Thursday, March 31, 2016

Making Wages

            Calving is a time of vigilance in the northern country.  In addition to the normal perils involved with birthing, one must add the weather factor.  So during this time of the year the focus of the life of a ranch cowboy is on his cows.   

  • Read here for more background: Calving.

            Most cows calve unassisted, and lead their calves away to join the herd.  Days, and even weeks can go by without any trouble.  A guy can get careless after he has seen dozens of calves born without help.  But a cowboy must always be on the watch.  This week we made wages.

     I’d noticed a cow calving as I rode out to cut heavies. 

       In fact, she had a foot out.  It was snowing, so I diverted from my primary mission to put her in the shed before I rode ‘up west’ to cut heavies.  But when I returned an hour and a half later she hadn’t yet calved.
            The cow was now in the shed, so I no longer needed a horse to run her in.  After turning out my horse I filled a jug with warm soapy water and took the Gator down to check on her.

            Two feet were presenting, but pointing to the side.  In a correct presentation the two front feet have their soles pointing downward as if they were diving out of the womb.  I ran her into the headcatch, put on gloves and reached inside.

            By that time the soles of her feet were pointing upward – the calf was coming backwards!

            I quickly slipped the calving chains onto the feet and attached the calf-puller.  I must get the calf out quickly before it suffocated.

 how to use a calf puller

            But with the help of the puller, it was no time before the calf was out on the ground.  As soon as his mother was released from the headcatch she turned and began licking him off.

            Had I not seen this cow, she would have continued straining to expel the calf until she was exhausted.  The placenta would have detached from her uterus, the calf would have died, and eventually the cow herself would have succumbed to sepsis.

            My intervention had saved the calf, which will be worth $1000 this fall.  We made wages!

            Today we saved another calf: 

            We’d missed the cow when we cut heavies from the "outside" bunch a couple of days ago and she calved this morning in a hayfield up west.  We had fresh snow on top of mud, and the calf hadn’t gotten up to nurse.

            The calf was a mile and a half from the house, so Eric ran out with the Gator and a sled to bring him in.  Rather than following her calf in the sled, the cow took off in another direction.

            As I have mentioned several times, horses are becoming a thing of the past.  Many ranches – including most of my neighbors - use ATVs to handle their cattle.  But I still don’t know how they do it.  We went back down with horses.

            It didn’t take long to spot the errant cow.  We picked up a few more with her, and brought the little bunch into the shed.

            When we returned to the calf who was now in the shed, I thought he was dead.  But it was warmer in the shed, with soft straw to lie on. 

            We ran the cow into the headcatch and milked her out into a nipple bottle.  It took only seconds before the calf responded to the warm fluid in his mouth, and he sucked the bottle dry.  It won’t be long now until he is up and sucking on his own.

            Had we left him out in the field he’d have been dead by morning; but we saved another one.  That paid a cowboys wages for another two weeks!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cuttin’ Heavies

            We made our first cut of heavies from the cows today.  It was a brisk morning – 22o – and the cows were bunched up in the brush before the feed truck arrived.

            Most ranchers in the north country calve in what is loosely called “spring”, which takes in everything from January through April.  The bulls are turned in with the cows for a breeding season of about two months, at a time in the early summer that is calculated to be nine months before the period that the rancher chooses for “calving”.  I choose mid-March until early May for calving

            Most ranchers in the north then bring the cows up close to home and confine them in a smaller field near the calving shed where they can be watched for any trouble during calving, and put in the shed at night and when the weather is bad.  Most of those calving fields are cluttered with cows – and with the by-product of cows: manure and mud.  I do things differently than most ranchers.

            I have observed over the years that consolidating cattle leads to trouble of various kinds: trouble seeing who is calving, trouble with cows that are confused as to whose calf is theirs, trouble with disease, and trouble caused by the stress of confinement and having humans constantly stirring around in the middle of things. 
      Being a lazy fellow, I try not to cause trouble for myself.  My answer to all that trouble is to have only a minimum of cattle bunched near the house, thereby minimizing the accumulation of manure, minimizing the stress of confinement, and minimizing the stress to the cattle of constant stirring by humans. 

            My 'heavy' cattle are all in a field that is entirely visible from the kitchen window.  There are few enough cattle in the field that there are still empty corners where a cow can calve away from the herd, and I can monitor their behavior with binoculars without ever having to be among them.

            I make a cut every five days or so to bring in only the cows that are near to calving, and sort out the new pairs every few days – thereby having only 20% of the herd in the calving field at any given time.

            The first step, then, is cutting in the heavies.  We feed the “outside” cows - which are “up west” in a big hayfield - near a gate closer to home.  As the cows eat, we ride up and down the row cutting out whichever among them are showing to be near to calving, and pushing them through the gate and on to some hay we have spread on the other side.

            (This ‘heavy-ness’ is determined by observing the loosening of their external genitalia, and the tightening of their udder as it begins to fill with milk.)

            The horses know the game.  We guide them in picking out the cow we want, then mostly stay out of their way as they do the work of turning and spinning to push the cow away from the herd and out the gate to join the ‘cut’ on the other side. 

            Perhaps this sounds like work to you, but it is play for us and for our horses.  And this play only lasts for an hour, done once every five days or so.  There is no question in my mind that an hour spent playing ahorseback saves me two hours spent working at dealing with the consequences of confining too many cows in too small a space so that they can be “micro-managed”.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Off the Grid

            “Off The Grid” is another one of those romantic notions that city folk have.  To those of us in the country, “the grid” is a lifeline.
            Here at the ranch our water is supplied by gravity from a spring up the coulee and we have an endless supply of firewood.  Meat is just out the front door.  A generator is ready for the infrequent times the power is off.  But I depend on the internet.
            Rather than a trip to town and a long slog through several stores to find what I want, I have purchased mitts, hayhooks, tractor parts, and tires on-line.  It’s much easier to shop for books at the comfort of my desk – I can buy new, used, even out-of-print books with a mouse-click.
            But this morning I am really frustrated!  The satellite internet service is down.

            I had intended to send a book off to be reviewed, but I can’t log on to to print the postage.  I need to make my monthly federal tax deposit which I do on the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System website.  I can’t check the weather, and of course I can’t post my whining until I have internet access again.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Back in the Saddle Again

          I’ve been gone a lot this winter.  There is always something that needs to be done, but things slow down when the weather gets cold.  It takes only a couple of hours to feed, and there are days when it just isn’t worth fighting the weather to accomplish anything else. 
            With Eric & Jen living here, it is me that finds something else to do in the winter.  Last year I was the interim administrator at a nursing home in Shelby; the year before I had a consulting job at the Indian Health Service hospital in Crow Agency;  this year I was building racks for some 5,000 tuxes at our warehouse in Idaho Falls.

            Eric had given me a call early in the week to say there were a couple of first calf heifers ready to pop.  I assured him that no, it would be another two weeks before they began to calve.  He said “Sorry Boss, one already calved”.  Eric was worried, and he brought in all the heifers from across the river so that they were near to the house and the calving shed. 

            I got home from Idaho last night, and today I saddled a horse for the first time this spring.  Sure enough there were two new calves, but they had white faces – sired by the neighbor’s bull that crawled through the fence!

            We put those new pairs into a field by themselves and gathered all the heifers into the “bridge trap” to sort.  They were supposed to begin calving March 15, and I cut out four heavies that probably will calve about then.  These we put into the calving field and turned the rest back out across the river.

            While we were out and about we brought in two other cows that needed attention: one had lost a pair of premature twins a couple of weeks ago, and still hadn’t “cleaned” of the placenta (or “after-birth”).  The other had a swollen bag with some discharge.  We put these two into the squeeze-chute.

            I donned a long obstetrical glove to remove the rotting placenta, then inserted some thumb-sized antibiotic boluses into her uterus.  We also gave her a big blast of subcutaneous antibiotic.

            The second cow was still a ways from calving, but had mastitis.  We gave her some oral antibiotic boluses, as well as the subcutaneous.

            The horses had been turned out all winter, but spring is coming.  We’ll have reason to ride at least several times a week from now until summer.  It’s my favorite time of the year!