Our end of February-beginning of March rains, two and a half inches overall interspersed with some 70 degree days, have been a game changer. Nearly doubling our seasonal precipitation totals, the ground and rejuvenated green absorbed the moisture and then offered dust in a matter of days only to be settled by another quarter inch on Sunday. Remarkable.
We scrambled in-between getting our Wagyu bulls together for their trip back to Caldwell, Idaho, on Friday, having addressed their work here since December 15th. As part of our contract with Snake River Farms, we rent their bulls for about a tenth of what a 2-year old Angus bull would cost, plus we don’t have feed them while they’re drawing unemployment nor are we fixing fence behind them. But last minute coordination of a health certificate from our vet, a brand inspector and a truck before we had them gathered was chancy as the cattle had already moved up the slopes to the taller grass on the ridges.
With more rain forecast for most of the next 10 days, Terri and I and burned several years of downed Valley Oak limbs and trees yesterday around our shipping corrals. Casualties of the 2012-2016 drought, it was a challenge to get them to the burn pile, but not without a touch of melancholy as a 400-year old tree, once a regular roost for Bald Eagles, went up in smoke.
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.
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.
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.
With temperatures rising into the 70s, the ground is beginning to dry out in places, still boggy in others. The creek is down to 100 csf despite last weekend’s 0.75” rain and we were able to get the rest of our Wagyu X calves across the creek to brand. With Brent and Sid to augment our aging crew, we got the job done yesterday.
Until now, it’s been too wet to see the rest of our cattle in the hills. Robbin and I need to get around to see how big the bull calves have gotten and then decide whether to gather and work them or not. Considering the shock and recovery time as steers with only 60 days left of our grass season, it may be better to wean them early as bull calves. The steers will bring more money/lb., but the bulls this late in the season will weigh more. After four years of drought, we never imagined the problems of too much rain.
Though the cattle appreciate going ‘old people slow’, it makes for a long day, especially when the calves have grown past the ideal time to brand them due to our ninety days of rain since Thanksgiving. As the ground begins to dry out, all our neighbors, whom we depend on for help, are busy trying to get their calves gathered and marked as well.
Fortunately we were able to enlist some youth to help get the calves on the ground, without which the day would have been much longer. Thank you Brett Moody, Tell Blanke and Nate. Special thanks to all the old timers, our friends and neighbors, who like us, are trying to hang on to this way of life.
One would think that after 46 years of calving first-calf heifers, we’d be more relaxed about such a natural process where maternal instincts usually insure a successful calf crop. But I confess our anxiety is high this time of year, perhaps in part because we’ve seen all different kinds of failures from coyote kill to breach births to heifers more social than maternal who leave their calves alone too long to gossip with the other girls.
This morning before checking the first-calf heifers bred to Wagyu bulls, I drove up the road to see two coyotes taking turns trying to hamstring a brand new Angus calf belonging to one of the third-calf cows who was nowhere around. My shot that missed sent them off in different directions, but they’ll be back. While checking the calf, its mother showed up, looking to take me as I rolled it over to make sure it was OK.
Not far away, a first-calf heifer across the fence was down in labor, two feet showing when she stood up. I left her to check the rest of the first-calf heifers. About an hour later I returned as 5176 was licking off our first Wagyu X calf of the season.
Yesterday morning, we shipped our Wagyu X calves from our first-calf heifers to Snake River Farms in American Falls, Idaho where they will be fed
until offered as American Kobe Beef. We began our program with Snake River Farms several years ago looking for smaller calves for our first-calf heifers while trying to avoid the genetic hangover of low birth weight Angus bulls. We rent the Wagyu bulls from Snake River Farms and contract to sell all our calves to them for a ten cent/lb. premium over market price.
Born small, our Wagyu X calves ship about 100/lbs. lighter than our English calves. This year, the steer calves averaged 568 lbs., our heaviest Wagyu X steer calves to date. In the photo above, Robbin, Clarence and the girls are parting cows from calves to be weighed before loading them on the truck.
Maggie Loverin checks her pork loins adorned with grapefruit and oranges after we branded our Wagyu X calves yesterday, while the sun tried to break through the bad-air haze and remnants of Valley fog.
Noticeably quicker and more unpredictable to rope than our Angus calves, the Wagyu are a challenge to head and heel, real work for everyone. But we had a great day and ate well!
Well into our branding season now, we’re beginning to wear down a little, especially with the extra weight of wondering and worrying when it’s going to rain, repercussions of the drought still raw. One topic of conversation in the branding pen included the different kinds of bloat, fairly rare to most of us, but taking casualties in Antelope Valley, half-mile west of here.
All that methane gas that can’t escape inflates the cow and kills her usually leaving an orphan calf—a slurry of foamy gas in the cow’s rumen that can’t be released with an external needle or tube down her throat was news to us, that has come from our lush and washy feed in certain places on the flat ground, mostly filaree. We’ve had several of our cows blow up and subside on their own with a regular supplement of dry hay. There are also commercial free-choice products to prevent bloat that take time to incorporate into the cow’s system, but without assurance that everyone gets some.
How long this situation will last is unknown, but we know a rain would change things. With no likelihood for the rest of the month from any weather-predicting source, we get the work done in love with what we do.
We know the ones up-close,
go looking when they’re missing
from the bunch lined-out on hay.
Most girls like their privacy,
find draws of rock and brush
that feel good, secure apart
from any other day. It changes
them, this first motherhood—
some find the carriage of a queen.