A year in the life of a ranch
Hank the Cowdog explains what happens each season of the year
Here’s the second of 10 excerpts from John Erickson’s five-volume “Hank the Cowdog’s Ranch Life Series.” Hank, known to the readers of the 76-books-and-growing series, sees himself as head of ranch security on a family ranch in the Texas panhandle. Published by permission from John and two partnering groups, the Ranching Heritage Association and the National Ranching Heritage Center, here’s an excerpt on the cycle of a rancher’s year.
Cattle work is mostly seasonal. That is, it follows a certain pattern that changes with each season of the year, but it’s about the same from one year to the next. Let’s run through the seasons in a typical year and see what might be going on around here … Do you remember what cattle eat on a ranch? Grass. All summer, they walk around the pasture, eating grass and certain kinds of weeds. But along about October 15 there’s a hint of fall in the air. As you know, one of the sure signs of fall is that the trees turn yellow and gold, and they shed their leaves. Another sign of fall, which you might not notice but which Loper and Slim watch closely, is that the grass out in the pastures turns brown and stops growing.
Once that process begins, the grass begins to lose its nutritional value. Around here, we say that the grass is losing its “strength.” The protein value of the grass begins to drop, and it continues to lose its strength throughout the winter, until green grass comes again in the spring. Even though the cattle might find plenty of grass to eat, they’re not getting much nourishment out of it. Loper knows this and has already budgeted a certain amount of his operating money for winter feed.
Around here, we start feeding sometime between October 15 and Thanksgiving, and we’ll make a feed run every day or every-other day until green grass comes again. A healthy animal can survive the coldest of winters, but one that is weak from lack of nutrition won’t make it. Once the cowboy crew starts feeding in the fall, they follow the same routine day after day, feeding at the same time and place every day. Cattle seem to have a kind of clock inside their heads and they’ll usually be waiting for us on the feed ground when we arrive.
Well, along about the first of March, the momma cows start having their calves. Most of the time, they don’t need any help from us. The cow will go off to a sheltered part of the pasture, in a canyon or down in a draw that offers some protection from the wind, and she’ll lie down in the grass and shell out a new baby calf. As soon as she pushes the calf out of her birth canal, she gets up and licks it dry. The calf will lie there on the ground for a while, then he’ll stand up on wobbly little legs and take his first steps.
Can you guess what he’s looking for? He’s looking for momma’s udder which is full of nice warm milk. That’s what he’ll live on for the next six months, until he’s big enough to start eating grass on his own. Calving season is a happy time on the ranch. It’s kind of exciting to see the new babies hit the ground. But it’s also a dangerous time for the calf. If he comes in the middle of a cold night, when the temperature is down below zero, sometimes his ears and tail freeze off. That’s right, and when you see a calf with a bob tail or bob ears, you know that he was born in the middle of a bad cold spell.
In this country, green grass usually comes between April 15 and May 1. The first grass of the season shows up in the bottoms of draws and ravines. It’s called “winter grass” or “cheat grass.” Cattle love cheat grass, because it’s green and tasty, but it doesn’t have as much protein value as the grasses that will come later. As the days warm up, and if we get some rain, grass begins to grow on the hillsides and up on the flat country. The more grass the cattle eat, the less interested they are in sacked feed, and one day you realize that winter is over and it’s time to quit the feed run. That’s a happy day, because a guy gets tired of making the same feed run, day after day, for five or six months. So do the dogs.
Once we quit feeding, it’s time to start thinking about the spring roundup and branding. That’s an exciting time around here, because we get to “neighbor” with the other ranches in our area, which means that the neighbors pitch in and help us with our spring work, and then we help them with theirs. Here’s what we do on a typical roundup morning. Slim and Loper get up early and eat a big breakfast. By the time the sun has peeked over the horizon, they have saddled their horses. Then the neighbors arrive, hauling their saddled horses in stock trailers.
The size of the roundup crew depends on the size of the pastures we have to gather. The bigger the pasture, the more riders you need to cover the country. Around here, an average-sized pasture would be one “section,” or one square mile (640 acres), although some pastures might contain four or five sections or even more. Once the crew has arrived, the roundup boss (the guy who owns the ranch or his foreman) will explain the layout of the pasture (its size, shape, and terrain), and he might say something about the disposition of his cattle, particularly if they happen to be a little on the wild side.
See, some cattle will run at the first sight of a horse, and they’re always harder to gather than gentle cattle. Wild cattle are said to be “waspy” or “ringy,” and the boss will warn the crew to take ‘em slow and easy, and keep the leaders from breaking into a stampede. The roundup boss doesn’t have to say much, because these ranchers and cowboys are skilled professionals, experienced at gathering cattle, and they know their business. In fact, if the boss says too much and gives too many instructions, the fellers on the crew might take it as an insult. See, as a group, ranchers and cowboys tend to be proud, stubborn, and independent, and they don’t like to be told how to do what they already know how to do.
Once the boss has explained how and where he wants the cattle gathered, the riders mount their horses and ride off to the “back side” of the pasture. They will spread out and start pushing the herd toward the pens where the branding work will take place. Once the herd has been gathered in the pen, the work moves into high gear. In our country, most of the ranchers follow a branding procedure called “rope and drag.” One or sometimes two of the cowboys ride into the herd and start catching the calves by the hind legs with their ropes. This is called “heeling,” and it’s one of the skills that ranchers and cowboys are proud of. They throw their rope in such a way that it catches the calf by the hind legs. Then they turn their horses and drag the calf to the branding fire.
There, two cowboys on the ground flip the calf over on his side and hold him down, while others brand and vaccinate the calf, and sometimes attach a device to its ear that will keep flies away. A “brand” is the ranch’s mark. It says, “This animal belongs to such and such ranch.” If cattle weren’t branded, it would be impossible to distinguish one ranch’s cattle from those of the neighbors. A ranch’s brand must be registered in the county where it’s used. No two ranches can use the same brand, and it’s against the law to alter a brand. Those who do that are called cow thieves or rustlers, and they end up in jail.
Since a brand must be a permanent mark that will remain on the animal for years, it’s done with a hot iron, called a branding iron. A good clear brand will burn the top layer of skin, just enough so that they hair won’t grow back over it. That way, when a cow is fifteen years old, you can still read her brand. On an average family-sized ranch, the roundup work will take one or two days. Then we’ll move to a neighbor’s ranch and do his branding, and on and on until all of the spring work is finished.
There is a certain amount of urgency about the spring branding. It’s best to get it over with while the calves are small and before hot weather sets in. After June 15, the hot weather is hard on cowboys and livestock. Once the branding work is finished, we settle into the summer routine. Around here, summer means “hay season.” We have a field of irrigated alfalfa, so Slim and Loper have to run the irrigation well and change the location of the sprinkler system. When the alfalfa is “in the bloom” and ready to cut, they use machinery to cut the hay, rake it into “wind rows,” and process it into bales with a hay baler.
After the bales have sat in the field and cured for several days, the men have to load the bales onto a flatbed truck, haul them to the “stack lot” at headquarters, and place them into a big houseshaped stack. The hay will remain in the stack until winter, when we’ll start feeding it to the cows. On a cattle ranch such as ours, we don’t do much with the cattle in the summer. We check the water and put out salt blocks, and leave the cattle alone to do what they do best: eat plenty of grass and gain weight. Maybe once or twice a week, Slim or Loper will ride through them horseback, just to make sure that they’re doing well and none have strayed.
By the middle of September or the first of October, we’ve begun to notice a hint of fall in the air. The days are getting shorter, the nights longer and cooler, and the country is beginning to show its fall colors. You know what that means? It means that soon the grass will begin to lose its strength, and it’s time to ship the calf crop. Remember those calves that were born back in March and April? Well, they’ve spent the summer on good grass and Momma’s milk, and you would hardly even recognize them now. They’ve grown and matured, and now they’ll average 400-600 pounds apiece.
On this ranch, and on any cow-calf ranch, those calves are the ranch’s primary source of income. They are the “calf crop.” Because calves sell by the pound, we hold them as long as we can so that they will gain as much weight as possible on our grass. The limiting factor is the grass. As we’ve already seen, the grass begins to lose its food value when the weather turns cool, and when that happens, the calves stop gaining weight and might even lose weight. We want to ship them to market before that happens.
On shipping day, we round up all the pastures, drive the cattle to the corral, and separate the calves from the cows. We load them into cattle trucks, and send them off to a new destination. The mother cows stay at the ranch. They are now called “dry cows” because they won’t have to provide milk for a calf until the next one arrives next March or April, when the cycle begins again. On a cow-calf ranch such as ours, the selling of the calf crop represents the work of a whole year. That's the only payday we’ll have for twelve months.
Out of that one check, Loper has to make his land payment, pay his feed bill and other costs of operation and, we hope, have some left over for groceries, shoes for the children, a new dress for Sally May, and … well, plenty of Co-op dog food for me and Drover. The people who take our calves to the next stage of development are called “stocker operators” or “yearling operators.” Unlike the cow-calf rancher, yearling operators don’t keep a herd of momma cows. Instead, they buy someone else’s calf crop.
Once these calves have been weaned, they are known as “stockers” or “yearlings,” and they enter the next phase of the cattle business. A yearling operator will buy our calves and haul them to his own farm or ranch, keep them up in a pen for a week or so, and take them through the “weaning” process. That means getting them used to eating hay and feed, and living without their mothers’ milk. Once their digestive systems have adjusted to this change, they might spend the next six months on fields of wheat, oats, or corn stalks, where they should gain two to three pounds every day. Then in the spring, when their weight is up around 800 pounds, they’ll be gathered up and hauled to a feedlot, where they’ll be fattened up for market on a diet of grain and chopped hay.
From the feedlot, the finished cattle move on to a packing house, where the beef is processed into steak, roasts, and hamburger. The next stop is the meat case in your local grocery store or a restaurant that serves those delicious burgers, steaks, and fajitas. And that should give you an idea of what a ranch is and how it operates. We covered the territory pretty fast and there’s a lot that we didn’t have time to discuss, but maybe you know more about ranching now than you did before we started. And you’re ready to read the other books in this series that discuss cowboy work and ranch wildlife. But if you forget everything else, remember that the most important character on any ranch is the ranch dog. Without us, nothing would work right. No kidding. Thanks.
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