Reality Ranching May 201
The drab of winter has left our corner of the world and the prairie is now carpeted in the lush green of growing bluestem grass. We continue to miss the heavy rains that are needed to flush out the creek and fill up our depleted ponds. Others not far from us have overflowing ponds due to heavy rains. These spotty, hit and miss rains have been the case in Wabaunsee County for the past three years. We keep telling ourselves that the next serious rain event surely will pass over the southwest end of Wabaunsee county. One of these days our expectations will be met!
I haven’t written a reality ranching for several months, so I am reaching back to last December for the first story.
Today we are working the calves that are at Milton’s farm. The first order of the day is enticing the herd into the working pen by stringing alfalfa hay out in front of them, in hopes that most will follow Paul willingly into the confines of the pens. There are always a few wise cows that must be chased up the small incline to join their greedy herd mates.
Once the herd is captured, we sort the calves off their mothers into a smaller pen. The noisy protest opposing our action begins almost immediately, once the separation of cows and calves are completed. It is mostly the cows that loudly voice their disapproval even though they can see and smell their calves through the steel panels. I always find the ensuing and continuous uproar from the cows ridiculous, plus it hurts my ears!
My job is to sort off a few calves into an even smaller pen, take one calf from this group, chase it up the alley and push the critter into the calf cradle. Once the calf enters the cradle, Randall and Paul tip the contraption onto its side which makes it easier to work the calf. The guys then vaccinate, brand, and if the calf is a bull, they castrate him.
I always try to sort the youngest and smallest calves off first so they can quickly rejoin mama. This also keeps the smallest calves from being jostled and pushed around by the larger calves. In this bunch of calves the youngest one is a heifer calf, uniquely marked with an almost heart-shaped, white spot in the middle of her black forehead. Each time I go after more calves to put them into the smaller pen, she hides in the midst of the group, and escapes my good intentions of reuniting her with mom.
Finally, I am down to the last few calves, and this time the spunky heifer has no choice but to enter the smaller pen. Despite my best efforts to guide her into the alley ahead of the larger calves, the little bugger manages to work herself to the back of the bunch every time.
When I am down to the last calf to be worked it is, of course, the calf marked with the heart. Using the calf paddle, I try to maneuver the baby calf to the entrance of the alley way. This device usually works wonderfully when you place the plastic paddle in front of one eye or the other. The calves can't see in that direction, so they turn in the direction you want them to go. This little girl isn’t falling for the nifty trick and just busts through the optical illusion that the paddle is. On the third try I throw the paddle down and just grab this bundle of adrenalin. I feel the tautness of her muscles that are virtually humming with determination to escape. The hard-headed calf wiggles free of my grasp and butts me in the knee to escape once again, I am laughing so hard I can hardly make another attempt at corralling the wild thing.
Besides Randall and Paul watching this private rodeo, there are two men working on replacing a hydrant near the pen. One of the men who own this farm is here too, helping the contractors in their work. The trio stops what they are doing to watch this nearly 60-year-old woman take on a month old calf. As I struggle to gain control of my 100 pound adversary, Paul’s voice rings out with fake impatience saying “Come on Nancy”. This only makes me laugh harder, but this time I manage to hang on to the bucking, angry heifer. Once the calf has been conquered, the crew of three shakes their heads, chuckle, and get back to working on their own project.
The calf probably spends a minute and a half in the cradle before the men are finished working her, making all the energy she expended trying to avoid her fate, seem rather silly. As for me, I will have bruises on my shins from a couple of well-aimed kicks for a few days, courtesy of my opponent.
Now that we are finished processing calves, we sort off the cows with the youngest calves in order to haul them to another farm, and this time it is my turn to laugh. As Randall and Paul are loading the baby calves in the back of the trailer, the heart-marked calf refuses to cooperate. When Randall grabs hold of her, the calf fights until Randall, like I did, loses his grip on the heifer. On the second try he muscles the kicking, bucking calf into the trailer with the other calves. One can’t help but have some begrudging admiration for the stubborn rascal.
While accompanying their Dad to chore one morning, Dalton and Jake name our contrarian calf, Sweetheart. The name Sweetheart alludes to the mark on her head, but little did the boys know that this name is also a sarcastic moniker of her less than sweet nature.
This winter, Randall has another run in with Sweetheart. When his count on calves is one short, his search for a missing calf leads him to the frozen creek. There he locates Sweetheart sprawled in the middle of a frozen pool on the creek. Randall has to walk out on the slippery surface and grab the helpless calf's leg to drag her off the ice. Naturally, Sweetheart fights Randall’s attempt to help her, making the rescue much harder than it needed to be. Little ingrate! And if you exclaim, why didn’t Randall pick the calf up instead of pulling her off the ice! Envision trying to pick up a by now 150 pound, struggling calf on slippery ice, and I’ll let your imagination figure out how that scenario would end.
Fast forward to this spring, when we are processing the same calves to booster the vaccines they were given last fall. The calves have easily tripled in size since we worked them last, and Paul has to push the calves into the working chute. As the number of the calves to work dwindles, Randall and I look back to see Sweetheart doing laps around the holding area, where Paul funnels the calves into the alley way. Randall and I see Paul standing behind the gate where the entire group of calves was penned at the start of the day. Normally Paul stays in the small pen with the calf he has sorted off. We both start laughing and ask Paul what the problem is. He sincerely replies “I think she would take me (charge) "! This makes us laugh louder and I say, “Ya think?”.
Due to Sweethearts demeanor it is guaranteed that she will not become part of the cow herd. We don”t put up with trouble makers or mean animals. The aggravation they cause, and the fact that a nasty temper often leads to a cow that has no qualms about trying to do harm to their human handlers, isn’t worth putting up with. It is too bad Sweetheart was born with a bad disposition, as she is such a uniquely marked heifer in addition to being a physically well-made bovine.
In the winter, Paul and I feed cattle together on the north end of the ranch, while Randall (the young guy) feeds alone on the south end of the ranch. Paul drives the pickup, I open gates and we both cut and pull twine off the big bales we feed. Once the twine is removed from the bale, Paul drives the truck and operates the hydra bed which unrolls the big bale of hay. I walk alongside the bale so I can holler at Paul to stop unrolling the bale, when enough hay has been laid out for whatever group of cows we are feeding.
This morning we are feeding in the field below our house. The cows are waiting nearby, but we drive halfway across the brome field to put some distance between us and the herd. This gives us a chance to remove the twine from the hay before the cows mob the truck in order to snatch bites of hay from the unrolled bale.
Once Paul begins unrolling hay, I am soon surrounded by cattle as we walk along the lengthening strip of hay. I enjoy walking in the midst of the cowherd. The frozen ground amplifies the sound of the cattle’s hooves as they stride towards the offered hay. Their frozen breath leaves wispy vapor trails in the air. It is rather peaceful, plodding along with the herd.
Suddenly my reverie is interrupted by a sharp, loud, “maaw” practically yelled in my ear. A cow then runs past me, and kicks in my direction as she passes by. My adrenalin kicked in when the cow bawled behind me, and I instinctively drew back when I saw the bottom of a hoof about head high, though she was safely out of range to actually make contact. Dang! I recover quickly and yell at the cow as she runs on down the hay line. I keep my eye on her, and when I reach the smart-alecky cow, I read the white freeze brand numbers on her hip, which are 013. I tell her she is a rat and move on.
A few days later, I again hear “boo” in cow talk directly behind me, followed by the cow running past me, then an exclamation point in the guise of a kick in my direction. Blast it, 013 got me again. Well, so much for enjoying the peaceful reverie with the cow herd.
This cow played her practical joke on me several times through the winter and I never heard her coming. Dang it cow, you blasted cow, doggone you, are a few of the phrases that I utter after being startled by the sneaky cow. I have no idea what possesses 013 to pull this trick on me but I admit that in the end it makes me laugh.
The Great Escape
It is late April and we are counting the days until we can turn the cattle onto the greening flint hills pastures. We are tired of feeding hay every day to the cows and the cows are eyeing the fresh, green grass that has only a thin wire fence separating them from the lush oasis.
Paul and I have finished feeding on this Sunday by mid-morning. It is a lovely spring day with the promise of much-needed rain developing late this afternoon. I have settled into the easy chair in our sun room with a good book intending to relax until it is time to get lunch. I gaze down the valley taking in the beautiful view I never tire of looking at. I look out at our meandering creek, growing brome grass, and the velvety green hills. The cattle are spread out over Milton’s alfalfa field, placidly grazing. What the…, Paul, the cows are out on the alfalfa field!!
It is amazing how quick one can get out of a chair, change into your chore clothes and be out the door when duty calls. We get into the Ranger and take off to round-up the wayward cows. Growing alfalfa and cows don’t mix as the alfalfa can cause them to bloat up with frothy gas and literally kill them. We have had the misfortune of two cows dying from alfalfa bloat in the past.
When we arrive at the alfalfa field we begin to gather the scattered cows into a group and herd them towards the gate. Surprisingly, the bovines give us little resistance and we move them into the adjacent brome field in a matter of minutes. Evidently the cows filled up on brome before they discovered the open gate that leads to the alfalfa field. Paul must take down the electric fence, which was supposed to keep the cows in the dry lot, so we can get them back to where they belong.
Once the fence is down, we push the escapees over the wire which is now lying on the ground. All goes well until the last two cows balk, and refuse to step over the wire that they know will “bite” them. Even though the wire is lying flat on the ground the cows are so brainwashed they turn back and run past Paul and I. We manage to bring the duo back for a second try to one cow decides she is more frightened of the yelling, arm-flapping humans than the wire. The other cow stampedes past us again, and we know that trying to corral her via this route is a lost cause. We watch as the ornery cow runs back into the brome field, and then turn our attention to figuring out how all these cows escaped. The electric fence was still standing and in working order when we arrived so the cows had to have breached the steep creek bank. Sure enough when studying the bank we see where the dirt has been trampled by the hooves of 40 head of cattle. I can’t believe they went up that vertical bank! I suppose one determined cow climbed up the dirt wall with the rest of the herd watching, and they figured if she can do it so can we.
Paul and I go home and gather up the material to build an electric fence at the bottom of the creek bank. If this new hot wire won’t keep them in, we will have to keep the cows locked off the creek and haul water to them. Come on cows, just a few more days and we will set you free! Later, Nancy
P.S. the fence worked for the duration of the cow’s confinement which was another ten days. The lone renegade decided she missed her herd mates within minutes after she escaped. The cow went back down the steep bank exactly where the cows had climbed up to escape. As I watched the cow slide down the creek bank, she reminded me of a wildebeest during migration, plunging down the river banks of the Zambezi!