Our dilemma back in March after so much rain was whether we wanted to brand our calves that were averaging over 500 lbs. With only 45-60 days left of our grass season, we knew that castrating and working the bull calves would set them back for at least two weeks as they recovered from the branding pen, two weeks of no gains in weight plus always the risk of losing one or two in the process. A live bull is better than a dead steer.
A big part of our consideration was the neighbors we needed to get the job done, most old riding older horses if we could put together a younger ground crew. In the bigger picture, we trade labor, so most of us were facing the same dilemma, all trying to get our calves branded at the same time.
As the steer calves bring more money per pound than the bulls, we had to project the sale weights and difference in price to calculate the net return for each. We figured a discount of $15/cwt, or 15 cents/pound, on 750 lbs. bulls against 700 lbs. steer calves as a place to start. Then we had to calculate the cost of branding, the vaccine, the gather and hired labor, etc. I came up with $44/head and ran the figures by one of neighbors to see if we were being realistic.
We decided not to brand our calves, but had a few steers that we branded with our Wagyu X calves in our first load of bulls that we sent to town three weeks ago, encouraged that the bulls brought as much money as the steers because they weighed more. Not branding your calves is tricky business, but our neighbors are all honest.
The bulls and heifers in the photographs are from the Paregien Ranch, the biggest calves we have. Most of these heifers will be replacements in our cow herd. After a 5-day wean, the bulls sell today and will average around 800 lbs., heavier than the buyers will want. But we can’t go back, yet satisfied that we made the right decision. Half-way through weaning and harvesting our crop of calves, we have another bunch gathered ready to haul off the mountain on Thursday.
With temperatures rising into the 70s, the ground is beginning to dry out in places, still boggy in others. The creek is down to 100 csf despite last weekend’s 0.75” rain and we were able to get the rest of our Wagyu X calves across the creek to brand. With Brent and Sid to augment our aging crew, we got the job done yesterday.
Until now, it’s been too wet to see the rest of our cattle in the hills. Robbin and I need to get around to see how big the bull calves have gotten and then decide whether to gather and work them or not. Considering the shock and recovery time as steers with only 60 days left of our grass season, it may be better to wean them early as bull calves. The steers will bring more money/lb., but the bulls this late in the season will weigh more. After four years of drought, we never imagined the problems of too much rain.
Silt and sediment have settled
with the senses, clear water calm
in the canyon, low whispers
of the Solstice among the cobbles,
the easy pulse of our lifeblood
returns the churned edges
of the creek to house-hunting
killdeer pairs, not quite ready
to commit to gravelly real estate,
not quite sure of the shoreline
as we gather for another branding:
little bunch of big calves, slow
dance of old people and horses,
buck and bawl of calves before
the fiery altar of yesteryear.
Everyone’s got a job on the ground,
in the smoke, in the canyon, dancing
in the branding pen—syringes, taggers,
knives and irons—stepping ‘round
fat calves stretched one after another
before finding their mothers waiting
at the gate for children after school.
The smart and hard-to-gather
black white-faced cow looks
a little rough in your cell phone
photo, but after twenty-two years
she knows the routine—bringing
her last year’s calf you missed
to the corrals for weaning.
for Kenny & Virginia
We replay the day
of branding calves, glad
your horse has healed
beneath me strong—
the feel of the rope
remembered as our eyes
follow the eagle’s flight
low across the green
trolling for ground squirrels
busy with housekeeping,
absorbing the sun
after months of rain.
He stops mid-air
on his second pass,
falls back and plunges
into the grass, wings
shielding warmth within
his taloned grasp
as we talk and share
binoculars, checking on
life in this canyon—
of going nowhere
like the eagle
A beautiful day for a branding at Steve and Jody Fuller’s place on Dry Creek. Just up the road, we arrived while the crew was sorting cows from calves, hoping to keep the day’s work light for Robbin’s horse Bart who has been off a year to heal torn tendons—one of those freak accidents incurred, we believe, while he was playing in the pasture—the horse she lets me brand on. Lately, she has been testing him with some easy days successfully, and it was time try him back in the branding pen.
When I was younger, I craved to go to brandings as much for the bravado and camaraderie of this community as to rope calves. But in recent years, as my knees have gotten worse, about the only time I’m horseback is to help the neighbors brand, my gesture to repay them for helping us mark our calves every year. At times, it got to be work I endured.
For the past six months, however, I have been dreaming of horses and my knees don’t hurt as much when I ride as when I walk. To feel Bart’s strength under me as we led that first calf out was exhilarating, and to be able to free my mind of his physical soundness and concentrate on the feel of my rope became so much fun that I felt young again. Much of the credit I give to Robbin’s horse, he fits me well—yet knowing, too, that much of it just plays pleasantly in an old man’s mind.
Smoke in the air,
shade of this oak and sycamore
sixty years ago,
I pushed calves
to the iron roper:
pivoting table, rope and pulley
for vaccination, castration,
swallowfork and a brand
before they got big—
two men and a boy
in a short morning.
A counter-intuitive art
to save your shins,
yet keep the shit
on your jeans
to a minimum—
for a kid on the way
to become a man.
Though the cattle appreciate going ‘old people slow’, it makes for a long day, especially when the calves have grown past the ideal time to brand them due to our ninety days of rain since Thanksgiving. As the ground begins to dry out, all our neighbors, whom we depend on for help, are busy trying to get their calves gathered and marked as well.
Fortunately we were able to enlist some youth to help get the calves on the ground, without which the day would have been much longer. Thank you Brett Moody, Tell Blanke and Nate. Special thanks to all the old timers, our friends and neighbors, who like us, are trying to hang on to this way of life.
February 12, 2015
A black and white macro of weathered wood,
corrals and hills beyond, old guitar song
and chiseled men follow smoke to the ridgeline
and back to the fire and branding iron. A ringing
cell phone colors riders, a black calf stretched
between two sorrels—blue denim action
of men and women, old neighbors dancing,
each genuflecting to a moment on the ground.
“We’re branding calves,” a limp loop
answers from the corner, looking down
canyon past hazy orchards, somewhere town
as if he could see the caller, the papered desk,
stretch the thirty miles. A guy with a drone
reports, “We got ’em all.” Empty white tables
and chair legs licked by green tongues wait
with meat, bread and beans on an oak fire, ice chest
beer below a towel, soap and water, plastic glasses
and fresh jug of whiskey ready on a tailgate.
Close again, the chatter of visiting face to face,
gossip, stories and mysteries unveiled, fading
with cows with calves strung up the canyon home.
This gallery contains 14 photos.