were bunched too tight. and we were too slow – one or two got past us.  So we had to pen the ones we had sorted, then bring back in the ones that got away.  We had worked all the rest of the cattle ahorseback the week before - and hadn’t missed a one – but this time we had to take the dogs out and corral the bunch again.
I commented to Ted somewhere along the line that we were expending way to much effort on such a small bunch – and he didn’t protest.
I had already decided to sell the bull and the old cow, so the object of the sort was to cut the two calves into the sale bunch and run the yearling heifers through the chute for a conformational palpation.  We ended up vaccinating and pouring four of the heifers to keep, which left six head to go to town and six head to be put out to pasture.
I would load the sale cattle in the stock trailer for the trip to town, Ted would  put the rest out into their respective bunches on the ranch: two were cows to go out with the main herd in the Clayton field, four were heifers to go with the rest of their group in a hayfield over east.  As I laid this out to Ted, he quickly realized that it would require a horse to put out both groups.
Why didn’t we just get in the horses in the first place? Ted asked; and I had no coherent response.