With exception of Tuesday’s 105 degrees, it’s been an extremely mild May when we gathered and shipped our Wagyu X calves with my son Bob’s help. As we begin to wean our English calves, having another set of eyes on the ranch and help with the heavy lifting, Robbin and I and the girls are glad to have him on board.
Never enough roofs to shed the sun in the San Joaquin,
I’m leveling a pad for a barn with the skid steer
that’s become a hydraulic extension of my hands
between two huge Valley Oaks, four-foot across—
a roost for two Bald Eagles, long-dead witnesses
to father and son not learning to work cattle together.
In the ash pile of fallen limbs, a Killdeer sets and defends
her nest as I surround her with windrows of clay clods
to crumble and fill once the chicks are hatched.
Feathers fanned to fight for hours, her eyes bleed red
as her mate drags a wing nearby. Perhaps respect
lets four speckled eggs stop progress along the creek.
It’s not the cool coast of California
with cypress leaning leeward, but
the tomatoes and squash love
this year’s pleasant inland temperatures,
unaware of summer in the San Joaquin.
We, on the other hand, cringe
ahead of time, remembering so vividly
that it spoils our vacation. But nowadays,
we never know what’s coming, which
unwritten script awaits in ambush.
Escaping to the garden, hopefully I
bloom with our optimistic vegetables,
imagining tasty, blue ribbon fruit—
careful not to be so careless
as to step on a rattlesnake.
The canyon quiet by the fourth dawn, heads buried
beneath the waves of blond dry grasses, behind spears
of wild oats arching empty husks, first-time mothers
grazing like we expect our perfect world to be.
No plaintive calls, no searching draws, no panicked
pleading to canyon walls for their weaned calves
they have almost forgotten. We are relieved
of guilt, unburdened from their guttural mourning,
the harsh cacophony of maternity, of eighty
broken bonds rasping, wild wailing around us.
Aging skin grows thin imagining the magic
of companionship delivered from the womb,
of nursing, of mothering the first-born and losing it.
Emptiness and sorrow for a lost friend gone,
these cows giving voice to my unusual confusion.
Spring lingers into May, empty
blue clouds in a pink sea at dawn—
an ancient armada claiming sky,
this canyon that yesterday’s Navy jets
left thundering, practicing, maneuvering
for war. Here along the shrinking creek
Egrets and Killdeer wade, we measure
global tension, hear its roar, primitive
and deafening with no retreat.
Two sections of grass,
twenty-four tons on the hoof
leaving for your plate.
A season teeters
on the beam, calves condensing
strong grass on the hoof.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago (mid-September), when our first-calf heifers began calving with no real rain until mid-November, and only 3 inches through the end of February, one of the driest starts to our rainy season on record. We fed a lot of hay and fortunately we had some dry feed leftover from the year before, but a tough start for a two-year old, first-time mother and calf.
Thursday morning, these steer and heifer calves leave for Connell, Washington for Agri-Beef’s Snake River Farms’ program to be marketed as American Kobe Beef where they’ll be fed for 400-500 days. This is our second load of Wagyu X calves and typically we take the calves from their mothers, weigh and sort steers from heifers, then load them immediately onto the truck. However, since we’ve increased the number of cows that we breed to the Wagyu bulls, the first-calf heifers are pastured in two different fields two miles away from our loading corrals and scales that requires us to haul the calves. Half of the calves pictured above were weaned Monday, the balance yesterday as they wait for the truck.
Weaning is a stressful time in a calf’s life, and stress can be measured in pounds, and hence in dollars. It can also leave them susceptible to various respiratory problems. For these calves, this is not an ideal scenario, but temperatures are relatively cool and we’ve sprinkled the dust down, hoping for the best as we feed good alfalfa hay morning and night.
The rule of thumb for the time to wean an English calf is a week, but over the years we’ve noticed that after three or four days they’ve forgotten their mothers. Compared to our English calves weaned off mature cows, the Wagyu X calves generally weigh about 200 pounds less, but their mothers at two years old put on another 200-300 pounds while raising their Wagyu X calves. Quite remarkable, when 30 years ago we wouldn’t breed a replacement heifer until she was two to avoid calving problems or stunting her growth—all due to genetic improvements.
Assuming weight is a measure of stress, I don’t believe the calves will lose that much weight. What may be a pricy experiment, we weighed the calves off the trailers to compare to the shipping weights Thursday morning to prove or disprove our hypothesis. We’ll see.
Ants in the anthill, we feel the quake
of giant footfalls, cloven hooves
and rubber tread approaching, yet
stick to the business of our survival
unabashed, sorting the wild grain
packed by caravans for winter’s cold.
Our one mind is not cluttered
with news beyond our borders,
the fallen oak and swollen creek—
of all the peripheral shenanigans
delegated to orators and generals,
to pundits and playwrights busy
with dramatic scripts to entertain
themselves. We serve another purpose
dedicated to feeding ourselves.
Why do we
invite the world’s rancors and agonies
Into our minds though walking in a wilderness?
– Robinson Jeffers (“Going to Horse Flats”)
All the props in place, the stage is ever-set
for calamities, for the struggles for power,
for deceit in scripts yet unwritten, but predictable.
Two Red Tails strafe a passing eagle
reluctantly retreating to a steep hillside
to stand his ground, claim his space
to face their withdrawal. We watch snakes
squeeze and swallow one another whole
as the bobcat waits upon the tailings of a burrow—
this world, and that beyond it, turns on violence
despite our protests, despite our compromises,
despite the logic of compassion to dissuade it long.