Sunday, August 18, 2019

Spud Patch


            Yesterday I baled the hay in what my mother-in-law always referred to as “The Spud Patch”.

            It’s a small field that lays in a bend of the river under an irrigation ditch.  It represents only 1.5% of our hayland, and .01% of the ranch.  It puts up enough hay to feed our cows for only one day in the winter.  But in the early years it fed a very large family.

            The spud patch has some pretty good dirt.  And it can be irrigated from the ditch just above it.  That tiny field could produce many hundreds of sacks of potatoes.

            Those potatoes were an important food source for the family of William Elges, who homesteaded on the West Boulder River in 1896.  He went on to raise 11 children there. 

            Everyone worked hard then.  From daylight until dark they were busy plowing with horses and pitching hay by hand.  The water was carried in buckets from the springhouse and heated on a stove fueled with wood that was felled and bucked with a two-man crosscut, hauled in with a team, and split with and axe.  They burned a lot of carbs in those days!

            During the Great Depression of the 1930s much of the West was in the grip of a drought.  Times were tough.  But this little spud patch had been prolific – kept green with water that had been diverted from the river.

            In the early fall, Papa would have hitched up a horse to a moldboard plow to lift the potatoes out of the ground.  The whole family would have been scratching through the ground with spud forks and gathering the potatoes into burlap “gunny sacks”.  Those 100# bags would have been thrown up into a horse-drawn wagon for the mile and a half trip back to the home place.

            As many of these potatoes as possible were stored in the root cellar and in the basement of the house.  They were fried, mashed, boiled, and baked.  Many would have been fed to pigs and thus converted to meat.  And there were surely enough left over to sell in town or trade to neighbors.

 

            That small field is insignificant in today’s operation.  But it was a major source of ‘meat and potatoes’ to a generation now past.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Plan 'A'



            I’m not a big planner.  I’m a strategist.

            Strategy may be defined as a “course of action”.  It’s a framework within which plans are made.  My strategy is to harvest the grass on our ranch, using cattle, in an effective manner which has recently been given the title “sustainable”.

            Part of our ranch strategy is to harvest the over-abundance of grass which grows in June and early July – to preserve its nutrients, and to feed in the winter when forage quality is poor, and often covered by snow.
            We could plan to begin cutting on June 20.  But what if its raining?  What if its been a cold spring and the hay is not yet ripening?  What if there’s a funeral that day? What if the granddaughter has only that day free to help move cows?

            As part of that “sustainable” strategy, we move cattle often in the early summer to protect those growing grasses from the damage caused by frequent repeated grazing.  We aim for a 7-day rotation.  But maybe an irrigation ditch blew out.  Maybe we could only get an excavator on Tuesday.  Maybe the swather broke down.  Maybe we got the horses in and found one with a thrown shoe.  Maybe there is lightening.

            My strategy is simple when we do go into a field to gather cows: get them all from here and put them there.  But I’ve had a number of people ask for a plan.
           
            For me, a plan is too much work.  We don’t know where the cows are in the field – how many are here and how many are over there.  We don’t know what the weather is going to be like, and we don’t know toward which gate they are going to line out.  We don’t know if the fence got down and some of our cows out or the neighbor’s in; we don’t know if one is sick or lame.
            Sure, we could crowd them in whatever direction we chose – but it would be hard on the cows and hard on the horses.  It’s better to start them moving and bend them toward whichever gate accomplishes our objective with the least amount of effort.

            I once had my son-in-law lined up to help with some cow-work on Thursday.  He called the evening before to check on the plan.
            “So far as I know it’s still Plan ‘A’”, I told him.
           
            “Hey Amy”, he shouted over top of the phone!  “Listen to this: Your dad’s still on plan ‘A’”!


            It was years later that I finally received some positive affirmation for my “flexible” style.  Improvise; Adapt; Overcome”, I was told, is a slogan of the U.S. Marines.

            Yes!  That’s me!  After 20 years as a cowboy I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome a broken back by going back to school and entering the health care profession.  I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome when called to manage a hospital, three ranches, a dozen nursing homes, and hundreds of emergency ambulance calls.

            And I was able to improvise, adapt, and overcome my wife’s broken printer as I tell in this blogpost: mellinniumcowboy.blogspot.com/2019/06/we-fix-things.html

           

Friday, August 2, 2019

Fire Season


            We’re still in the middle of haying, and the grass on the hills is still green – but it’s now fire season.  Our local volunteer fire crew - of which we are members - has been paged out three times this week.

            Haying is running over a month behind due to an extremely cool, wet summer.  We’re usually finished with the first cutting early in July, but we didn’t even start until the 12th of July.
Before that hay had a chance to dry, we were hit with another series of afternoon showers.  In an average year, it takes about three days for hay to dry enough to be baled.  Those first three fields laid in the windrow for 12 days before there was enough break in the weather for them to dry. 

On Tuesday, a rancher mowing along the road sparked a small fire. 
On Wednesday, lightening caused a fire in a deep, forested coulee.  It took some dozen trucks, several dozen firefighters, two retardant tankers, an overnight standby, and a day to mop up the hot-spots.
On Thursday, we put together our own ranch ‘fire truck’:  a 300-gallon water tank on a flatbed, with pump, hose, and fire tools.  I was just getting ready to go out and bale hay when a thunderstorm rolled in and dropped ¼” of rain.  After it passed, we saw smoke on the ridge across the river.
Four of us went up from the bottom as far as we could on ATVs, then hoofed it up the rest of the way carrying fire tools and a chainsaw.  We had it contained to a small area when the trucks reached us from above, and laid enough hose to extinguish it.

The wet summer has grown some lush fuel that will become more and more dangerous as the summer progresses.  Lightening strikes are common.  We’ve used our home-built rig on two fires in the past, and take some comfort in having that water standing by for a quick response.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

We Fix Things


          “That’s what we do here – we fix things,” said Eric as we packed up the tools from our latest repair job which happened to be on the lawn mower.
We’d spent the last two afternoons putting the baler back together, to be ready to begin haying next week.  I’d just finished fixing a plumbing leak.  Eric had sharpened the blades on the 3-point tractor mower.  Last week we’d repaired the broken chain on the seed drill.  We’re always fixing things.
I’ve told the story of my grandkids who were raised on a feedlot over in the Gallatin Valley, where there are four implement dealers within 10 miles.  When something breaks down on their home turf, the first question is whether the equipment is still under warranty.
Those boys haven’t spent much time up here on the West Boulder, where the nearest dealer is miles away.
On our ranch we put up only one-tenth the hay that their father does – and thus we can only spend one-tenth as much on equipment.  This baler on which we’ve been working is a 1991 model – the very last of the self-propelled small square balers.  When it breaks down we don’t have a question about the warranty – what we want to know is if we can still get parts!
The lawn mower we’d just repaired was a fairly new Craftsman.  I’d said – purely in jest – that we should just call Sears.
But the local Sears store has recently closed.  A repairman would have had to come out of Bozeman - an hour and a half away – and we’d have been charged mileage both ways.  He’d likely have ordered a replacement for the bent part; it would take a week to arrive; and we’d have to pay for another trip out.
Instead, we put a toolbox in the Polaris and drove out onto the lawn where the broken mower sat.  We picked up the front end, set it on an empty 5-gallon oil bucket, and took off the damaged steering sector.  It took an extra trip back to the shop for the big punch, which we inserted in the hole.  Prying down with a big wrench, we returned the bent mounting plate to its original angle.
Before long, we had the mower running again.  No wait, and no bill.

This ranch was homesteaded in 1896 by my wife’s grandfather.  It’s only a half-hour drive to the machine shop now.  But a hundred years ago it took a sharp team 3 hours at a long trot to make it to town.  Grandpa had his own forge and blacksmithing equipment.  He survived because he could fix his own stuff.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Irons in the Fire


          I have too many irons in the fire – both literally and figuratively.  But most people don’t understand from whence came that saying.  I literally had too many irons in the fire at branding this year.  
Every cow owner in the West has a brand registered in his name with the state.  I don’t know how many thousands there are in Montana.  The brands are registered in a specific pattern, in a specific location on the animal, and in the specific county where these cattle will run.  At our branding we had calves from three different owners besides the ranch.  So we began the branding with four different irons in the fire.
Our branding pot is propane-fired, and has only so much room.  Those four different irons were too many for the available space: too many irons in the fire.

That saying also applies to the rest of my life.  Because our ranch is “too big for a hobby and too small for a living”, I do a lot of work off the ranch.  I write, I take interim jobs as a healthcare administrator, we have a formalwear business, some commercial buildings, and a small place in the Shields River Valley.  I have figuratively too many “irons in the fire”.

“And now – as Paul Harvey used to say – you know the rest of the story”.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Hay-Wire Outfit


            “Hay-wire outfit” is a dated western term for a ranch that has a lax maintenance policy.  It comes from the use of the wire - once used in tying up haybales – to hold things together
            I haven’t seen wire-tie bales in 50 years, but at one time there were operations that had piles of it.  Baling-wire was used to repair fences, reinforce shovel handles, and hold the steel tire onto a wooden wagon wheel.  In modern times you are more likely to see duct tape or nylon zip-ties to make repairs.  But I have a couple of new entries to the category of fix-it materials: rubber bands and paper clips.

            It was a couple of years back when our balewagon quit right in the middle of the county road.  We cowboy-mechanics determined that a spring had broken in the carburetor.  It was only a half mile back down the road to the mailbox, where we snagged the rubber band holding the every-other-day packet of mail. 
            We substituted the rubber band for the spring, and were then able to drive the huge machine out of the road and back to the shop where permanent repairs could be made.
            This week I made a repair on the printer in my wife’s office with a paper clip.

            Computers are a fact of life in this new millennium – and printers are essential equipment – even on the ranch.  Office machines are not really my forte, but it didn’t take me long to understand the problem: a tiny piece of plastic – which held the paper roller in place – had broken off.
            Carefully bending a paper clip to the exact angles, I threaded it thorough a small opening and into a narrow slot.  Using a pair of needle-nosed pliers, I bent the other end around an anchor-point on the backside.  The paper clip accomplished the same task as the broken piece of plastic.


            Thirty-six hours later, my repair is holding.  Tell me again what that repair part will cost, how long it will take to be delivered, and what that office machine technician gets per hour (plus travel time)?!?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Smooth Move


            We’ve had plenty of moisture, and June in Montana brings long days - the grass is growing quickly.  We try to get the cows out of a field before the grass has grown tall enough for them to take a “second bite” from any plant, so that there is time for it to grow new leaves and replenish its root reserves.  That’s only a week or ten days in June.
It was time to move the cows to the next pasture further up the mountain, and also time to put in the bulls.  We had a lot of country to cover, and I’d invited several people to help, but it ended up to be just Eric and me.  We saddled two of our best horses and we each went a different direction
            We’d just received a new yearling bull who was still in the corral. The yearling heifers were west of the barn.  I set the gates to run him through, and headed to the corrals for the new bull.  Eric headed a mile up west to gather the older bulls.
            I ran my one yearling bull out into the pasture where the yearling heifers were awaiting his services, and changed the gates so that Eric could bring his bulls past the east side of the barn, out through the orchard, and take them up the hill and into the “desert” where the main cowherd was camped.
            Circling back around, I came up on the outside of the fence along which Eric and his dog were bringing his bunch of bulls.  He’d already ridden out a mile and a half to gather those bulls, and was now halfway back.  I told him that the gates were set for him to pass through the yard and out into the south-west corner of the desert.  I had seen cows out in the hayfield, and would pick them up and head up through the south-east corner.


            So while Eric pushed his bulls up the hill on the far left of this picture, I gathered some fence-crawlers in the hayfield and pushed them up through a gate at the far right of the picture.
            I was just breaking out of the coulee on the far right, when Eric's bulls joined us from the hillside on the far left.  So eager were they to resume their duties in breeding all those beautiful brown-eyed girls, that they had quickly climbed up the hill on the far left, and followed the contour trail around to meet us on the bench at the far right.
            The bulk of the cows were on that bench.  I and my dogs gathered them, and started them up the fence which follows the ridgeline at the top of this picture.
            In the meantime, Eric was gathering the basin to the left of center in this picture.  I was about halfway up the fence with some 125 pairs, when Eric’s gather from the basin joined them from the left.
            Just over the top of the ridge is a gate into “the pothole”.  We dropped the cows through, then set off at a long trot on to the west and south, following the trail back down the mountain. 
            Returning through the Elges Creek field, we picked up the yearling heifers and started them back to the east.  With Eric behind the first bunch we gathered, I circled the east side of the field, checking all the timber and blind pockets on the way down, opening the east gate as I passed by.  Then I headed west up Elges Creek on the north side.
            From my eastward circle, I could see that Eric had about half the yearlings in a bunch, and that he had them headed toward another bunch further down.  He would throw them all together and push them on down the road on the south side of the creek, and on toward the gate on the east.
            But as I neared the northwest corner of the field, from my position on the north side of the creek, I could hear bawling - and watched helplessly as Eric’s bunch split up and headed back to the south.
            Then four yearling heifers came toward me on a steep, rock-strewn hillside high on my right.  I waited them out. 
            When they had passed, I got behind them and shoved them on east toward the gate.  More bawling to the south of me – but all of us emerged from the brush and timber simultaneously. We counted the entire bunch of 30 yearlings strung out toward the gate.
            I had to make one run to head off the few that hadn’t found the opening, but we had them quickly shoved out the gate and into a new pasture.
           
            It hadn’t been that big a ride.  We’d been only a mile and a half, at most, from the barn.  The route covered maybe 8 miles.
            But we’d been up and down and back and forth over steep, rocky, and brushy terrain.  We’d done some trotting, a lot of walking, with a few short bursts to turn various bunch-quitters.  We’d handled the cattle gently, we’d passed our gathers back and forth seamlessly, and we’d covered some 1000 acres without missing a single head. 

            It was a smooth move.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Winter Storm Warning



Here’s the forecast for Memorial Day 2019:
Rain and snow showers, becoming all snow after noon. Patchy fog. Temperature rising to near 39 by 8am, then falling to around 32 during the remainder of the day. East northeast wind 8 to 10 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. Total daytime snow accumulation of around 2 inches.

         My last blog-post from one month ago declared it to be spring.  A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then – literally.  It’s been a cold wet spring.
          We don’t have much farming to do – only about 40 acres of hay renovation.  But it isn’t done yet.  There has only been a day or two in the last month when it was dry enough to get in the field with a plow.  Another job is weed-spraying.  But that, too, requires some dry weather.
          I had set Sunday the 19th as our date for branding, but the rains came.  One can’t brand wet calves.  The moisture in the hair cools the irons too quickly, and it causes steam, which scalds the skin a blotches the brand.
          Yesterday, however, we tried again.
          There had actually been a bit of dust on the very surface of the county road. There were breaks in the overcast sky.  I sent a group text to the help I had lined up, and we began gathering early.
          We had the cows in the trap when stock trailers began to roll in.  Several people went to work sorting cows out one gate while holding back the calves.  Another group was at work on the other end of the trap sorting calves into the corral.  We were soon running cows through the chute for their annual vaccinations for some respiratory and reproductive diseases.
          Two of us were ahorseback pushing cows up the alley.  Two more were feeding cows into the chute.  One was running the headcatch, one was mixing vaccine, two were vaccinating, two were keeping the cows moving up the chute.
          The last of the cows were still in the chute when I lit the propane burner and ropers tightened their cinches.  As soon as the irons were hot, I gave the signal and the calves began to be heeled to the fire.
          I was kept busy slapping on brands and hurrying back to the pot for a fresh hot iron; Eric was vaccinating; dark clouds were closing in.

   
       We were about half way through the bunch when Darin rode up and told me to go to roping – he’d take over the branding.
          Thunder began rumbling in the distance as we worked steadily through the calves.  The last calf was drug in just as the first raindrops fell.
          We quickly closed up the tool boxes that held our vaccinating guns.  I’d forgotten on which post I’d hung my vest. I swung onto my horse and grabbed the reins of Eric’s horse as the rain increased.  We loped the half mile to the barn, where I found my coat.  Raindrops stung my face as I sped to the house on my four-wheeler.
          Rain pounded on the roof as the crew lined up in the kitchen to load their plates with sloppy joes, potato salad, and baked beans.
          I produced a jug of Wild Turkey to help lubricate the bantering and story-telling that followed.  We were all in a magnanimous mood. A disparate crew of friends and neighbors, town folk and cattlemen, old hands and uninitiated, had come together like a well-oiled machine to accomplish an essential task; we had done it in record time; and we had beat the rain!
Read here about another day of Branding on the West Boulder.



Saturday, April 27, 2019

It's Spring!


            Spring in Montana is hard to define or to describe.  We have a lot of nice spring days, but the worst blizzard I have experienced began on April 15 of 1973; I struggled to keep new-born calves alive in below zero weather in April of 1987; There are years when we are still feeding hay to the cows right up until the end of May. 
            But for this year, I declare spring to have arrived on April 19.
            The first indication of spring was that the interior of my car was hot when I returned from my side-gig at Crow agency.  I had to turn on the air conditioner.  There was a boat being gassed up when I stopped to fill my tank.  I saw several tractors out working in the fields as I drove home.  Bugs began to accumulate on my windshield.  And finally, I had to pick up beer cans along the county road passing across a corner of the ranch.
            The snowstorms are indeed fewer in April, and the white stuff melts off quicker.  The landscape is taking on a green cast. Days are longer.  Most of the cows have calved, and they are eating less and less hay every day.  Some ranches are branding.  We’ve gotten a little fencing done.
            But it’s still a long time until June.  While there are little spears of grass poking out, there still is not nearly enough growth to sustain the plants, nor to sustain the cows.  We’ll be feeding every day for a few more weeks.  The fields are too wet to get any farming done.
            
          And it's still too early to sit out on the deck drinking beer.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Toy or a Tool?


            All manner of mechanical toys are commonly seen in America these days: skis, surfboards, trail bikes, dirt bikes, boats, snowmobiles,  ATVs…  Town folks work all week to have the time and money to escape the city and enjoy the great outdoors from the vantage-point of these expensive devices.

            What are toys to the city-folk, however, have become tools for the rancher.  Far more cattle are now handled by four-wheelers than by horses. And the side-by-side ATV is just the tool to check on cattle, ride out to change irrigation sets, haul salt to the cattle, and fix fence.  A side-by-side is far more convenient than a pickup, uses far less gas, and is far easier on the land.  In addition to trucks, tractors, pickups, farm implements, and haying equipment, we now consider both a four-wheeler and a side-by-side to be essential to ranch operations.

            And now we have a tracked side-by-side.






            This morning we have 18 below zero and some 2 feet of snow.  It’s just too much for a pickup – even with chains on all four tires – so we’re feeding with a big four-wheel-drive tractor and a hay wagon.

            But we are just beginning to have new calves, and we needed to get out to check on the calves.

            The horses were all out to pasture, and we usually use the four-wheeler to run them in when we need them.  The snow is far too deep for the quad. This new Ranger was just the tool to bring in horses.

            To get ahorseback, however, I would have to follow the tracks through knee-deep snow to the horsebarn, saddle a horse, and ride a half mile out to the cows.

            Eric has his new tool sitting just off his front porch.  He fired it up, swung by to pick me up, and we were through the cattle and back in the kitchen drinking coffee in less time than it would have taken just to saddle up.



            I’m a bit ashamed.  In the old days we’d have harnessed the team and hitched them to a bob-sled, maybe leading a saddle-horse behind.  It would have taken several loads.  We’d have spent most of the day breaking trail with the horses.

            Now we can spend a couple of hours inside the cab of the tractor – stepping out only to flake the hay off the wagon.  Then we can drop off the loader and mount the snowblower, to clear away the snow from the trails and the gates rather than just trampling it down.


            No longer the clop of the hooves and the jingle of trace-chains in the dead-quiet of a snow-filled world.  Now the growl of a tractor and the whine of an ATV engine break the silence. 



            And this is progress?!?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Winter: Delayed Onset


            Normally, one speaks of a bad winter as a hyphenated number – as in “the winter of ‘78-‘79 when I was on a ranch west of Choteau.  The snow and cold began in November of 1978, and continued through February of 1979.  (You can read more about this winter in my book Ain't This Romantic!?!.)  But this winter didn’t start until February.



            Montana weather is notoriously fickle – a “typical” winter in Montana has temps on any given day ranging from 40 below to 40 above. In fact, on January 15, 1972 in the town of Loma, in central Montana, the temperature rose from 54o below to 49°F above – in one day!



            Some years we get little snow in the winter months, and sometimes get large amounts of snow in the “spring” months.  The previous two winters here on the West Boulder we have had significant snow in the winter months, and have been quite pleased to have a serious snow-blower.







            Some years we have snow and below zero as early as November, and I have seen below-zero weather and serious blizzard in April.  (More of these stories in the book Ain’tThis Romantic!?!



            This winter didn’t begin until February.  The cows had been out grazing until then, and we didn’t begin feeding hay until late January, when they had grazed off all the available grass.



            We all enjoy an open winter, but I’m always aware of the fact that we will pay for it later.  If we don’t pay for it by having bad weather in “the spring”, then we’ll pay for it with poor pasture and fires in the summer.



            February of this year has been brutal. It’s the 2nd coldest February on record for Montana, and we have knee-deep snow.  And this is the time when many ranchers are calving.



            A new calf can stand ten below just fine – if he is dried off and has a full belly.  But being pushed soaking wet out of the womb and into a snowbank is a recipe for hypothermia.  And that hypothermia slows the brain processes enough to delay standing and sucking.  Many calves born outside in that weather don’t make it.



            Those ranchers who do calve in January and February all have sheds into which they can take new calves – or cows who are about to calve.  They check their cows regularly all day, and several times at night. We have such a shed, but we choose to wait until mid-March to begin calving – when the days are longer and the nights not quite so cold.



            We took on another 45 cows in January, however, that are bred to begin calving now.

            We always throw up an electric fence to contain the “heavy” cows in a field that is entirely visible from the house.  But the ground is frozen.  We’ll have to drill into the dirt to drive in posts for our temporary fence.  And the deep snow makes it difficult to trail in the cows that are near to calving.



            “They” say that if March comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb.  But March 1st was a pleasant interlude of 20o above and sunny.  I hope that lamb-like 20 above doesn’t portend a March going out like a lion. 

            It was 10 below on the morning of March 2nd, with a forecast for an overnight low of -18o.