Our country is dry and short. We’ve pulled the bulls off the irrigated pasture to make room for our bred heifers due to begin calving by the middle of September. We will have to feed the bulls in this pasture where Allie and Terri were driving a few to water last week. Even though we’ve sold 25% of our cows, we continue to step up the amount of hay we’re feeding with no idea of when it will end or whether it will pay for itself in the long run. But if we have to sell more cows, we just don’t want them to be thin.
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.
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.