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.
Robbin and I were pleased to see the fresh calves at the Paregien Ranch, our mature cows already setting up nurseries. Though I have my theories, but exactly how the cows decide which new mother will be the babysitter is still a mystery. And who will replace her while she’s grazing?
The cows have broken up into bunches, the most expectant mothers hanging together. Especially vulnerable to coyotes during labor and immediately after the calf is born, struggling to stand and nurse for the first time, each cow depends on the security of the bunch.
It’s refreshing, reassuring, and almost inspiring to see such cooperation within a species without a fuss—an example of selflessness it might do well for humans to emulate. Until then, what better way to spend a Sunday.
For regular followers accustomed to a short philosophical poem, I’ve been on a sabbatical from the blog for well-over a week, a vacation without one ounce of guilt for not writing or posting daily. All good. We’ve been busy on the ranch nevertheless, as we’ve begun to supplement our younger cows with hay and all our cows with protein licks as our first calves will be arriving in a couple of weeks.
We hauled the girls above to the pasture around our house yesterday, two-year old first-calf heifers due to calve in the middle of September. In years past, we would have driven them the two miles here through three different occupied pastures and across the road. We hauled 53 head instead, rather than risk any mix-ups with our neighbor’s steers. For whatever reason, the heifers were plumb silly, making yesterday one of my hardest loading experiences in fifty years.
Though we had hay laid out to the water trough to welcome them to their new digs, Robbin and I went out this morning to feed them again and to help them acclimate to the dry feed after having spent all summer on the irrigated pasture. Right now they’re lost, but have calmed down substantially since yesterday’s debacle.
I’m working on a longer poem for a documentary produced by the American Angus Association, having to change my style to fit what I perceive the film to be. Tough sledding as I keep adding notions and ideas to the piece. Meanwhile, I’ve been somewhat satisfied with shorter pieces scratched out in the evenings like:
I know my name.
A plodding grace with each footfall
of cloven hooves upon soft centers
of winding trails engineered to grade,
cows claim this ground, claim us as well,
tracking seasons of the sun ever-circling.
Behind fences grazing shade to shade,
they worry not about the days ahead.
How we envy and emulate their easiness—
hang totems to draw the cow gods closer.
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.
Temperatures are forecast to rise next week as our first cold front brings light precipitation to the 200,000 acres of fire-stricken Northern California that was fanned by 70 mph “Diablo Winds”. Southern California will approach 100 degrees. Our forecast is closer to 90 as we wait for our first rain, like always, this time of year. Longer range, no rain in sight for the remainder of the month.
We keep our first-calf heifers close to the house and the hay barn. Only 35 days into calving, the transition from heifer to mother is almost magical, driven by a selfless instinct to care for a newborn calf, multiplied many times over—they all suddenly become a pasture of cows. Bred to Wagyu bulls, the calves come small, but they are growing and demanding more from their young mothers, so we augment the cows’ dry grazing with enough alfalfa hay to keep the them in shape while raising a calf.
We began feeding a moderate amount six weeks ago with the Kubota, but graduated to the feed truck last week as we’ve slowly increased their hay. In recent years, we’ve tried to keep our feeding down to twice a week instead of every other day, though we feed the same amount, thinking that cows are more apt to leave the flat ground to graze the hillsides between feedings. And they do, but as they come to water in the morning, they wait hopefully, and bawl every time the Kubota or pickup is started, on both sides of the canyon—a deafening pleading that’s hard to ignore, but tame compared to the drought years.
Nothing out of the ordinary, we will feed until the green grass comes.
Behind the barn and horses
grazing evening time, beyond
our chorus line of sycamores
locking hands gleefully,
young mothers pepper green,
return home to fresh feed
with branded calves—slope bare
for years without rain.
Breathing deeply, we inhale
all before our eyes—
herd and family without
the scattering sort of bulls,
they glean the sweetest first
up the mountain gradually.
We want to freeze the feeling
in a photograph forever,
knowing we cannot.
Everyone’s got a job on the ground,
in the smoke, in the canyon, dancing
in the branding pen—syringes, taggers,
knives and irons—stepping ‘round
fat calves stretched one after another
before finding their mothers waiting
at the gate for children after school.
The smart and hard-to-gather
black white-faced cow looks
a little rough in your cell phone
photo, but after twenty-two years
she knows the routine—bringing
her last year’s calf you missed
to the corrals for weaning.
for Kenny & Virginia
So hampered by the wet ground, we were only able to see a few cows and calves on the Paregien Ranch. The cows are producing lots of milk, there’s plenty of grass and the calves are really growing. Right now they would be handful to brand, and who knows when we’ll be able to get up the mountain to get that job done.
The clouds you ride are tissue-paper thin.
– Red Shuttleworth (“If You Had a Tail Fins Caddy”)
High on the mountain, two isolated cows surprised
graze thick fog without wet bags, act guilty found
in one another’s company before their inevitable trip
to town when we gather, the price of truancy
they seem to know or hear through my eyes
and the mist between us, or pure imagination
that blooms personified from my disappointment.
A little too content to be on vacation from maternity
and needy nurseries, the mother in me understands.
Up here, the footing is treacherous, each tentative step
measured against all the break-through, downhill
possibilities—up here the poems hang in oak trees.