Range Roving-Part 2

I slowed Beau to a walk, not wanting to agitate the man’s horse and risk making his head hurt more. It took approaching quite near before I realized the man was Buck, our area brand inspector, who’d given me my early education in all things cow. I was very pleased to see him, as I never got to spend as much time with him as I would have liked. In my view, Buck was a cowboy down to the spurs on his boots, born in this country and knowing every inch of it like I never would. (more…)

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Range Roving-Part 1

I have no cell phone reception at home.  There’s a small mountain behind our house, which is  called Custer Mountain.  It’s more of a large hill really, covered at the base with sagebrush and then higher up with aspen groves and Ponderosa pines. As far as I know it bears no relation to the infamous General.  At its top is a windmill, which powers a pump to pull painfully cold, clear water straight up from the base of that hill, filling a stock tank which used to provide water for grazing cattle, but now primarily serves as refreshment for our local herd of elk. (more…)

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Tell Me It’s Not the End

It must be some ethereal trick of time that each year starts slow. But have you noticed how, about July, the year gathers speed? Come October or so it’s picked up a good deal of momentum. By end of November it’s hurtling toward December 31 like a runaway locomotive, with me strapped to the front. So hang on, we’re about to crash into 2012!

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Fergus-Part 3

Though I was a novice rancher, even I knew that taking a herd away from its leader was asking for trouble.  Like most ladies, I expected the cows themselves wouldn’t care less.  As for the alpha male, I figured he’d let his displeasure at losing his harem be known in one way or another. 

I waited for the two men to act. They were experienced ranchers.  Surely they would start unloading cows from one trailer’s rear compartment, loading Fergus in their stead.  But the extra time for all this wasn’t in the plan. And then there was the matter of momentum.  They were on a roll, cows were loaded, it was time to go. It certainly wasn’t time to stop, reflect, let common sense prevail.

Looking at Fergus, then glancing at each other, Owen and Jerry swiveled as if choreographed, jogged to their respective trucks and got in. Doors slammed as I watched in disbelief. With tires crunching on the gravel and dust billowing from the wheel wells, they drove off, shouting promises to return for Fergus as soon as they could.

Given the hauling time to their destination, the earliest we might expect to see an empty trailer again was evening.  Which in turn left ample time for Fergus to consider his situation.   The dust had barely settled in the driveway when it began to dawn on Fergus that he was herd-less.  Normally a congenial, sociable sort, this sudden solitude was a disturbing shock, turning him from a lethargic, easygoing animal into a deeply discontented bull.

He began snorting, pawing and stamping the ground in agitation.  The more he snorted and pawed, the more it seemed to him he must have something about which to be agitated, and the more agitated he became.  Soon he was lashing his tail and swinging his head, mucus flying, his snorts transformed to mournful bellows of outrage and distress.  He stomped and raged around his 40-foot square pen, and the more he stormed the madder he got.  And then he got a whiff of a cow.

The cow he smelled was Blizzard’s Mom, kept safely apart from the hubbub in her home pen 50 yards away.  Fergus now was in the thrall of his own momentum, the bullish sort.  When he  registered “COW”, he didn’t need additional specifics.  Though the female in question wasn’t one of his cows, she was a welcome facsimile, a good enough reason for Fergus to go on a rampage.   Without hesitation, he slammed his ton of muscle into the wood rails of his corral, sending them flying like so many toothpicks, and tore through the gaping hole with a bellow of outrage and lust.   She, being blind and not knowing her gentleman caller, wedged herself into the far corner of her enclosure.  The railing around her felt understandably secure, but left her no room to maneuver.

Fergus was himself virtually blind with the confusion of being separated from his herd. Probably equal parts delirious and delighted, he barreled toward Blizzard’s Mom with his beautiful 5-foot span of horns and in his passionate charge gored her severely.  By the time we got to her there was nothing for it but to put her out of her agony immediately.   When Jerry heard the story on his return, he decided that Fergus actually was a rogue bull, not safe to have around.  It’s too bad he didn’t know Fergus like we did.  We learned later he put him down as soon as he got him home.

Some people would say, “That’s ranching.”  Others would blame the people who thoughtlessly put Fergus in that situation to begin with. Some might even shake their head and say “I told you so,”  though not in so loud a voice as to be utterly un-neighborly.  For a while I felt bereft, both for affable Fergus and for the mother cow, amiable animals now needlessly dead. I puzzled over how, with everything going according to plan, things could have gone so wrong.  Eventually, I understood.  If a plan doesn’t include the part about a happy ending, you just might not get one.

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Fergus-Part 2

Over the course of the winter, Fergus proved an astonishment. He didn’t walk around the pasture. He swaggered. He ate the most hay, licked the most salt and definitely got the warmest spot in the pasture for naps. He was the Papa Doc Duvalier of the herd, a superficially benign dictator who got his way by dint of size alone. Though I often walked up to him in the pasture to run my fingers through his coat and scratch his broad nose, I kept our kitchen door firmly closed.

When spring was well underway, we were surprised to hear that Owen had sold his Highlands to Jerry, a Steamboat Springs fellow who wanted to increase the size of his own small herd. Over the course of a couple of months, money changed hands and the brand inspection was completed. Finally, the day arrived for the Highland cows to move to their new summer home.

A plan was formed and in everyone’s opinion it was a good one. Owen and Jerry were to meet at our ranch headquarters at 11:00 in the morning. Each would bring a livestock trailer. For our part, we were to leave the herd unfed. This was neither cruelty nor misplaced thriftiness. It was strategic. Cows will go where the food is. If that food is moving, they’ll follow it. A couple of buckets with grain would be enough to lure the entire herd, none of whom would waste any bovine brain space worrying whether the bit of grain chuckling in a bucket was sufficient for all of them. It wouldn’t even require coaxing for Fergus the bull to follow that bucket into the loading pens; he would go wherever his cows went and the sound of food would only make him move that much faster. Once in the pens, it’d be a simple matter to load them. That’s because cows would always rather move forward than backward. All we’d have to do was back an open trailer up to the gate, swing it open and in they’d go.

The two men arrived on time, which struck me as a positive omen, since ranching is a enterprise where disruptive breakdowns and delays are the rule rather than the exception. They filled their buckets with cracked corn and oats sweetened with molasses, a mixture cows love even when they’re full. As they walked through the herd shaking their buckets, the sweet smelling grain and scratchy sound of it tossing about had all the cows lined up in a jiffy, drooling and eager. Everything was proceeding well. Maybe that’s why I let my guard down.

The parade moved out of the field, shaggy cows lumbering along, sprightly calves trotting and bucking beside them. With their thick forelocks and long coats in shades of silver, white, dun and red, they looked like shag carpet on the move. Up the drive they wound, then past the ranch house. Owen and Jerry strode ahead, their buckets sounding like maracas, cows and calves jostling behind in an undisciplined conga line. Fergus alternated between shepherding his herd from behind and shoving his way to the front to get closer to the grain. And so the herd arrived at the cattle pens, which they entered without a sideways glance. From there they docilely loaded themselves into the trailer. And that’s where the easy part, the planned part, ended.

When the last trailer door banged shut, it became clear that neither Owen nor Jerry had bothered to confer with the other about trailer capacity. Both trailers were chock full of Highland cows, and there was still one animal left on the ground who couldn’t be squeezed in: Fergus the bull with his 5-foot spread of horns.

Oh no…..go right on to Part 3 for the conclusion of this tale.

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