Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Calves Cometh

Calving season is upon us. The busiest six weeks of the year, when our lives revolve totally around the herd.

It’s not that cows generally need help calving. They are good mothers and handle it for the most part on their own, but Mark insists that every calf has the best chance, and so the herd is discretely observed to ensure the calves are delivered and stand and suck in a timely manner. The heifers, the first-timers, are watched closely. Like humans, the new mothers might need some coaching or a helping hand. 

Yesterday morning on his early check Mark noticed a seasoned mother walking towards him with purpose. She was near the gate, very visible. He could tell right away that she was trying to deliver a calf, but not being successful because of a malpresentation. The calf’s front legs were protruding up to the knees with no sight of the nose, indicating that the head was twisted back, each contraction adding pressure with no gain. He called me to bring the ambulance (the pickup and trailer) and we got her to the barn right away. Mark was able to push the calf back inside, pull the head around, and deliver a healthy newborn. The outcome would have been grim indeed without his skillful interference.

Later that night, while sitting in front of the wood stove, we discussed the cow’s behavior and a strange phenomenon that Mark has observed many times before. When a cow is in trouble, it’s as if she makes herself noticeable to Mark. In a large pasture with hills and trees, the patient may walk across his path of vision as if to say, “look at me!” That’s a stretch to believe after a lifetime of living with cows. And even if you buy that, this cow had never been assisted before so it was not learned behavior.

Mark said, “It’s happened too often in my experience to be explained away as a coincidence.”

“But that would mean that she could reason” (I’m still a little skeptical).

“No, not necessarily, it could be just good energy.”

Sounds a little new-agey for cowboys doesn’t it? Mark says that he enters the herd, not with the anticipation of finding problems, but with an openness to be available if he’s needed. I can accept that the metaphysical world is always at our shoulder. Perhaps especially on a ranch where natural laws rule. And if we open ourselves up to that flow, we access a more complete truth. The Law of Attraction says that what we pay attention to grows. His intense focus on the cattle leads to a greater awareness of their needs and maybe even taps into an intelligence on another level.  

I joke that he is much more in tune with his cows than with his wife. “ How can you be more perceptive, more aware of subtleties, with the cows than with me!”

He doesn’t have an answer. It has always been thus I suppose - the ranch wife’s lament.

making his rounds

Sunday, February 20, 2011


The kids helped us move the cows closer to ranch headquarters and in pastures that have natural shelter in preparation for calving. Mark says, “the dam is filling,” referring to the mothers and their growing fetuses.

Seth rode Anna, the white mare, and worked his border collie, Cassie. Anna rode Mater (she likes to say, “like tomater without the tō ”) and took her dog Clyde along to help. It’s a real joy to see these partnerships still firmly in place. Even though the kids don’t help as much as they used to, the animals remember them and work together like always. I know ranching can be done without the use of dogs or horses . . . or kids for that matter, but I’m not quite sure how.

These animals are our friends and helpmates. And besides helping us perform tasks, they educate us daily - lessons about tenacity, patience, duty and acceptance.

I have often considered the contribution to our kids’ lives made by all the animals that have lived here. Despite the heartbreak when the inevitable deaths occur, their gifts far outweigh the losses. Losing the collie, June, in an irrigation ditch was Anna’s greatest childhood disaster. Rocker, so named because riding him was like sitting in a rocking chair, got tangled in a fence and broke our kids’ hearts. My Beauty dog, ever the worker, was kicked by a horse when age began to dampen her reflexes. The list goes on and on, for horses and especially dogs, live short lives. The facts of life – and death – are never far away here on the ranch.

But today the kids and their current animal companions are young and healthy – and for today, that’s enough.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For Local's Sake

Mark took the last of the locker beef cattle in to town today. They will be processed at a small family-owned plant about 15 minutes from here. It is an old, but clean facility - back in the trees, protected from wind in the winter and shady in the summer. The deed will be done quickly by skilled people we trust.

The customer buys the whole carcass, from short ribs to stew meat to top loin. The meat will be aged for three weeks and cut to our buyer’s specifications. How big do they want the roasts? How thick do they like the steaks?

This method of buying direct from the grower is an age old tradition that is somehow new again. Along with animals compassionately raised, the hottest marketing trend is “local.” Never mind all the other attributes you can choose from - organic, certified angus, natural, hormone-free, grassfed - local and humane tops the list. And why not? Support your community and buy from someone you know and trust. 

These cattle have never been given growth promoting hormones. They were never put in an industrial feedlot. Other than momma’s milk, they have been eating grass or hay grown here on the ranch since birth. Since it’s winter, they had some supplemental grain from the local feed mill to keep them gaining weight. They’ve had dry straw to lay on, room to roam, clean quarters, fresh air and companionship.

 They’ve lived a good life and we give them our heartfelt thanks.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Standards of Care

We vaccinated the heifer calves for brucellosis this week. It is state mandated and must be done by a vet, so once again white-headed Doc Higham spent the day with us. He’s been practicing for over 50 years and works with a quiet rhythm that calms the cattle. I hope we all work that way. There’s a cadence to chute work – forward and back, single file, one after another.  

Jesse administered the pour-on insecticide, Mark weighed each calf, and Doc gave the vaccine followed by the required ear tag and tattoo. It was a good day to audit ourselves against our marketing cooperative's animal welfare standards.  

Country Natural Beef, with help from well known animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, and in response to consumer wishes, designed a set of "Raise Well Principles." These principles include measurable standards that apply when cattle are individually treated, including the number and percentage of cattle that slip and fall, if they call out (vocalize), and whether they leave the processing gate at a speed faster than a trot. We also record the number of times an electric prod is used and whether the crew worked quietly. We know that calm handlers beget calm cattle, so tracking the above behaviors helps us improve our skills while complying with audit requirements. 

These standards also gauge whether the ranch is selecting for calm temperament in their herd and selling those individuals that are naturally high-strung and could be dangerous to own.

We did fine on all guidelines, but we can always improve. I made note to ask Temple about the vocalizing and running from the chute standards. It’s hard to gauge and something other co-op members will have questions about as well. Our little hand held hot-shot was used just a few times when nothing else seemed to work; slipping was eliminated by a dump of sand in front of the chute.

Mark and I were raised with respect for the animals, but are keen to learn from folks like Grandin with special insight on low-stress methodology. It’s added an enjoyable dimension to our business to see how well we can work with each animal’s natural instincts to accomplish a task, whether it’s moving a large group of cows and calves to the mountains, walking a sick cow to the barn, or helping a newborn calf suckle. We know calm quiet handling means a better meat product, healthier cattle, and safer working conditions for the cowboys. To learn it’s becoming more important to the consuming public only endorses our enthusiasm.