Thursday, January 5, 2012

Return Address

It’s been incredibly warm for a Montana winter – in the 40s all week, and into the 50s today.  The ground is usually frozen a couple of feet deep by now, but one of my neighbors up the Shields River was actually farming yesterday!

I had some horse-work to be done, and two of my horses needed to have their shoes pulled.  There couldn’t be a better day for it, so I ran the horses in.

Our horses – like the cows – are out in pasture, and haven’t needed any feed this winter.  To get them in we use the four-wheeler and a dog.  Both the horses and the dog know the game. 

Part of that game is for the dog to chase the mule and the mule to chase the dog, and part of the game is for the horses to make a break for it so that we have to gun the engines to turn them back.  They won’t admit it, but the horses look forward to both the game of being caught, and to getting out and working cattle.

The first task was pulling the overgrown shoes off the Kentucky Colt.  Most years I keep him shod with “sharp” shoes and snowball pads all winter.  But there isn’t much snow this winter, I don’t anticipate much need to ride him, and I now have the buckskin mare – who is shorter and quieter and easier to mount for an old man with a lot of clothes.  I may throw a set of sharp shoes on her when it snows again, so that I am not plumb afoot.

I had seen four extra cows in our herd on Monday.  They were obvious because our herd is all Red Angus, and these four were black – and also because three of those black cows were up on the hillside away from our cows.  I saddled the Kentucky Colt to gather those strays.

It’s a mile to the first gate, and from there I could see all four of those black cows – and they could see me.  As soon as I rode in to the field those cows headed west.  

I’d gotten used to having my son Ted as my wing-man.  I wasn’t sure just how I was going to cut these cattle out by myself.  But by the time I caught up with them at our west fence, our cattle were heading back east.  The black cows rather sorted themselves, and it didn’t take much riding to hold them up near the gate.

There were only two of our cows left in the bunch when I put them through into the neighbor’s field, and it was easy enough to cut those two back.  The four strays lined out west.  At the next fence the cows held up in the corner while I threw open the gate, then continued on west until we came to the neighbor’s corral.

We have a few black cows in our herd, and until I had these in the corral I hadn’t been close enough to see anything but their eartags.  I had recognized the cows that are ours, and left them back in our field.  The only black cattle nearby had been grazing in this field to the west, and I assumed these strays belonged with them.  When I finally had them in the corral I was able to read their brand: a reverse D with an E connected on the right shoulder.  When the cows were in the corral I texted the rancher who had black cattle on this place all summer, and gave him the brand.  I was halfway home when I received a text in reply, which said these cattle weren’t his.

It took a phone call to the brand office in Helena to determine the owner of these cattle:  they belong to a neighbor who borders our summer range over north.  And because these cattle were marked with a return address, they will soon be back home.

Some people think a hot-iron brand is cruel.  But it takes only three seconds to apply it.  I suspect that it takes much more time and pain for a tattoo.  And I know that my dog would suffer more stress from the trip to the vet to get a “chip” implanted.

Were these cows to be found by a “rustler” and hauled into an auction-yard for sale, the rustler would have wasted his time.  Because these cows have the return address of their owner, and the check would have been delivered to him – no matter who it was that hauled them to the stock-yard.

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