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.
I drove the Kubota with Allie early this morning to change the irrigation water, the first time I’ve been beyond the house since total knee replacement surgery three weeks ago. Good to get out and see our replacement heifers coming to greet us. Knee doing well, walking with and without a cane, a little progress every day.
On the edge of irrigated green
grazing toward morning shade,
she’s on vacation, calf gone
as another stirs in her belly
to fulfill the appetites of a reckless
race she’ll never know.
Behind the barbed wire, safe
beyond the thistles, she’s content
to gossip days with girlfriends,
to contemplate a moment
for undisturbed hours—perfecting
poetry within her heavy skull.
It was 63 degrees when we started in the dark yesterday to gather our replacement heifer candidates for processing, to meet the vet (Ken Fiser) for their Bangs vaccinations at 6:30 a.m. Cattle work goes smoother when it’s cool, but I can’t ignore the feminine influence of our cowgirls on our cattle.
I was raised in this business with a pretty good dose of testosterone, loud and wild, the camaraderie of men at a high lope in the brush and granite, tension and challenge, it seems, with every tick of a useless clock. It’s not surprising that our cattle were on the shy side. We didn’t know any better.
This photo says it all to me. Done with processing by 8:30 a.m., Robbin, Terri Drewry and Allie Fry are taking the cattle back to their pasture, just following really, as the girls spin their own brand of yarns. Most of these heifers have been away from their mothers for a month or less, yet they are relaxed because we treat every gather, every time we’re around them, as a positive training day. A pace that has slowed to one of cooperation, and I like it.
Always moments, nonetheless, when convincing with a little loud testosterone may be called for.
The days of busting brush
but polished stories, faded glories
washed by time upon this ground—
one-time mothers, the girls
remember, find their place
at feeders in the corral
where they were weaned,
to catch a ride uphill
to make homes for fall calves.
We have spoiled them, trained
for yet another moment
to work together. Too hot
to touch, the days blaze
soon after the shade of night
retreats in streaks of heat.
Robbin’s iPhone photo after following the girls into the corral. It’s been a warm week with temperatures over 110 degrees as we’ve weaned, processed and shipped our last load of bull calves to town. Polite and cooperative, these second-calf heifers hauled easily to Greasy while it was still cool. A smooth day—done before ten.
We dream of coasting
into a ripe green pasture
that wants for nothing.
My sister and I circled the mountain pasture behind the house in the Kubota after opening the gates to the flat below for the first-calf heifers and their Wagyu X calves before we drive the bunch to our scales and processing corrals next week. The calves need to be revaccinated before we ship them in May to Snake River Farms to be finished as American Kobe Beef. Not quite the same as gathering a horseback, she managed to see a lot of country where the cattle had been before we finally found them—a steep, rough ride nonetheless.
Gentle and Kubota-broke, our cows spend their first three years in our low country before graduating up the hill, and managing to gather them all was not a surprise, but offered an up-close look at the cows and calves for my city sister to see. Also, part of our purpose for gathering them a little early was to begin grazing the tall ripe feed around the house that will become a fire hazard this summer, despite the firebreak I’ve bladed with the skid steer.
Within a couple of hours, as if invited to Easter dinner, some of the cattle had gathered below our ‘sip ‘n’ dip’ for a visit.