Monday, March 30, 2020


          Went to my first branding of 2020 at the ranch of my old Wilsall Ranch Rodeo Partner, Darin Veltkamp.
          Here are some of the pictures taken by my grandaughter, Taylor Veltkamp:

Veltkamp branding 2020

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ah, Straw...

          If you stop to think about it, the survival of a newborn calf is a miracle.
          After living for 9 months in a zero-gravity, fluid-filled, temperature-controlled environment with his nutrients automatically provided through an umbilical cord, a calf is suddenly and forcefully expelled onto cold, hard ground.  Within minutes he is up on his legs and searching for the new source of his nutrients – his mother’s udder.
          A human baby has a similar experience of expulsion – but he is born into another temperature-controlled environment, where he is lovingly caught in a warm blanket, and delivered directly to a breast. 
This human baby can go nowhere on his own for months!  He is carried from one place to another; picked up often and held to the breast (or a damned rubber nipple thrust in his mouth) multiple times a day; he lives indoors, and is covered by a blanket.
It is 30o today in Montana, with 6” of fresh, wet snow.  And yet that calf hits the ground, struggles to his feet, and finds a teat.  Once he is dried off and has a belly full of milk, he is good to go.  In two days he can outrun a man afoot.
If the calf has a good mama, she immediately goes to licking off that months-old slime that permeates his haircoat, and she stands patiently while he searches up and back along her underline until he finally connects.  The job of the cowboy is to assure that every calf is successfully expelled, licked off by his mother, and finds that life-giving fluid.
But the title of this piece is straw.

Most of you know that hay is forage that has been cut, dried, baled, and stored.  It is harvested in the summer when there is an excess, and is spread out in the winter when there is a dearth.
Straw is slightly different.  It is the stalk of the plant which is harvested for grain -usually wheat, barley, and oats.  This is cut in the fall after the plant is mature and has turned yellow.  The valued part of the plant is separated in the ‘combine’.  The grain is hauled one way, and the remainder is baled up as straw.
While good hay may be as high as 15% protein, straw has had its primary nutrient package removed.  Straw is likely to be around 5% protein.  It’s not particularly good feed.
In the winter, we put out straw when the temperature drops below zero.  The cows eat it, and the inefficiency of digestion helps keep them warm.  Whatever is left on the ground helps to insulate their underside.
In the spring, we put it out for the purpose of keeping the cattle up off the cold, wet snow and mud.  The cows find it quickly.

What is amazing is that a 24-hour old calf can seek out that nice warm bed, and propel himself to it!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ah, Spring!

          I have mentioned before that “Spring” is pretty fickle in Montana.  It can be 65 above or 10 below on any day between the first of March and the first of June.
          On the ‘official’ beginning of spring this year, it got to 55o.  A few days later it is 30o with a fresh 6” of wet snow.
          Last week we began calving in earnest, and cut in some 40 head of heavies to the calving field.  Today we began turning out those new pairs into a bigger field where they can maintain a more adequate “social distance” to avoid an accumulation of mud and manure, and to minimize transmission of disease.
          There were 19 pairs in this first sweep of the field we call “the rocks” into which we turn newer pairs soon after they calve.  We pushed these into the “bridge trap” to sort.  One calf needed to be caught for the application of a band to his testicles.
          I was riding the Blaze colt, from whom I have done very little roping.  He had been quite a challenge to break, and I still wasn’t certain about his reaction to throwing a lariat.  But he has settled in nicely, and handled well to catch that calf.
          One must be careful when turning out new pairs to be sure that every calf follows his mother across the bridge and into the new field.  We paired them out slowly and deliberately.  But most of the calves were a couple of weeks old, and were solidly following their mamas.
          Then we swung around and cut 14 new pairs out of the calving field, and into the now-empty “rocks” field. 
          Light snow was blowing in our face the whole time, but the temperature was hovering around freezing – not particularly unpleasant weather.  Two cows were obviously going into labor, so we pushed them on down into the calving shed.  There’s no reason for a new calf to be born into a snowbank when we have an empty shed with a nice straw-covered floor.  It’s bad enough to be rudely thrust from a weightless, 103o environment out onto a cold hard ground, when we can temper it with warm, dry straw.
          And we elected to spread more of that warm, dry straw out into the field for the rest of the heavies.
          There had been one calf born earlier in the day up on the hillside in the calving field.  Once a calf has dried off and had a good suckle, he can stand a lot of cold.  But there was a second cow nearby.  I called Eric.
          “It’s snowing too hard to see if that second cow has a calf,” I said. 
          Eric was just heading out to throw off the late feed for those heavies.  He soon radioed back that she had a new calf.
          I rummaged around in the glove-boxes for a pair of rubber-palmed gloves, jumped on the quad, and headed down to the shed to tie onto the sled.  The calf lay quietly in the sled, is mother followed along easily, and now we had our fourth calf for the day, safe and warm in the shed.

          Ah, spring.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Too Cold for CoronaVirus

            In fact, it’s too cold for my old bones.  But the work goes on. 

            Calving is just taking off on our ranch, with three calves born yesterday. It’s 20o today, with a cold wind blowing snow out of the northeast.  Too cold for a horseback ride – yet we did it anyway.
            Our two-year-old heifers are out in a field across the river, and these girls are the high-risk group for calving.  We needed to sort through them to bring in the ones approaching calving – a job we try to accomplish every five days or so.

            My first stop ahorseback was back to the house - where I traded my felt hat for a wool ear-lap cap, and my insulated gloves for mitts with knitted wool liners.  Then it is a mile ride out across the bridge and upriver into that wind.  (A long trot is 11 MPH; the wind at 11 MPH; total “wind chill” at 22 MPH. 
            The heifers followed the main trail down across the gulch, but pulled up short at a deep snow drift on the brow of the gulch on the other side.  The flow was disrupted as we followed them up the gulch to the road crossing. 
            We held them up in the “bridge trap”, where we cut out the ones showing “heavy” – that are likely to calve in the next week.  There were 8 in today’s cut.
            As we sorted, I noted that although most of my toes were numb, I could still feel my big toes.  I remember rides where everything below my knees was numb.  And today the ride was all within sight of the house!
            My little dog NiƱa abhors the cold.  She has the short-haired blue coat of her Blue Heeler father.  But she remained right behind my horse until each time I sent her out after a laggard.
            On the return trip to their pasture, the heifers piled on down through that snowdrift on the brow.  And the horses picked up a lope after we dropped the heifers home and turned back toward the barn.  They chose to climb back up through that snowdrift - rather than take the longer, easier way home – and we let them.

            I read in my newsfeed that most of the US is shut down.  The governor of Montana has closed the schools, restaurants, and bars.  My wife reports the shelves of the local grocery stores to be scant.
            Looking out my window, however, I see none of this.  There is food in my refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.  There are still two rolls of TP in the closet, with a roll and a spare in each bathroom.  My discard pile has enough newsprint for months more.

            The price of live cattle is down $20 per hundred-weight – but the price of “boxed” retail-ready beef is UP $20!  People are suddenly buying less from the restaurant trade and more from the grocery stores – just as they did in my childhood.