Our dilemma back in March after so much rain was whether we wanted to brand our calves that were averaging over 500 lbs. With only 45-60 days left of our grass season, we knew that castrating and working the bull calves would set them back for at least two weeks as they recovered from the branding pen, two weeks of no gains in weight plus always the risk of losing one or two in the process. A live bull is better than a dead steer.
A big part of our consideration was the neighbors we needed to get the job done, most old riding older horses if we could put together a younger ground crew. In the bigger picture, we trade labor, so most of us were facing the same dilemma, all trying to get our calves branded at the same time.
As the steer calves bring more money per pound than the bulls, we had to project the sale weights and difference in price to calculate the net return for each. We figured a discount of $15/cwt, or 15 cents/pound, on 750 lbs. bulls against 700 lbs. steer calves as a place to start. Then we had to calculate the cost of branding, the vaccine, the gather and hired labor, etc. I came up with $44/head and ran the figures by one of neighbors to see if we were being realistic.
We decided not to brand our calves, but had a few steers that we branded with our Wagyu X calves in our first load of bulls that we sent to town three weeks ago, encouraged that the bulls brought as much money as the steers because they weighed more. Not branding your calves is tricky business, but our neighbors are all honest.
The bulls and heifers in the photographs are from the Paregien Ranch, the biggest calves we have. Most of these heifers will be replacements in our cow herd. After a 5-day wean, the bulls sell today and will average around 800 lbs., heavier than the buyers will want. But we can’t go back, yet satisfied that we made the right decision. Half-way through weaning and harvesting our crop of calves, we have another bunch gathered ready to haul off the mountain on Thursday.
While I was blading a dusty firebreak along Dry Creek Road, Terri and Robbin went up to the Paregien Ranch in the Kubota to corral some dry cows that we’ve earmarked for town, when and if we can get to them with a gooseneck. Roughly 2,000 feet higher in elevation with 25 inches of rain, it’s still wet and boggy in places under our tall feed. They corralled the cows, but had to turn them out into the gathering field because it’s still too wet to load them. Afterwards, while putting out salt and mineral, they found a loblolly in the middle of the road that we have driven over several times this season with no problems.
Short of boasting this year, we’ve been fortunate not to have gotten stuck somewhere on the ranch considering our many close calls and all the ‘stuck’ stories we’ve heard from our neighbors. Sharing her iPhone photos, Robbin was quick to refine the definition of being stuck as when you have to walk home, or call someone to pull you out of a mud hole. Down on its frame, luckily they found an oak close enough to winch the Kubota onto hard ground.
With four years of drought fresh in our minds, we’ve not complained about our near-record rainfall, but it has presented a number of new problems, including not getting our upper-country calves branded before we wean in a few weeks—when and if we can haul them off the hill. Hard to believe it was 95 degrees yesterday. Careful what we wish for as we deal with a very different year, we’re looking forward to something a little closer to normal.
We’ve been sharing ranch life with our dear Canadian friends Denise Withnell and David Wilke from Cowboy Celtic for the past few days, exhausted as they head home to Victoria. Like kids, we’ve been having way too much fun while getting very little work done. Taking them on a tour of the Paregien ranch to put out salt and mineral while assessing the practicality of branding our bull calves, we found roads still too wet in places for a pickup or gooseneck.
With two saved from oak tree entanglements, they had to endure my rant about why mylar balloons ought to be illegal.
Thank you, dear friends for helping to prove that you’re never too old for a picnic.
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.
With little creeks running either side of the dirt track to the Windmill Spring, we were surprised to see so much water flowing from the spring box to the trough, a full 3/4″ pipe full (click to enlarge). Quite a change from the weekly maintenance and a quarter-pipe full or less for the last four years. We’ll see how long it lasts.
At the top of the watershed, the Paregien Ranch feeds Ridenhour Creek on its way to Dry Creek. The higher ground is saturated with springs popping up out of cow trails that become small rivulets adding to the seeps to contribute to its flow. It’s not often that we see Ridenhour run this much water at about 25% of its flow, judging by the high-water mark, during the height of our storms of two weeks ago.
Unbelievably, only one wire is broken beneath the top of this Blue Oak, a victim of the drought and the high winds from the last storm on the Paregien Ranch. Kubota only, the roads are wet, water running in every crease. It will take at least a week without rain before we can get back in a pickup at about 2,400’, or before gathering horseback. The long-range forecast is for more rain at the end of next week.
Not a business to schedule by the calendar, the three major variables we must contend with are the weather, the market and politics. After four years of drought, we’ve found new extremes to our adaptability, thinking well outside the box of past-experience. Just how we will adapt will be interesting. Furthermore, the cattle market is off about a third of the prices received three years ago, and most producers have had to cull their cow herds so deeply that reduced calf-crops may not cover costs.
No one knows the impact of the current politics, other than markets for almost every commodity will probably not be stable. Additionally, much of the domestic beef business depends on exports, of late reduced by a stronger dollar. With existing global trade agreements under fire, there is perhaps less certainty about the market for beef since the fiasco of the first Dairy-Out Program nearly 40 years ago.
We have plenty of places to busy our hands and occupy our minds as we develop a near-term plan around all three variables of this business. Even though we are at the mercy of the weather, the market and politics, we do have job security, for a while.
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.
Hide-outs saved for sane
discussions, always listening
between short sentences
for advances within the dry
and brittle skeletons of spring—
we could forever be nervous
deer on the rebound, come back
to ricochet within a shrinking
wild that we have helped consume.
On the outskirts, perhaps
we feel it now approaching, wind
the scent of human arrogance
surrounding us, that we succumb to
out of necessity knowing
we’re headed in the wrong direction.
Heading into winter, black cows yet fat
sucking calves—damp, thick-piled green after rain—
everyone is clean and shiny off the hill, parading
to water early to laze in the shade. Pages
of poetry shuffle across a desk messy with business,
an untitled collection scattered and spread,
collected and clipped faraway in my head
from our family of cows, from short remarks:
our song of words and phrases overflowing
with the water troughs at Windmill Spring,
spilling too spontaneously to require editing.
We needed to collaborate, to escape the loud
and demanding devils too close to home.
In this place, we are blessed with native eyes
and forgotten tongues—where we can relate
long poems in the luxury of untamed silence.