I have let this reality ranching sit in the computer for nearly a month so the next two paragraphs are last-minute additions (now days!).
It is the 24th of March and Paul is out plowing snow out of various driveways! Our small spring cowherd is calving now. We calve out our spring cows late in March to avoid snowstorms. HA!! Now I remember why I hate calving in the spring. Eight of our twelve first calf heifers have already calved and I wasn’t worried about the four left to calve as we have a shed we can put them in. Still it wasn’t fun to go trudging out there at 10 p.m. last night in the blowing snow to check on their welfare. Paul unrolled hay last night for the twenty mature cows, five of them with 1 to 4 day old babies, in a deep draw out of the relentless wind.
We went to feed the spring cows first thing this morning driving through drifts that were formed from the 6 inches of snow that fell in the night. We found 20 cows and 4 calves standing and laying where Paul had fed them last night. As we searched the brush piles for the missing baby I saw numerous coyote tracks in the snow and I was not feeling optimistic we would find the little calf alive if at all. Just when I was facing the fact that the calf had perished, I heard a plaintive bawl and turned to see Paul picking up a snow-covered calf a good thirty yards south of the cows. The calf was lying next to a dead branch basically in the open which gave it no protection from the snow. When Paul first saw the recumbent calf he was sure it was dead. I suppose the cow thought it was a good place to hide her baby and left him there for the night. This mature cow goes in the books as a darn poor mother as cows with new babies always stay by their calves at night. If it had been colder than 27 degrees I’m sure the calf would not have survived. As it was we got the calf together with its dimwitted dam and when it began to nurse we knew the baby would be feeling much better once its belly was full of warm milk. Oh yes, nothing calved last night thank goodness!
It is March and as usual I don’t know how the winter months went by so quickly. We continue to worry about drought although we received one nice rain in January and one big snow in February. The foot of snow we received is equal to 1 inch of rain and we would need 17 feet more of snow to catch up with our deficient moisture according to our weatherman! Thanks but I would prefer to catch up with rain although we will take moisture in any form. Since I wrote this paragraph we had an inch of rain a week or so after the snow. Not much help for our ponds but still every little bit is welcome.
Due to the shortage and expense of hay this winter we are being very frugal when feeding the cows. We try to feed no more than what each bunch of cows need even though saving a fourth or less of a large round bale seems stingy. However, four quarters equals a whole bale and a large round bale of brome is easily worth 80 dollars. We feed 8 big bales everyday so we can’t afford to overfeed. With snow on the ground and cold temperatures this past week we have been feeding the cows that last 200 or 300 pounds as they need extra hay to make up for the energy they must expend to keep warm.
Speaking of hay we were struck in January by hay thieves. Ironically, they stole hay from the same farmstead where our cattle were stolen a few years ago. Unlike the cattle the prime 4th cutting alfalfa was not recovered. The bums cut the fence, yes we had the gate locked, and loaded up 40 to 50 small square bales. So to add insult to injury they left us (well Randall) with a fence to repair too.
Because we were so dry in August most of the alfalfa wasn’t tall enough to harvest but there were areas in our fields that had some taller growth. Paul decided that it was worthwhile to mow this better alfalfa and spent a lot of time running around in the fields cutting these patches. When he was finished Paul had 100 square bales of prime alfalfa for all his trouble. It was beautiful hay and in this high market it is easily worth 10 bucks a bale. That means the thieves made 400 or 500 dollars for their crime. It probably took them 20 minutes to load the bales up while Paul spent hours putting the hay up. Grrrrr.
CLEANING UP THE PRAIRIE
We continued to fight trees and brush this winter in various pastures. Usually Paul and Randall would work at cutting and spraying the unwanted trees alone or as a team. A friend of ours who especially detests the water sucking evergreens spent some of his Saturdays in the fight against these woody prairie invaders. I got in on the fun twice when I helped Paul in the Brashe pasture and the Home West. Paul would lead the way girdling the trunks of the trees with the chainsaw and I would follow him, spray pack on my back, shooting a jet of herbicide into the cuts of the trees and basal spraying the clumps of brush.
While the results of cleaning up our pastures are very rewarding, the physical exertion it takes to gain these results, at least for me, is tough. Paul must bend low when sawing the circular cut into a tree’s trunk, which is hard on the chainsaw operators back. The spray pack and its contents that I carry on my back sloshes and shifts with the lay of the land. If I walk uphill it tips me back, if I bend over or walk downhill my load slops forward.Missteps can send the liquid load and me sideways. The good news is that my burden diminishes with every tree or clump of brush I spray!
Paul and I tackled the Home West one afternoon beginning our work on the south end of the pasture. The first ravine we start in doesn’t have many large trees but plenty of dogwood and buck brush for me to spray. Paul finishes well ahead of me and moves to the other side of the hill. When I finish annihilating the enemy, I walk along the side of the hill to join Paul. Anticipating that my spray pack will be empty (yes it is) Paul has left a jug of spray along the path I chose to walk. How did he know I would come that way? Again there is more brush than mature trees in this area. When Paul is done sawing tree trunks he takes over my job in order to give me a break. I walk up the hill to the pickup and wait as Paul basal sprays the thickets of dogwood that are scattered along the hillside.
When Paul returns to the truck we drive to the north side of the small pasture. This is where the worst infestation of trees and woody plants are and it will take many more afternoons of work to put this pasture right. After looking at the many possibilities we have to choose from, Paul settles on a draw near the middle of the pasture. The group of heifers that occupy this patch of prairie crowd around the pickup looking for hay despite the fact that they were fed this morning. The young bovines curiously watch as we fuel the chainsaw and fill up the empty tank with spray. As we walk away our audience remains clustered around the feed truck unwilling to accept that seconds are not going to be served.
I think Paul started working on the south side of the Home East as a warm up for this densely wooded ravine. There are many mature trees growing in it and they are surrounded with prickly multiflora rose and big patches of dogwood. The ground is slick from a light rain we had last night and I find the footing treacherous at times. I often forget I have an extra foot of width on my back and when ducking under branches to reach a girdled trunk I often get stuck which forces me to back up and crouch lower to reach my target. The thorny multiflora rose snags my clothes as I fight my way through the vines grasping tentacles. My sunglasses have slid part way down on my nose. A branch snags in such a way that when it releases it whipsaws and slaps me across the bridge of my nose. Ouch, I can feel beads of blood where the branch inflicted its damage. I know we will win the war but right now I feel like I’m losing the battle.
My pack is becoming suspiciously light and I am far from the bottom of the gully. I trudge up the hill to the pickup where the heifers, some standing, some lying down have maintained their hopeful vigil. I pour more herbicide into the empty spray tank and head back downhill. I meet Paul who has finished scoring all the big trees. Paul offers to finish up for me and it is very tempting to hand the sprayer over to him but I shake off my lazy tendency and decline his offer. When I reach the bottom of the hill I have emptied not only the sprayer but my energy. Paul and I trek up the hill to the pickup heaving a sigh of relief as we settle into the dirty, worn seats. We are both tired and ready to call it a day. The herd of heifers reluctantly part to allow the pickup through their midst and as we drive away perhaps they finally realize we were never there to feed them!
Paul are you going out to work on the fence? I knew he was of course and I tell him he is crazy. It is a gloomy March afternoon with temperatures in the mid-thirties accompanied by a stiff, raw north wind. He has worked on restoring his fence in worse weather in the past. I believe it was two years ago that Paul went out to stack rocks as snow began to fall because the forecast was for several inches of snow and he knew that his “hobby” would have to wait until the snow melted. I believe I called him an idiot that time, half-jokingly of course. Our mailman, who is a childhood friend of Pauls’, was delivering mail that snowy day and stopped long enough to ask Paul if someone had dropped him on his head when he was a baby. Half-jokingly of course! This same friend often encounters Paul stacking rocks as he delivers our mail in the mid-afternoon and manages to come up with some sarcastic remark which Paul laughingly repeats to me. In the world of men these remarks are somehow an offhand compliment I guess:). At times our mailman throws a handful of miniature candy bars in Paul’s direction that makes Paul scramble after them like a kid at a small town parade. This is to my benefit as Paul really doesn’t care for chocolate (I know, crazy!) so the candy windfall is usually mine to consume.
On the flip side of the good-natured ribbing Paul receives are the genuine accolades about his stone work from friends and strangers alike. If anyone asks where we live once we mention the stone fences south of Alma the universal response is “Oh, I know where that is, it is beautiful”. The unspoken compliments that Paul receives on his restoration work come in the form of the myriad of folks who stop to photograph or paint his restored fences. Paul likes to tell people if he had a dollar for every photo taken or picture painted of the stone fences the past 10 years we could retire. That’s right; he has been working on his project for 10 years.
Paul set a big goal for this winter which is to finish the stone wall along the road leading to our driveway. The unfinished length was 700 feet which might not seem that far until you know that a good afternoon’s work is 11 or 12 feet! We have had plenty of inclement weather that has slowed Paul’s progress down. Since we are approaching a very busy part of spring the days he will be able to devote to the fence restoration will dwindle. I’d put my money on Paul meeting his goal even if it means working on that fence through May.
One more addition to this languishing reality ranching. Paul came in from laying up stone fence the other day declaring that he finally figured out what he had been doing wrong building stone fence all these years. I literally let out a lamented “Oh no, what is that” partly worried that my perfectionist husband was going to start rebuilding all his finished work! Paul replies “because I have been drinking water instead of whiskey all these years. What? Then he shows me the old whiskey bottle he uncovered while digging out old rocks using the tractor and bucket that the original fence builders had left lay.
How in the world this old bottle survived the past century(?) and then was not crushed by the tractor scoop is a miracle. After puzzling over the slightly mishapen neck of the old bottle for a couple of days it also dawns on me there are no seams. Plus the concave bottom has a center bead. Searching old bottles on the internet I confirm my suspisions that this is a hand blown bottle. I guess Paul was meant to find and rescue this relic possibly left behind from a past stone fence builder. Later, Nancy