Thursday, December 13, 2012


The thermometer dropped to zero a few days ago, signaling the beginning of the winter feeding season.

One never knows when feeding will begin in Montana.  I’ve started as early as the first of November, and as late as the first of February.  One way I can judge whether the cows need more energy than they can get from the available grass is to look at the stock tanks in their winter pasture.  If the tanks stay free of ice and there isn’t too much snow, the cows are fine.

On Sunday there was an inch and a quarter of ice – the cows needed hay!

We’d been a little slow getting ready for winter.  The chains weren’t on the 2640, and the snow-blower wasn’t yet mounted; the 2030 still had the backhoe attached; there was firewood in the back of the little red Chevy;  and we didn’t have the engine all back together on the feed pickup.  So we had to get busy.
There were other problems to take care of also, however:  The city sewer had backed up at the rental house in town and the four-wheel-drive tractor had a crankshaft issue.  So we’ve been feeding hay with my good Dodge pickup as we prepared the other outfits for winter work.

The last snow was only some 5", but of course it drifted some.  I took out the snow-blower this  morning to blow through some of those drifts before we get the next storm.

Hay is short all over the west this year.  I had paid $85/ton for some hay in April, and would be lucky to find any for twice that price now.  We covered our flood-irrigated hay four times this year – as opposed to only once last year – so got a good crop there.  But our dryland hay was only a fraction of normal, leaving us a little short.  We carried some hay over from the previous winter, and haven’t hit the haystacks too bad so far.  We could get a hard winter yet, but the forecast is moderate for another week.  Maybe we’ll get by…

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Horse Poor

The phrase “Horse Poor” describes the condition of having more horses than you can ride, and more horses than you can feed.  Such describes the Ellison Ranch today.  But it was only a month ago we were Almost Afoot .

It all started right after branding when Buddy came up lame.  Buddy has been Ted’s top mount for several years now, and our top cutting horse.  But it appeared that his age had caught up with him, and he was “stove up” for most of the summer.

Then the buckskin mare was lame for a couple of weeks.  And finally the Kentucky Colt came in with a bad wire cut across one of his heels.  These were our three broke horses, and all of them were down for awhile.  When it was time for fall work, we had only the buckskin to ride between the two of us.

We got through with some borrowed horses, but it was a strain.  It takes lots of riding to make a cowhorse, and no one with a good cowhorse will loan him out. 

I let Ted take the Kentucky Colt to move cows one day while I rode a borrowed horse, and was sick with jealous envy to watch the pair of them glide out across the sage to turn a bunch-quitter, while I was plodding along on a “good, solid” trailhorse. 

Riding this horse helped me to understand why so many modern ranchers use 4-wheelers.  If I had to ride a horse like this to work cattle every time, I’d ride an ATV myself.  A good horse can spin on his hocks and change directions instantly; he can cross creeks and gullies, and navigate rocks and brush, he can sidle up to a gate to open it from horseback, and he can rope a recalcitrant critter.  But this horse handled as clumsily as a 4-wheeler, without the acceleration when the going was open!

It was late in the fall when Ted got away to attend a horse sale.  He came home with three horses that we considered to be green-broke.  One was such a sow that we hauled her back to the next sale.  The second was a red roan that would need some riding to make an average kind of horse.  But the third one was a good, big, solid, buckskin that had a nice rein, and real promise as a ranch horse.  We started riding him at every opportunity.

There is only so much you can teach a horse in a corral.  To make a good cowhorse takes a lot of time with cows.  We already had the bulk of the cow-work behind us for the year, with the next real opportunities awaiting us next spring during calving.  So we could only use this new horse for gathering cattle, and not for the real cow-work of sorting and cutting.

By the time we had finished our fall work, Buddy, The Colt, and the Buckskin Mare had all healed up.  And we still had the red roan, the new Copper Buckskin, and a mule running with the bunch.  As I said in my last post – “ninety-nine percent of the time a guy has too many horses, and the other one percent he doesn’t have enough”.  We are now in that 99% of the time with too many horses.

Over the next few months we may need horses only once a week.  We now have four horses between the two of us.  If they all stay sound, that equals only one ride apiece every two weeks.  We need to keep riding Buddy to keep him in shape, so we don’t have a repeat of last year.  But we also need to keep that Copper going at every opportunity. 

At twelve years old, the Kentucky Colt is at the top of his game.  We can save him for times when we need a top-notch cowhorse, and ride the others the rest of the time.  But the handle of even a well-broke horse declines within weeks if he isn’t ridden, so we can’t neglect him for too long.

So, we continue our strategy of one of us riding a greener horse, and the other on a well-broke horse.  We use the greener horses whenever the job at hand allows it, and use a solid older broke horse when we need some serious cow savvy. 

On a bigger ranch there is more riding to do, and more opportunity to both train, and to hone the response of a few good horses.  We do the best we can on a smaller place – but at least we haven’t abandoned our horses altogether.

We aren’t like my friend Pol who confessed:
            “First you buy a four-wheeler to do the irrigating, then you figure out how good it will work to run in the horses.”
             “Then one day you realize that you could be there and back on the four-wheeler in less time than it would take to get your horse in and saddle it.  That’s the beginning of the end.”
            “And then when you really need a horse, he’s so fat and out of tune that you can’t get the job done any way.  Then it’s all over”.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Almost Afoot

            The first hint of trouble had come in May - the day after branding: Buddy was very lame.

            We were all stiff and sore and moving slowly after the work of branding, but this special horse was painful to watch as he bobbed his head trying to take the weight off his sore legs.  He was eighteen years old this year – middle aged for a horse.  We hadn’t used him enough that spring to really toughen him up, and Ted had good reason to work him hard that day.  But we felt sick inside to see this great horse in such sad shape.

            Buddy was a little horse.  No, he wasn’t little – just short.  No, not short – just built close to the ground.  He was thick, he was solid; and he was determined. 

            I’d first bought him as a kids horse for a “gentleman rancher”.  He impressed me with his eagerness, willingness, drive, and personality the first time I rode him - that’s why I named him Buddy.  But he bucked off the girl I had bought him for, so I took him up to the West Boulder.
            His stature officially qualified him as a “pony”.  But height doesn’t measure heart.  Buddy had a wide, deep girth – which contained a tremendous set of lungs, and a heart.  It was almost as if he had set out to prove the world wrong about whether he was a kid’s pony or a “by God”            HORSE. 
 My Kentucky Colt is on the left, and Buddy on the right.

            And he did prove himself over the next several years as both a cutting horse and as a cover-the-country working cowhorse.  He came to be Ted’s main mount.
            A couple of years back - when I bought the Buckskin Mare from my son-in-law - Ted and I swapped off – alternating between one of us riding our top horse and the other riding the Buckskin.  That way the Buckskin got plenty of riding, while the other of us was mounted on a well-broke horse – to get the job done no matter what.
            She had turned out to be a good solid horse, with longer legs than Buddy.  We liked her, and had ridden her regularly.  We’d been neglecting Buddy some, and he hadn’t been used enough to be in top shape.  Now when we needed him, Buddy was aging – and a little soft.  We had used him too hard too soon, and he’d lamed up on us.

            It took a couple of months for him to heal up – and even then he wasn’t back to 100%.  Every time we had cattle-work to do he walked right up and put his head into the halter – but we were afraid to take him over north on a long ride, for fear he’d lame up again.  I had the Kentucky Colt, and Ted had the Buckskin Mare.  We didn’t need Buddy.

            But then the “Kentucky Colt” came up lame.  He’d apparently got a foot hung in some barb-wire somewhere, and cut deeply into a heel.  He’d been my #1 horse for some 5 years, and now he was down.  Buddy was still on the disabled list also.  We had fall work to do, and only one horse between us.

            And a cowboy ain’t a cowboy when he’s afoot. 

            The first big job we had that fall was working the calves.  We had to ride to the far north end of the ranch to gather the cows into the corrals on top of the mountain where we cut off the cows and gave the calves their first round of shots in preparation for shipping.
            Ted was in the same shape as our two best horses:  he was still recovering from his impalement on the balewagon.  But Ben and Darin came up to help, as well as Sasha.  Ted drove the pickup to the top of the mountain and trailered Buddy.  Both of them could stand a little riding, and they would be a help in the sorting. 
            I rode the buckskin for that affair.  She was a fine horse for the gathering, but still hadn’t made a sure ‘nough sorting horse.  She did well for me, though, as we took each sort from Darin and Ben, and turned the calves into the catch-pen or the cows out the gate.

            When the time came to bring the cows down off the mountain, Ted was able to borrow a horse for the trip.  He didn’t need a good horse for that job.
            A week later we had a few strays to gather.  Ted took the Buckskin one way and I rode the borrowed horse the other.  Again, it doesn’t take much horse to gather or trail cows.
            And Ben was there on his horse to help gather the cows and sort off the replacement heifer pairs.  I rode along on a four-wheeler to open the gates while Ben and Ted handled the cattle.
            But I needed a real horse to sort off those heifer pairs, and Buddy was traveling good again.  I saddled him up.
            It was a short afternoon’s work to cut off 25 pairs – and Buddy did his share!  Of course he’d have done the job if he was missing one leg – but he was having fun and didn’t seem to be hurting.
            The next day we shipped calves.  It was a short gather from the field across from the shipping corrals.  Ben helped Ted with the gather.
            The main job was to sort off the cows from the calves, and my two sons did most of the work.  I used Buddy only to turn the cut coming from them – either a group of cows or a group of calves – out the appropriate gate.  He handled the job well, and we finished the job a half hour before the semi arrived.
            A few hours later he was up to going after an old cow that was destined for the auction.  In fact, when she blew past both horses he put me up for a throw and he handled the rope until we got her into the corral.  But the next day he acted just plain tired when we did the last bit of sorting.
            Ninety-nine percent of the time a rancher has too many horses.  The other one percent he doesn’t have enough.
            One horse is enough for a modern cowboy – most of the time.  But no one horse can do everything well: covering the country, pasture sorting, roping, corral sorting.  It is best to have a couple of different horses for different jobs.
            And every horse gets over-used or goes lame sometime in his life.  As Harry Yeager told me years ago: “You can’t keep camping on the same horse.  You never know when you’ll need another horse.  You always have to keep another horse hard.”

            The following weekend, Ted went to a horse auction where he bought three new horses.  Because:
            A cowboy ain’t a cowboy when he’s afoot. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Working Cows

We worked cows yesterday – another major event for the year.

It began on Tuesday afternoon with gathering them all to the weaning lot for an overnight stand without feed.  In the morning we corralled them and began running them up the chute to the squeeze, where we pregnancy-tested, vaccinated, poured, bled, and tagged them.

Pregnancy testing is done by rectal palpation.  Although I have done that myself in the past, this year we used the veterinarian.  He donned a long plastic sleeve to accomplish the task of inserting his arm in the rectum and feeling the uterus through the rectal wall. ( For those of you who are interested, there is a YouTube of that too:           

His next action was to bleed each animal.  Because there is a disease called brucellosis that is common among the elk and bison in Yellowstone Park, we must bleed our entire herd every third year and send the sample off to a lab to check for the disease in our cattle.  That entails taking a 2cc sample from each animal – drawn from a vein in the underside of the tail.

Each of those blood samples is keyed into a handheld computer, along with the herd tag number, a small metal tag, and an Electronic Identification Device button, which are all affixed to the ears.

Along with that are the administration of an anti-parasitic – poured along the pack – and a vaccination for Leptospirosis Pomona  - another reproductive disease.

This contraption is called a squeeze. The front closes on the neck; there is a tailgate behind; and the sides close in to immobilize the animal while we perform all the various operations.

Note that my side is a bit dirty.  I had been helping load the chute, and was kicked by one cow and knocked down in the “mud” by another.

Most of the work of pushing cows up into the chute is done ahorseback by my son Ted.  But the cows were more resistant than usual on this day, and I went in afoot to help him a couple of times.

 Here I am applying the EID button.

Today we were ahorseback all morning sorting all the cattle in different directions:  First we sorted off the cows that had not conceived – the “drys” – and put them in the corral.  Next we sorted off the yearling heifers, to throw in a hayfield with the heifer calves that we had kept for replacements.  Then we cut out a group of 11 and 12 year-old cows that were getting too old to keep on a mountain ranch.  These will be sold at auction next week as “short term” cows, to someone who has better feed and flatter country on which to run them next summer.  The balance of the cows are the main herd, which went back out to pasture.

And thus finishes up the cow work for this year.