Reality Ranching, August 2015
I don’t know where this summer has gone but I don’t think I have written any ranch blogs since early spring! The drought that had Kansas in its grip for the past four years was broken this year. It began raining in mid-May and basically hasn’t stopped (well since I have taken so long to finish this blog, the rain has stopped!). The Flint Hills of Kansas are as lush and green in early August as you would expect them to be in June. The corn and soybeans look as though they will produce bin busting yields although a lot can happen between now and harvest. With the plentiful rains comes excessive humidity which is the downside of all the ample moisture, making it feel like we are in the middle of the jungle.
The summer of 2015 brought another phenomenon besides the abundant rain, and that was the appearance of the seventeen year cicada. Smaller than our normal locust, the red-eyed insects crawled out of the ground by the thousands and screeched all day long for several weeks. In our yard tree and bushes were covered with the bulging eyed insects, and if you walked under the trees disturbing the bugs into flight, often a few of the cicada would settle on you with their prickly legs.
The plague of cicadas made for easy pickings for insect eaters. I saw two black snakes with cicada sized bumps running nearly the full length of the snakes sleek bodies and I couldn’t help but laugh at the funny sight. I was told by a friend that a neighbor’s dog ate so many of the cicadas that it became ill and the owner had to take the dog to the vet.
Dalton, our partners’ oldest son, showed me membranes on the belly of a cicada and informed me that this is how the cicadas make their ear-splitting noise. I informed Dalton that only the males sing and he exclaimed “so that is why some of them don’t have this on their belly”. We both learned something about the interesting cicada.
Sure the cicadas were a bit annoying, especially their incessant, loud, so-called singing, which I read can reach 90 decibels per cicada (multiply that noise level by thousands)! However, after reading up on the life cycle of these amazing bugs I didn’t complain. I also pointed out to several people that most of us 60 and over will only experience this phenomenon one possibly two more time in our life or never again! That makes one think doesn’t it!
I was working at the computer, when Paul walked in the house and announced that he needed some help. Paul has been hauling hay debris that had built up around the hay rings in our winter lots to a wash out in our pasture and dumping it in the eroded ravine in hopes that this will stop future erosion. Paul told me that the old Ford dump truck was stuck in a ditch and I would have to help him pull the truck out.
I assumed we would be taking the 4 wheel drive pickup to rescue the 2 ton Ford but Paul, after grabbing a log chain, walked to the new tractor (well it’s used but new to us) , climbed into the driver’s seat while I settled into the buddy seat. As we drive into the small pasture, I am scanning the area for the stuck truck but I can’t see any sign of it. Paul drives to the wash out where the hay litter is being disposed and I exclaim out loud. That “ditch” Paul said the truck was stuck in is actually the water eroded ravine he was dumping the loads into. With my mouth agape, I listen as Paul explains how he backed up to the edge of the “ditch” to empty the truck’s load, (the last load of the day of course), and could feel the truck slipping off the edge. Paul had the good sense to turn the key off, exit the dump truck, and then he watched as the truck rolled backwards into the abyss. The front tires of the big old truck clutch at the edge of the small ravine like a dangling kitten hanging on for dear life to a tree limb, and the front grill of the old truck points mostly skyward. Holy smokes!
I am very skeptical that the tractor can extract the swallowed truck and point out to Paul that we might need a crane to deliver the Ford out of its grave! Paul has more faith in our ability to rescue the Ford, and he backs the Case tractor up to the semi-vertical truck, attaches the heavy log chain to the back of the tractor and to the front axle of the sun bleached Ford. He tells me to get in the truck, to which I immediately reply “no way am I getting in that truck. I have never driven the “new-used” tractor but I am about to get a crash course on the basics!
Paul gives me a quick lesson on the fundamentals of the tractor, not so different from our smaller tractors, and then he climbs into the truck. When I let my imagination go it appears Paul and the old Ford are preparing for a launch into space. Paul turns the key and the Fords engine fires right up and fortunately Paul and the truck stay earth-bound. I slowly drive the tractor forward until the chain is taut and I continue to ease the tractor forward. There is brief tug of war but the tractor, with some self-help from the old truck, begins to drag the Ford from the “ditch” little by little. Once it is horizontal again, Paul and I look the Ford over which appears to be none the worse for wear. Paul backs up to the washout, making sure he stays away from the edge this time, and finishes dumping the load out of the truck bed.
Later I inform Paul that this will make a good story for my reality ranching blog, in which he replies that he was afraid I would write about it. However, partly out of relief I suppose, we begin laughing about the whole episode and particularly the crazy position the truck was in when it hit the bottom of the ravine. If the “ditch” had been a couple of feet deeper we sure wouldn’t have been able to rescue the hapless truck. Paul now admits that it was too bad I didn’t have my camera with me. Believe me if Paul had been a little clearer about the “ditch” the truck was stuck in I would have had digital evidence of the predicament the truck found itself in!
This summer we were able to rent a pasture that borders some of our pastures here at home. Anyone that farms or ranches knows that when the opportunity to rent ground right next to you comes up, you don’t pass that opportunity up. The problem for us was that we didn’t have any cattle to stock the section pasture with! We certainly didn’t want to buy cattle as we have a closed herd, (we raise all our own replacement females), and so we needed to find someone who needed pasture and had enough cows to fill the 640 acre pasture for the summer. By chance (maybe) a conversation with a young couple we were on safari with last summer, involved the problems they have finding summer grass for all the cows in their families operation. Remembering that conversation, Paul made a phone call to our safari friends and a deal was made to summer some of their family’s spring calving cows and their calves.
Paul and I are making our weekly check on the herd on a beautiful Sunday morning in June. We have a couple of prime square bales of alfalfa hay to scatter out for the cows in hopes of getting them lined up and thinned out to make it easier to count the cows and calves. Some of the cows begin greedily consuming the rich flakes of hay I toss on the ground as Paul slowly drives the Ranger along the edge of the herd. Other cows are unimpressed with our offering and don’t bother to walk the few steps to see what their herd mates are munching on. Since the cows are standing in lush bluestem grass with their bellies full of the native grass it is hardly surprising they ignore us. The baby calves have zero interest in what we humans are doing and like any youngsters they refuse to stand still and they run or walk all through the cows.
Once all the hay is scattered, Paul drives the Ranger on one side of the cows and I walk on the other side where we manage to get a correct count on the cows. However we notice that only two of the three bulls are with the cows. We reverse course and try to count the calves but come up a few short, so we try again. Paul comes up one calf short while I come up two short on the number of calves there should be. Darn it. The alfalfa has been consumed by now and the cows are beginning to drift away. Paul and I try counting the calves one last time and end up with what we feel is a pretty good count but both of us come up one calf short of 78. Well we know positively we are short one of the mature bulls so we will go look for him.
Paul drives to the corral in the southeast corner of the pasture to make sure the bull hasn’t managed to get himself trapped in one of the pens. I scan the pasture for any sign of the massive beast and spy what is the unmistakable form of a black bull walking along the western horizon. Paul and I know we have found the missing bull because there are no other bulls around this pasture. Even though we are looking at the wayward bull from nearly a mile away we are certain the rascal is in what we call the Brashe pasture with some of our fall calving cows.
It would be nice if we could drive a straight line through the pasture to the bull but a deep ravine between us and the bull won’t allow that. Instead we drive into the neighbors pasture and follow the fence line to a cross fence where a gate in the corner lets us get into the next pasture. The easy terrain we were driving over ends here and it is too rough to continue driving down the fence line. We are halfway to our destination so I decide to walk from here while Paul drives off in search of a crossing point for the ranger. I trudge down the hill in my mud boots, cross a stream flowing through the ravine, then climb a steep hill. As I crest the hill I see our cows with the runaway bull standing next to the gate that opens into the new pasture. How lucky is that? As I continue walking towards the cattle, I suddenly notice a young calf standing near our cows but the calf is in the pasture I am walking in. It has to be the missing calf because there are feeder steers in this pasture. Gee maybe I should buy a lottery ticket today!
Paul has found his way through the ravine and is approaching rapidly from the south. I move his way and begin gesturing and pointing at the calf in hopes that Paul will understand, slow down and not spook the young calf into running away. Paul sees me and eases up on the Ranger’s gas pedal and when he spots the forlorn calf, he comes to a complete stop. I slowly walk to the gate, open it, retreat, and Paul eases up to the calf and herds him through the gate. Now we go after the bull which turns out to be no problem at all because as soon as we open the Brashe pasture gate, the big boy saunters through as though we perform this ritual every day. I guess he found out that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence because these cows are already with calf and have no need of a bull!
We need to check the fence to see how this big fellow got into the Brashe pasture and we haven’t driven far when we find the source of entry for the trespasser. The fence is leaning over slightly and the top wire is broken. I find it amazing that a ton plus bull managed to jump over this still functional fence. We look closer and see that a battle took place next to the fence as the grass is trampled into mud and there are sliding hoof prints where the two gladiators have pushed each other in a test of strength. Obviously the vanquished bull turned tail and escaped over the fence into our pasture. Dang bulls anyway.
Paul fixes the fence and now we must try to take the calf to his mother as we are afraid he will end up with our cows if we just leave him by himself. Paul and I argue about how to do this. I want to take the bull and the calf along the fence, hoping the little fellow will want to stay with the bull while assuming that the bull will be anxious to return to the herd. Paul doesn’t think the calf will pay attention to the bull and wants to take the black calf down the road and around the big ravine. I argue if we do it my way at least we will have the fence to help haze the critters. I win the argument and we start Mutt and Jeff walking along the fence. The calf soon breaks away and runs back to where our cows are standing. Oh great. We try again and this time we get the mismatched pair down to the big ravine where the old bull finds the perfect tree limb to scratch his back on. When the herd bull stops to scratch his itch, the bull calf tries to reverse course so I wave my arms at the calf in an effort to keep him headed in the right direction. The calf panics and jumps through the tight fence right back into the pasture he was in when I first saw him. Good grief. I slip through the barbed wire fence with some difficulty as the calf is hightailing it back to our cows. As the calf is receding in the distance I proceed to tell him what a knucklehead he is (well I might not have used that word), and point out that he does not belong to that cow herd!
Paul drives the Ranger back to open the gate (again) so we can at least put the silly calf back in the pasture he belongs in. I’m sure Paul is grumbling under his breath at my failed theory of using the fence to help guide the two bovines. The bolting calf is starting to veer away from the fence so Paul opens the gate, drives through it, and then circles around the speeding calf, bringing him back towards the gate with the Ranger. Once the calf sees the open gate he gladly runs back into the pasture he belongs in.
Paul and I agree that there is only one thing left that we can do to unite this lost calf with his mother, and that is to walk the entire herd to where the brain washed calf is standing. Paul sends the Ranger racing down the road that skirts around the deep ravine then he takes the machine off the road, points it uphill and we bump along over hidden rocks in the tall grass as we make our way back to the cow herd.
The black cows have ended up by the pens where Paul and I first saw the bull, some grazing while others are lying down, contentedly chewing their cud. Paul and I drive behind them making the resting cows get to their feet and we begin to haze the herd towards the lone calf. For a while Paul is able to drive back and forth behind the 160 head of cattle and keep them moving. Eventually the cattle begin to spread out and many decide they would rather graze grass than be forced to travel somewhere that they really don’t wish to go. At this point I exit the Ranger and cajole the cows on one end of the group to keep walking while Paul covers the rest of the herd.
As cattle, humans and machine move over the hilltop I fall into a reverie on this hilltop in the middle of the Flint Hills. Walking along I listen to a cow rip a mouthful of grass up before continuing to plod along, tails swish, hooves thud, birds sing, and I am content. A deer that was lying in the grass jumps up and runs over the edge of the hill to disappear into the trees lining one of many ravines in this pasture. Suddenly the vanquished bull appears striding with purpose towards the placid herd. The big fellow announces that he has returned by trumpeting loudly and then begins to bellow in low bursts. The conquering bull in the first battle immediately answers by snorting through his nose, then lowers his head turning it slightly sideways which shows the challenger his muscular neck. So much for our peaceful procession. The bulls lower their heads, walk towards each other, heads come together and the pushing match is on. Paul and I keep the rest of the herd moving and leave the dueling duo behind.
We have reached the edge of the hill that leads down to the crossing and the road and the cows that have been so cooperative with this impromptu cattle drive suddenly decide they don’t want to walk downhill. Paul and I try to pressure the cows and calves off the hill-top but they simply refuse to start down the steep slope. The cattle begin to mill around and voice their disapproval by mooing loudly. The herd could easily turn and run from us but the bovines aren’t that ambitious. A few cows test both Paul and I as they try to sneak back in the direction from which we came but my waving arms or the ranger cutting them off, thwarts the half-hearted attempts. The good news is that all the caterwauling by the cows has alerted the misplaced calf and I see him begin to move in our direction. All we really need to do is keep the cows here long enough for the calf to arrive.
As I impede the escape path of one persistent cow, I notice the two bulls have called a truce long enough to catch back up with the stalled out herd. Unfortunately the peace is short-lived and the black bulls crash their massive heads together and begin fighting in earnest. I move away from the straining, grunting bulls and keep a wary eye on which way the momentum of their efforts is taking them. Suddenly one of the bulls gains an advantage and pushes the other bull into the midst of the cows. The stationary cows want nothing to do with the two battling bulls, and the bull-fight in their midst sends them cascading down the hillside. Once the cows reach the bottom of the hill they slow to a walk, a few look for their calves while others start grazing. The little bugger that caused us all this trouble in the first place has arrived and begins lowing for mom. The calf’s mom, who I scold for leaving her calf behind in the first place, answers her calf and soon the pair is united. The calf instantly begins to nurse and all is well with his world again. The vanquished bull ends up being bested again and submits to being the number two male. The bulls coexist for the rest of the summer with no further warfare between them that we were aware of.
The morning has nearly slipped away and Paul and I need to check two more pastures while we are here. We find no trouble in these pastures thank goodness. This story just goes to show what a simple pasture check can turn into! Later, Nancy