Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Daily Constitutional

We woke up to two inches of fresh snow on Saturday. It was melting by noon, but came down hard again as the day ended. The poor calves were tiptoeing around looking for a dry place to lie. Pretty brutal after a string of lovely warm days. Garrison Keillor, our favorite mid-western humorist, warns about this time of year. He says it’s “like spring painted on a brick wall.”

I’ve been walking to ranch headquarters lately. It only takes about ten minutes and I take our three dogs along for the outing. I put them in a tiny wood shack near the corrals where they hang out until I’m done with chores. The walk is not particularly scenic, but I relish it. Every morning is different. The snow earlier this week brought 6 degree temps. Then today it was a balmy 29 degrees with thick damp air. Fog hung along the river and it was dead quiet except for the meadowlarks calling from various roosts across the pastures and red-wing blackbirds gurgling in the willows. I never hear a red-wing that I don’t recall the story my mother told of an ancestor of mine whose child asked, “Mom, is there water in that bird?”   

Cassie, the eldest dog, mostly follows along. Kate and Clyde, full of border collie frenzy, run laps in front of me, overjoyed with . . . what?- life I guess. This morning I about fainted when a truck whizzed by narrowly missing Kate. Why do people drive so fast? And why do they insist on throwing a fresh batch of beer cans along the road every week? Who are these people? I swear they go home and kick their dogs and beat their wives.   

But mostly I don’t notice the cans. Maybe tomorrow I’ll remember a bag and collect them as I go. And most motorists slow down and wave as they go by. Another beautiful morning.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Emma's Diary

My sister has been typing up my great-grandmother’s diary. The entries start in 1918, the year she turned 68 and one year before my dad was born. Wouldn’t you think a woman her age would think it a little late to start a diary?  Well, that wasn’t Emma. She rode her horse Syd (sidesaddle), drove a buggy, served as a school board member and helped cook and care for a large extended family.

Emma was very community minded. She talks of taking her buggy and going “down the line,” which means she stopped at every house along the road to visit. She made lye soap, tended chickens, churned butter, registered school students, and took the initiative to write down her story so that her progeny, almost 100 years later, could be a part of her life. I am so grateful.

Our lives, Emma’s and mine, have much in common. She thrills at the first killdeer and croaking frog of spring. She records the price of the new Hereford bulls and the date the cattle are turned out on the range. She loves roses. She takes a warmed flat iron to bed with her on cold nights unless she has a grandkid to snuggle with. She knows that when a cold summer wind stops, it will probably freeze. She writes seamlessly between the ranch and family; because life isn’t one or the other for ranch women. It’s the same thing. 
She is connected to the natural world in ways we have forgotten. One night in June she drives her buggy to visit her son. It's dark when she heads home, but Babe the horse gets her safely back. She writes, “had a fine ride. Such a good moon for a headlight.”

The entries stop in 1923. After a few days of not feeling well, Emma's daughter, my grandmother, then 37, writes in her stead, “went to sleep peacefully at about 10:00 a.m.”

Before Anna went back to college, we went shopping to get her a birthday present. She was looking for a journal in Barnes and Noble, and there on the shelf was a 5-year diary that caught my eye. The old-fashioned book seems unnecessary for someone who keeps a weekly blog, but I missed the first killdeer date this year and that won’t happen again. I put my first entry in last night. I wrote about our shopping trip and that we hit 300 head calved.

I’m 53 years old and thought I was too old to start a diary, until I read Emma’s writing. I hope my great-grandchildren can still read cursive! 

Emma on Syd

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Calving, etc.

Seth and Anna came home for spring break to have their wisdom teeth out. I like tending them again. It’s an old and familiar job – shuttling ice packs, reminding them to take their antibiotics, putting movies in the DVD and just hanging out with them. Homemade tapioca pudding (three batches) and baked sweet potatoes were hits. My favorite job, mothering, is easy to slip back into.

We haven't been any help to Mark, however. He is busy tending a herd that's "raining" calves. First thing in the morning he tags the new arrivals. He likes to get them when they’re just a day old. They’re easy to catch and Mom has calmed just a bit since delivery. Mark drives his 4-wheeler into the herd, parks it, and walks quietly to each calf. He steps over them, catching their head between his knees as they stand up. He puts in an ear tag to match the mother, gives them a vitamin mouth paste and a mineral shot. He records their color, sex, approximate weight, and gives a “score” to the mother’s udder. The first suckling means life or death, so a friendly udder is critical. By friendly, I mean the udder is high and easily accessible, with teats small enough to latch on to. 

Mark moves quickly to get the tagging done before the feed truck arrives. But you can’t compromise patient handling for speed. In order to keep the cows calm, Mark acts as if he’s got all day to get the job done.

We try to give our calves a great start - just like we did with our own three kids. Doing so eliminates most of the trouble young animals and young humans encounter as they grow to adulthood.

Following Seth and Anna’s dental procedure, our dentist helped each one to the car. Even though they were in a fog of anesthesia and pain, they both said “thank you” and gave him a hug. As I turned to leave, the good doctor put his hand on my shoulder and told me what a good job we had done raising our kids. Music to my ears!  

V7 gets the works

The day before they went under the knife

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moving Pairs

We moved the first set of pairs today. It’s my favorite horseback task. It’s slow for one thing, in fact the slower you go the quicker you’ll get done. Mom needs to keep her baby with her so patience is paramount.

Separating pairs from the “dries” (uncalved, non-lactating cows) is engaging work. The dries have a different mentality, a devil-may-care attitude, like a young adult with no responsibilities. You can usually tell them because they have a clean tail (no birth fluids messing things up), a full “bloomy” coat and belly, and a flacid udder with no tell-tale sucking signs. Sometimes it’s hard to tell as some udders fill a long time before calving. The calved cows are motherly, with fleshy, toned udders. And if you put pressure on them they usually look around for their calf.

Strolling through the herd must be done very carefully. You want the dries to stay glued to their spot. If they feel any pressure, you’ll get a mass migration and chaos at the gate.

Following the separation and as the new pairs file into their new field, each one is observed to make sure they anchor with their other half. Sometimes in their excitement to enter a fresh field, a few cows may run ahead and leave their babies behind. If that happens we put them back together. If they're not firmly attached in their new pasture, they’ll go back, sometimes even jumping the fence if a cow, or crawling through the fence if a calf.

We choose a calm day; wind makes cattle flighty. And on windy days calves stick to the ground and Mom has a hard time finding them. We get them settled in their new pasture before dark. 

Moving pairs is about technique, sensitivity and patience. Good attributes to keep in mind whenever you handle cattle.  

Sly nudging a calf up

Checking out the new pasture