Tuesday was shipping day – the big paycheck for the year.
Ours is a cow/calf operation: We run a herd of cows year-round, feed the dry cows through the winter, calve in the spring, and sell the calves in the fall. From here they go to a feedlot in Iowa to be fattened for slaughter.
The shipping process began several weeks ago when we gathered the cattle from summer range into the corrals at the top of the mountain to pre-vaccinate the calves for a collection of respiratory diseases lumped into the nebulous phrase "shipping fever". The next step, three weeks later, was to again gather the herd from the summer range on top of the mountain and trail them down into the fields along the river. On Monday we ran the herd into smaller lot from where we cut out the replacement heifer pairs.
These cattle we cut out on Monday were the better half of the heifer calves, along with their mothers. These heifers will be kept over and grown out to replace older cows as they leave the herd. Since they won’t be shipped off the ranch, we cut them out of the herd early, and move them to a different field so we don’t have to deal with them on shipping day.
I ordered a truck for 10:00. Ted and I – and of course the dogs - headed out ahorseback at 8:00 to gather the main herd from the 360-acre pasture and into the corrals. The next task was to sort off the cows, leaving only the calves.
As useful as my dog is in gathering the cows, he is even more useful in the corral. He stays close behind my horse as I sort off a group of cows, then comes out to take my cut on down the alley and out the gate - giving the cows some real incentive to keep moving, and saving my horse and I a lot of steps. When the truck arrives, Max works the outside of the chute, reaching through the slats to grab at the ribs of any calf that hesitates to go into the trailer.
The first truck takes the calves into the shipping corrals in Big Timber. There they are sorted and weighed, inspected for brands and health, then loaded into long-haul trucks for the trip to Iowa.
The shipping corrals in town are a beehive of activity during the fall. At any given time there may be a dozen each of semis with their pot-bellied stock trailers, pickups with their goose-neck stock trailers, and various other vehicles transporting buyers, brand inspectors, veterinarians, and ranchers. There may be 1000 calves being unloaded, sorted through the various pens and alleys, inspected, and reloaded for the trip to their new homes. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands on any given day.
The price for calves is up from last year’s $1.35 per pound to $1.46 per pound. And weights are up this year by 25# per head from last year. It was the driest summer for years, but while grass quantity was poor, quality was much better than last year.
And wolf activity was not apparent in the cows this fall as there was last fall. (We did lose a cow to bears, however.)
With shipping and weaning just behind us there is music in the air: 25 heifer calves in the corrals are still bawling for their mothers, and a bunch of despondent cows out in the pasture are bawling for the calves that were taken away in the truck. But in a couple more days the silence will return to the West Boulder - except for the occasional gunshot from elk and deer hunters.