Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ahhh... Spring....

One of several significant events in a cowboy’s year is the day every spring when the feeding ends and the cows are turned out to grass.  Most years in Montana that day arrives late in May – but it seems to be coming early this year.

The early part of this week was unseasonably warm, and I actually got several days of farming done.  We finished harrowing the hayfields and two passes tearing up an old hayfield.  We had the last calf for the year, and turned out most of the remaining pairs into the bigger “outside” bunch. 

The temperature got up to 80o this week, and the grass was beginning to grow – not enough however to sustain either the cows or the health of the grass.  The cows are getting pretty particular about the quality of hay we feed them.  They are as tired of eating hay as we are of feeding it, and they walk away from what is too course to suit them.

One never knows, however, what the course of the weather will be.  After a week of fine grass-growing weather another storm blew in.

If it warms next week, we could turn the cows out to grass early this year.  If it turns cold again we’ll be feeding for awhile.  Farming is on hold for a few days at least, until the field dries off a bit.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Blue Jeans

We went to a funeral this week for the matriarch of a neighboring rural family.  Although she lived in the country, this woman had once been the county treasurer – and thus the mix of attendees was slightly different than it might have been had she spent all of her days on the ranch. 

For some reason, I was paying attention on this occasion to the apparel of the arrivals to the chapel.  Most of people were dressed neatly, yet only a few suits and ties.  The ranchers, however, stood out.  Each of them was wearing a new pair of blue jeans and carrying a hat.

These cattlemen were all dressed in their best shirt, and most had on a wool vest.  They were, of course, wearing clean boots as well.  There were a few who wore western cut sport coats – as were all the pallbearers.

I, myself, was dressed a little better than the common cowboy.  Rather than blue jeans I wore tan Wranglers with a complementary brown wool vest.  My brown leather belt matched my brown sharkskin boots, as well as the wallet I received for Christmas.

One fellow of particular interest to me was my neighbor Jeff.  He had been closing a gate behind his tractor as we went by, a mile away from his headquarters.  He was wearing his normal threadbare brown duck outerwear, and I was surprised that he wouldn’t be attending this funeral. 

But he showed up only minutes behind us in all his town finery.  He had obviously been wearing new jeans and vest under his bib overalls, and had removed one layer when his wife showed up with the pickup.  In fact, the tractor was still sitting by the gate when we returned home.

As I said, the ranchers were all carrying their hats – and that presented a bit of a problem.  There were several men that I didn’t immediately recognize bare-headed.  Their hat is as much a part of them as their coat – and when they take off the hat and reveal a bald head, it’s a bit of a surprise.

I laugh and shake my head whenever I see faded, worn, and ripped jeans around town.  I have a few pairs like that myself, but would never wear them in public – I save them for days when I am working on equipment that will leave them dirty and greasy.  These jeans of mine earned their wear and tear honestly, but I change out of them and take a shower when I am finished with an oily task.  Those folks in town never wear anything out, and I wonder what motivates them to pretend they do.

As with most country folk, my choice in clothing is pragmatic rather than a fashion statement.  I wear most of my clothes a couple of years for “good” before they are relegated to ‘work’.

It is the same concept as my chaffing at mowing the lawn:  If I’m going to water it and cut it, I want to bale it and feed it to the cows. 

Doing things just for appearances doesn’t make much sense to me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rain, Rain, Another Day

Rain, Rain, go away.
Come again some other day.

            This morning brings mixed rain and snow with a temp in the mid-thirties – not ideal conditions to be outside in the weather.  But I still don’t wish it away.

            The falling snow is melting down here along the river, but sticking a few hundred feet higher.

            Cold, dry snow is not much of an issue as a person doesn’t get wet.  But this stuff soaks a guy up pretty quickly, and wet clothes don’t insulate.   For my morning feed I donned leather chaps, wool vest, rain slicker, rubber-footed boots, and rubberized knit gloves.  I had a load of hay on the pickup for the big bunch of pairs, and I gave them what they could clean up in one sitting, then loaded up for an afternoon feed.  

            I normally feed the heavies late in the afternoon, as eating in the evening encourages them to calve during the day.  But they bawled so piteously that I relented and gave them half a feed this morning also.  Most of my gear hadn’t soaked through by the time I finished - only my hands were cold.

            This wet weather is a bother, but I don’t begrudge it.  Those of you who follow this blog will note that it has been sporadic for awhile as I have been busy with calving.  And I had been a little worried that we might not have enough moisture for a good hay and grass crop this summer.

            But at the same time I have been anxious about getting some spring plowing done.  Hayfields must be renovated every ten years or so to maintain maximum production.  There had been a long period before I took over management of this ranch since the hayfields had been re-seeded, and it has taken me awhile to catch up.  I hope to get to the last fields this year.  Wet weather has been keeping me from getting the farming done – but it also improves the production all over the ranch.

            Feeding has become more challenging this year.  My initial calculations had forecast that I would have just the right amount of hay on hand from what we put up last summer.  But some stacks had been lighter than I expected, and some of the hay had been of lower quality than we needed.  By February I figured that we needed another 50 tons to get through May.

            Most years we have to feed through most of May before the grass is ready to turn out the cows -  - although I have turned out as early as May 1st.  So I ordered another two semi-loads of hay.  With the way the weather has been since I ordered the hay, however, we won’t even use up the hay we have! 
            I do have one stackyard, yet, full of top quality alfalfa hay that the cows clean up, and I want to time that to feed for the last two weeks before we turn out.  But when will we turn out?

            If the weather stays as warm as it was last week, the grass will be beckoning two weeks hence.  But if it stays cold and wet as this week, we’ll be feeding well into May.  Do I feed this last stack now, or save it?  When will the last two weeks be?
            In the meantime I’ll use this weather to my advantage, catching up on my blog, and working through the accumulation on my desk – searching for that soothing glimpse of the wood underneath.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

April Showers

It was raining this morning, and I hate working in the rain!  The grass is just turning green, however, and there is not enough growth for the cows to get more than a taste.  So I had to do my morning feed in chaps and a slicker.

The rain also interrupts my farming tasks for a few more days.  It had just dried out enough to begin plowing, after the snow of last weekend.  Of course the benefit is that with more moisture in the ground, the rewards for farming will be better worth the costs in time and fuel.

I’m glad of the rain, even if I hate it.  The winter was open, with no snow accumulation at the ranch.  Spring seems to be coming on sooner than usual.  It reminds of another year – 1985, I believe – when it was so dry that I never shut off my sprinklers from April until second cutting in August, and still never got enough water on to make a good hay crop.  But they say that the mountain snowpack is running 85-100% of average so far this year. 

Last year we got major precipitation in late May and all through June.   It was enough to cause major damage around our area:  
In fact, we didn’t even start to irrigate until after the first cutting was in the stack.

Yesterday afternoon it was dry enough to harrow a couple of hayfields.  This style of harrow is chain-blanket with spikes projecting out the bottom.  It scatters the accumulations of hay and manure where we have been feeding all winter, to keep the grass from being smothered.  

It isn’t too tough a duty for awhile, circling the fields at a pretty good clip.  A guest to the ranch a couple of years ago really looked forward to harrowing for a few afternoons!  I’m really itching to get some plowing done however, and would have preferred to be doing that.  But the harrowing has to be done before the hay gets growing.

One task that I accomplished on this rainy day was repair of the furnace.  It had quit ten days ago, and I found that the main blower squirrel-cage had come apart.  I ordered a new part, and it was delivered on Tuesday.  It took a couple of hours of cussing and running back up to the shop for different tools to get it installed, then I found another problem – a broken switch.

Kathi was already headed for Billings, and a replacement was available there.  So I installed that this morning after getting the feeding done, and we again have central heat.  Had I called a furnace repairman, he’d have charged $75/hour plus mileage – for all of the trip up to the ranch and back to town again.  And he’d have charged that all again for the second, and then third trip.  That would have added up to $500 – and he’d have  charged me double for the parts!

We got by for those ten days with auxiliary electric baseboards and a fireplace.  Many people look romantically back to the “good ol’ days”....  
Of course the old house – built in 1918 – had wood heat.  The men were excited in later years when they were able to rig up a buzz-saw to a tractor rather than sawing the firewood by hand.  And I’m sure the family was even more pleased whenever they could afford to buy coal.  Now we can simply turn up the thermostat and enjoy constant heat – the only discomfort being the occasional check to the propane