You can tell by the tracks, including the down fence, that the bulls have started running out of work. It appears that a discussion with the neighbor’s bull took place at 3 locations on the downhill side. Testosterone in the air, our 2 bulls on the uphill side went head to head for a while before one was pushed through the wire. The real battle that crippled our bull took place on the neighbor’s side where we retrieved him. Good news is that the fence is repaired and the crippled bull is in a pasture by himself.
Believe it or not, there are thirteen, or parts of thirteen, people in this photograph taken at Jody Fuller’s branding on December 15th—two calves are down. One of the things that has changed dramatically since I was a boy about the size of the two, (can you find them?) in the photo, is the processing at branding when the only vaccination we gave back then was a two-way clostridial. Everyone in this photo has a job.
The youngest boy with the purple glove has the pine tar to apply to the area of castration, the other has a syringe of Enforce 3 to apply in each nostril. Their mother, outside the pen, is keeping track of tag numbers (yes, there’s a tagger) and the sexes of the calves. Additionally, modified live vaccines to ward of respiratory illnesses and a broad spectrum of clostridial illnesses are given to each calf, plus a separate dewormer. Jody also gives her calves an injection of vitamins.
Because of the concern for antibiotics in beef, vaccines have been developed to limit the necessity for antibiotics in feedlots, essentially placing that responsibility, and cost, on the producer. The media is currently focused on the residue of antibiotics in most all the major hamburger outlets—old cows and bulls. A very small percentage of BEEF cows and bulls ever get an injection of antibiotics.
As neighbors, most of us are used to working together as we brand one another’s calves, but I think it’s remarkable that the job goes so smoothly, especially with two, unpredictable live calves on the ground.
Thanksgiving seems a long ways away, doubling-up the feeding before and after, as the new grass greens, trying to keep the cows in shape to breed back, most with calves at their sides. We’ve also been busy getting the bulls out in our upper country.
We have a good start on our grass with nearly ¾” on November 17th, followed by a week of 70 degree weather and then another 0.60”—an ideal beginning as high-temperatures now steady in the mid-60s. The older cows are headed to the tops of the ridges where the soaked-in rain gets the most exposure from the sun, some changing pastures where drought-stricken oaks continue to fall on fences. Our emphasis now is getting them all together and exposed to the bulls as we think about branding.
Amid the political chaos, we’re thankful we have a job to do in a separate place where we must concentrate our minds and energy on what we hope to be productive. This business, as I’ve said many times, is dependent on three variables: the weather, the market and the politics—none of which have we any control of. In many respects, we’ve gotten used to it. Despite what appears to be global uncertainty, we carry on with all we know to do.
On a personal note, I haven’t had any inclination to write poetry or take photographs with anything more than iPhone. What poetry I’ve posted seems more of an exercise than fresh inspiration, while feeling that my art, for lack of a better word, may be on the cusp of something new and different. At any rate, I’m not holding my breath, too busy leaning toward the work before us, essentially distancing myself from any old habits or poetic styles, but rather immersing myself in the activities from where my poetry has come.
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.
Getting used to their new digs, Larry, Moe and Curly are getting a little TLC before going to work on December 1st. Three nice bulls from Mrnak Herefords West will add a little more heterosis to our predominantly Angus cowherd.
Fifty-five years ago, our cowherd was mostly Hereford when my Dad began breeding our first-calf heifers to Angus bulls because the Angus calves came smaller, and thus made calving easier on our heifers. But the resultant hybrid vigor, or heterosis, of the cross is what caught his eye. Bottomline: the black white-faced calves were heavier on sale day.
Much has happened since here on the ranch and in the cow-calf business in general. Today’s market prefers black-hided cattle that can bring as much as a $10/cwt premium in the sale ring, though that spread has decreased in recent years. With technology and DNA testing, bull selection for all breeds has become data driven, a scientific and complicated formula that purports to project the performance of progeny all the way to the consumer’s plate. It includes a bull’s birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, rib eye measurement and marbling among a dozen more factors to consider, right down to how much more money a bull’s calves will bring than the average for the breed.
I remember buying bulls for $400-500 each based on what I saw in a bull, his structure, movement and temperament, on my subjective eye. Starting price to today begins at ten times that to where a $7,500 bull is commonplace. In the end, I depend on my eye. But with intensive breeding and feeding for the numbers, to create attractive data, a bull’s ability to acclimate to a new environment, to work and hold up, is often lost along the way.
Our cattle harvest grass that they convert to protein that we sell as calves. Perhaps the most important factor of all is that we are raising cattle that can thrive on this uneven, and often unforgiving, ground. In that respect, each bull breeder has a reputation for performance and longevity. Mrnak Herefords West has been at the top of our list for over a dozen years.
The wire goes cold.
Red tail-hair hangs by a barb in a tangle.
Horned-bull bellowing in the flats
among the heifers close to the Solstice
half-moon waning—mark it somewhere
on a mind wall,
potential trouble in a poem
filed in cyberspace.
The wire goes cold.
A trumpet blares from my buttoned pocket,
beneath a zippered vest and heavy Carhartt
look-a-like advertising Purina Hi-Pro,
coils and split-reins in a gloved left hand,
small loop in the right with a flying U ready
to remind the bull he’s half-way home
and it won’t stop bugling
as if nearby
was just over the rise.
The wire goes cold.
We text and vox from the ridgetops,
from what our eyes have gathered
from the ranch. No emergency—
Cowboy Celtic wants to Facetime.
As we push the heifers another field away,
I call them back
and we yak
and they ride with me,
see green country
and cattle to the gate
just above the ears
of my horse.
The bulls are out among the cows
claiming territory high on ridges,
testing misty air with muffled bellows,
testing fences and plans on paper,
as usual—we respect their wishes,
broker treaties where we can
to get cows bred for next year.
Everybody wants the same thing:
full bellies, sex and freedom
without too much work or trouble.
Last week’s virgin bulls have slowed
to moan, learned names and calculate
grazing circles in open space to make
love richer with rhyme and assonance—
write the kind of lyrics fit for music
that brings herds closer as families
traveling together, saving energy
and time where tranquil matters more
than bragging rights or twisted politics
keeping pundits fully-employed
with slogans selling most everything.
Dark morning without moon or stars
before the first winter storm, the day before
Black Friday rains deals and discounts
for Christmas, for our economy and I am
ever thankful that the bulls are out early
courting cows, meeting kids and family
before dirt roads get too slick to travel—
ever thankful for the drought that felled
two big Live Oaks on the gate and fence
we corded-up and stacked beneath the eave
before the girls drove posts and spliced
the barbed wire on a mat of green
to leave the mess looking like a park—ever
thankful for them, for you and this ground
we’re invested in together, for good horses
willing to get the cow work done—
black skies without moon or stars,
you and I alone before the storm.
Unloaded into a new world
from the soupy end of a semi,
three clean, black and fat young bulls
spend their first night bewildered
away from home with alfalfa
to rest before I brand and turn them
into families of cows and calves
strung in a line on hay waiting
for their awkward inspection.
It takes time to learn the language
of making love, a prolonged foreplay
of mistakes and miscalculations
as I remember shadows in the 60s,
a fractured bravado ready
for reconstruction any time of day.
An old man worries nonetheless—
checks their progress before dark
confirming they’ve been to water.
Still working on their approach
to young mothers, no seed planted yet,
nothing banked into our future.
A light rain arrived before daylight and continued through yesterday morning, 0.12”, not much, but enough to brighten-up the grass while the girls fed and I fixed fence around the bull pen, trapping the last of the bulls at large for the past week in the riparian along Dry Creek—beyond which our replacement heifers selected for Wagyu bulls are only a narrow pasture away—all the usual testosterone tension and shenanigans that’s hard on fences as the calendars in their bullheads suggest re-establishing the pecking order before it’s time to go to work on December 1st. We will acquiesce, as we did last year, choosing to put them to work a little early rather than fix fence until our target date.
A decade or so ago at the Visalia Livestock Market ‘Off the Grass Sale’, I was admiring some Angus eight-weight steer calves in the ring that belonged to Art Tarbell, perhaps the best calves offered that day. Retired as the local brand inspector, I’d known Art all my life, a kind and honest man. I asked him when he put his bulls out, suspecting that his calves might be a little older than ours. He chuckled saying, “Oh, they sorta put themselves out!”
So much for trying to manage bulls by the numbers.
More rain has begun to appear from several sources in the forecast for Friday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, no gulleywashers, but hope for a little more moisture to add to our meager 1.50” so far this season. Our own unscientific forecast has storms arriving Sunday through Tuesday, close enough and reassuring. Nothing I’ve seen or read indicates that this will be anything but another dry year for the southern two-thirds of California and the United States.
More disturbing news from Daniel Swain’s ‘The California Weather Blog’ http://weatherwest.com/archives/author/thunder: “Over the past few weeks, a truly extraordinary “heat wave” has been taking place at a time of year when temperatures should be plummeting to bitterly cold values after the onset of “Polar Night.” Near the North Pole, surface temperatures have been at or near the freezing point for an extended period of time–around 35 degrees F above average, and not cold enough to allow for the formation of sea ice. This extreme warmth, combined with unusual wind patterns, have combined to produce record-low sea ice extent across much of the Arctic Ocean basin. In fact, (apparently) for the first time in the observational record, significant multi-day sea ice losses have occurred during the peak freeze-up season. Meanwhile, in Northern Siberia, extreme cold and incredibly deep snowfalls have been observed–itself likely a consequence of the lack of sea ice to the North. This has led to a rather incredible atmospheric setup where actual temperatures currently increase as one goes north from Eurasia to the North Pole.”
That’s the latest, we gird our loins, but ever thankful for what we have.