Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lights Out


We’ve had some wind lately. If you live anywhere on the east slope of the Rockies, you’ve probably noticed. It certainly got my attention the night the west end of my house lifted off the foundation. Or maybe it lifted the foundation, too. I couldn’t tell for sure because the power was out. It’s never a good thing when your local news reports mention power poles and matchsticks in the same sentence. I was amazed we only lost our electricity for a few hours, the way the lines were snapping in the breeze.

Luckily, we hadn’t started calving yet. We sort of cheat when it comes to calving. You see, we have this indoor arena, and it’s big enough to hold all of the cows closest to giving birth. Instead of stumbling around a dark pasture with a flashlight, tripping over frozen cow turds and skidding across patches of black ice, our night cow checks go something like this:

*Start the pickup.

*Drive up to the arena.

*Leave the pickup running while you get out, go through the side door and turn on the big overhead lights.

*Stroll down through the arena and look at the cows, most of whom are kicked back in the straw, chewing their cud.

*Flip off the lights and drive back to the house with the heater running full blast.

We have been known to go as far as parking the camper inside the arena so the night man can just reach out the window, flip on the lights and look the girls over without actually going out in the cold.

The wind throws a bit of a kink into this routine. The nearest power pole is about twenty yards from the arena. The line between the two is strung along a series of tall fence posts. Somewhere along this trail, something has been rubbed bare by frequent swaying in balmy breezes, and on windy days, it sometimes shorts out and trips the breaker.

One night my husband was checking the cows, and lo and behold there was a brand new calf. He grabbed it, intending to slap an eartag in place. Mama was not entirely sold on the wisdom of this plan, and scooted up real close to stick her nose in his ear and express her concerns in a loud voice.

And the lights shorted out.

Turns out, when you are inside a large cavernous structure without electricity, you don’t even have the moonlight on the snowdrifts to help you spot a black cow. And all of our cows are black The arena went darker than the inside of an Angus cow…which was where my husband was going to end up if that mad mama located him because she couldn’t find her kid and she was fixin’ to eat whoever took him.

He didn’t dare move because he didn’t know exactly where the cow was. He had a flashlight, but turning it on might just give her a target. Plus he only had one hand free because he was still trying to hold onto a slippery, squirming calf. If he let go, the cow might really mow him down.

And somewhere out in the void there were those other twenty cows that had gathered around to observe the proceedings. He could hear them, snorting and rustling all around him. He just couldn’t see them.

And that, folks, is what you call a real dilemma. 


Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Was I Thinking?


If anyone happens to know why February exists please share, because right at the moment, I'm having a hard time figuring it out. All it's got to show for itself is a whole lot of cold, snow and wind, and a couple of made up holidays.  My drive to work the past two weeks has looked a lot like this, except the train is me and the tracks are my road. Just aim for halfway between the power poles on one side and the fence on the other, it'll be there somewhere. Since I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day and have never worked for anyone who considered President's Day worthy of paying me to lounge around on my couch, I say "Bah, Humbug" to the whole month.

One thing about winter, it does leave a person plenty of time to hang out in the house and ponder the mysteries of the universe. You can pop on over to the blog I share with a few friends to see What I Was Thinking.

Besides "Bah, Humbug", that is.


Friday, February 18, 2011

That time again...


Yesterday was officially the first day of calving at our place. Or should have been, according the to the artificial insemination schedule. Luckily the old girls were smart enough to keep their cheeks pinched because the temperature never got above zero.

In honor of the season, here's a sneak peek into the pages of the Never Ending Novel. Alex is a girl. The following scene occurs on her parents' ranch in Oregon. Chase is a city kid who just moved out from Seattle. They are both in high school. The cow is a heifer, meaning she's only two years old and this is the first calf she's had, which is when trouble is most likely.


The heifer stood in the pen in the barn looking hunched and miserable and confused. She’d never done this before, and nobody had explained how it was going to work. 

Or not work.

Alex cursed. “We’re going to have to pull it.”

“We?” Chase echoed, panic squirting adrenaline into his veins.

“Not you and I,” Alex said, as if it went without saying. “We’ll have to run back to the house and call over to Walkers’ for help.”

For some stupid reason, Chase bristled at the suggestion he was all but worthless. Plus, it would take ten minutes to bounce back up rutted road from the calving barn to the house, and then another half hour or more for someone from the Walker Ranch to drop whatever they were doing and drive ten miles by road or ride three miles cross country to come to the rescue while the poor cow suffered. And who knew what was happening to the calf.

“Isn’t there something we can do to help her?” Chase asked.

Alex shot him an impatient look, already starting for the door. “Sure. You can shove your arm up there and figure out why the calf isn’t coming out.”

Oh. Chase looked at the cow. She looked back at him and gave a low, pitiful moo.

“Okay,” he said.

Alex stopped. “Are you kidding?”

“No.” Chase squared his shoulders. He could do this. Maybe. “Tell me what to do.”

Alex stared at him. Then she laughed. “What the hell. Can’t hurt to try.”

Okay, that was a lie. Which Chase learned shortly after they’d maneuvered the cow into the squeeze chute, and Alex had helped him adjust the sides so the cow couldn’t move, then opened the back gate and showed him which, um, opening he should stick his hand in. He held his breath, prayed a little, and worked his hand into place.

“There’s a foot!” he exclaimed, when his fingers encountered a hoof just inside the passage.

“Only one?”

He felt around some, worked his hand past the hoof, along the leg, searching for its mate. The next thing he encountered was a nose. Then a vise clamped down on his arm, mashing it between the calf’s leg and something hard and immovable inside the cow.

Chase sucked in air and tried not to scream.

“Contraction,” Alex said. “It shouldn’t last too long.”

If Chase ever got his arm back, he was going to wipe that grin off her face with his very slimy hand. Forget caution. The instant the contraction ebbed, he shoved his hand deeper into the cow, past the calf’s head. Still no second foot.

“It’s got a leg back,” Alex said. “It won’t come out like that. You have to push the calf back in, find the leg and pull it straight.”

Right. Piece of cake. Chase found the calf’s nose and pushed. Then pushed harder. The cow mooed in protest.

“Sorry,” he muttered, but kept pushing, until his whole arm was inside the cow and his cheek was pressed up against her butt. Finally he had space, and he slid his hand down the calf’s neck, its chest, found an upper leg, then a knee, then a hoof. He tugged and pushed and maneuvered until it popped free. The leg straightened. The two hooves were side by side, leading the way.

“I got it,” Chase said.

“Get out of the way.”

He felt the next contraction starting and yanked his arm free. The calf slithered halfway out, dangling head down. Chase caught it in both arms. The cow hunched up and pushed again and the calf squirted loose. Chase staggered back, tripped, and landed in a heap with the slime covered calf in his lap.

Alex grabbed a burlap bag and crouched awkwardly, her injured leg stuck out to the side. The calf lay motionless as she scrubbed the rough cloth over its body.

“Is it dead?” Chase asked.


She rubbed its ears, over its muzzle. The calf moved. A weak lift of its head. A twitch of its legs. Alex grabbed a piece of straw, slid it into one nostril. The calf sneezed all over Chase’s leg. Within a few minutes, it was on its feet, swaying drunkenly as it rooted at the cow’s udder.

Chase plopped onto his butt in the straw. “Holy shit. We did it.”

Alex raised her eyebrows. “That’s the first time I ever heard you swear.”

“My mother says only idiots need to swear. Smart people use real words.”

Alex grinned. “I can’t wait to tell Trey.”

Chase was too dazed to laugh. Or to care that he was covered with stuff that had turned his stomach when he’d watched the childbirth video in first aid class. None of it mattered when the calf latched onto a teat and began sucking, his tail twitching in pleasure.

Alex lowered herself into the straw beside Chase. “You okay?”


They sat in silence for a few moments, watching the cow try to angle her head around in the chute to get a look at what had caused her so much trouble. They would let her out to lick and nuzzle the baby to her heart’s content as soon as the calf had filled its belly.

Wow. Just…wow. Chase had never imagined seeing something like that, let alone being a part of it. After less than a month, Seattle felt like a distant planet, inhabited by aliens, none of whom he’d had time to miss since he’d met Alex. And if friendship was all she had to offer…well, for this, Chase could live with it.

He angled a sideways glance at her, fighting a smirk as he thought back to his phone conversation with Jason. “Now that we’ve experienced the miracle of childbirth together, do I get to call you Allie?”

Her face went beet red. She narrowed her eyes, bared her teeth.

“Only if you want to know what afterbirth tastes like.”

Postscript, Saturday February 19: Our first babies arrived this morning. This is number two.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Avoiding the Obvious

Ten Minutes Old

I don’t know about you, but I find most days life is nothing but a series of problems to be solved. Mostly little problems, like how do you keep the kid from eating a dozen cookies while you’re up at the arena roping? But the occasional big one tossed in for excitement, like the hefty bill from the dentist you thought your insurance paid a year ago.

Problems are a constant challenge to my creativity. Especially the dental bill. And over the years I have learned to be suspicious of the obvious solution. Obvious solutions have a way of turning little problems into major issues. Let me elaborate.

Remember that time you were halfway across the state and trying to get the back off of your kid’s handheld video game so you could change the batteries and save the sanity of everyone in the car, and there was this big screw, and it was stuck, and you didn’t have a screwdriver but your car key fit in there just right and…snap!

Which was when you remembered you left the spare key to the car in the desk at home. And the obvious solution became a HUGE problem.

Nowhere do obvious solutions taunt you more frequently than on a ranch. Especially because you often don’t have a whole lot of time to ponder your options. When you’ve got a horse, a rope and a calf that just dove through the barbed wire fence with the nearest gate half a mile away, you may do the obvious before taking a minute to contemplate the result. Which is, in case you wondered, a not very impressed horse on one side of the fence, a bawling, bucking calf on the other, a rope stretched in between, and the gate STILL a half mile away. And if you’re really lucky, a mama cow playing jump rope on your side of the fence and a couple of busted posts as a bonus.

Yeah. That was helpful.

About ten years ago, my dad had a few yellow cows he picked up somewhere, as part of a bigger bunch. They were some kind of cross between Charolais, Limousin and a wolverine. Except meaner.

We put numbered ear tags on all of our calves as soon as possible after they’re born so when a big blizzard blows through and separates momma and baby, we can match them up again. Most of our cows are pretty understanding about the process. Old ranch hands will tell you this is because a cow won’t maul you as long as you’ve got ahold of her calf. They failed, however, to tell the yellow cows.

One afternoon, my dad and I went out in the old brown Ford to tag new calves. Of course, one of them was a yellow cow. We pulled up by where she had stashed her baby in a clump of buck brush on the side of a hill. Dad opened the door a smidgeon. She blew snot through the crack, then took off the rearview mirror in case we didn’t get the hint.

The solution was obvious. We had a rope, and we had a pickup with a roll bar. How hard could it be for Dad to stand in the back of the pickup, rope the calf and drag it up and out of reach of mad momma?

Simple. Until the cow dragged junior out of the brush and started across the hillside, which was conveniently mined with badger holes and huge rocks. Little bugger could move for being only three hours old. I yelled at Dad to hang on then gunned it, bouncing around in front to slow her down while Dad clutched the roll bar and the rope and made like a water skier hitting some seriously choppy water. As I rolled up alongside he let loose with one hand to swing his rope.

Whomp! The front tired dropped into an old buffalo wallow and nearly ripped off the front axle. Not to mention Dad’s left arm, which was the only thing that kept him from flying out of the pickup and landing on the ground right under the yellow cow’s pawing hooves.

I made another pass. Similar and equally jarring result, with the addition of a fat lip from smacking Dad’s chin off the roll bar. Luckily, at this point the yellow cow adopted an obvious solution of her own. She took her calf down across the bog where we couldn’t follow.

We then went with the second most obvious solution. We decided her calf really didn’t need a tag all that bad.

Think about it. How many times have you seen a minor irritation turned into a major structural damage to human, vehicle or animal due to the obvious solution? And if you don’t believe me, ask Rex. He can explain in great detail why, no matter how bad that foot rot cow needs doctoring, you should never throw a leg over that saddle cinched to the top of the stock rack on the back of your pickup.


For those who aren't familiar, this a stock rack. In the old days they were made of wood slats. Don't see much of them anymore, now that stock trailers have become the preferred method of carting farm animals around. And no, the llamas aren't mine.  


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Magical Disappearing Leftovers


Today I cleaned out my refrigerator. It was sort of frightening. But in the process, I realized I have been sitting on a gold mine. Forget Harry Potter and his flimsy little cloak. I have an entire set of Tupperware storage containers that make anything placed inside them invisible.

I'm serious.

Why else would a man eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for supper when there was a pork chop right there on the refrigerator shelf, complete with mashed potatoes and gravy, and in the plastic tub right next to it, creamed peas? All of which he would normally wolf down with enthusiasm and compliments to the chef, even if it is a day or two old. This is not a person who is too good for leftovers. Otherwise, he would have starved to death back in my athletic trainer days when I worked sixty or seventy hours a week and cooked only on Sundays. When I met him, his idea of home cuisine was to fry up a pound of deer sausage and leave it--uncovered, mind you--on a plate in the refrigerator where he could whack off a chunk whenever he got hungry.

And yet, I just tossed out a moldy tub of his favorite brown sugar garlic sweet potatoes and another of the chicken fettucine that he loved so much he ate until he had to nap for two hours afterward to let it settle.

There is only one explanation. It's the Tupperware. It's magic. And think of the possibilities, if I can only figure out how it makes itself disappear. How much would you pay to never find that someone has filched your totally awesome clam chowder out of the break room at work...again? And mothers...imagine being able to stash your chocolate right there in the refrigerator knowing it won't ever be raided by a ravenous toddler.

I'm telling you, as soon as I discover the secret to the magical Tupperware, I'm gonna be rich. For right now though, I'm putting the leftover prime rib in a big square plastic tub in the middle of the top shelf of the refrigerator where I know no one else will touch it.

Mine. All mine.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Scenic View Ahead


Today you get pictures, because my cousin sent me some fabulous new ones that I have to share. This is our ranch, looking west and slightly north. Those are the Rocky Mountains, of course, with the big square one being Chief Mountain. The Canadian border runs just to the right, along his base, so Chief and everything left of him in the photo are in Glacier National Park, and everything right of him is Waterton Park in Alberta, Canada.

See the hills in the foreground, between our ranch and the mountains? That ridge is part of the Hudson's Bay Divide. It angles to the north and east, almost parallel to the Canadian border. Rain and snow melt beyond that ridge but east of the Rockies runs into the St. Mary's river, which goes north. All that moisture will get carried clear across Canada and dumped into the Hudson's Bay. Rain that falls on our side of the ridge drains into the Milk River, which dumps into the Missouri, which dumps into the Mississippi, which dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.What a difference a mile makes, huh?

Here's a slightly closer view of the home place. You can clearly see two of our most prized possessions. The first is the big red thing to the right. That's our indoor arena. Almost a must if you're serious about training horses or roping in this part of the world.

The second is the trees. Look at both pictures again. Notice how many trees you see besides the ones right behind our house. Yeah. Precious commodities out here on the barren, windswept plains. Emphasis on the windswept. It works up quite a head of steam rolling down off that mountain front. There is no quicker way to  get yourself in big trouble around here than to mess with the trees.

Just ask the porcupines. 

And in case you get the impression from these pictures that we live on a big flat plain, here's a view of the place looking south and east. It's a gain of two hundred feet in altitude from our house to that little black spot in the upper left corner of the picture, which is a pair of granaries. This ridge is the edge of a large plateau about three miles in diameter. My cousin was standing on top of it to take the first two pictures. 

So there you go...the lay of the land.