Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bull Sale

Bull Sale

There is a bull sale today that I would really like to have attended, but we are in the height of calving and have more work to be done that can be accomplished in a day.  So I sit in the house in front of the computer participating by means of the internet.

This sale is in what I consider to be my neighborhood – only 80 miles away – and I know personally all the folks involved - including the auctioneer, and the Cattlewomen who provided pies for the on-site lunch.  I have a shirttail relation who lives near the seller, and he looked the bulls over and gave me his evaluation.

The auction is “cried” in-person on the grounds by an iconic fast-talking auctioneer to a crowd in the stands, although with frequent interruptions to take bids by phone.  Internet bids are apparently visible immediately to the auctioneer, who often shouts “internet in”. 

My computer shows the bull walking around in a pen, visible alternately from every each different angle, as well as a screen showing his pedigree and his “EPDs”.  There is a red button for me to click that enters my bid real time, as well as a chat screen.

I have already studied the sale catalogue, selecting the bulls that meet my genetic goals based on their Estimated Progeny Difference data.  These EPDs are statistical projections based on the actual performance of each individual bull, together with that of all of his ancestors and siblings.  Some ranchers are looking for a bull that will throw the biggest calves.  I, however, am looking for genetics to make better cows.

There were 120 bulls in this sale, and I had picked out a dozen that I would bid on – the first one of my pick brought $17,000, and the second one – the one I would like most to have purchased – brought $6000.  He went back to a bull breeder, and I don’t think I could have outbid him even if I thought the bull was worth it to my program.  So I’ve been writing on this blog as the auction progresses in the background, between the bulls in which I am interested.

And now I’ve bought one!  The EPDs on Lot #28 show the genetics for the maternal characteristics that I am after.  Here is the commentary from the catalogue on this bull:

His dam is a powerful Barney daughter that always raises a good one.  The ‘Impressive’ (paternal line) calves show calving ease, moderate frame and good performance.  His EPDs show this as well, along with very good scan data. (Data includes ultra-sound scans for rib-eye area, intra-muscular fat, and back-fat.)  He is smaller framed with loads of depth, meat and muscle.

My winning bid on this bull was $3250.  Calculating the value of these bulls is hard.  If each of his calves was worth $50 more than a cheaper bull, that would be 20 calves per year for four years – which would be a $4000 payback.  But how can you measure the increased value of each of the calves?  The higher-priced bulls are going to purebred outfits who will sell their calves as higher-priced breeding stock, rather than the meat animals that we are raising.

And so my bull is bought and I must now get back to my cows that are throwing calves fast and furious.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pairing Them Out

Calving is a busy time of the year as - you might surmise from my dearth of recent postings.  I don’t do night duty, but I do check the cows at first light and last light and there is feeding and plenty else to fill in between.

As I explained in my last posting, we leave the main herd in outlying fields, and make a weekly cut into the calving field of the cows that are showing to be closest to calving.  That minimizes the clutter of cows and manure in the calving field which is much smaller, and within full view of the kitchen window.

As the cows calve, we ear-tag the calves, and work the new cow/calf pairs out the gate and into an adjoining field.  As that field fills up we cut the older pairs out the gate and back into a larger outside field where they have plenty of room with only scattered mud and manure.  The calves are much healthier back out where they  scattered some on fresh clean sod.

That near pair field was getting pretty cluttered, so today we paired a bunch out across the river.  The first step was to hold them up in the “trap” next to the corrals.  This lot is about the size of a residential lot in town and is just the right size for a number of horseback sorting jobs.  Cattle can be cut into the corrals from the trap, or turned out to pasture across the bridge.

The first step is to gather all the cattle from the field.  That’s always a challenge with young calves.  They haven’t all learned yet to move away from horses and stick with mom.  And the new mothers can be quite protective, often challenging horses and dogs.  After the cattle are in the trap-lot, we can begin the pairing process.

Allowing the cows to line out and drift toward the open gate, we can see if they have their calves with them, and turn back any that aren’t paired up.  We absolutely want each of the cows to go out together with their calves so we know that there are no orphans and no mix-ups.  It also give us the chance to look at each individual calve to see that they are ready to go out into the wide world.

Today we had two major impediments: one was a poor calf that kept hanging in the way near the gate, and the other was a cow that was just plain mean.

Every time we got near that ornery old rip of a cow she would charge.  Her calf kept hanging up in the fence corner, and there was no way to get close enough to push it out the gate.  I certainly needed a bullwhip!!

I usually keep my dog back from these cows with young calves, as I do want them to be reasonably protective.  But I finally had enough, and sent Max in.  He went around and around with her, and it took most of a half an hour to finally work that pair out of our way so we could get on with the sorting.

There were a handful of pairs that we left back, as they weren’t healthy and traveling.  These we turned back into the near field to mature for another week before we send them out to the world.

And I wrote down the number of that fighting cow.  She will get a one-way ride to town this fall.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cuttin' Heavies

The first calves started coming the end of last week – calving has begun.  The weather has been very nice, so the newborn calves don’t really need shelter, but you never know when a cow will need help, or when a storm will blow in.  A son and a nephew were at the ranch for the weekend so I took advantage of their help to sort off the first round of heavies.

Most Montana ranchers bring their cattle up closer to headquarters to calve, and most have a calving shed.  But it’s hard to spot the cows that are calving among a big herd, a large bunch of cattle soon make a lot of mud and manure in a small calving lot, and the stress of confinement multiplies the normal troubles of calving.  So I cut in only the ones that are showing signs of calving in the next week, and turn the rest back out into bigger fields.

With the help of the boys I trailed the cows in a mile and a half from where they had wintered up west, then spread a line of hay near a gate, and went to cutting.  As the cows ate, I rode up and down the line analyzing their udders and pushing out the gate the ones close to calving.

It’s the first time I’ve been on my “Kentucky Colt” in a couple of months.  He was a little slow to get started, but he soon figured out the game.  As soon as I showed him which cow, he took over to take her to the gate.  As long as the cow was moving in the right direction we gave her plenty of room.  But if she tried to break away, he showed no mercy - to her, or to me.  The sod was soft and muddy, and several of the cows slipped and slid trying to get past the horse. 

The Colt was soon cutting hard, and it worried me a little. I’ve had horses go down with me enough times already, and my bones are getting older and a little more brittle.  But the “Colt” – who is now eleven years old – was born and raised on the West Boulder, and he is incredibly sure-footed.

When the cows got tired of me and the horse stirring around among them we moved on to the heifer bunch.  These we didn’t even try to work just on the magnetism of the hay.  Instead we cornered them against the river and held them up with the three riders while we worked through them and cut out the heavies.  This bunch is a lot smaller than the cow bunch, and half the heifers are yearlings, so it didn’t take as long to look them all over.

Sitting on a horse really isn’t sitting.  We began the day at a long trot making the outside circle to gather all the cows, and it takes a lot of leg-work to ride that choppy gait.  Then my horse was starting, stopping, jumping, and spinning to keep the cut headed in the right direction.  By the end of the day we were all pretty tired, and that glass of Wild Turkey tasted pretty good.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

First Calf

Our first calf came down to the feedground with his mother today.  He was bucking and jumping, happy to be free after being cooped up inside for nine months.  In spite of having seen many thousands of new calves, this calf brought a smile to my face.

This one was likely born early yesterday.  His mother would have hidden him away – probably in that field of tall wildrye - until he was old enough to travel.  It was only ten above when he was born, but he obviously had a good mother.  She would have licked him off thoroughly, and given him encouraging words until he found her udder.  With a dry coat and a belly full of milk he could stand the cold.

But it appears that the cold weather has passed again.  It warmed up to 48o today, and the forecast is for moderate temperatures for the next week

I still had some last-minute tasks to accomplish before calving gets serious.  The first was to remove the hay mower from the calving shed where it was stored for the winter.  The chains had been on the tires of the little John Deere loader tractor, and they will tear up the ground as it thaws, so I pulled them off before I ran down to the shed.  But this tractor didn’t have enough traction in the little bit of soft snow.  I had to go back and get a bigger tractor.  Then I brought up a fresh bale of straw to bed up the shed.

I’d been watching the cows, judging how close they were to calving, and had guessed that the first calf would come tomorrow.  My son will be here for the weekend, and we’ll start sorting heavies to put in the calving field. 

The cows are up west, two miles from the shed.  They are not much of a concern – especially in this weather.  But you never know when a cow or calf will need help, and you never know for sure when the weather will turn bad again.  A wolf can get into them wherever they are, but a guy feels a little better if those new calves are closer to the house.

The heifers are a mile down east, and I for sure want them here near the shed.  These girls are just two years old and bearing their first calves.  They haven’t attained their full growth yet, and are more likely to need assistance.  Having never been responsible for a calf before, they are less likely to be as attentive as an older cow.  It pays to watch them more closely.

This first calf signals that calving season has officially begun.  For most of the year the cattle are pretty much on their own, but for the next two months our focus will be on watching these cattle for any signs of problems, and doing whatever we can to assure that this year’s calf crop gets off to a good start.

I looked over the heifers when I fed them this morning, and again at noon and just before dark.  Now I’ll be checking them again first thing in the morning.  This will be the pattern for all the rest of March and April.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Our lovely spring-like weather was rudely interrupted by another storm.  The temperature was 42o at 6:00 in the morning, and rapidly dropped as the snowfall began.  I was back to my insulated coveralls and pacs.

Visibility was down to ¼ mile by the time I got out to feed.  I expected the cows to have drifted with the storm until they reached the shelter of the brush along the river, so I drove down the edge of the hayfield looking for them.

The first round brought out only a small portion of the cows, and I threw them some hay.  Then I went looking for the rest.  On the second circle of the field I spotted the main herd emerging from the storm.

It is in this is the kind of weather that I utilize my patch of Basin Wildrye.  The tall, course stems protect the cattle – and the hay – from the wind.

It was a fine day for paying bills and making phone calls.  In mid-afternoon, however, I had an appointment in the field up west to receive another load of “lick” - http://mellinniumcowboy.blogspot.com/2011/11/lick.html

The hay that I am feeding to the cows is of disappointing quality.  We’d had some equipment problems last summer that had made us late to cut this field, and even later to bale it.  The hay was course and bleached by the sun.  It was good enough for winter feed, but lacks the necessary nutrition for this late in the cows’ gestation.  This liquid supplement will give them added protein and energy.

By late afternoon the snow had passed, but colder temps were forecast for overnight so I put out some straw.  The cows will nose through that and eat some of it for extra energy to weather the cold, then they will bed down on the rest for insulation from the cold.

This morning dawned bright and clear – and 12o above.  The forecast is for much warmer tomorrow.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Leather Boots

It’s been in the thirties and forties with a stiff wind for the last several days, and the snow is mostly gone.  I was able to wear leather boots yesterday for the first time in months!  What a pleasant break from the pacs I wear most of the winter.

These leather top, rubber-footed boots have a ½” felt liner, and are the only thing that will keep my feet warm.  They aren’t as clunky as they look, weighing only three pounds each.  But that does add up – especially when you are dragging them through the snow.

And I wore nylon chaps to do my feeding, rather than the heavy insulated bib overalls – that’s even more weight off.  But of course there will be many more days before summer when those pacs and bibs will be necessary.

The days are also getting substantially longer!  During the dark of winter there are only eight hours of daylight – even less if it is storming.  But now there is a definite glow in the east at 6AM, and there remains a glow in the west at 7 PM – that makes every day four hours longer!

Many ranches in Montana calve in January, and most begin in February.  But I hold off until March when the days are longer and warmer and the nights much shorter.  My calves aren’t so big as some of my neighbors, but I don’t have so much invested in feeding them.  As our ranch is proportionately shorter on hayground than many, we are more conservative in feeding it - and thus the nutritive requirements of our cows must be more closely aligned with the natural cycles of the available forage.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tater Soup

I’m not really a big fan of soup – but I recognize its value in making a quick, cheap, nutritious meal from leftovers.  Last week I told of making soup from a leftover turkey carcass - http://mellinniumcowboy.blogspot.com/2012/02/turkey-soup.html.  This week I had some chunks leftover from a spiral-cut ham.

It didn’t take long to cube a few potatoes and throw them in a pot.  (I buy red potatoes and leave the skin on – as the skin has most of the nutrition, and I am lazy.)  Then I sliced some onions and added them to the pan.  I had diced the ham when I cut it off the bone – of course saving the bone for bean soup. 

While the taters were cooking I put some butter in a small frying pan and melted it, then added flour enough to soak up all the butter.  When the spuds were done I poured their cooking water into the roux, added enough canned milk to give the sauce the appropriate consistency, and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Adding the sauce back to the potatoes, I now had a thick, hearty, and tasty soup - for pennies.