Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A day in the life

It’s a farm-style breakfast today – eggs and hash browns. I forgot about the bacon in the bottom drawer of the fridge. The boys don’t mention it. I can see the grey sky looming to the west down Barn Canyon.

“You know, if it is too muddy, we don’t have to move them today,” I say.

“It’s not that bad out,” says Nathan with a shrug and a look that says “you can come if you want but it is OK to stay here”. A typical farmer response. I decide not to read into it too much and wander off to find my hat.

The mud is really bad. I slurk my way across the hill to push a few stragglers up to the corral. I leave False M behind; it’s wet and rainy and I can see her hip is bothering her so there is no sense in pushing her up to meet the others. We’ll keep her here at the house where she will be on good feed and not have to travel too far to get it as long as the poor old dear can slog through the mud.

With everyone else in the corral I wander up the hill to close the gate, the mud grabbing at my boots. I’m secretly prideful that I had the foresight to remember to bring some sticks; the rubber boots are a no-brainer but the sticks are the secret. I can glurp and glop my way through the eight inches of mud with relative ease; it’s not a graceful walk but it keeps me from getting bogged down.

Jake rounds the corner – stick-less. Before he reaches the really churned up parts, I pass him one of my two sticks, more of a rough branch really. It’s by far the sturdier of the two. I keep the small one for myself. It is much shorter, just barely hip-height and it has a little nub where my thumb can rest. Unlike the branch, it has been worn smooth with use. I greedily wish I had both sticks: the rough branch is far more practical, I could really lean on it if I got bogged down but the other stick has character.

While my stick may not keep my boot from getting stuck while my foot walks right out into the mud, it is filled with impractical nostalgia. I am The Shepherdess. I am a Scottish shepherd moving my flock across great green pastures, the dogs working in tandem to keep the flock together taking direction from my lilting whistles. The dog... the dog! Wait where is the dog?

I snap back from my pastoral nostalgia. My dog, Zoe, only occasionally heeds my whistles. I am low on her chain of command. She’s Lloyd’s dog but will take commands from Nathan too. With me she plays the “multiple parents” card, seeking out Lloyd or Nathan when I give her a command she dislikes.

I see Zoe working with Nathan to move the bulls out of the bullpen so we can walk the herd through their gate to an adjoining pasture. It seems everything at the ranch is a little puzzle like this: we have to move the bulls before we can move the calves. We have to move the calves out so we can bring the heifers in. We have to remove the battery from this truck before we can start this tractor. We have to air up the tire before we can use the ATV.

With the bulls out of the way and gates normalized I slowly put pressure on the cattle to move out of the manger. They did not get fed this morning and are hesitant to go. Some of the calves just turn and stare at me, planting their hooves and refusing to move. Angus are notoriously headstrong. I can’t wait to see this year’s calf crop in the next few months. Our newest bull is a Hereford which is a more docile breed, willing to please and work with you.

I try to work the calves slowly and carefully. At this age their flight zone has no danger gradient. From here they are calm and curious, wondering why I am in their manger but a couple steps closer to this one calf and he could spook sending panic through the herd. I really don’t want to get this bunch all riled up.

Calves can be difficult to move. This group consists mostly of yearling replacement heifers and beef steers. There’s a handful of others: a first calf heifer, several second-calf heifers an older brood cow and False M. Since we are walking the calves to little hay shed for winter feeding we are betting on the older cows to help lead the way. Normally we would truck the calves after weaning but the mud makes that option unavailable.

Nathan and Jake sort out Margaret, the first calf heifer, from the rest of the group. She is due to calve in a few weeks and having the heifers down at the house for calving makes it easier to check on them and intervene should anything go wrong. I can already see her bag is starting to fill out so she should be close, but the first gestation can be tricky maybe it will be a week, maybe a month. I hope everything goes OK, she’s one of my favorites.

Margaret bellows when she sees the herd take off up the hill and stomps around frantically. She doesn’t want to stay here with geriatric False M. What an odd couple they make. Margaret a coming two-year-old on the brink of having her first calf and False M, soon to be 19 and with so few teeth it is amazing that she can support herself let alone a calf. Maybe she is pregnant too. I didn’t think she was last year but she surprised me. Either way she has a forever home at the ranch, she’s in the book, she’s part of the legacy.

Margaret is part of the legacy too. The ranch has run a closed herd for decades, buying new bulls to cycle genetics but not new cows. All the ladies on farm are mothers and daughters, sisters and aunties. There have been several cattle books through the years. Lorene kept one up when she married Lloyd but after the girls were born, recordkeeping lapsed.

False M is in the book. There are photos of her at a few months old and as a spry yearling. There are notes on her dam and sire as well as the calves she’s produced. Maybe some of her daughters or granddaughters are here today, it’s hard to tell. Many of the records just list the average price at auction for that year’s calf crop.

There are three identifiable cows left in the book: False M with the red slash across her face, Spats with the black “V” on her white face and her dainty white spats over her hooves and Amphetamine, a red, white-faced cow with small freckles on her white face.

Amphetamine is our lead cow. She’s part Hereford like her half-sister False M and displays the same docile, calm manners that make the breed easy to work with. A calm, well-adjusted leader keeps the rest of the herd calm. At sixteen, watching her lead is like watching video of an elephant matriarch moving her family across the savanna. I may not be able to see the path but she knows where it is; she’s followed these trails all her life, carrying on the legacy of the herd before her.

Maybe that’s why I advocated for Margaret so much last year when sorting calves. Surely there are some of Amphetamine’s daughters in the herd but in a sea of black cows, how would you know for certain? I would always be able to pick out Margaret; she’s a black and white version of her red and white mother. She may have been smaller than the others but she was my favorite and at least she could be a productive member of the herd instead of just a pet.

From the corner of my eye I see the last of the herd pass by the orchard and hop on the ATV to pickup Nathan. I make a quick promise of an apple when I return to Margaret and head up the hill.

I hope I gave Jake clear enough instructions. He was to ride ahead and close some gates, open others. I feel like I did a good job explaining what to do. He’s a smart kid, my brother-in-law, but I have a habit of giving way more detail than necessary. All I can do is hope that he took care of the gates and is positioned properly so the cattle don’t spook when they see him at the crest of the hill.

I pick Nathan up and he drives us up after the cattle. They start to spread out a little and we veer off the road to the right to put pressure on them from the side. The ATV lurches and the wheels start to spin throwing thick globs of mud. Curse this mud. It is January, it should be 20 degrees and frozen why is it 55 and rainy? Nathan puts the ATV in reverse and we get back on the road. I can see the cattle hitting the crest of the hill and Jake slowly moving in from the right to guide them around the bend in the road. At least that is going as planned.

It starts to rain. Precipitation has been falling this whole time but we have moved from mist to sprinkle to drizzle to all-out rain. The ground is so saturated that as soon as the cattle pickup their feet, their hoof prints are immediately filled to the brim by murky water. It is actually really beautiful; I wish I had my camera. Probably better that I don’t though as the sky has opened up and started dumping buckets on us.

The notion strikes me that perhaps I am a little under-dressed for the weather. My jeans are soaked and I am pretty certain that if I put up my hood now, I would just pour all the rain that has since collected down my shirt. I glance at Nathan, he’s wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. I try to keep helpful comments like, “wow, it is really raining!” to myself. Somehow, I think he already knows that. Jake is the best prepared for the weather of all of us, with insulated coveralls, overboots and a hat plus he has a wet dog riding on the back of his scooter.

The cattle move along at a mostly walking pace until they encounter the rabbit; that’s when everything comes to a standstill. Though Zoe checks every time she goes by just in case there is an actual rabbit, the rabbit is actually a mailbox of sorts. A Volkswagon rabbit left parked at the end of the county road many years ago for use as a UPS drop box. The UPS man has since made nice with the postmaster who lives nearby and leaves packages with her instead of driving all the way out.

For now, all the rabbit does is interfere with moving cattle between pastures. A good lead cow like Amphetamine saunters by the rabbit every time like it is not even there which encourages the rest of the herd to follow. Margaret is the same way; she is always the first to walk through any gate or chute. But today all I have is a bunch of spooky calves and a handful of teenagers. They stop, stare and shuffle around nervously but with gentle pressure they finally decide there is nothing to be scared of and carry on.

Jake rides ahead to open/close more gates and Nathan and I follow the herd along the road. At the bend they will no longer follow the road and instead walk along the hill. This isn’t exactly a very mature group of cattle but several of them have walked this way with the herd before. They know the legacy of the trail. Of course they also know the road as the one older brood cow decides she will follow the flat road instead of walking cross country. Everyone else follows the trail.

I also know the trail and know that the ATV can’t follow it and if you stay on the road the cattle stop walking and fan out to graze. I hop off and walk behind the herd to keep everyone moving as Nathan rides ahead.

I am soaked now. My Christmas Carhartts still so new and stiff cling to my thighs and my two long braids wick the rain from my head down inside my coat. My rubber boots have long since dismissed any claims of being waterproof and my left sock has completely fallen down and is all bunched up, I can feel the slippery clay soil rubbing between my toes. I don't even care.

It’s just me now. All I hear is the sound of the rain, of my boots slapping against my legs, “Thoc! Thoc!” and the surprisingly quiet steps of the herd. As they move through, they leave for me a perfumed cloud of sage and I am ever so content.


Anonymous said...

Nature and all its glory appreciated even in the yucky mud!!! Love you loving the animals :)

Jarom said...

Man, I wish I was there to help. That sounds like quite an adventure!

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Rick

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