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”.