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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hello, Beautiful


I gotta be honest. This has been one of my favorite springs ever. Not because life has been all sunshine and singing birds, either. Mostly, I've been thoroughly enjoying the fact that unlike most years, I'm not the only one complaining about snow in April. In fact, about 75% percent of the country has been chiming in on that refrain.

Of course I laughed. What can I say, sometimes I'm not as pure of heart as I should be.

Spring here at mile high altitude and northern latitudes is more of a concept than a reality. And when it does come, it rarely stays for more than a few days. Come to think of it, Spring would make an excellent house guest. Take this week, for example. On Sunday, it was sunny and almost sixty degrees. On Wednesday, we got eight inches of snow. Today, sunny and sixty again. By Friday, more snow. And so on. And so on.

Deciding when Spring has actually arrived to stay is not easy. My personal measuring stick has two markers. First, I have to hear a meadowlark sing, which I did down by the willows last weekend. And second....

Yes! Finally, the ground is warm enough for the first crocuses to bloom. So hello, Spring. Hope you'll stick around awhile. 


Friday, April 11, 2014



Or elk, as most people know them. These showed up in our west pasture a week or so ago, not a common occurrence for us. I'd guess they're here because the mountains have had massive amounts of snow (hence the hulking white peaks in the background), and it's still coming down, pushing the elk out onto the plains.

These are all bulls, by the way. Some have just shed their antlers. And if you're wondering why I waited so long to post the photo? I had to to wait until they were long gone. The last time the public found out a herd like this was wandering our area, somebody slaughtered six of them and only took the heads. Slime of the world, right there.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weekend with Bernie


Back in the eighties there was a movie called Weekend at Bernie's, in which a pair of corporate-climbers drag their dead boss around a weekend house party pretending he's alive so his ill-timed demise doesn't mess up their shot at networking with the bigwigs. Or something like that. I don't recall the finer points, assuming there were any. I mention this because I had a similar experience last weekend, except with a calf.

And why, you ask, would I spend two days dragging a dead calf around? Well, it's like this...

The calf--we'll call him Bernie for simplicity's sake--was born out in the west pasture, on a ten degree blustery morning, which would have been enough of a challenge. My husband spotted him right away, though, loaded him in the pickup and hauled him in to the calving barn, where we put him in the warming box. He should have been fine.

It was immediately obvious that Bernie's prospects were not good. There was blood in his saliva and he couldn't hold his head up. Probably premature. But we dried and warmed him, filled his belly via a feeding tube, closed up the box and hoped for the best.

Have you ever heard the story of Schrodinger's Cat? A physicist theorized that if you put a cat in a box with a dish full of poison, then close the box, you have no idea at what point the cat will eat the poison and die. Therefore, the cat can be considered both dead and alive until the box was opened and the cat seen to be dead. They call this a paradox. Whatever the purpose of Schrodinger's theory, Bernie was my cat in a box. And I really didn't want to open the lid, because until I did I could pretend he was still alive.

But sadly, no.

In the meantime, two pens away, we had a calf without a mother, one of a set of twins. Twins are great, except it's rare for a cow to have enough milk to raise both, especially a first calf heifer, so we have to take one off the mother and bottle feed it until another cow becomes available. I took to calling the calf Marvin, short for Starvin' Marvin, because he was a bottomless pit and no amount of bottled milk seemed to fill him up.

So, in one corner we have poor Bernie, recently departed. In the other, Marvin, in need of a cow of his very own. And clear out in the pasture, Bernie's mother, mourning her missing calf. The obvious solution is to bring Bernie's mom in and give her to Marvin. The trick is to convince her to leave the spot where she last saw her calf, and where instinct insists he's most likely to appear again.

Enter the calf sled.

The idea is to load a calf into the sled, let the mother get a good look and sniff at him, then slowly pull the sled to wherever you want the cow to end up, while she trails along following her calf. Works like a charm most times. Then again, most times the calf is alive. But we hoped we could fake Bernie's mom out long enough to get her to the barn. 

So I hoisted Bernie's limp body out of the warming box, loaded him in the sled, tied it onto the four wheeler and took him for a nice ride out to the pasture, where I propped the sled up on its side and arranged Bernie so he looked reasonably perky. The cow sidled up, sniffed. I held my breath. It was going to work...

And then she licked him and the sled tipped over and Bernie flopped out onto the ground. The cow took off running. I dumped Bernie back in the sled and roared off in pursuit with Bernie bouncing along behind. My husband joined the chase and much to our astonishment, the cow trotted the half mile straight over to the house and into the barn, possibly due to the shock of being attacked by Zombie Bernie. 

Phase one, complete, if not quite how we had planned. 

We stashed Bernie and his sled in the corner and left the cow locked up for the night to give her time to settle down. The next morning, we initiated phase two. The part we really don't enjoy. And given that I spent an afternoon giving sleigh rides to a dead calf, that's saying something.

Here's the deal. Cows are wired to let only their own calf nurse. Otherwise, it would be a free for all out there in the pasture, and the smallest calves would starve. Cow recognize their calves by scent and will kick at anything they don't recognize. So if we wanted Bernie's mom to accept Marvin as a substitute, we had to make Marvin smell like Bernie. 

In other words, Marvin needed a Bernie suit. (Which always makes me think of Men in Black. "...not Edgar, exactly. More like somebody wearing an Edgar suit.") 

There's something very disturbing about skinning a baby calf, even for a good cause. In Bernie's case, it proved to be damn near impossible because the temperature had dropped into the teens overnight and he was frozen stiff. Another ride in the sled, back to the warming box, where we left him to thaw for a few hours. But finally, late on Sunday afternoon...

Yep, that's Marvin, all dressed up to meet his new mommy. Who adores him, thank the Lord. After three days, his scent and Bernie's had co-mingled to the point that the hide could be removed without the cow realizing this wasn't her natural born child. So she's happy, Marvin is thrilled and--for the first time ever--full. And Bernie got one last ride in the sled, to the place out back where the less fortunate go for their final rest.

As much time as we spent together, it seemed like a eulogy was in order, but the best I could come up with was, "Here's to Bernie, who always stayed right where you put him."  


Friday, March 28, 2014

An Ear-ful and an Eye-ful


We got a couple sets of the real, store-bought ear protectors. It might be less humiliating to have stubby, frozen ears.

You gotta wonder what that cow is thinking when she's looking at this. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

Magical Disappearing Mountains


The view from our living room on an average day:

The view today:

This is how Meriweather Lewis managed to miss Marias Pass and take the long way around to the Pacific. Well, this and the Blackfeet. 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Farm Hogs


My brother in law belongs to a motorcycle gang. Harleys, black leather, the works. Except his gang is made up exclusively of middle-aged South Dakota farmers, so I don't think you need to alert law enforcement when you see them rolling into town. If this bunch of renegades had a logo, it would be an ear of corn.

Instead of choppers, these guys have touring bikes, the motorcycle equivalent of a 1972 Buick four door. Wide body, sound system, GPS, cushy back rest on the rear seat for the wife. More trunk space than my grandmother's attic. Tip one of these puppies over, you've gotta call a tow truck to get it upright again.

When they all decided to haul their bikes to Florida for an extended vacation, their biker friend Tim figured no problem. He'd just toss it in the bed of the pickup. He backed up to a dirt embankment, plunked down a twelve inch plank to bridge the gap between there and the tailgate like he'd always done with his snowmobile, and eased the bike onto the ramp.

A little too easy.

Halfway across, it stalled. And that's when he discovered the critical difference between a snowmobile and a motorcycle. When stopped, a snowmobile doesn't tip over. Therefore, he'd never noticed that on a foot wide plank suspended in the air, there's no place to put your feet down to catch your balance.

A thousand pounds of motorcycle began to teeter, and Tim had no choice but to save himself. He dove one direction, the bike went the other. Crash! And that was just Tim. You should've seen the bike.  

Luckily, the damage was mostly cosmetic (to the bike, not Tim, who was both bruised and mortally embarrassed because of course his wife told everybody). He was able to get his pride and the Harley repaired in time for their big trip, but he still had to load it in the pickup. Definitely not trying the ramp again. Being a farmer with no livestock, he didn't have a big loader like the ones his rancher buddies used to feed hay to their cows, but he did have a nice utility tractor that should do the trick.

He built a sling for the bike, hooked it onto the tractor bucket, and lifted…the rear end of the tractor right off the ground. Whoops. Obviously, counterweights were needed. He chained a couple of old chunks of broken concrete to the three point hitch on the back of the tractor and gave it another go. This time the bike came off the ground, but as he started toward the pickup the motorcycle began to sway on its tether, and the concrete blocks weren't quite enough to offset its weight. Every time it rocked forward the tractor bobbed, the bucket dipping a little farther with each swing, sway-dip-sway-dip, until Tim was dribbling the motorcycle across the yard like a very expensive basketball while his wife debated whether to speed dial their insurance agent, an ambulance, or one of those funniest home video shows.

Somehow, he finessed tractor and bike into position. When we saw him, he was en route to Florida with the Harley securely strapped in his pickup bed and a vague sort of plan for how he was going to get it out again once he arrived at his destination. My husband suggested he might consider buying a motorcycle trailer. A nice low one, with a built in loading ramp.

Tim snorted in derision. "Tow a trailer all way to Florida, through those cities? That would be a pain in the butt."

As opposed to the obvious efficiency of his current method. Then again, if he liked to do things the easy way he would've quit farming years ago. 


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Photo Ops

Otherwise known as 'Up half the night, too tired to write.' Stayed awake 'til eleven-thirty to check cows. Started snowing hard just before I went out, so I was scrambling around for close to an hour in the mud and the snowstorm rearranging cows and trying to get newborn cow/calf pairs under the shed for shelter. Got it done, then the four wheeler quit and I had to walk back to the house. Then I crawled in bed, barely dozed off, and my son came shuffling in wanting someone to come lay with him because he had a nightmare.

Thus, pictures.

The Nursery:

Prize Heifer (Apex Focus 053 cow and Apex Windy 078 bull, (Apex Angus) for those of you who care about such things.):

Would you believe we were being ironic?

At the end of the day: