Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Business of the Year

Business of the Year

We came in from fencing early on this Saturday in November so we could get ready for the annual banquet jointly sponsored by the Crazy Mountain Stockgrower’s Association and the Sweet Grass County Wool Marketing Association. Montana Bunkhouse’s Working Ranch families are well represented in the local, state and national leadership of these groups that are the movers-and-shakers in the beef and sheep industries.

Imagine a gathering in your community where 10 or 15% of the population comes together with a common goal and enjoys a meal and celebrates the year. That’s what happens in Big Timber around Thanksgiving of each year. Cattle men donate beef and sheep men donate lamb. We all eat together and visit and then listen to the keynote speaker.

At the close of the meeting we honor The Business of the Year. This year it was Stephens Auto and the Stephens Family. As everyone knows, these folks are the rancher’s best friend when ever there is equipment in need of repair…they’ll get the part or they’ll build one for you. They give exceptional service…and that is the rule.

What brought the entire audience to its feet was the recognition of Mark Stephens: his dedication and hard work as Fire Chief for the County. This year’s fire season was so bad that Mark was sometimes fighting between 14 and 22 fires in one day going one direction and then another. Mark serves in a volunteer position in Sweet Grass County. And we salute the Stephens family for their support and for making it happen so that Mark could fight fires for all of us.

We’re all pretty proud of the Stephens outfit. Out here to be called “the ole man” is to be distinguished as an old timer. And Old Man Stephens started the business. His business is where the old Farmall tractor came from that we use to pound posts with. His wife is still alive and a good friend of Betty (Rick’s mom). Mark is 3rd generation Stephens in this business. Mark’s father Marv and his Uncle Jim took over the business from their father. And their young grandsons with mechanical aptitude are coming up through the ranks to hopefully carry on the tradition.

Quite a story. Another story about the strong community spirit we’ve come to expect from Big Timber and Sweet Grass County. It is “the community thing” that makes this place larger than life.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007



Lambing is not what you would call back breaking work but it is pretty constant and I’m stiff and sore from all the bending, lifting, and dragging…Checking for newborns, picking the drop and jugging them with their mothers. Packing water, grain and hay to the ewes for the day they are inside bonding with their lambs learning to recognize their sounds and smells. All part of the lambing tradition.

The ewes find a secluded spot and for the most part they birth two lambs and within 10 minutes they have their lambs up on wobbly legs and sucking. Occasionally there are triplets and the mother can’t raise three so one becomes a bum lamb or is used as a graft for a ewe that may have lost her lamb. And then there are those darn white face lambs that need snacks to keep up with stronger black faced siblings. I’ve bottle fed a few of them so many times that they blat when they see me walk in the pen and their little tails start wiggling in anticipation of warm milk.

Branding is my favorite time of the day. It is more than the pride of ownership …it is the significance of the act of branding. It is a seal of approval when we paint-brand the ewe and her lambs. It is a sign that they are OK. We would not brand them and turn them out if there was a question about whether they could survive on their own. The numbers are sequential in the order they are born and each lamb wears the number of its mother. Singles are branded on the right and twins on the left. If you find a lost lamb, you know at a glance how old he is and whether he is a twin or single.

We take a well-deserved break leaning up against the corral fence and Grandpa explains how it was when his father lambed out 2000 sheep as compared to the 200 we have today. They would start the morning by going over to the sheep wagon for a cup of coffee out of a tin cup. Norwegians drink coffee year round…no ice tea or orange juice for sheepherders…that stuff “rusts your pipes!” It was coffee boiled on the stove with a dash of cold spring water to settle the grounds. Water right from the spring next to the sheep shed. It never bothered any one that the spring was not fenced off in those days…that’s how you got a cast iron stomach… by drinking that kind of water.

But there is little time for reflection: We are lambing like crazy and as our Norwegian cousin would say, “we are two-turds done!” Days are long and nights are short and we are not as young as we once were. However should I have trouble falling asleep tonight …the tried and true method of “counting sheep” will not work for me… the last thing I want to do when I’m lambing is count sheep at bedtime!

Springtime is a pretty magical time of year. It is the perfect combination of nature and nurture. It is a rewarding time--something vital fills each hour. Now with temps in the 50’s, it has been a glorious time for lambing and we take heart in what we call perfect lambing weather.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Calving Has Begun

Calving Has Begun

Calving has begun and Mother Nature is on our side. It is a glorious sight to see healthy young uns bucking and playing. Midst unusually balmy early spring weather, the cows are busy finding secluded places for birthing. My bulky Carhartt coat has been replaced by a lined shirt jacket and gloves are left on the floorboards.

At early morning light we bounce the pickup along a side hill to see who can spot the first one. It is a race. Born and raised on this ranch, Rick knows every nook and cranny of the creek bottom and the sloping hillside pasture. Just like his daddy did before him, he has the ranch topography memorized and that gives him undue advantage. However, today I win, pointing first to the sleek black profile nestled at the foot of the willow brush. He complains, “I have to look where I’m driving, you get to do nothing but look for calves.” The truth is, Rick left his glasses home and that gave me the edge.

The bulls were turned out the 26th of May and 280 days have gone by signaling the beginning of calving. In weather like this, we do not lock them up in the lot by the calving sheds; they are able to be out on the clean calving pasture reserved for this purpose. Six cows this morning standing guard, they have newborns in out of the way places. Some of these old cows can be pretty protective. Tagging is actually not a safe thing for one person to do. While Rick knows the cows and can usually stay this side of trouble, he welcomes my help. So far according to the already dog-eared log, nineteen have calved. I pen the mother cow’s number on to an ear tag: yellow to the right ear for heifers and orange for bulls. While he tags the calf I keep the cow at bay, swinging a stick to discourage the mommas who want to wear Rick as a head ornament.

The hundred first time calvers are up by the house where we can keep an eye on them. No action in that bunch today. Rick teases, “Maybe these heifers don’t think they are going to calve this year…maybe they are just putting on a show.” By this time next week we should have a better idea how all that is going to shake out. Did we buy the right bulls, what we call heifer bulls, to produce smaller shoulders on their calves? With only 4 unassisted births logged in the heifer book, we cannot say. But they sure look good. Curious, they stand around us in a semi-circle, coming as close to the yard as Rascal-dog will tolerate.

The long term weather forecast on Yahoo promises this unseasonably warm weather to continue for at least another week. We’re hoping that the weatherman guessed right. It is a joy not to struggle against the below zero weather that we battled the last two years. One night last year the thermometer settled in at twenty below and with the wind howling the chill factor hit 48 below. Calves are frozen stiff in a matter of minutes if they are left on the ground with those conditions. Rick would roll them into a tall sided sled and run for the barn with the excited mother following along. It took superhuman effort to keep 24 hour watch on the cattle, taking turns with the hired man snatching bits of sleep here and there. Thankfully, all of those nights are in the past.

This year is nothing like the last. Calving has begun and Mother Nature is on our side.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Karen’s Ranch Report February 20, 2007

Karen’s Ranch Report February 20, 2007

MeiMei emailed from Taiwan in advance of Mr. Chin’s visit to Montana as guests of Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations and the Sanders Ranch. She explained to me that Dennis was a well renowned photographer and from her I learned he was technically brilliant. What I learned first hand was how compassionate he is and how interested he is in every person he meets. We all hold value to him and he makes conversation with us in a way that puts us at ease even in the face of his big lens camera.

We folded him in to our lives and he warmed our hearts. We introduced him to our friends and neighbors--took him along to be part of the seemingly endless feeding and tending of livestock that keeps a rancher busy during cold winter days. At day’s end, we played old time western music with him in the center of the group clapping his hands and keeping time with the rancher-musicians. Eyes shining with appreciation, he said “these are the songs of my childhood memories!”

He recorded the cowboys gathering the cows and sorting the heavies, their horses anticipating every move and eager to please. The newborn calf getting his first nourishment put Dennis flat on his stomach so he could get just the right angle of the life-sustaining suckle. He photographed the barren forest fire ravaged mountain top and the horses lined up for their hay, listening as we told heroic tales of those who lived the Darby Fire. And he paid attention to detail everywhere we went: the whiskers of the barn cat, the jingle bob on grandpa’s spurs, and the patterns in the wind-sculpted snow.

Big Timber was once known as the Wool Capital of the World. We visited sheep men feeding their flock. Everywhere we went Dennis asks questions. How do the sheep and cattle get along and what about the cowboys and sheepherders? Nothing passed him by whether it was matters of economics or matters of the heart.

We joked about keeping him longer – and we explained justice Montana Vigilante style. However, it was Dennis in the end that took matters into his own hands and decided to stay an extra day rather than go to Yellowstone Park. He said, Mammoth will always be there, but this [way of life is vanishing] and it is more important to be here and now. And we loved him for it.

The extra day was well spent. Armed with Julie’s freshly baked cinnamon rolls we headed to the neighbors where 4 generations of Valgamores work together raising cattle. Grandson Corby caught a sick calf with a lucky loop, as he called it, and doctored it while Dennis watched. Once again, detail was not overlooked and the tops of cowboy boots sticking out above the muddy overshoes were captured along with Grandpa Henry’s approving smile.

Then we headed to the little country school in Springdale where a half dozen little buckaroos were lined up in front of the school’s computers…cowboy hats tipped back on their heads as they continued their studies. “Everything is a circle” said Dennis, as he reflected on the generational family ranch, “and that is how it should be!” Here where the spirit is rich in tradition and hearty in hospitality.

And he told us he will be back for branding in the Spring. That makes us smile.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Winter Cattle Drive

Winter Cattle Drive

Ah, the good life. Just imagine you are trailing cattle down the Old West trail with mountains looming on the horizon. You expect it to be hot and dusty? Hello!!! Instead there is a refreshing breeze and on occasion you are riding on snowbanks so hard that your horse does not even sink in. Dressed in Carhartt coat and bibs and face mask under your scotch cap…you’re authentic western all right. And that breeze is more like a gale and it is blowing dirt and hair …and when that cow peed in the wind; you made mental note not to ride so close next time. It is fifteen miles to Big Timber door to door from the ranch…. And then another couple of miles the other side of town to the Boulder River Ranch. Temperature was right at freezing and throughout the day we cussed and discussed the weather … mostly remarked on the wind which blew hard in the morning and then leveled off right into our face at about 25 mph all afternoon.

Welcome to the winter cattle drive. This is ranch life. That’s how it is. Often the weather dictates what we can do but this time it was not like we could just wait for a warm day; we settled for a do-able day. Dictated by gestation tables and feed and family schedules… it was time to trail the cattle to the home place before calving begins in earnest. Officially calving begins the day after Valentines, however the first set of lively twins was born last night…it was time. “Look on the bright side,” Grandpa remarked, “no mosquitoes when we trail in February!”

OK… so …maybe not your typical cattle drive. Certainly not the kind you would invite guests to join…but we enjoyed the camaraderie of friends and family. I drove the pickup pulling the stock trailer and kept the heater going for anyone who wanted to trailer their horse and warm up in the cab for a while. I can not ride yet because I still have the “siraloP” imprint on my leg. [My spell checker does not know that “siraloP” is Polaris 4-wheeler spelled backward.]

My job was to drive and be a “story listener” as the grandkids rode with me in the cab and spun yarns. Jordan (7) showed me the exact spot on the trail where she had her first sip of coffee as a three year old and she said never told a soul because she thought it was something to keep secret like your first sip of beer. Jess (5) confided how his friend Sam said a bad word; he watched for my reaction and predictably, I disapproved. Well, Jess continued, he had said that bad word too…after all, he heard his dad and his grandpa say it…so he just had to say it “to get it out of my system!”

And then besides the predictable yarns of remember when we came to this spot last year, there was the unpredictable. Although bucking broncos are not unusual when taking young horses on their first big ride outside. The wind gets them frazzled. When it happened, (all four legs up…all four legs down, hard,) Jami dusted herself off and got back on. Then for the rest of the ride, her colt took an interest in the cattle and went along like nothing ever happened. [Hint: don’t ask to ride Ben until he gets a little older and more sure of himself!] But the cattle drive is sure good for young horses and it is a darn side better for the cows than the stress of trucking them.

When the colt lit into crow-hopping, the cows went the wrong dang way and they headed for McLeod instead of Big Timber. But it was cold enough that Grandpa could ride right across the frozen swamp and head them back toward our destination… on to the overpass where we had to cross over the Interstate. That was a little tricky because we had six cars from each direction not wanting to wait for the ponderous mother cows who were taking their time deciding when to cross over the highway traffic noise.

Friends and family strategically parked their vehicles and helped encourage the cows to stay the course until we could get through town. Cort flagged from Indian Rings Subdivision. He showed me the spurs he was making and I admired the sleek Calvary styling and coveted the jinglebobs he had fashioned. Great Grandma Betty, at age 83, was parked at the Fishing Access when we trailed over the Boulder River Bridge. She had baked fresh cinnamon rolls and made strong coffee which she served up along the trail midmorning. Tom Ivey ate his cinnamon roll from his car while parked in a lane near the golf course. Sure would not have wanted those cows to take a romp through the golf greens.

It did not take long before the old cows were “trail broke” and they plodded their way down the streets through the edge of town, behind the Frosty Freeze and then along the railroad tracks to the frontage road. These older cows kinda know the way but Grandpa recalled earlier years when there were stampedes because a train came through town a blowin’ their horn. Would have been some “wrecks” this year if we had been behind those hundred heifers …old cows are a real joy. We had two trains and no troubles either time.

With these first two “town” miles behind us and fifteen more to go, we just had to watch for haystacks and country lanes, navigate the Yellowstone River Bridge at Grey Bear Fishing Access and then on home. We loaded our horses in the trailer by mid-afternoon and for the last 5 miles, the cows were on the honor system. They know where their hay is going to be in the morning and after they took a little rest, they continued on their own. Twelve hours from the time we saddled up, the last of the 200 cows made it to the ranch.

Soaking in the hot tub that night, Grandpa said he had enjoyed riding his Foxie mare and bragged on how quickly she turned after a cow that tried to double back. He likes to brag on Foxie. And since no one was hurt, he could chuckle at how daughter Jami “rode to the buzzer” and how she would not think of missing a cattle drive regardless of the weather.

Then before the inevitable nap …Grandpa crooked one arm over the edge so he did not slide into the hot tub and drown. Happy as a lark and overcome with love he said “I love you guys…love you very much.” And midst the splashing came the reply “We love you too Grandpa!”

Life is good.
And…The cows are home.