Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More than winning... borrow a phrase from Tom Osborn

By the time we’d gently teased an exhausted 005 heifer into the calving barn, I’d lost nearly all hope of saving the calf, and was beginning to wonder whether we’d even save the cow. As she stood there in the obstetric pen, head secured by the head catch but hanging very low, I mentally kicked myself. Why had I waited so long?

Her breathing was rapid but very shallow. She stared at a fixed point on the straw in front of her nose and wouldn’t even follow my boot tip with her eyes. She seemed to be quietly resigned to her fate.

At the other end things looked even worse. A pair of enormous hooves protruded from the birth canal, and eight incredibly long inches of cold, lifeless calf tongue. I began to wonder whether we’d better off calling the vet right now and getting the heifer into town for a fetotomy – the procedure which will likely save the cow’s life but leaves the dismembered corpse of the dead calf scattered across the cold concrete of the veterinary working pen.

As I felt the sadness and despair rise in my heart my mind went back over the preceding hours. The heifer started calving at 10:30 when she expelled her bag of waters. At the same time, her sister heifer 006 was doing the same thing a few hundred yards away. I watched them both on and off for about three hours while running back and forth, clearing up a slate of piddly little chores.

About 1:30 p.m. 006 delivered her first baby, a huge, gray bull calf. Since the heifers had been exposed to Lowline Angus heifer bulls, her calf should have been little and black. But a pair of neighbor bulls had paid the heifers a visit one day last July, and one of them was obviously the sire. The little 006 heifer had had a hard labor and didn’t get up for almost an hour. But she did get up and mothered her new baby, so everything was fine in that part of the EJE world.
A first-calf heifer with her unexpectedly large calf on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

On the other hand, 005 was having a harder go of it. Time and again she would have the front feet of her calf expelled and be right on the edge of delivering the head. But then she’d stop pushing, get up and sniff around, then lay back down and start again. After five or six cycles, we decided to get her in an pull the calf.

Once she was in position and the obstetrical chains were in place the first part of the pulling went well. With a fairly mild tug the head, shoulders and chest popped out, and surprising me greatly, the half-delivered calf began to bawl.

The calf’s bawling was both a relief and a prod. He was alive, which was great, but he needed to get out of there sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately, he became hip locked, and after a bit more pulling the cow lay down on her left side. This put the calf on his left side, so he was twisted at the hips in the birth canal. After getting him turned around and with a bit more pulling, he finally slipped out.

He was gigantic, and a bull calf. I released the cow from the head gate and pulled the calf around so she could see and smell him. She was obviously interested, but also obviously exhausted.

We left the pair alone for a bit and went and had supper. After two hours the cow was still down but had shifted around several times and was half-heartedly licking and nuzzling her new calf. She couldn’t get up yet, though she tried. She was quite weak and uncoordinated in her rear end and almost certainly had a bit of birth-trauma nerve damage. The calf needed nourishment, though, so we milked her out and tubed the calf with it’s first meal of colostrum, then left the pair for the night.

In the morning they were both up, the calf nursing hungrily and the cow contentedly licking and nuzzling her new charge. The cow had some lingering nerve damage from the difficult birth, but she’s been getting better each day and is almost back to normal as I write this on Monday.
Three days after a tough delivery, heifer 005 stands placidly chewing her cud in the calving barn on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

This big bull calf seems to have survived his tough birthing experience just fine.

In retrospect, I’d have liked to been quicker in making the decision to pull the calf. The big front feet were a warning sign, and so was the difficult birth experienced by her herd-mate 006. Likewise, the oh-so-close but not quite successful attempts 005 went through should have prompted me to get her in.

On the other hand, 006 did have a normal, though difficult, parturition. And a normal, unassisted delivery is best for both cow and calf. You can also do a lot of harm to both the calf and the cow by forcing things too soon.

But there’s a point – and it varies in each case – when assistance becomes necessary to save the calf and keep the cow in the best shape possible. I’m afraid I delayed too long in this case and got lucky. But I’ll take lucky. And I’ll file this experience away for future reference.

A big part of the rancher’s job is to select the correct cows and bulls for the breeding herd, and then stay out of the way at calving time and let nature work as intended. When intervention is needed, it’s vital to have the skills, knowledge and equipment to assist the cow properly. Paradoxically, there’s great satisfaction in watching your cows calve naturally every year, but there’s enormous joy in being able to pull off successful intervention. It’s a little like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, to use a trite sports metaphor. And to use another, less trite and perhaps more meaningful, it’s more than winning.

Practicum offers outstanding training for Wyo-Braska cattlemen

I graduated from the 2007-08 class of the High Plains Ranch Practicum. I found it to be highly informative and extremely enjoyable. The class began in June, 2007 and met eight times over the next seven months, ending in January, 2008. I’ve used knowledge and skills gained during the class nearly every day on the family ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

Two Ranch Practicum courses will be offered this year. The central Wyoming course will be based at the Natrona County Extension Office in Casper, Wyo., with the Scott Ranch Providing field sites.

The southeast Wyoming/western Nebraska course begins and ends at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC) in Scottsbluff and features six classes at the Sustainable Ag Research and Extension Center (SAREC) near Lingle, Wyo. For a complete listing of dates and locations visit the Practicum Web-site at

The PHREC/SAREC classes begin June 12 and the Casper classes begin June 19. For complete schedule information visit the Practicum Web-site and click on the agenda link.

The High Plains Ranch Practicum has been approved by the Farm Service Agency for meeting the education requirements for borrowers. It may also be taken for college credit through the Animal Science or Agronomy Departments at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or University of Wyoming

The cost of the High Plains Ranch Practicum is $600 for one person and $900 for two from the same ranch and willing to share materials. All educational materials, noon meals, and breaks are included. Participants are responsible for their travel and any lodging expenses.

Application deadline is May 4, 2012. Applications received after this date will be assessed a $50 fee. To apply, submit a completed form (downloadable from the Practicum Web-site) and a $300 deposit to Extension Educator Aaron Berger, 209 E. Third St., Kimball, NE 69145. Enrollment is limited and applicants will be notified of their status no later than May 18. Make checks payable to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The balance of the Practicum cost will be due at the first Practicum class. A 50 percent tuition scholarship is available to current or potential ag producer participants who complete course requirements. For more information on scholarships visit the Practicum Web-site or contact Aaron Berger, 308-232-3122 (, or Dallas Mount, 307-322-3677 (

The Practicum teaches a systems approach to ranch management, stressing three key tools: Unit Cost of Production Analysis, Grazing Plan, and a Balanced Scorecard approach to Business Planning.

Participants will have the opportunity to develop:
  • Individualized unit cost of production
  • Grazing strategies and systems
  • Methods of managing risk
  • Evaluate calving and weaning dates
  • Livestock nutrition and cow body condition scoring
  • Family business and working relationships
  • Understanding Range and Forage Resources
 Whether you're a beginning rancher or an old hand, this course can provide you with superb information, proven tools easily tailored to each individual operation, and, perhaps most importantly, the chance to meet and develop lasting relationships with other ranchers and their families.

Rangeland Ecologist Pat Reece (center, kneeling) discusses plant species inventory as part of range condition grading at Bead Mountain Ranch south of Gering, Neb. During the 2007-08 High Plains Ranch Practicum.  
The High Plains Ranch Practicum class scores cow body condition at the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) near Lingle, Wyo. in 2007. The course is jointly sponsored by the Universities of Nebraska and Wyoming.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


As the grass greens up across the EJE ranch (despite a lack of March precipitation) and the calves begin to hit the ground in increasing daily numbers, so begin the annual set of adventures associated with calving.

As short-sighted as I tend to be, living mostly in the moment and only rarely opening my thoughts and perspective to the future (and very occasionally to the past), I often find myself thinking, at least while it’s going on, that calving season is the best time of the year.

In many ways it is. Springtime rebirth across the shortgrass prairie. Grasses and forbs are greening after their long winter nap, shooting up luxurious new growth and racing to flower and pollinate. New calves are being born, but so are new deer and antelope and coyotes, and 13-lined ground squirrels and all manner of mammalian, avian, reptile and insect life. The air is filled with the scent of warm earth, manure, growing plants and pollen; filled also with the song of the Meadowlark, the rustling (or howling) of the breeze (gale), scurrying footsteps from tiny to large, and the booming and whirring as flocks of tiny prairie birds take to the air. Lord, it’s a wonderful time.

I took my Border Collie puppy (though at eight-and-a-half months, she’s nearly full-grown) Nona out to check cows the other day. She was her usual curious self as we began, looking closely at the cattle and clearly intent on herding them if she got the chance.

But checking cows during calving time is different than at other times of the year. Each cow needs a close inspection, so there’s a lot more driving, turning, and jouncing over rough terrain than usual. Soon Nona had quieted considerably and retired to the back seat of the pickup. Intent on my task, I paid her little attention.

Until she vomited, that is. Poor Nona had become miserably car-sick. I stopped and let her out and kept an eye on her while I cleaned up the mess. She seemed to be pretty dizzy and wobbly for a few minutes, but was soon back to her normal form, both ready to play and ready to herd some cows.

I’d finished with the cow-checking and was ready to head home, but Nona was reluctant to get back into the pickup. She’s formed a negative association with the vehicle which we’re both struggling with. But we’ll get it figured out.

The next day one of the mature cows had a nice, healthy heifer calf. Cow and calf were doing well and the calf had been up and nursed when I found them. But for some reason, there was another cow in attendance, trying desperately to mother the new calf. She was irritating the new mama and confusing the calf a bit, but as she has yet to have her own calf and has no milk yet, the calf soon knew for sure who her real mama was.

This is a somewhat unusual situation but far from unheard of, and speaks to the flood of hormones coursing through a cows system as she nears parturition. The hormones were probably telling the interloper that she should have a baby on the ground and care for it. She’ll bear close watching but the problem will almost certainly be solved once she finally has her own calf – soon, hopefully.

As I got out to tag and vaccinate the new calf both cows acted quite concerned, as do nearly all new mamas. The calf bawled when I gave her the vaccination, and the non-mama stuck her face against my chest, sniffed mightily, and then casually flipped me away from the calf.

I tend to forget, or at least disregard, how very strong a 1,200 lb. cow can be. Her simple toss of the head flipped me completely over and landed me in an undignified heap about 10 feet away. I was irritated at being interrupted more than anything, and not injured in the slightest. I walked back to check the calf for horn buds and both cows backed off, still eyeing me closely. Just another calving-time adventure.

The calving pasture for the mature cows is a very nice place for cows to give birth. It’s two miles long and features plenty of hills and dales for shelter. Cows, who like to isolate themselves from the herd when their calving time is near, have little trouble locating a nice, quiet, private spot.
EJE cows like to calve in this secluded spot, making calving-time an adventure for the Segundo.

A downside to the pasture is that it is cut in numerous places by north-south gullies, cuts, and draws. As I found to my chagrin last year, after only a moment’s inattention you can find your pickup seriously stuck. Last spring as I was driving along what I was pretty sure was a safe route, eyeballing a group of cows on a distant ridge, my pickup suddenly slammed over the edge of a four foot-wide, four foot-deep cut. Needless to say, it took a lot of walking, a lot of explaining, and an assist from the tractor to pull the pickup out.
Trust me, this is the wrong place to take your pickup while checking cows on the EJE Ranch.

Another downside, at least for me, is that several cows always pick the bottoms of gullies for their calving spot, usually in areas filled with boulders and choked with yucca. And where a close pickup approach is 50 yards – mostly down a steep slope.

So I’ve done a lot pf climbing and scrabbling and chasing this spring, and come to prickly grief in yucca patches more than once.

But all in all, such excursions add spice to the job, making it an adventure. And that’s okay by me.

So many "best" things

The wind howled across the Panhandle and much of the tri-state region, filling the sky with dust and swirling vortices, halting most truck traffic on the roads, and generally making life difficult. In the calving pastures cows continued to graze while calves hunkered down wherever they could get out of the gale. The livestock were noticeably agitated by the wind and plunging barometer. The temperature rose during the day to a high of nearly 80, and the warm wind sucked moisture from the ground as a precipitation-less month neared completion.

There are some unpleasant things to bear in a life lived on the shortgrass prairie of the southwest Panhandle, and the howling wind is one of them. Though the wind is tough to take, it’s early spring, and the contrast of nasty wind days allows us to enjoy the nice days all the more.

When the windy days come, I try very hard to be the optimist and see the silver lining. It keeps the flies down, I tell myself, and the mosquitoes as well. It recharges the local atmosphere, keeping the air clean and fresh. Sooner or later it even stops blowing.

The wind even blew the roof off of the on again-off again meth lab down the road. As most of us have learned to our chagrin, those inclined to law-breaking love the peace and solitude of the country. But the weather can be hard on their ramshackle enterprises, and while a roof flung across 10 acres of wheat stubble makes a huge mess, it also interferes with drug production. A bit of poetic justice there.

There are periods of calm on most windy days, and the windless moments of morning and evening can be beautiful, particularly in the spring.

As the sun rose over the eastern horizon Sunday, much of the EJE was enveloped in a thick, cool fog bank. As I headed out to check cows and calves I drove through a close, fuzzy landscape, illuminated by the faint glow of sunshine fighting through the thick wad of water vapor draped across the prairie.
The sun begins to win its battle with early morning fog on the EJE Ranch.

Visibility varied between 200 and 500 yards; good enough to find my way around and to find cattle, but poor enough to make me work at it and cover more ground than usual.

As vexing as it can be, there’s something beautiful about a morning fog. The dim light and thick vapor bring the horizon close and dampen sound waves, transforming the environment into a quiet, private space, one in which you can imagine yourself completely separated from the rest of humanity. If the fog is heavy, it dampens your face and clothing and coats both your vehicle and the greening prairie grasses with beads of water. As parched as this March has been, the tiny droplets are a blessing to the thirsty landscape.

The dim quiet of the early morning, the precious moisture, the greening grass, the smell of warming earth and growing things – mornings like these are some of the best things in my life.

As I drove across the pasture, searching for what I knew to be there, dim shapes finally loomed in the fog and morphed into cows. Finding the main cow and heifer herds was easy, as was checking on the well-being of young calves. But since cows tend to isolate themselves from the herd when birthing nears, finding them on a foggy morning can be quite a trick.

After counting the main herd and coming up one cow short on my tally, I set off in search of 540U, a four year-old red cow. Eventually I found her in the confluence of two shallow draws more than a mile away from the rest of the cows. Sure enough, she was licking a newly-born little red heifer calf. Finding the new pair in the fog, seeing that all was well, and seeing the minutes-old calf struggle to her feet and totter to the teat – well, that was simply another one of the best things in my life.
A brand-new heifer calf in the midst of her first meal on a foggy Sunday morning on the EJE Ranch.

As the sun warmed the morning and the fog dissipated, the sound of meadowlarks flowed through the springtime air, bright and sweet, like a touch of honey in an icy glass of fresh tea. I drove slowly along the pasture trail road, up and down the surprisingly steep hills of “flat” Nebraska, and slowly drank in the peace and beauty of the morning. Another best thing.
“Where’s my mom?” this day-old calf seemed to be asking the other morning on the EJE Ranch.

As I passed the cow herd I spied a young black steer calf, not yet two days old, curled up in a small depression near a clump of yucca. I swung the pickup toward the calf – just to check – and as I neared he bolted to his feet and came running toward the pickup. I’d tagged him the day before, just a few hours after birth, and as he galloped toward me I realized that he associated the pickup with his mama. He trotted up to within a few feet and looked at me expectantly, pausing long enough so that I could snap a few pictures. As I drove away he gave chase, and after a few dozen yards, began to bawl lustily. This provoked the expected reaction from his mama, who had been grazing a few hundred yards away. Her head came up and she dashed toward he baby in a cloud of dust, bellowing with concern. In moments the pair were relieved of their momentary confusion, the calf quietly nursing and the cow warily eyeing the pickup. Another best thing? You bet. I drove out of the pasture and into the rest of the day with a big smile plastered across my face.

Reporting on the pink slime scam

If the consequences of an action, especially the use of technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences. –

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Rather like the physicians Hippocratic Oath, which states in essence, “first, do no harm.”

Like many statements that sound superficially good and noble, a simple review of unintended consequences shows that the world is not as simple as the sloganeers make it out to be.

Here’s an example: “If it would save the life of one child it would be worth it.” In general, we understand that by “it,” the sloganeer is talking about banning some object, product or activity.

If a child chases a ball into the street and is struck and killed by an automobile, then according to the precautionary principle, the consequences of future child/automobile interactions are unknown, but are clearly risky, and therefore it is ethically imperative to ban automobiles.

Now to the, er, meat of my argument.

Last week The Business Farmer published two stories on the so-called “pink slime” ground beef product. The first, under the by-line of The Nebraska Farmers Union, argued that, a) 70 percent of ground beef is pink slime, b) pink slime consists of waste beef trimmings formerly only used for pet food and cooking oil, c) pink slime is treated with ammonia to make it safe to eat, d) that pink slime is not fresh ground beef but a cheap “waste product” additive, and e) that the USDA official who signed off on introducing the processing technique sometime in the late 1980’s wouldn’t be allowed to serve in the same capacity under today’s ethics rules.

Readers unfamiliar with food production – which includes probably 95 percent or more of Americans – could to some extent be excused for concluding that the pink slime story exposed an awful crime being perpetrated against American consumers; that greedy corporate beef processors are adding rotting meat sprayed with deadly ammonia to their ground beef products.

Clearly, if there ever was a cause to employ the precautionary principle, this one is it, right? No scientist in his or her right mind could say that there’s no risk involved in selling rotted, ammonia-tainted ground beef to consumers.

Of course, the Nebraska Farmers Union message, as usual, was long on propaganda and woefully short on facts.

As the Business Farmer’s second story on the subject showed, “pink slime” is in fact lean, finely textured beef (LFTB). It is in fact made from beef trimmings, which when passed through a centrifuge, allow lean beef to be separated from the fat. The trimmings in question are fresh, and come from the excess fat trimmed from steaks and roasts, which always include a significant quantity of lean meat. Prior to the introduction of the centrifuge processing, it was physically and economically impossible to recapture lean meat from trimmings. Recapturing this lean meat actually increases the lean meat yield of each carcass and therefore reduces the cost of ground beef.

Because ground beef has a larger surface area than intact cuts such as steaks and roasts, it carries a greater risk of contamination to the naturally occurring pathogens present in the slaughtered cattle and in the processing facility. Because of this, ammonium hydroxide is added to the LFTB, raising the pH of the product and killing or slowing microbial growth. In the quantities used to treat the product, ammonium hydroxide is completely safe for human consumption. Similar chemicals such as salt, potassium chloride, and smoke have been used for centuries to treat and cure other meat products such as corned beef, bacon and ham.

As to the alleged ethics violations of the then- Undersecretary of Agriculture, this was a simple red-herring introduced to the Nebraska Farmers Union propaganda piece.

Hysterical anti-ag propaganda serves no good purpose. At best it raises unfounded consumer concerns; at worst it raises consumer doubt about the veracity of published news. One can imagine consumers becoming accustomed to ignoring “scare stories” to the point that they also ignore factual stories at their great peril.

That ideologically based propaganda makes it to the news page and onto television, radio and internet is a function of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the government from abridging free speech. This is a wonderful thing. But with every enumerated right comes a non-enumerated corollary – the responsibility of reason and skepticism that every man and woman must exercise to enjoy the full measure of their natural liberty.

Hats off to the Business Farmer for openly and honestly printing both sides of the story. The New York Times didn’t do so, and neither did ABC, CBS, or NBC.

When I was your age...

When I was a youngster growing up on the EJE Ranch my siblings (four brothers and one sister) and I had a year-round set of chores to do. The chores varied with the season and included daily and weekly tasks and participation in the various ranch-wide jobs that everyone helped with – branding, weaning, loading cattle, moving cattle, etc.

The chores were a responsibility and were not in any way optional. I think I would have been badly confused if someone had told me I could opt out, or only do my chores when I felt like it. We learned early that each of us shared in the responsibility of husbanding the ranch livestock and in various aspects of maintenance and upkeep.

Don’t get the idea that we, my siblings and I, were perfect little automatons though. We did a lot of whining and complaining; mostly in low-key grumbling but occasionally, when we felt we were being particularly badly used, in loud and vocal complaints. We knew very well that town kids didn’t have to do chores or to negotiate for “time off” for sports or other extracurricular activities. One of my brothers even hinted darkly that he was “…gonna call the humane society.” following a particularly strenuous day of hauling and stacking alfalfa hay.

When we compared our ranch responsibilities against the life of leisure led by our town-kid peers, we easily saw a couple of interesting and non-disputable facts. Yes, we worked hard, but we were also a vital part of a real ranching operation. We were proud of this distinction regardless of how much we grumbled at times. We also knew that none of us worked as hard as our dad did when he was growing up, and that he, in turn, had had it relatively easy when compared to the work that his dad, our grandfather, had been responsible for in his youth.

This last weekend (Mar. 10-11) was the beginning of a week-long spring break for seven of my nieces and nephews, and they and their parents descended on the ranch for a visit and some “farm time.” At one point during the visit my brother and I were reminiscing about morning chores and a couple of the kids started asking questions. Two of the boys, aged 13 and 11, opined that the work we described didn’t seem that hard. So I threw down the gauntlet.

“Do you two want to find out? You can help me in the morning and I’ll let you do the chores we did when I was your age.”

Surprisingly, they agreed. Somewhat more surprisingly, they didn’t back out the next morning.
“Up, up, up!,” I hollered as I snapped on the lights in Riley and Tyler’s room. “Chore time, chore time, up and at ‘em!”

“Already?” asked Riley.

“It’s still dark out!” complained Tyler.

“Sun’s just coming up, time to get to work,” I answered. It was 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, and because of the change to daylight saving time, we’d turned the clocks ahead in the night, effectively shortening it by one hour.

Grumbling and mumbling, I rushed the pair through their morning ablutions. Being city kids, they didn’t know how to dress, so I made sure they wore their jeans and boots and a coat and gave each a pair of work cloves.

“It’s cold out,” said Riley as he shivered in the pre-dawn coolness. The air was still and without a hint of breeze, and the temperature was 35.

“This is warm compared to yesterday,” I said, “and a lot warmer than most winter mornings when I was your age.”

“Yeah, whatever,” said Tyler. Change isn’t always better.

“Gotta feed the calves first,” I told them. We always fed there in the far corral, so you guys each take two full buckets of corn, carry them over there, then bring them back here and pour ‘em in the feed bunks inside this near corral.”

“Hey!”, said Tyler, “this stuff weighs a ton! How are we supposed to carry it clear over there and back?”

“It doesn’t weigh a ton,” I said, “only 35 pounds per bucket. Just pick it up and carry it one step at a time. And don’t trip and spill it!”

After much moaning and groaning and only a tiny bit of spillage they managed to get the corn fed.

Huffing and puffing, they set their buckets down and turned toward me, thinking they were done.

“Put the buckets back where you got ‘em,” I said, then come back here so you can feed some hay.”

With a dark look they muttered off toward the barn, empty buckets swinging, then returned.

Neither was thrilled about feeding hay, and neither had ever used a pitchfork. After some time they got the hang of it and finished distributing hay along the feed rack. Now they were surely done, right?

Both boys just looked at me, gape-mouthed and incredulous, when I described their next task, checking water and breaking ice. There was no ice in the corral stock tank, so I let them each take 25 sledge-hammer swings against an old tractor tire.

The physical work had shaken loose the sleepy cobwebs, the boys were now wide awake and sweating just a bit.

“Okay,” I said, now walk through that pen you just fed and come tell me which one is sick. I know,” I said, raising my hand, “you don’t know what to look for, just take a close look at each one and tell me which one you think is sick.”

After 10 minutes and an extended whispered conversation, they reported back.

“They all look the same to me,” said Tyler.

“How are you supposed to tell?” asked Riley.

As it turned out, there hadn’t been a sick animal in the pen. I pointed out the signs of good health to the boys, then described what a sick animal might look like, how it might behave. “The point is, you have to assess the health of the animals every time you look at them. It’s a habit you have to develop in this business. But you guys did a good job looking. In fact, you did a good job with the chores. You ready to start doing this every day?”

They rolled their eyes and headed back to the ranch house for their breakfast.
Six of the seven grandkids present over the weekend at the EJE Ranch pose in the bed of the 1946 Ford pickup. From l-r, Jake, Gracie, Faith, Riley, Julia and Tyler. The kid’s Grandma and Grandpa, Mick and Peggy Evertson, are seated in the cab of the pickup.


There was a solid hint of green apparent as I hiked the native shortgrass prairie of the EJE Ranch Tuesday morning. There’s not a lot of grass growth yet, but it’s coming, and the leaf buds on shrubs and trees are beginning to grow fat.

Even though we’ve had a comparatively mild winter it felt good to stretch my legs and work up a good hiking sweat in the pre-spring sunshine. The wind was a bit annoying but the warm temperatures kept it from cutting the way most March winds do in this part of the country.

Springtime hikes can be pleasant and this one was especially so.
A windmill turns briskly in the morning breeze as the prairie south of Kimball begins to green up as spring approaches.

December 23 seems like a long time ago.

If you've ever thought about or studied the physical nature of time and of our subjective perception of time, you'll recognize that the first sentence of this essay doesn't really say anything. By the way we usually count the passage of time, and if you read this on the date of publication, 75 days will have passed since Dec. 23. Seventy-five days can be a very brief or a very long period, depending on your perspective.

It's been both for me.

I've been very busy each day, attending to ranch chores, researching and writing, caring for a new and rapidly growing border Collie puppy, serving on a local committee, hiking the shortgrass prairie and snapping thousands of images with my trusty digital camera. The NFL playoffs and Super Bowl have come and gone, Major League Baseball held their winter meetings and started spring training, the NASCAR season began in spectacular fashion; Danica got wrecked but finished the race and my favorite Wisconsin driver won the 500.

Those things all seemed to proceed at a normal pace and I found a lot of joy in each event, in every day.

On the other hand, I've been fighting a closed-head brain injury since Dec. 23, and suffering from post-concussion syndrome. A little less joyful.

I've had generalized memory problems, trouble recognizing faces and people, and big chunks of missing memory. Most irritating has been my struggle to write. Where once the words seemed to flow from a bottomless well, I've had to fight hard to put simple sentences and paragraphs together since the injury. My flowing well became a creaky, leaky hand pump, and I've had to work very hard indeed to produce the thoughts and the concepts to write about and then to fit words into a ghastly semblance of what I'm trying to say.

That part of the last 75 days has been a struggle and seems to have lasted a very long time indeed.

But my brain seems finally to be wiring itself back to a semblance of normalcy. My thoughts are becoming more clear and less cluttered. On the one hand, it's been an amazing experience. On the other, it's been quite frightening. Knowing that there's something wrong with your thinking and lacking the ability to "snap it back to normal" is unsettling, to say the least.

Hopefully I'll continue to emerge from the morass of mushed-up thinking. I believe I'm making good progress. Already the words flow more easily, the gaps in memory are almost unnoticeable, and most faces are associated with familiar names. As spring approaches the lengthening days and warmer sunshine seem to be a tonic for my addled brain. Or perhaps spring’s approach is just a coincidence, and the physicians are right – it just takes time.

So I'll just keep banging on, taking it one day at a time, and see how things progress. As If I have any other choice.

Iron Reptile

Ask most Americans – most people in the industrialized world in fact – how ranchers go about the business of raising cattle in the 21st century, and most would imagine that the horse continues to play nearly the same major role in ranching today that it did at the turn of the 20th century. That romantic notion of the cowboy on horseback raising cattle on a sweeping, fenceless range is continually reinforced with the television airing of every Western ever filmed, and by countless books and magazine articles.

And while the horse and cowboy continue to be vital assets on a shrinking number of back-country ranches where their special abilities are absolutely indispensable, the reality of the situation is that the horse hasn’t been the backbone of most working ranches for a very long time. In fact, most horses are now owned by non-ranching entities – people or families who own one-to-several horses for pleasure rather than for work. Many of these folks own small acreages and even more 21st century horse owners board their animals.

There are a number of reasons for this change, but the main one is the internal combustion engine. Once the word got out that, in all but the roughest country, automobiles could be used to gather herds, the utility of ranch horses became questionable and the slow decline of ranch horse populations began.

Unfortunately for the romantics – and for many working horses – the advantages of the automobile mostly outweighed the advantages of the horse. The automobile, starting with the Model T Ford, was just as fast as the horse and in the hands of a skilled driver could be just as quick. The car required no hay or tack; no care other than topping off gas, oil and water, stayed where you parked it, was ready instantly when called on, could haul a larger load farther, and could take up tasks that the horse could not.

Over the years the Model T morphed into four wheel-drive pickups, powered three- and four-wheelers, and miniature utility vehicles, each of which has all the attributes of a powered automobile and can do nearly all the ranch work previously done by the horse.

Sunny, a 33 year-old EJE Quarter horse

The romantic in me can’t help but miss the horse. I grew up on a horse and worked cows on a horse and many of my fondest memories feature hard-working horses on the family ranch.

But the realist in me also recalls the misery of riding out in pouring rain and bitter cold, the long hours of eating dust in the drag, of brushing out and rubbing down at the end of the day while hunger gnawed at my guts, the thuds and falls and bruises of the morning “rodeo” required to work the frisky kinks out of my mount before the day’s work could begin.

Where romance meets reality the bottom line comes into play, at least if we plan a second century of raising cattle on the EJE. For our operation, the costs of keeping a working remuda employed outweigh the benefit. Our horses are in a state of permanent retirement. We’re glad to have them and they brighten our days, but they’re ornamental now, and mostly “just for lookin’ at.”

Last Saturday we had the task of moving a group of near-to-calving heifers from their winter pasture to the home-place calving paddock. The trip was six miles, and four of those miles were along a county road.
As seen from the saddle of the Gator, a group of soon-to-calve heifers move along a Kimball County road Saturday on their trek from winter pasture to calving paddock.

We set off, the Boss in his pickup and I in the John Deere Gator. Getting started was a matter of turning a key – there was no time spent gathering horses, brushing out, saddling, etc. At 45 mph, the trip from home to pasture took about seven minutes; by horseback the same trip would have taken 30-45 minutes. The gather was swift as well, and the Gator negotiated the rough spots with ease. Trailing the heifers home took longer, of course, because we moved at the pace of the heifers. Being young animals they left the county road often to explore stubble and dormant wheat along the way, but the Gator had no trouble negotiating roadside ditches clotted with snow and the heifers were returned to the road every bit as easily and quickly as they could have been by horse and rider. At the end of the excursion we turned the heifers into the calving paddock and parked the vehicles. Job done.

The Gator is a fantastic ranching utility vehicle. At calving time its low profile, lights, and very quiet engine make it the perfect choice for checking cows. There’s plenty of room to carry supplies and the seat has plenty of room for a helper. When it comes to fixing fence the Gator is in many ways superior to a pickup. It can carry plenty of supplies while negotiating fence-lines a pickup simply can’t reach. It has four wheel-drive, a low-range gearbox, and a locking differential. It can get in and out of remarkably tight places, and its low-pressure flotation tires don’t disturb the grass. The Gator is even light enough that I can lift and shift it by hand on those rare occasions when I blunder my way into being stuck. It’s no feather, mind you, and shifting it takes effort, but I can still get it done.
A comfortable cockpit with plenty of room for gear, including a rifle, rucksack, and even a GPS.

If I seem to be singing the virtues of the Gator to the detriment of the horse, I don’t mean to. It’s just that I’ve found the Gator to be more useful in my particular ranch application. Were the terrain on the ranch a bit rougher, and were it forested with closely spaced trees, a horse would be indispensable.
While the horse munches her morning corn, the Gator is fueled, loaded, and ready to check cattle.

But that’s not the case on the EJE, and I’ve found that the utility of the Gator far exceeds the utility of a horse or even a four-wheeler. And at the end of the day, the Gator is safer, too.

In my perfect world, the horse would be the go-to vehicle. But that perfect world would have no deadlines and require no quick trips to town. I’d also be wealthy enough to employ a wrangler to keep my remuda in shape.

In my real world, I’m glad to have a Gator. It fits my needs and makes my life a lot easier.

And whenever a beautiful day comes along with a hole in the schedule and the excitement of nieces and nephews to drive an adventure, we can still slap leather to a few horses and play at being cowboys. Maybe even get some useful cow-punchin’ done, too.