Sunday, June 26, 2011

To Everything There is a Season, . . . usually!



                 If agriculture were to have a theme song, I think it would be to Everything There is a Season.   (This song, adapted in 1959 from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-14 by Pete Seegar and originally released in 1962, became a hit when released by the Byrds in 1965.) During a normal year, here at the ranch, things progress from one activity to another.  This year, because of an extreme amount of snow and a spring which was six weeks late, instead of one season following another, they all came at the same time.  It’s been a really busy spring and bet you thought I had just forgotten about keeping up the blog, it’s just been too busy and we’ve been going from dawn to dusk.

Usually, the fences gets fixed, the fields harrowed, cattle gathered, branded and turned out, meadow harrowed, irrigation systems and ditches set up, water turned on, weeds sprayed and fences in the higher pastures fixed to accommodate the cattle moving into those pastures, one after the other.  This year, the snow melted in the lower country and the ground dried out so water needed to be ready to go immediately.  The weather was cool so the grasses didn’t grow and the cattle couldn’t be left in the first two pastures for as long as normal which also meant that not only the cattle but the salt and minerals had to be moved from one pasture to the other.  The fences in the higher pastures needed to be repaired immediately.  The fields and meadow needed to be harrowed before they became too hard and dry to do any good for the soil and before the grasses became too tall and the harrow would do damage.  While we had flooding and still have some flooding along the river on the meadow, the rest of the meadow was drying out and needed the water turned on.  The weeds must have been growing under the snow because it seemed that as soon as the soil warmed up not only did the grass grow; but the weeds also.  The moisture has made for a bumper crop of weeds and patches of whitetop literally bloom over night. 

In addition to the usual chores, we had to prepare for an extended flooding season.  We hurried to drag the meadow so in the event of flooding, the soil would be prepared and after the floods receded, all we would need to do is remove the debris.  Because of the extreme snow, the feeding grounds became too soupy mud.  Driving across to check and feed cattle caused ruts and damaged grass in certain places.  The ruts needed to be worked before they became as hard as concrete and the grasses needed to be reseeded before we could turn on the water to irrigate.  The ditch needed to have the banks made higher and parts of the ditch reinforced to keep the extraordinary water pressure from blowing holes in the ditch.  The headgate at the river needed to be monitored to raise and lower it to prevent it from being washed out by the high water.

The usual high water of the runoff is during the first week in June.  We’re having an extended run off and they say it will peak sometime in early July.  We’re lucky with our meadow.  It was engineered in the early 1940’s with improvements made as needed so we have had very little high water and damage to the meadow or the banks.  Our neighbors, who have a meadow which was merely cleared so native grasses could grow have a different story.  They have water washing across low areas all across their meadow for a good quarter of a mile.  Rivers, through time, change channels.  The Yampa River is no different.  It is the perfect time for rivers to carve new channels or return to previous channels during these years where the volume of water is not only extreme but also where the high water remains for a long period of time.  It looks like the river is going to carve a new channel while still keeping the old channel, so the neighbors may have a new island thus taking about 5 to 10 acres of productive hay and pasture ground.

Each of the cows has calved and the fences have been fixed in preparation for moving the cows to a new pasture.  It is now time for branding.  When each calf was born they were given a herd identification number within 12 hours (refer to the March 13 blog to review herd identification tags), the number and the cow’s number are recorded in the red book.   Branding is more than a time to give each calf a permanent identifying mark which tells which ranch they belong to; it is also the time check each calf over carefully, give each their first vaccinations, neuter the males and give them their EID (electronic Identification). Colorado has with strong brand laws and system.  Each ranch develops a brand which must be approved, verified and registered with the state brand board.  Each brand holder pays a brand registration fee every five years. It is these funds along with the inspection fees which pay most of the expenses of running the brand board.  Across the state are districts and brand inspectors.  Each time a cow, calf, or horse is sold, the brand inspector must visually see the animal to make certain that they belong to the person doing the selling.  They write up brand papers showing the transfer of ownership which follow the animals to the new owners.  In addition, horses must have travel cards when they are being transported more than 75 miles from home.  The brand inspectors are the first line of defense against horse and cattle rustling.

Our branding begins with the gathering of the cows and calves from the meadow.  We do this on horseback and move the cattle slowly and calmly.  The entire process should be done in a quiet manner to keep the animals calm.  Many of our cows know the procedure and usually are ready to move to the next pasture.  When we go down to the meadow or anytime we try to move the cattle, the calves are rarely with their mothers.  They are off in groups of calves.  As the gather begins, we circle the herd and slowly move them to the center.  This gives the cows and calves the opportunity to find each other.  If a calf can’t find its mother,  the animal gets anxious which can quickly spread throughout the herd and you have animals running everywhere.  The most difficult part of moving cows and calves is that the cows usually know where they are going and are used to seeing openings so they tend to go first.  Calves tend to hang back with other calves and frequently you have all the cows through the gate while there are a group of calves left behind.  Any other time, a calf would be through the opening in a flash; however, because you want them to go through, they are so anxious that they can’t see the opening and if pushed will bolt back to where they last saw their mother.  It’s a special horse that doesn’t go crazy when a calf bolts under its belly.  This year the gather was perfectly executed and no calves bolted.

After the cows are in the corral, the cows are sorted out and put in a pen to wait for their calves to join them. The calves are then put into one of two pens where they wait their turn.  We have a squeeze chute for our cows and bulls and two calf tables for our calves.  These chutes restrain the animals gently but securely.  This is for the protection of both the animals and the humans and allows the humans to work on the part of the animal that needs to be worked on.  The chute doesn’t hurt the animal and actually calms the animal.  The calf enters the chute where it’s head is caught and then the sides gently embrace the calf tightly to keep it secure.  It is then turned so the calf is lying on its side.  This prevents the calf from struggling and makes it easy to reach all parts of the calf. 

Everyone has a job at branding.  Jobs which require knowledge and expertise are branding, neutering, and giving shots.  There are only three people who use the branding irons; my husband, our son, and a neighboring rancher.  All have been taught and have years of experience in the application of the brand.  Branding is equal to a third degree burn.  It is the same as touching your hand against the heat coils of a hot oven.  The scars caused by the blisters become the brand. When we get sunburns or other burns, they are sprayed liberally with a mixture of aloe and lavender and so are our calves’ burns. This eases the sting of the burn and keeps the area soft and subtle instead of forming hard scabs. 
Calves entering the chute/calf table.
Laying the chute down to make a table.
The calf's head is supported and it receives its brand, EID tag, and innoculations all within a 4 minute time span.

 While on the table, each calf receives one shot which contains vaccine for seven different diseases.  All inoculations are given just under the skin and never into the muscle.  This prevents internal scars which might turn up as gristle in the meat that is served on someone’s plate in the future. There are regulations and instructions on the label  which must, by law be followed.  This is for the health and safety of not only the animal but also of the consumers.  One example is that an animal which has received a penicillin shot may not be sold for food consumption for a minimum of half a year. This gives plenty of time for the medication to completely leave the animals system.

 Each calf, also receives another tag in the ear opposite our herd tag, the EID tag.  It is a round button-like device which pierces the calf’s ear like a stud earring.  This one is imprinted with a unique number.  No other calf in the world will have that same number.  The E in EID stands for electronic and with a computer and wand scanner, the number can be “read”, making it easy to identify each individual animal.  We keep records for each animal: date of birth, mother, date of vaccination, date and any type of treatment and other notes which are pertinent to the health, growth and development of each animal.  When the calf leaves our ranch, they not only have the tag in the ear but are given either a hard copy or an electronic copy of each calf’s records. This electronic ear tag remains with the animal through its entire life span and allows the movements of the animal to be traced back to where it originated from.  This is beneficial for disease control and ultimately in allowing consumers to know where their meat came from.  (When you go to the grocery store, fresh meat and produce coming from outside the United States must be labeled.  If there is no label, it is produced in the US.)

The male calves are neutered. It is interesting that many of the people who are against the neutering of cattle are the very ones who encourage people to neuter or spay their puppies and kittens.   Male calves are neutered for the same reason that people neuter  kittens and puppies, to prevent unwanted breeding.  As these calves grow and develop, neutering  also prevents them from producing a hormone which a) causes them to become hard to handle and b) some say causes a change in the taste of the meat that these animals eventually become. Neutering is done only by my husband or son. We use disposable sterile scalpels and each calf is treated with antiseptic and receives antibiotic to prevent infection.  We do not use anesthesia.  As anyone knows who has ever had surgery and had to sign a release for the use of it, the possible complications from the anesthesia are much more frightening than complications from surgery.  In this case, the calves recover more quickly from the surgery than they would from the effects of anesthesia. We have tried a process called banding but the calves recovery from the discomfort of this process took days rather than hours.  In addition, we worry that this prolonged recovery would make them more vulnerable to coyotes .  When Mike Rowe visited a sheep ranch up the road outside of Craig, Colorado, he did a segment on banding versus quick surgery.  Click on the link to see what he discovered.  Warning:  this segment is very graphic.

Photo taken by Nancy Kramer around Lay, Colorado.  Even lambs prefer people eat beef.
Calves, like people, have different reactions to things.  When released from the calf chute, some walk calmly away, some kick up their heels and some run as fast as they can.  They are all put in a large pen for the next hour so that we can keep an eye for possible complications or reactions.  This year, we had some urban participants who were worried about the calves until they saw for themselves that the calves were up and cavorting in less than a half-hour after their treatment when they are turned out into a small pasture where they join their mothers. Here, for the rest of the day, we are able to keep a close watch on the herd to make sure no calf is in difficulty and that every cow has found her calf.
These calves have had enough and want to join their mothers right after being branded, neutered, and inoculated.
After the work was all done, we all retire to the house for a picnic lunch and to relax and visit. This is the opportunity for us to catch up with the lives of old friends who have been helping us for years and to learn about the new people that Pat and Jan have brought to our ranch for the weekend.   Branding at our ranch is an educational event.  We have had people from China, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, and all parts of the US attend our branding.  It is also a social event where the neighbors and friends from town and friends of our son and daughter-in-law come from the cities to learn and participate. Some participants began coming when they were college kids and now they bring their children.  This is our main social event for the year.

Later after everyone has gone home, the family; Taylor and Justin (our grand kids), Pat and Jan (our son and daughter-in-law), and Jim and I will walk our herd into the next 200 acre pasture where they will remain for the next two weeks.  We linger to enjoy the sense of accomplishment, the coolness of the evening, and peace and contentment that comes when things are as they should be and the family is together.

After the work, Justin gets to play in the water.
Taylor gathers dandelions.


  1. Great post. Makes me tired just to read it.

  2. I am an employee of the Natural Resources Conservation Services; NRCS, a government agency that work clossely with private land owners like you. I am originally from New Jersey and currenlty here in the west - Steamboat Springs CO on detail in the District Conservation office. I have had some exposure to ranching practices since I have been here, but reading your blog is almost like a one place to shop for everything. You took a very serious subject matter, agriculture, and make it fun to read; the music, you style and presentation. Your knowledge and passion for your work is just simply infectious.

    Thank you for being an advocake for a very inportant but some times neglected part of our national wellbeing; Agriculture !!!

    Osman SHitu