Sunday, April 1, 2018

Grand and Glorious Life

The cowboy life is a Grand and Glorious life for sure: ahorseback in the foothills of the Absaroka mountains of Montana.  Or so it seemed the other day.

            The last Friday of March found me at the first branding of the year at the ranch of my old partner, Darin.  He raises purebred Angus bulls, and calves in January – so must get them branded before they get too big. 

            It was the typical old-style branding: a bunch of neighbors, horses, and aspiring cowboys.  The cattle were corralled, the cows sorted out the gate, and several ropers began heeling out the calves to the fire. (Read more about branding in my post Branding 2012.)

            The day was windy but reasonably warm, and we were pleased to get the job accomplished in the respite between bouts of foul weather.  None of us foresaw what the morrow would bring.

            By morning there was a good 8” of snow, and the downfall continued for most of the day – to make over 10”.

            A calf can stand an incredible amount of cold – IF he has been licked off by his mother, and he gets a full belly of milk.  But there were three calves born in the early morning that had been overcome by the cold.  Eric threw a couple of them in the back of the side-by-side ATV, and I went out on the four-wheeler to gather horses.

            The “Kentucky Colt” was my pick for the morning.  Our first task was to dally up to the sled to pluck the last calf out of the snow. 

            Eric made a run up to the house to load up the generator, which we connected to the calf-warmer in the calving shed.  This plastic hut has a 220-volt heater that directs warm air up through the floor-grate to quickly stabilize a hypothermic calf.  Then I went back out on my horse to bring the mothers of all three calves into the shed.

            A full belly is essential for a newborn calf.  He has been getting his nourishment for the last nine months through his umbilical cord.  Now he is suddenly thrust out into the cold where he must not only find a new source of sustenance, but also generate his own heat.  We elected to give a tube-feeding to two of these calves to sustain them until they were strong enough to nurse.

            When the cold calves were taken care of, it was time to feed all of the older cattle.  That required two tons of hay for the morning ration.  By afternoon the snow was still coming down, and the temperature was dropping as well.  It was time for a ton of straw to be scattered to give the cattle some protection from the cold.

            Ah, yes.  Ain’t This Romantic!?!





Friday, March 16, 2018

Handshake Deal

            I just bought some hay, for many thousands of dollars, from a fellow I’ve never met, in a different state, to be hauled by another fellow I’ve never met, who’ll deliver it tomorrow, and take my check, on a bank he’s never heard of, to take care of a bunch of cows that neither of them will ever see again.  And that’s a handshake deal in the West.

            It’s all my fault.  I’d been working a consulting job out of town all winter, and left the ranch to my hired man. 
            He done just as I taught him to do: give those cows all the hay they will eat. 

            But somewhere along the line I had miscalculated.
            Rather, my spreadsheet had miscalculated.
            Actually, my spreadsheet had calculated correctly – from data I had entered incorrectly.  We were now critically low on hay.

            On my say-so, my regular suppliers had sold all their hay to other customers.  They had none left for me. 
            I cast a wider net.  Hay was sold out all over Montana.

            On a tip from a neighbor in a similar situation, I tried CraigsList Eastern Idaho – and connected with a fellow in Rexburg, Idaho.  He’d lined up a trucker - and tomorrow we’ll have enough hay to feed our cows until green grass.

            I lead a charmed life!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Montana Calving System

            A lot has been written in the last few years about the “Sandhills Method” of calving.  This involves moving the “heavies” from one field to another while leaving behind the newly-calved pairs.  In the Sandhills of Nebraska this is an effective way to affect spreading the accumulation of mud, manure, and hay-waste over a broader area, and leaving the new calves on relatively clean ground.
            Conditions are different in Montana.  The winter is longer and colder, and the summer is shorter.  The calves must be born early enough in the year to take advantage of the grass that grows, essentially, for only the first two months of summer – June and July.
            Thus, calving becomes an intense operation at a time of the year when weather is a major factor.  Although I have calved thousands of head out on the prairie, I’ve never been on a place that didn’t have a calving shed.  With Montana weather, one simply must have a place to get the occasional problem pair in out of the snow, cold, wind, or rain.  And thus, every ranch has a “calving field” that is handy to shelter.
            Especially in these days of four-wheelers and side-by-sides, those calving fields are usually small.  They are often plagued by mud and manure - which leads to stress on the cows, and wet hair-coats and exposure to disease for the calves.  Scours in the calves is often the result.
            It was 45 years ago that I was introduced to the “Montana Method” of calving: the “heavy” cows are cut from the “outside” bunch and pushed into the calving field.  The pairs are cut out every few days into a “near” field that is clean and fresh.  As these “near pairs” get a little older and become able to travel, they are sorted out into the “far pairs” field, where they generally remain until branding.
            So rather than rotating the “heavy” bunch through a series of pastures as in the “Sandhills System”, the Montana system rotates the heavies into the one calving field, and the pairs out into fields sequentially further away from the headquarters.
            You may think that sorting heavies in, and pairs out, might consume a lot of time.  The advantage is that you always have a smaller bunch of cows in a smaller field that is easier to watch and closer to facilities – an important strategy in a climate that might well bring sub-zero temps and/or snow in a matter of hours.  With fewer cows in the calving field you can even put them all in the shed when it is storming.
            And the sorting is just plain fun when done ahorseback.
            Once or twice a week we feed the outside bunch some 40 yards from the gate.  We ride up and down the feedline picking out the heavies and starting them toward the gate.  Our horses know the game, and very quickly take over the operation once we have identified to them which cow we want out.
            And a few times a week we ride into the calving field to cut out the pairs.  This is a job we can do on a relaxed and sunny afternoon, and is a job that is just right for training a green horse.
            The result is a much smaller band of heavies, among which it is much easier to spot trouble, and from which it is much easier to cut out a cow to take into the shed.
            The “near pair” bunch is smaller, and easier to monitor, still close enough to the shed if trouble is spotted.  The “far pair” bunch is old enough to spread out over bigger country where disease is less likely to be transmitted.

Some day I hope to make it to New Mexico – and learn the “Southwest Calving System”.