Before the surplus oilfield pipe
replaced the split redwood posts
and creosoted oak railroad ties,
we remember the old board pens,
acorns tucked twixt crack and plank,
fiery lichen on the backside
of weather-worn 2 x 8s:
old saws saved
that we exchange,
each triggering the next
underhanded head loop loosed
to hang for an instant,
we snare memories
like calves to brand—lifetimes
stretched from hand to hand.
Despite local forecasts for rain, we made the trek up the hill with our neighbors to brand our first bunch of calves for the season. Over the years here, we’ve dealt with fog, rain and snow, but yesterday the sun broke through the gray to complete a beautiful day.
Additional hazards are these two Blue Oaks that Effie Hilliard incorporated when she built these corrals many decades ago, one of which is now a casualty of our 4-year drought. Though we’ve threatened to remove them, consensus has been that they remain.
Though we see one another individually throughout the year, the first branding of the year is always a special get-together for all of us.
One of the benefits of trading labor is that everyone knows how we want the job done, whether a horseback or on the ground. You just can’t hire any better help than our neighbors.
And one of the drawbacks, as we age, is that some of us have now outlived our horses. Finding a replacement gentle and trustworthy enough for old men is not easy, but Tony Rabb brought a young buckskin mare to the branding pen for the first time with impressive success. Robbin and I thank everyone for helping us get the job done.
Neither cowman nor a threat
to his counterfeit Brahma cows,
he shuffled afoot at eighty-five
with a flake of grassy alfalfa
tucked under his arm, led them
out of the brush into his splintered
board pens mumbling under
his breath—dried spittle of snooce
upon his gray unshaven chin.
Like loading deer to help him
haul his calves to town, kept
his cash in the freezer of the fridge
before they robbed and tied
to a chair for two days and nights—
before his girlfriend missed him
with his POA in her hand—
before she sold him downriver
to move to Monterey sand.
Malva neglecta, Common Mallow, Cheeseweed, doing well.
We, as well as all of our neighbors, are busy branding or gathering to brand before the next forecast wave of El Niño arrives in the middle of next week. Hampered by the good fortune of past rains, we’re behind schedule. The grass is growing, cows milking well, calves now range over 400 pounds that is tough on ground crews and horses, as well as the calves. Depending on one another’s help to brand takes planning with an unmistakable sense of urgency in the air to get the work done. We’re planning to brand Wednesday, but not before helping a neighbor brand on Tuesday so he and his ground crew can help us.
But we’ve got weeds. The Common Mallow loves disturbed ground, and a scourge in places where cattle gather and chew their cuds. Not surprisingly, Malva neglecta has a long history of medicinal uses. Friday, I encountered a healthy patch that obscured the road as I left Dry Creek to scout the Top before meeting Clarence and the girls in our gather. All but one cow gathered or accounted for as of yesterday, we hope they stay until Wednesday.
How ‘bout those Super Broncos? What an intense defense!!
Though the impacts of our four-year drought are fresh in everyone’s mind, and far from mitigated by recent rains, our approach to work has changed. With most stockwater ponds less than half-full and Dry Creek just beginning to run, no one dares suggest that the drought is over.
But instead of gathering and branding calves in the dust this year, we are watching weather forecasts trying to get our calves marked between storms. But so are our neighbors with whom we trade labor. It’s tricky business, though a welcome change.
Trying to get anything done between Christmas and New Year’s Day is usually futile, but with a promise of over an inch of rain early next week, we’re branding another bunch this morning. We gathered Tuesday and Wednesday, cut wood for the branding and cook fires, planned a meal, and even had to weed-eat the grass in the corrals so we could rope today. The pace has been tough, but with an eye towards the coming El Niño, no one is complaining (too much).
Eight inches to date on Dry Creek, more than the 2013-14 season.
A beautiful day Friday, I took my camera while checking the calves we branded, photographing this one resting comfortably in a bed of mustard greens, along with the gray cow and calf born late September.
We’re taking the whole bunch back to Belle Point this morning after a slow 0.30″ rain yesterday afternoon and overnight–the same rain we raced yesterday morning while branding Tony Rabb’s calves just over the ridge in Antelope Valley.
Forecast for 8:00 a.m. up until the last moment, skies were clear at daybreak as the storm approached from the coast. Tony made the call and we hustled through 100 calves before the first drop landed at 11:30 a.m.
I note, not so much for posterity but to jog my failing memory, that we had a lot of fun at the quickened pace, far from ‘old people slow’. My first opportunity to help the neighbors brand this season, I took Bart, Robbin’s wonderful gelding, who worked well-enough to have some fun himself, a tough little horse hard not to like.
I also found the Burrowing Owl in his digs Friday while checking the heifers just recently exposed to Wagyu bulls. The first wave of family arrives today. ‘Tis the season.