No social distancing, evening conversation
centers on introductions as sorrel horses
welcome first-calf heifers coming to water:
no politics, no economic woes, just
domesticated souls touching nose-to-nose
before shadows crawl across the canyon.
We are enveloped for prolonged minutes
within their quiet reverie, forgetting
all the bad news they’ll never know.
With recent temperatures peaking around 105°, we left the house with headlights early yesterday to Bangs vaccinate 99 head of this year’s heifer calves after making the sort last week. While we waited for yesterday’s 7:00 a.m. appointment with our veterinarian, we decided to keep them on the irrigated pasture close to the corrals, knowing we risked a mix-up with their older sisters, separated only by a barbed wire fence. Something spooked the 99 in a corner under the shade of the Valley Oak on Saturday and they laid the fence down. So we had two bunches to gather and sort before the vet showed.
The vaccination named for Danish veterinarian Bernhard Bangs is to protect against Brucellosis that also infects Bison and Elk, where the greatest concentration of the disease is in the Yellowstone area. Furthermore, female cattle cannot be shipped out of California without proof of a Bangs vaccination that includes a tattoo and metal ear tag that needs to be administered by a vet before the calf is a year old.
But it went smoothly. Bob had most of the 99 baited into the corrals before we arrived and was working on the second bunch of 50 bred heifers as the girls unloaded their horses. Our heifers are gentle. The sort and processing were trouble free—a booster round of calf vaccinations plus the Bangs, injectable wormer and mineral supplement. All done by 8:30 a.m. without hurrying—a great day!
Aiming to keep 50 replacement heifers from the 99, we will make another sort in 4-6 weeks.
Having slain hundreds, another battalion digs in
to undermine the well and water trough, to scout
the garden for an attack on the last tomatoes.
The quail have made a comeback in coveys,
strings of babies trailing on training wheels
making circles, mornings and evenings.
Before our eyes, another lifelong mate
in the making, Roadrunners packing lizards
and snails to their nest in prickly pear cactus.
The heavy-limbed sycamores shade a ribbon
of green along the dry creek bed, sub-irrigated
Bermuda grass a few bulls graze between bellowing.
Black cows shine on a side-hill grade, either side
of the canyon, or silhouettes in shade gossiping
and grinding cud, having shed their babies.
SUVs, RVs, camp trailers and fifth-wheels
escape the confinement of cities to dodge Covid-19
and logging trucks on a narrow mountain road
to the pines, and I don’t blame them—with
a thousand ways to go, why not migrate
where no one seems to worry about dying.
There is an easy beauty in the bronze statues
dredged up from the ocean, but there is a worth
to the unshapely our sweet mind founders on.
– Jack Gilbert (“The Secret”)
Even the old fence posts, split redwood
from the coast eighty years ago,
serve a purpose more than by design,
unexpected dividends through a lifetime
that can’t be spent or bartered—saved only
in our minds. I had stopped to photograph
the White Tailed Kite’s extended hovering,
treading air against gravity while searching
dry, blond grasses for the movement of a mouse—
expending more energy, it seemed, than a rodent
could provide. My feet grow heavy now
as I circumambulate this uneven ground
following seasons of grass with cows and calves,
praying for relief of flood or drought, hoping
to generate enough to do it all over again.
Our day never done
instead of politics:
all the pig-headed
pontificators hawking lies
like sideshow barkers.
A nation sick to death
trying to get back to normal
we’ll never see again.
We ride this wild earth,
hang-on with gentle hand
feeling for a familiar rhythm.
Time flies, it seems, as we get older. We vaccinated these heifers yesterday for Brucellosis, though it seems that not long ago we branded them as calves. Averaging 725 lbs., most of these girls will join the cow herd when we introduce them to the Wagyu bulls in December.
As we chase the seasons, the circle seems to get tighter. With most of our cattle work done, we are seasonally at the end, while approaching the beginning, of our cattle year. It feels good to be done as we look forward to fall calving and a chance of rain again. In the meantime, we have plenty of repair and maintenance jobs to address, salt and mineral to keep in front of our cows.
It’s been a warm summer, thus far, well-over a hundred degrees since the Solstice. Despite the shorter days, we expect more of the same through September. With gathering, weaning and shipping our steers to town, we’ve been pushing to this point since April. It seems appropriate to thank our crew, Terri Drewry, Allie Fry and son Bob, here every morning at daylight with smiles on their faces, ready to get the work done.
(iPhone photo: Terri Drewry)
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’re pleased that over half of our first-calf heifers bred to Wagyu bulls have calved in the first thirty days, and relieved that they have instinctually set up nurseries early-on. I’m hoping that last spring’s bumper crop of ground squirrels will keep the coyotes occupied with easier prey, but nonetheless these new mothers seem especially vigilant after calving this year.
Typically a cow or two will stay with a group calves while the other mothers graze to be later relieved of duty after an hour or two. Just how these new mothers communicate and delegate duties is a mystery, but they do. My own unscientific and unproven theory is that the newest mothers whose fresh calves need more constant attention are usually selected to babysit the bunch. After being raised in nurseries, the calves learn the security of the herd and remain quiet and well-behaved until their mothers return. However, back and forth to the water trough in the mornings and early evenings with their mothers, the calves become untrained, running in all directions as they find their legs.
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.
First Angus calves – September 1, 2017
With the worst of summer heat behind us, our new year begins on September 1st, when our cows start calving. Since May 21st, we’ve had 83 days over a hundred degrees on Dry Creek, fiery streaks in memory. The ash and smoke from the Pier Fire in the Tule River drainage above Springville has wrapped us in filtered sunlight this past week, changing the color of nearly everything, but it’s a welcome relief to see the silhouettes of cows and fresh calves in the shade of oak trees, the new beginning we’ve been waiting for.