Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In Memoriam

(WRONG: MEMORIUM. RIGHT: MEMORIAM. The correct spelling of the Latin phrase is “in memoriam.”

Many folks look forward to the Memorial Day weekend to escape the city and get out into the fresh air where they can enjoy camping and barbecue.  Not so for Montana ranchers. We are usually in the midst of farming and irrigating, and can’t afford the time away from the ranch.  But weather that has been slightly worse than “usual” allowed me a couple of days down country.

The past week at the ranch has been a bit frustrating.  Our priority continues to be completing the farming, but recurring showers have postponed that work indefinitely.  I did get the oats seeded in the new breaking up west, and some rocks picked.  And we did get the big leak in the north ditch sealed up.  I didn’t get to run the packer across the new seeding, however, and we didn’t get anything done more done than discing the field below the house that we still have to level and seed.

We had started irrigating in our two best hayfields despite the showers - which were only enough to shut down field work but not enough to nourish a good hay crop.  By Friday there was snow, and it became just too miserable to be dipping ones hands in the irrigation ditch to change siphon tubes, so we shut the water down for a few days. 

The wet weather at last gave us the opportunity to tear into the pickup we have been using for feeding for the last couple of years.  It had been displaying symptoms of both excessive carbon deposits in the heads, and of a blown head gasket.  So Ted began the task of removing the cylinder heads.  After hours of labor, however, he gave up in disgust.  Even in this old 1985 pickup there were so many tubes, hoses, and wires that he became overwhelmed.
With my encouragement he began anew, slowly disconnecting one tube after another, pitching redundant pieces out onto the ground. After another half day of work, he was able to dig down to the engine itself and remove the manifolds and heads.  We’ll begin reassembly another day.


I bought a new tool for the ranch this spring: a used “side-by-side” ATV that combines the characteristics of the four-wheelers that are now ubiquitous in ranch country with two seats and a box similar to a miniature pickup.  
As we had assumed when we bought the outfit, we use it all day every day for every job on the ranch: checking cattle, feeding small groups of animals, putting out salt, fencing, irrigating, transportation to the farming equipment….
But after two short months it has already fallen victim to West Boulder rocks.  We were checking for poison weeds in an upper field and caught a wheel on a rock buried in the grass.  We limped home with it, where we did our diagnostics: a hammered steering rack & pinion.  Parts are on order.

A newcomer to the area had expressed surprise at the kind of nasty weather we were experiencing this late in May.  That prompted me to visit my blog archives.  Posted for Memorial Day last year was a picture of a snow-level just above the ranch headquarters – just as there was this year!
The main difference is that we had a heavier snowpack last year, so we hadn’t yet been irrigating.  And in fact we didn’t irrigate until July last year, but rather spent most of time between rainstorms in June hauling rocks and dirt to fill gashes in the road left by a torrent of snowmelt. (See  Deluge & Hauling Rocks)

We have water in our ditches again now, and are midway through irrigating our two best hay fields – working on equipment in the shop between sets.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reset the Clock

This is our busiest time of year – everything needs to be done at once, and every day that we delay in accomplishing each job will cost us in the end.

We have farming to do:
There are fields that need to be worked and seeded.  The earlier that we get the seed into the ground, the better crop we will get.  And the plants need to get their roots down while there is still good spring moisture near the surface, so that when the hot days come they are able to reach down further in the soil as that moisture recedes.

We have irrigating to do:
It’s been a dry winter and spring.  We want to fill the soil moisture profile in the hayfields before the plants get taller and demand more moisture to keep growing.  If those plants run out of moisture, they will go dormant and quit growing – resulting in a diminished hay crop.
But before we can start irrigating we had to repair the leak in the north ditch with several dumptruck loads of dirt, and replace several sections of gated pipe that shattered during the sub-zero temps.

We have fencing to do:
We had to repair the border fence in the first field into which we turned out cows.  We’ll rotate rapidly through all the pastures – once a week through June – so need to repair all the damage from wind, snow, and elk, to 25 miles of fence before we turn cattle in.

We have weeds to spray:
The hound’s tongue and thistle are coming on quickly in the field in which we held the pairs for the last month.  Of necessity, it gets over-grazed for that period when the grass is just starting to grow, but before it is ready to graze. 
In years past we have spent a lot of time controlling the poison larkspur that had been a problem in the upper pastures.  That has allowed us to get off the river bottoms and up on the mountain earlier in the summer, and ending overgrazing down below. 
But weed control is a never-ending task:  If you ever back off, the weeds will get ahead of you, and it will take years more to catch up.

For awhile the weather was warm and dry, and we were hurrying to accomplish as many of those tasks as possible.  This week the weather is cool and wet.  That puts a kink in accomplishing most of the above projects.
But at the same time, that cool, wet weather slows down the need to get them done. 

The fields aren’t drying out, and the weeds aren’t growing so fast. And thus our desperate need to beat the clock with farming, irrigating, and spraying.  Our clock is stopped for the duration of the rain,
               and it resets again when the sun comes out.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Branding 2012

The weather was looking good, and the calves were getting big.  I decided to brand on Saturday May 12.

The first two calls I made were to my son-out-law Phil, and his brother Darin.  These two are top-notch stockmen, and I had depended on their help for years.  We three had made the basis for a Ranch Rodeo team at Wilsall for some 7 years running, and had taken 2nd place in 2008 among 40 of the best hands in the ranch country of Park County.  They were clear, so I made a number of other calls to round out the crew.

I figured that we would need three ropers, a brander, two vaccinators, and six wrestlers.  Phil, Darin, and I could swap off roping/branding, but we would need at least one more good hand to alternate with us.  And it’s always better to have one experienced cattleman to spare for coaching wrestlers and handle contingencies.

In big ranch country there are plenty of neighbors with whom to trade help.  But most of our neighbors now are “gentleman” ranchers, and the rest have quit roping and gone to using a calf table to brand.  I was depending on friends from down-country for help.

Several of the stockmen I called had other commitments, and I was starting to get a little worried about crew.  I had my son Ted for sure, his buddy Shane, my neighbor Brian, and my Nephew Todd.  Along with Phil and Darin and their kids we could get by, but it might be more like work than we would like.

Ted had some friends from Bozeman, however, and they chose that weekend to celebrate Ted’s birthday with a camp-out along the river.  Most of them would be of marginal value, but there were a couple that might be good help.  I scored two other cowmen to help, and we were in business.

Gathering the cows from the pasture is an easy task, but a real adventure for some folks, and there is always too much help for that part.  Robert asked if the cows would cross the bridge alright, and I said “yes – if no one crowds them”.

I was still setting up equipment in the corral when the cows hit the bridge.  I heard more hollering than was useful, and soon saw cattle and horses running across the field the wrong way.  Someone must have crowded them!

I mounted my horse and crossed the bridge while the cows were scattering and joined the effort to gather them again.  I was told that one of the town dogs had been on the bridge when they tried to cross the first time, but that he was now tied safely to a post.

On the second go at the bridge it was a bull that held things up.  He stopped on the bridge and turned back at the herd, bellowing his belligerence.  I pushed through the herd and took the bull into the corral – it wasn’t long before the cows were coming across the bridge.

The cows don’t associate corrals with anything nice, and it took some pushing to get them through the gate.  Then we began sorting the cows away from their calves and pushing them down the alley and up the chute to receive their annual vaccinations for a couple of reproductive diseases, a couple of respiratory diseases, and a couple of intestinal diseases.

By noon we had the cows all worked, and were ready to quench our thirst at the beer keg and have some lunch.  Kathi brought sandwiches down to the corral, and we ate under a clear blue sky.

My grandson Toby and his cousin Justin wanted to do the vaccinating, so I designated their older sisters to monitor.  When the irons were hot I sent in three ropers.

Soon the calves were coming out as fast as I could brand them.  I didn’t have time to look around to appraise the wrestling, but I did notice that Darin’s son Cody and Ted’s girlfriend Julia were doing an excellent job.  My granddaughter Taylor handled her share, as well as some of the Bozeman crowd.  Soon a fourth roper went in.

Each of the ropers was attempting to snare both hind feet.  Unless one foot kicked out of the loop, a single wrestler could hold the front of the calf, with the roper still dallied to the hind feet.

After an hour one of the ropers came out and took over the branding so I could rope.  Again I was so busy I didn’t have time to look around, and the next hour went quickly.  Two hours after we began branding, the last calf was drug to the fire.

The whole event had gone very smoothly, and it was a delightful day - a fun time for everyone. The calves were soon back with their mothers and headed back out to pasture - and we were finished for another year.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

“April showers
May Flowers”


 I did see a dandelion, but I haven’t seen many flowers blooming in Montana in May.  In fact, this morning brought one more snowstorm.

We’re still trying to get a hayfield worked up and seeded – the operative word being trying.  The last week has been cool weather with numerous showers.  That doesn’t promote the growth of grass, and it mostly keeps us out of the field.  We did get some tractor-work done yesterday, but it wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

Our goal is to uproot the old grasses which are no longer productive, and create a good seed-bed for a new crop.  If the dirt is too damp it remains in a clump on the roots, rather than crumbling away and leaving the roots exposed.  It also makes the implement pull harder, so we can’t work the soil as deep.

The tool we are using at this point is the “duck-foot sweep”.  Each of these duck-foot shovels is a foot wide, and the shanks are a foot apart.  

Mounted on the back is a set of spring-tooth harrows.  The sweeps under-cut the sod and tip it up; the harrows break up the clumps and roll the grasses up to the top where they wither and die.

The grass is turning green, but it is a ways from providing feed for the cows – thus we are still feeding every day.  The cows are getting pretty finicky, and leave the courser stems after picking through for the more tender alfalfa leaves.  They soon spread out to crop off whatever new growth they can find in the grass, but they come bawling at the sound of the tractor, as they are still hungry.

We’d like to be farming, but there is plenty of other work to be done.  We got the irrigation pump in this week did some work on it – relocating the primer pump, adding a new priming valve, and building a support bracket for the new, heavier valve.  We pulled apart the gated pipe in one of the hayfields and replaced two 30-foot sections that had shattered last winter.  We got the last of the pairs turned out, and we did a little more cleaning in the old house.  And there always seems to be desk-work that needs to be done.

The forecast for next week is sunny and warmer.  We’ll see….