Sunday, April 19, 2015

The master rancher*

* Also a purveyor of fine landmark properties at extremely reasonable rates.

It all started innocently enough. Cows 3046 and 2049 laid down about 75 feet apart to have their calves. They'd picked a nice spot in a little grass-choked swale surrounded by stony high ground. Each cow had produced a fine, healthy bull calf; 3046's a big, strapping red one and 2049 a solid, Simmentalish red baldy. The red one would be 513, hereafter Red, and the red baldy 514, hereafter Baldy.

The cows had dropped their calves an hour or so before I found them in mid-afternoon, and when I drove up each mama was standing proudly alongside her dried off, belly-filled-with-colostrum baby.

I coasted to a stop between the two pairs.  Red was closer so I tagged him first.
513. Weighed circa 140 lbs at birth! The yellow thing on his left ear is the back side of the ear tag.

In our operation when the calves are born they get an ear tag for identification and a vaccination to prevent disease. They also get examined and weighed, and the bull calves get castrated. Other outfits may do it differently. In fact, every cattle operation is unique, so no other outfit does it the same way we do. A lot of similarities exist, of course, but on balance there are more differences. But I digress.

A few tools of the trade:

Ear tagger with one-piece ear tag.
Ear tagger with one-piece ear tag loaded.
Close view.
The ear tag is a one-piece design and the tagger is simple and foolproof to load and use. One-piece, simple and foolproof are important concepts at the master rancher level. Trust me. When done correctly application is quick, nearly painless, and essentially bloodless.
Vaccine, syringe, needle. The vaccine guards against nine different pathogenic threats.
Three cc syringe with 16 ga/1.25" needle. Vaccine dose is 3.5 cc.
Hanging spring scale. I'd get a digital but can't afford it at the rate I lose these things.
Scale hanging on the weighup strut attached to the truck. If you compare the scale in this image to the image above, you might notice a difference. There's a reason for that.
Weighup rope. Two slip knots for the calf legs and a carabiner to attach to the scale hook. That 'biner lifted me out of the feces once upon a time.
Bander with two elastic bands. These are used for castrating newborn bull calves.
Close view of the bander and bands.
Bander loaded and ready for application.
As you might imagine, the bander is used to apply an elastic, constricting band around the base of the scrotum. This cuts off blood flow to everything below the band, including testes and the skin of the scrotum. Starved of blood supply, the tissue dies within an hour or so and sloughs off within about six weeks. Aside from the initial discomfort, which doesn't seem to bother the calves very much, the process is painless and nearly stress free for the animal.

Now where was I?

Oh yeah, I'd just tagged (ear tag, vaccination, exam, castrate, weigh) Red, and turned my attentions to Baldy. His mama had been watching closely and wasn't exactly down with the whole business. So while I was reloading vaccine, band and ear tag, she got baby up and headed on down the trail.

Wasn't my first rodeo though, and following a liberal application of cow psychology and deft handling technique, I soon had Baldy in hand and the tagging process underway.

The cow raised her tail and headed over the hill to the south.

The "run away!" response is a little unusual in my experience, but it happens. Potentially it's a problem. Sometimes cows get so agitated and confused that they seem to forget whether they have a calf, and which calf it might be. In other words, sometimes the cow-calf bond can be broken. That's usually a bad thing.

Pair bond. With parturition (birth) the cow gets a dump of hormones which drive many physiologic changes. Those hormones turn on the milk flow and start decoupling the placenta. They also, along with genetic programming, cause her to begin vigorously licking the newborn. This stimulates the calf and encourages it to breathe on its own for the first time. As the cow licks and sniffs and nuzzles the calf, pheromones in the amniotic fluid and those exuded by the calf cause another flood of hormones which drive pair bonding.

So a few minutes after birth the pair are bonded and hormones are driving the cow's behavior, including the imperative to protect her calf.

By the time I began tagging Baldy, 2049 was in a quandary. She'd seen "bad stuff" happening to another calf. She chose to take her calf and flee, so the flight mode was already activated. When I caught her calf she was overwhelmed by the situation,and had to do something. Already in flight mode, she continued to flee to the safety of the herd.

In general, it's a good idea in such a situation to get the pair back together fairly quickly. So I finished up with Baldy, threw my equipment in the back of the truck, and turned back to the calf. My plan was to pick him up and follow mama. When she stopped running I'd drop the calf where she could see it and all would be well.

So, I turned around and... no calf. Baldy had hoofed it off to the north, into a sea of tall grass. Then, following his own instincts, he'd plonked himself down and gone quiet.

My backup plan was to drive over to the cow and tease her back in the direction of her calf. Good plan, if the cow cooperates. Still in flight mode, she didn't cooperate.

The sun had just set and the light was fading fast. A rain storm was moving in. Without mama poor little Baldy could become hypothermic in the night, could perhaps even be predated. But the cow was still in bat guano crazy mode, and the calf was in hiding. What to do?

The only real choice was to let nature take its course. Most likely mama would find Baldy and take care of him. If not, well, we'd just have to deal with that in the morning,

It was about then that I realized I'd lost the scale In my pursuit of the cow. It was somewhere out there in the tall grass.

Sigh. Such is the life of the master rancher.

The next morning...

I found Baldy and he was fine. Dry and warm and still in hunker down mode. Mama had obviously found him, he'd nursed again, and all was generally well.
Baldy the next morning. "Just doin' what I'm told, sir!"
Mama was still agitated and more than a little displeased with my presence.
Mama dingbat. If you read cow body language, she's saying "I HATE YOU."
So we were all good, except for my being out the fifty bucks for a new scale. Back to work.

Within a few hours the rain set in and cows began popping out calves. Not the best calving weather, 35 degrees and raining, with a 20 mph north breeze. But calves can take such conditions so long as they get up and nurse fairly quickly. Colostrum is wonderful stuff, packed with sugar and fat for energy and all kinds of immune factors and stimulants. There were a lot of wet calves, but they were all vigorous at birth and up and nursing within minutes.

By mid afternoon I was soaked, chilled, shivery, and my thermos was empty. I repaired to the Ranch Mansion for a bit of lunch and a good bollicking for bringing my filthy self inside. Warmed and energized (though still slightly damp and well chastised) and with a full bag of coffee, I set forth again. Much of the afternoon was a repeat of the morning.

At about 5 p.m. I checked on Baldy, still parked in the tall grass. He was wet, chilled and shivery. I stuck my finger in his mouth and was displeased to find it cold in there. He was developing hypothermia. I got him up on his pins and watched him defecate (take a dump/make poo-poo). Still green, not the yellowish color of digested colostrum. He'd either not nursed after all (less likely) or hypothermia had slowed his gut to a near standstill (more likely). And mama dingbat was a full mile away, grazing lush new grass. Not good enough.

I snatched up the mostly cooperative Baldy and installed him in the passenger seat of the truck. He was quiet and took the ride in stride, a sign that he was drawing down on energy reserves.
Baldy, bein' a big boy (and not shittin' all over my seats).
Within a few minutes I neared mama dingbat, who unsurprisingly, moved smartly off to keep a 150 yard buffer between herself and the master rancher and his hated conveyance.

I deposited Baldy on a grassy hummock in sight of mama dingbat and backed away. Mama continued to graze, ignoring the new arrival. So I rolled down the window and gave forth with my patented "calf bawling in distress" imitation. That did the trick.

As I left the pair alone Baldy was nursing hungrily, tail gyrating like mad. That's calf talk for "yum-yum-yum-more-more-more!" It's also one of the high value, non-monetary forms of remuneration for the master rancher.

One morning later...

I found mama dingbat and Baldy enjoying the sunshine. As I approached mama gave me a baleful glare and Baldy took the opportunity to hit the tanker.
Hangin' on the boom. Yes, cattle tank Air Force style. Kinda.


  1. Hangin' on the boom...

    You have a way with words, you certainly do. Love it. Great post!

  2. Dang, Man! You've got a great life!

    1. Thanks Juvat. I am extremely fortunate. Picked the right tribe to be born into, that's for sure.