Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Weaning Time

            Every animal must eventually be weaned: birds are pushed out of the nest, children are weaned from the breast or bottle, and calves are separated from their mothers.

            In the old open range days of one hundred years ago the calves were allowed to run in the herd with their mothers until they were two years old before they were gathered and shipped.  These calves were weaned naturally when their own rumens were completely developed, and when the udders of their mothers ceased to produce – usually 6-9 months.

            As the numbers of people on the land increased, the costs of grass have increased as well.  A cow in Montana must have hay for part of the year – no matter whether she is raising a calf or not.  A rancher must now manage the productivity of a cow very closely in order to make even a hint of a profit.  That management includes assuring that every cow is bred in the summer to produce a calf in the spring, which is then sold in the fall.

            Common practice for the last 70 years has been to gather the cows, sort off the calves, and load them onto trucks for their trip to a feedlot.

            These calves were suddenly separated from their mothers and the only home they have ever know, run onto a truck with 100 of their playmates, and hauled away – to join thousands of other homesick calves in pens 1000 miles away.  The result is a cacophony of bawling cattle.
           The cows bunch up in the fencecorner of the field where they last saw their babies.  The calves on the truck scream through the slats.  Everywhere is the plaintive mooing of cattle.
          This squalling lasts for about three days, until the separated cattle finally give up and drift off to look for food.  The calves are homesick, lonely, and stressed.  Many of them became sick.

            Over the last twenty years, “Backgrounding” has become a common practice.  Calves are given a booster shot of vaccines to prevent the “shipping fever” diseases that were frequent in calves that had been abruptly pulled away from their mothers and dumped into a feedlot with 10,000 other calves.  These calves are left on the ranch of their birth while they adjust to their new lives independent from their mothers.  It is only a month or so after they have made that transition into a new social structure away from their mothers that they are finally shipped to a new home.

            A new practice has been the advent of “weaning flaps”.  These are inserted into a calf’s nose at the time of fall vaccination, and prevent the calf from sucking.

            His rumen is now fully developed so that his nutritional needs are easily met by grass alone, yet he is still with his mother in his home territory.  The loss of his regular milk-break is a minor change.

            The concept of this weaning device is an old one.  Farmers have - for at least a century – used various strategies to keep the milk cow’s calf away from the udder.  Here is one that was seen on farms from coast-to-coast – and was probably sold by Sears, Roebuck, &Company. 


       What’s new is the cheap and easy plastic version.

            We’ve now used this device for three years.  We find that it takes a lot of the work out of weaning the calves, and significantly reduces the stress on both cows and calves.  It takes only seconds to insert, only seconds to remove, and can be reused again next year.

            It saves days of bawling cows and calves, saves days of feeding calves locked in a weaning lot, and saves many pounds of weight-loss in the calves at weaning time.

            Here’s to innovation!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

These Boots AIN'T Made for Walking

Every time I ride into a pen full of cattle I am reminded of the 1966 song by Nancy Sinatra: “These boots are made for walking”.

But the boots I wear when ahorseback aren’t made for walking.  In fact – according to George Leonard Herter – they were designed for dancing.

My first real “riding boots” were purchased many years ago - made by Tony Llama – and they cost a lot of money.  But they fit my oxbow stirrups and gave me a sense of security while riding.

The style has changed in recent years, and I can no longer find a pair of off-the-shelf boots to suit me – so I buy custom boots from a local maker.  And they are expensive.

But my legs have become even more valuable to me over the years, and so the value of boots that protect those legs is even higher.

Many “cowboys” tie up their horses when the cattle are safely in the corral, and enter the pen armed only with a sorting stick.  Not us.

It takes a few years to develop a good sorting horse – but that horse is quicker, the view is better from four feet up, and These Boots Ain’t Made for Walking!

There is cow “poop” everywhere in the corral!  A man afoot is going to step in it!  Cow “poop” eats up leather!

It has taken a few years, but I have developed a string of good horses.  Our gates all have “cowboy latches”, and our horses can each work those gates.  We can sort those cows quicker and easier ahorseback than we can afoot.

And “These boots (Ain’t) Made for Walking”.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yellowstone - the series

            Apparently this series just premiered in the last week – and I’ve already had a couple of emails.

            I rarely watch TV, and I won’t dignify this show by adding myself to the Nielsen Ratings.

            Wikipedia says this series “follows the conflicts along the shared borders of an Indian reservation, land developers, and Yellowstone National Park”.

            Well, this show is ostensibly about cows – but it is pure bullshit!  The only conflict that could exist along those shared borders are those generated by a greedy landholder.  Neither did I ever watch the show “Dallas”, but it sounds like the same kind of drama.

            One of my followers said that everyone in the show has on clean shirts, clean gloves, rides in a clean pickup, and never has to stop to open a wire gate – something he has never seen in Montana.

            Wasn’t it Costner who “danced with wolves”?  I’ve never met the guy, but it seems like he’d do anything for a dollar.

            I’ve met my neighbor Michael Keaton, on the other hand, and he has proven to me to be a genuine guy.

            Of course no one asked me - but I give the series "Yellowstone" two thumbs down.

            If you have a REAL interest in the REAL West, you can read about it in this blog.  I've lately been a slacker, but you can scroll down and find out what happens on a real ranch in the real west.
            And you can buy my book - Ain't This Romantic - on Amazon, and learn about the REAL drama in the modern, and REAL West.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Why Plow-Rein?

            Anyone who aspires to neckrein his horse – be he a Western rider or a polo player – and who starts the horse’s training using the plow-rein, has never asked himself “Why”?

            Plow-reining – or “direct reining”, as it is called by clinicians – is the method of pulling on the left rein when you want the horse to go left – just as you do with a plow-horse.  Neck-reining is the pushing of the neck toward the direction you wish to go - guiding him with one hand just as handling the joy-stick of a video game.

            Imagine your partner standing behind you, and she wants you to look to the left.  Would you wish her to hook her finger in your cheek and pull to the left?  Or would you prefer that she gently touch you on the right cheek to turn you head?

            Like most people, I once started my young horses in a snaffle bit, using a plow rein, and slowly transitioned them to a neckrein.  It is the same principle as teaching a kid to steer a bulldozer before introducing him to a car.

            But one day, my 10-year-old daughter said “Why, Daddy”?  I’ve never plow-reined a horse since.

            After that I was able to guarantee a green horse to ‘neckrein in a halter bareback’ in 30 days of training.  Since then I have started countless horses, and have a 35-year string of especially light-mouthed and responsive ranch horses.  Every time I see someone using two hands on the reins, I ask “Why”?

            Many of the horses I was starting at the time of my daughter’s question were range horses straight off the reservation.  Some had to be roped for a day or two until I could gain their trust.  All of them left with a light mouth and an easy neckrein – as I had started them neck-reining on the first ride, and eliminated the confusion of a long transition period.

            The first time I am on top of a horse I ask him to back.  Then I lay a rein across his neck and ask him to flex.  If he fails to flex his neck, I “check” him with the reins, and ask again.  In seconds, he is responding.

            From that time on, he is neck-reining.  Any time he fails to flex I check him, then ask again. 

My horses ride for miles on a slack rein, and turn at any speed with only the most subtle change in the position of my wrist. I prefer the feel of a pair of reins in my hand, and I need room for the coils of my rope in one hand and the loop in the other.  But my horses will cut cattle just as well with only a halter and lead-rope.

            If you’re ever in Montana and want to ride a real “reining” horse, stop by!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Eagle, the Crow, and the Magpie

            Out my office window this morning, I enjoyed the drama playing out on the ridge above the house.

            The cows were fed, and yesterday’s rain left it too wet for farming, so it was time to pay bills - I was back at my computer.

            Magpies are common in Montana.  They are big, they are smart, and they are omnivorous.  They like dog food, and they like to play with the dogs.

            A magpie will swoop down to the dog-bowl and steal some of his food, then fly to the top of a nearby tree to gloat.  The dog will chase him and bark, until the bird swoops down again, and leads the dog to another, higher tree.  If the dog becomes bored with his barking, the magpie will swoop down again, and lead the dog to another tree.

            As I looked out this morning, there were a magpie and a bald eagle sitting in a tree some 300 yards away.  By the time I got my camera, of course, the birds had taken flight.  When I again spotted the now-airborne eagle, he was accompanied by a crow.  I tried to read the story.

            Had the eagle found the crow’s nest?  Was the crow trying to divert the eagle away? 

            Crows, like magpies, are known to be intelligent.  Was this crow just playing with the eagle as the magpie was playing with the dog?

            I watched for a while, trying to understand the nature of the drama playing out above me.  The eagle circled higher and higher – the crow always nearby.  I was reminded of a bomber being harassed by a fighter-plane. 

            The eagle seemed rather bored by the whole affair, and eventually floated off up the West Boulder River and out of sight – the crow still in pursuit.

Thursday, April 26, 2018


            It’s not uncommon for a ranch family to plan a trip in conjunction with a livestock show or a bull sale.  That really wasn’t my intention – but our scheduled winter trip to Mexico had to be postponed, and I found myself on the beach in Puerta Vallarta the day of an important bull sale.

            I had already bought two bulls in person at the Feddes sale this spring - only an hour and a half from the ranch - but I still needed a third.  The sale at Becton Red Angus out of Sheridan, Wyoming, was broadcast over the internet.
            This internet auction scenario wouldn’t be a new experience for me, and I’ve described it all before in the post  Bull Sale.  What was different for me this day was that I was on the internet in Mexico, and the sale was in Wyoming.  I wasn’t sure if the connection would be quick enough to show up in time in a very fast-paced auction.

            Another difference between the two sales was my dress.  The auctioneer was the same one who cried the Feddes sale where I bought two bulls a week previous.  I knew he would be wearing a felt hat and a necktie.  In fact everyone at the sale would be wearing hats and boots – and likely jackets as well.   I, on the other hand, was wearing shorts, golf shirt, and sandals – my exposed legs blindingly pale.
            The snow in the ranch yard would be covered by an acre or two of diesel 4wd pickups pulling gooseneck stock trailers.  The sale would be held in a cow-barn, with lunch provided in the shop.  I was sitting in the shade by the pool – cool ocean breezes in my face, and a cold margarita in my hand. 
            I logged into the site, listened to all the auction banter, and watched the bulls go by on my screen.  My personal bull choices were laid out on a spreadsheet before me, and I followed along in the full-color bull catalogue.  

            I allowed myself to be outbid on the first bull on my list, and was disappointed when my second choice was pulled out of the sale.  I kept bidding on the third bull, and every time I hit the “BID” button on my laptop, I got a “You’re IN” on my screen, and heard the auctioneer up his price. 
            My competition for this bull could have been in person, on the phone, over the internet, or he might even have submitted a reserve bid prior to the sale.  But when I hit the button on $5500, the bidding stopped, and SOLD showed up on my screen.

            I’ve sent in a check - and my bull will be delivered to the ranch the next time a trailer is headed my way.