Monday, March 31, 2014

Ode to Alan

Our friend Alan teaches on the other side of the state. He always has plenty to do manning his ag shop, a new home and an active family. But even so, he carved a precious 4 days from his spring break vacation to help out on the ranch. He’s been coming to “help out on the ranch” for over twenty years.

He’s a mechanic extraordinaire and likes nothing better than to come rescue us when we have a major (or minor) equipment breakdown during haying season. He’s on a first name basis with the local parts store guy. He’s a smooth-as-silk semi truck driver and tractor operator. And he’s all pro. He hauls his power washer over on occasion to clean up our well used equipment. He wears coveralls, eye and ear protection and vinyl gloves - habits I wish Mark would pick up! I know our disorganized shop sends him crazy, but he doesn’t mention it, and keeps showing up to sort through our asundried tools and work his magic on this and that.

He helped us build our home, has a rock solid work ethic and is always joking and enjoying himself. He and Mark working together can figure anything out. He's the kind of guy you want in your corner.

This weekend it wasn’t mechanic work, but tending cows, fixing a downed wire and repairing a water trough that took his talents. The weather turned wintry and we had a split crew feeding the cows. I was driving, and as he and I were leaving the yard for another field of cows and calves, he asked if I could navigate okay in the heavy snowfall and foggy windows. I assured him I could and not three minutes later slipped into a ditch with the ’73 International. After he pulled me out with Gary’s 4-wheel drive, we again got stuck taking straw to the calves over uneven ground. He had to take over the wheel and get more aggressive than me. He didn't even dump the load.     

If that wasn’t enough, when he was working on the water trough, face first in a sand pit maneuvering the stand pipe into place, I got locked in the barn and he had to rescue me. He even took the door knob apart and got it working again.

There have been many times he's helped us through challenging days. We might be moving to summer range and we’re about to open the gates and put several hundred pairs of cows and calves out on the road. There’s watering facilities to set up, bulls to haul, fencing to shore up and yards to guard. Or it might be branding time. There’s wood to haul for the branding fire, panels to set up to make a temporary corral, cows to feed and a herd to bring in and work. Whatever we’re anticipating, it looks a whole lot brighter when Alan drives into the yard. Just don’t ask him to get on a horse.  

his other forte, castrating calves

Monday, March 17, 2014

A World of Calving

In last week’s blog post, I said we had a calf that needed a mother. Well now she’s got one.

We had a nice cow give birth to a dead calf, no sign as to why. We took her to the barn and suckled the orphan on her. By suckling, I mean restraining the cow and putting the calf to her udder by hand. At first any cow kicks off an unfamiliar calf by smell, but if you give it 2-3 days of twice/day nursing, the cow will usually accept the calf. Partly because her milk runs through him and he becomes more familiar to her.

Mark decided to hurry this particular adoption along by skinning the dead calf and tying the hide onto the orphaned baby. After one night together in a barn stall they were good to go. I threw the hide over the fence; the mother cow none the wiser. 

The great majority of births go as planned, but there’s always a few that go awry. Most problems on the ranch have to do with mal-presentation of the fetus. A calf is supposed to enter the birth canal front feet first with the head laying forward. However, a calf may have grown wrong in the uterus and is unable to be delivered because of a leg back, the head facing downward, has his butt first or even, as Mark described the other day, “in a wad.” In these cases there’s no good outcome if left to nature.  

Mark generally notices if a cow has been calving too long and will take her to the barn for assistance. He puts a long plastic sleeve over his arm and reaches in the cow. He pushes and pulls (often with accompanying curses) and corrects the calf’s position. He then lets the cow deliver the calf on her own, or helps by pulling either by hand or with a “calf puller,” a simple device that multiplies torque. Most of these cases have successful outcomes.

But even with a rancher on call, a few still die. I told Mark it must be spring because each one of our three herding dogs has a calf carcass to consume.  That may sound grisly, but it’s good food and proper to replace manufactured dog food when possible. Besides, I assume that predators have always prospered during the calving interval of wild herds. 

As an aside, the dogs are tied out in front of the house. It’s a gruesome scene - not really the best time to entertain out-of-town guests.

the ruse is on

another sign of spring - tulips!

one that didn't suck - leading the cow to the barn

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moms Rock

It’s Anna’s birthday today. I was very pregnant with her 21 years ago when the cows were calving. I helped with chores like usual that year, but avoided being around the barn if Mark was assisting a difficult birth. Not what you want to see when you’re mentally preparing for your own delivery!

It’s the time of year when we appreciate good mothers more than ever. You can never, ever replace what a mom gives. Cow or human.  

We have an orphan calf in the barn. Mark figures she was a twin that got left behind when the cow wandered off with the other calf. She's nursing a bottle and doing okay, but she really needs her own mother that will get her up every few hours to nurse, lick her, fuss over her and teach her how to be a cow.  

One year when the kids were little, we had a mama cat get hit on the road and left four kittens behind. I bought a tiny nursing bottle and some kitten milk replacer and thought I could keep them alive. It was an absolute mess. They didn’t nurse the bottle much and cried continually. They were covered with their own feces and urine and so frantic to suck that they sucked on each other in unmentionable places. I tried bathing them, but in a few hours their skinny bodies were filthy again. It was heartbreaking. 

By luck we had a cousin that had a mama cat with only one kitten, and yes, we were welcome to come get them. We put the kittens in a box with the cat and she immediately accepted them, licking them clean and nursing them along with her own. Like magic the kittens were buttery soft and content. I’ve never looked at mothering the same way since.

Men are great. They build stuff, protect us, make money, fix things and tackle all the many tasks that go into maintaining healthy families. They’re strong and steady and build nations. But mothering is pivotal, the job we foundationally cannot do without. And whether mom or dad does it (or shares it) “mothering,” the most momentous of callings, still needs done.

following mom to a new field at only 2 days old


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spring - perhaps

The red-wing blackbirds are back. There’s been all kinds of singing going on the last few days, but the throaty calls of the newcomers are unmistakable. It feels (and now sounds) like spring. I’m still hoping for more winter weather though and the forecast looks hopeful.

We’ve started getting calves; six born overnight.

I’ve been walking to ranch headquarters in the morning with my dog Kate since it warmed up. I sang a tune to her today that I remember from my childhood:

K-K-K-Katy, beautiful lady, you’re the only one that I-I-I- adore.
When the m-moonshines, over the cow shed, I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.

We met Mark making his rounds on the 4-wheeler as he came out of the heifer field. He had me hold onto his new heated handle bars so I could see how warm they were. Nice! He was forever freezing his hands before his Mom got him the upgrade as a Christmas present. Even a cowboy benefits from new technology. I told him next he would be asking for eggs in his beer. The down side? He's run down the battery twice when he turned off the 4-wheeler and forgot to unhook the heating unit.  

If you read my blog much, you know I don’t sugarcoat the ranching life. It’s basically just life. I have my challenges day in and out just being happy. It’s good to be me of late, however. I make the brisk 10-minute walk to work, check in with great grandma, feed cows for a couple of hours, walk back, then spend the day doing whatever else I choose. It’s generally productive work, but it’s my own schedule and for that I’m grateful.

Gary is always quoting someone or other. This is a good one, not necessarily about ranching - just living. “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

I wrote this yesterday, and overnight we had snow. These two are tending their very first calves and doing a good job of it.