I’ll not forget the dust clouds boiling out of the canyons when the cattle came to hay in November of 2012 through 2016, while we fed and begged for rain, then had to sell half the cows. Nor will I forget last year’s too much rain, more disruptive to our operation than the four years of drought, unable to get to the bulk of our cattle in the high ground to brand our calves. Then sometime late last spring when the slick calves were approaching 600 pounds, exclaiming to anyone who might listen, ‘all we want is something close to normal’.
Though we’ve made significant advances in the cattle business in the past four decades with bigger and better quality calves and broodstock, the ground stays the same and has endured the ever-present variables of the weather and most of our mistakes. Glacial evidence in the canyon helps reinforce its permanence and durability, the one element in this enterprise that we can depend on.
We normally feed the young cows in the fall when the calves come, concurrently scanning the long-range forecasts for rain to start the grass and give us and the feed truck some relief. And after watching recent promises of an inch or more disintegrate before our eyes with nothing forecast into the future, and while seriously considering petitioning the gods for a little moisture, it’s beginning to feel normal, or close to normal, or so we hope and carry on just the same.
We finally got these heifers branded yesterday with another round of shots, vaccinations, dewormer and multi-min, before they meet the Wagyu bulls in 45 days. As you may remember, we took their counterparts to town as bulls last spring when we weaned, unable to brand and vaccinate them because of last winter’s wet conditions. The girls were polite, familiar with processing since their first round of shots and vaccinations for Brucellosis at the end of June.
Building a fire to heat the irons this time of year is problematic with fire danger still high. Our propane pot is an inefficient and noisy alternative we’d like to avoid if possible. Electric irons have been around for years, though I’ve never considered using one as electricity to our corrals is a recent convenience. And consistent with the ‘cowboy way’, my underlying prejudices against such citified methods of marking cattle, an electric iron has never been part of our operation—until yesterday.
With the tangle of extension cords, etc., they will never replace hot irons in the branding pen, but they have their place. Furthermore, the brand goes on quicker and cleaner with consistent heat and quick recovery. All going to prove that old dogs can learn new tricks.
Neither trust nor fear
of us inhibits a hawk’s
delight on the lawn.
The Sharp Shinned Hawk has been making a living around the house for over two months and become our coffee and cocktail entertainment. We do all but applaud its low flap and glide aerobatics in pursuit of startled quail. Though probably only a temporary guest, we’ve become comfortable with one another’s tastes and habits. Not too persnickety, the Sharp Shinned Hawk taunts us with ground squirrels (dead or alive) quail and ringnecked dove. Last night, a Black Phoebe was the casualty.
Not quite cold enough for bright colors yet,
for frost and flies’ retreat, for the drift
of chimney smoke and horses’ breath
on the slow drawl of dawn. The grumbling
bulls begin to bellow, announce their prowess,
trumpet their intentions thirty days away
from being family men, their primal duties
rippling beneath their dusty hides. Not quite
old enough to forget, it’s almost Halloween.
Not Norman Schaefer,
and high school roommate—
but the measure
of the average
in the streambed
without a name,
ideals and dreams
tossed in the current
wash of friction.
To remember who I am,
I can go to the hard rock
of the high mountains
anytime I want
for clarity, to release
what’s become normal.
Posted in Poems 2017
Already drawn to the trough,
to the prospect of being cared for,
choosing peace and domesticity,
we are startled with the interruption
of the news—as it happens—
and we become the audience
on stage, interviewed and counted
for ‘something’ by invisible pollsters
just to keep the plot alive:
a chicken in every pot,
better jobs and lower taxes
as wealth wicks up
the graft and scandals
we’ve become addicted to.
At the Fall Banquet of the Tulare County Cattlemen’s Association last night, our dear neighbor Jody Fuller (2nd from the right) was awarded Cattleman of the Year. Usually a poorly kept secret, she was totally surprised. In an insightful and humorous presentation, Craig Ainley (far right) highlighted Jody’s history and accomplishments on Dry Creek. In addition to a beautiful belt buckle, she received commendations from County Supervisor Mike Ennis and Clarissa Henderson (far left), representing Congressman Devin Nunes.
Our “Thank You” for a wonderful dinner and evening provided by all the usual suspects, both in front and behind the scenes.
Temperatures are forecast to rise next week as our first cold front brings light precipitation to the 200,000 acres of fire-stricken Northern California that was fanned by 70 mph “Diablo Winds”. Southern California will approach 100 degrees. Our forecast is closer to 90 as we wait for our first rain, like always, this time of year. Longer range, no rain in sight for the remainder of the month.
We keep our first-calf heifers close to the house and the hay barn. Only 35 days into calving, the transition from heifer to mother is almost magical, driven by a selfless instinct to care for a newborn calf, multiplied many times over—they all suddenly become a pasture of cows. Bred to Wagyu bulls, the calves come small, but they are growing and demanding more from their young mothers, so we augment the cows’ dry grazing with enough alfalfa hay to keep the them in shape while raising a calf.
We began feeding a moderate amount six weeks ago with the Kubota, but graduated to the feed truck last week as we’ve slowly increased their hay. In recent years, we’ve tried to keep our feeding down to twice a week instead of every other day, though we feed the same amount, thinking that cows are more apt to leave the flat ground to graze the hillsides between feedings. And they do, but as they come to water in the morning, they wait hopefully, and bawl every time the Kubota or pickup is started, on both sides of the canyon—a deafening pleading that’s hard to ignore, but tame compared to the drought years.
Nothing out of the ordinary, we will feed until the green grass comes.
Bumper crop of damn-near everything
thriving since last season’s rain
that bogged us to a standstill.
Red oak galls on the Valley Oak,
Tarweed yellow on open slopes.
Earth alive with frogs and rodents,
she moves with grace beneath
a new summer dress I haven’t seen
before—or perhaps I have forgotten
or ignored. A man must be careful
with hackneyed compliments
like ‘wild’ and ‘beautiful’.
Perhaps it’s only those
who pay attention
– Linda M. Hasselstrom (“Coyote Song”)
“He looks, but just don’t see,”
Tom Homer’d tell of a part-time cowboy
when my father learned the mantra
of established cowmen after brandings,
when the work was done.
I heard it often.
Out here, one can lollygag himself
to death, early on—before he sees
the snake in the trail, before he sees
the coyote watching him.
Deaf to the gun but only once,
we improve the breed,
fine tune scent and sight
into long lives of good teachers—
always a coyote’s song.