Thursday, November 29, 2018

Cuttin'?... or Sortin'?

            The terms are often used interchangeably, but there really is a difference – and I didn’t put a name to it myself until recently. 

            Most people have watched cutting competitions on TV or YouTube.  In these events a yearling steer or heifer is cut out from a small group and the horse given free rein to swoop and dive, dramatically demonstrating his skill at holding the animal away from the herd.  The arena is small and open, the footing is clean and level, and the critter is allowed to return to the herd after being played by the horse for a short time. 

            Indeed, we do a similar kind of cutting in the spring when we cut heavies from the “outside” bunch into the calving field.  We feed a line of hay near the gate, ride slowly up and down until we identify a cow that is near to calving, nose her out of the bunch, then turn the horse loose to do his thing putting her out the gate.

            But more often, we are sorting cattle: separating one class of animals from another.  At branding time we sort off the cows from the calves, and we do that again in the fall.

            Our sorting process is to have a couple of riders in the main corral, pinching out cattle in groups.  Usually the cows are the more eager to escape the pressure, so we turn back the calves and let the cows string out up the alley.  Another rider stands near the gate and lets the cows flow by.  When the flow of cows slows down and a group of calves presents itself, the riders will turn the cows back and let the calves string out.  The man in the gate will take a few steps to the side to block the outside gate and turn the calves into the catch-pen.

            We did this in October when we vaccinated the calves, and we did it again a week later to split the calves off for weaning.

            This week we sorted the calves again.  First we split off the steers and turned them out, then we moved more into a ‘cutting’ mode to pull off those heifer calves that we will save to add back to the herd for replacement of those cows that are old, crippled, bad-bagged, or which have not re-bred.

            Training these horses to be able to accomplish this cutting and sorting takes time.  In fact I had ridden my Kentucky Colt for seven years before he finally settled down enough that we could do this kind of close-in corral work. 

Of course all of our gates have “cowboy latches”, and all of our horses will work those gates.  We can even sidle up and open our wire gates from all of our horses – which is expeditious when we have some cattle headed toward a gate and we want to get in and away before we lose them.  We do, however, have to get off our horses to close those wire gates behind us.

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 gentle nudge 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!