I’m fasting before I have to brave the dark, foggy drive into Visalia this morning to have some blood drawn. I woke at midnight on the 9th of November with excruciating abdominal pain that put me in the hospital for a week with an infected gallbladder, an errant gallstone stuck somewhere in my plumbing beneath my sternum.
At my age, ambulance paramedics and emergency personnel are trained to assume chest and abdominal pains are likely to be a heart attack. Despite X-ray and a CT-scan, the correct diagnosis required two trips to Emergency before beginning a regime of antibiotics and pain killers. Too infected for surgery at the time, we’re currently working towards a date to remove my gall bladder, a month or so away at best.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we got rain, the grass is coming, the Angus bulls are out and the Wagyu bulls arrive next week—it’s time to brand, our annual dance around the weather with the help of our neighbors. It’s good to be back home.
We did brand at the Paregien yesterday with the fine help of good neighbors and friends. Despite the lack of rain so far this grass season, the cows and calves are doing well at this higher elevation. The ample old feed from last year has protected the new green that has surprising strength, everyone glad to have these calves marked before they grew any bigger. A big THANK YOU to the crew from Robbin and I.
We’ve pushed the start time of today’s branding back 30 minutes due to rain. I’ve been watching the radar since 3:30 a.m., trying to figure the trajectory of this last wave of a weak southern shower that’s due to arrive about 8:00 a.m. The bulk of it is headed north of us and dissipating.
Decisions, decisions. Damp mountain roads, wet hides, phone calls to neighbors. Tell me who’s in control.
Though little went according to plan, we marked our second bunch of calves in Greasy yesterday. The cows and calves had been separated into two bunches based on the pasture they were gathered from, but when we arrived, the bulls had flattened the fence between them and most of the cattle were in one gathering field. We branded and turned them all out together leaving the gates open to their respective home pastures, just as we had done during the drought years to ensure that all the cattle had access to water.
To expect perfection is a silly notion with livestock in this terrain, but with the help of good and understanding neighbors, we got the job done with little time lost. Our objective was to have the calves in Greasy marked before the welders came to finish the pipe pens that Earl McKee started a decade or so ago, so that neither we or the welding crew would be in one another’s way. Too dry and flammable to begin yet, all we need is some ample rain. Thank you all.
How I craved the physical,
the hot rush of blood
within my flesh, the might
of muscles flexed
to my will, the loop’s
quick flash secure
around the boney
feet of calves
in the branding pen—
no two quite the same,
how I welcomed them
as a measure of a man.
Branding calves in Earl McKee’s corrals has always been removed from the rest of the world, separate from the conflicts and politics that we are bombarded with daily. Never more true than yesterday among a few neighbors and friends at our first branding of the year, most of us going ‘old people slow’ as we got the job done.
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.
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.