Monday, January 28, 2013

Relationship Building Exercises - Ranch Edition

 "How big a deal was it for you to be home today?" asked my boyfriend over the phone the day after Christmas.
Immediately concerned, I asked why, and was informed that he got stuck while feeding and doing his rounds upon returning from my family's Christmas celebration. Since we had left my car in the town he was scheduled to deliver hogs to, and his other pickup was in the shop, we literally weren't going anywhere until we got him un-stuck.
I called home, and found out it was no big deal if I stayed. He walked back to the house, gathered me, his tractor, chains and two hay bales up, and off we went, with me suspiciously calculating how big of a predicament he had gotten himself the entire time he was adding to the gear pile.
We arrive to this:

Well, not this exactly, but pretty close. I didn't snap a picture at first because it's always important to gauge a man's temper level before you start snapping photos of something like the truck he got stuck. Experience talking on that one.
The story was that he had needed to drive to the bottom and check on his heifers because he knew his sister had been making them walk to the top of the hill (I was thinking his sister got some serious points for intelligence on that decision).
The thing with a ranch guy is, while he would never leave his place in the hands of someone that wasn't perfectly capable of doing whatever needed doing, it's also inevitable that, upon his return, he will see the need to check every-single-thing, and thus assure himself that while whoever was left in charge did fine, it was a good thing he got home before any more time passed and anything went wrong. It's just how they are, and what makes them so good at their work.
So, with this line of thinking, he determinedly drove off South Dakota's Mount Everest, which was covered in a little coating of ice and a couple inches of snow. Then, he couldn't get back out.

We arrive on the scene with the tractor, and put the front bucket down to prevent us from sliding down the hill, after he backs his truck to the bottom.
I was less than comfortable with the situation because I was raised with men who also got into such scenarios, and required my help to get out of them. As a result, my nerves go into overdrive when exposed to things like ice, steep hills and embankments, and mud combined with speed.

Upon reaching the bottom upright, he proceeded to place one bale in the back of the pickup. Attempt one was for him to drive the pickup out, which I fully supported over me being pulled out in it.
At least the heifers all showed up to watch, so he knew they were all fine and dandy, and accounted for.

 We chained up the tractor, and discussed me driving it, for the first time, up the slick hill. Again, with the usual rancher jargon of "you just have to watch for...." we soon agreed that should he make it out, perhaps it would be in his, mine and the tractor's best interest if he walked back down for it, and we saved the driving lesson for at least level ground.
Good call.
Halfway through chaining up, as he's watching me, he laughed and said I sure know how to chain up a tractor. At which point I reminded him of my male relations, and the history I have with such situations as the one he is in now. This is met with more good humor, and I decided that taking pictures will be fine.

 Off he went in another attempt to get out without being pulled.

 Without success. My heart fell when he undoubtedly got good and stuck, halfway up the first steep part of the hill.

 So we prepared for Plan B, which included towing the pickup up the hill with the tractor, in hopes of finally reaching the top and getting on with our day.

 This is the view after his attempt with the haybale in the back. We maneuvered the tractor into place, got the chains hooked up, and proceeded up the first steep stretch to a level area. He continued on, heading up the second steep section of the hill, me being pulled along behind in the highly recommended gear of choice, helping as much as possible when not spinning out.

It's what happened before this picture that would be considered the climax of our story. As he continued up the second steep section, and I began up it, the hay bale came off the back of his tractor, right about where you see the hay on the ground in front of the tractor in the photo.
I was understandably, instantly concerned as a four-foot round bale bounced directly in front of my windshield, and my boyfriend unknowingly continued pulling me right up the hill to meet it.
Fortunately, he looked back and stopped, then slowly backed up, and the bale, which must have had one string on it, kind of exploded and reduced its bouncing to a slow role by the time it bumped into the passenger side of the truck's grill guard.
Ok, bale off, lets get out of here.
Except, he said he was going to spear the bale again with the back of his tractor. I thought he was just teasing me, but soon realized he was serious.
My good humor dipped, a lot. I mentally considered walking to the top and watching him mash his own pickup with his own hale bale. But, that's just not what you do, so I got back into the line of fire, and prepared to save my camera while wondering, not for the first time, how a man's mind works. I mean, the hay bale coming off once was clue enough to me as to the likelihood of the setup to work...

 But, it did work the second time, thank goodness! We arrived at the top, me with a rapid heartbeat, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Then, we proceeded to drive over where his sister had been feeding and give them the hay bales, getting a good chuckle out of our morning experience.

The cows, in true bovine spirit, watched the whole thing.
Then, the following evening, we continued our bonding process when I got the flu, which lasted three days.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Waiting on Cows

You've heard a lot about feeding cattle from me this winter, primarily because that's the main thing we do with our cattle this time of year, especially on years like this when they don't have any grass to partially fill up on.
The thing about feeding cows is it is easily one of my favorite activities. I love gathering up my two little dogs, making a latte, grabbing my camera, and loading everything into an old pickup with squeaky doors, dents, and other downfalls that come with hard working vehicles, then slowly shifting through the gears on the way to load up with cake or hay.
From there it's a drive down deserted, often rutted roads, where at most I will see one other vehicle belonging to our neighbor, who is also out feeding. The more common traffic is of the bovine, sheep or wildlife variety.
Upon reaching the pasture and catching a glimpse of where the cows are, a decision is made on where to feed. Then I wait. In my busy, often hectic but wonderful life, the most important part of my day is waiting for cows to trail in for the meal I have on the back of my vehicle. This wait varies from minutes to well over an hour, depending on how far away the cows are from a location I can reach and feed them at. Weather also hinders or helps their progress.
Some days this causes me frustration and stress, as there are a lot of things to knock of the "to do" list before I can quit for the day. But, most of the time, this chance to sit, let my dogs out to explore, drink my coffee, and listen to the radio if its working that day, is a wonderful and rare opportunity to relax. There is no computer or phone, no people or tasks demanding attention, no noise beyond that of the wind, pickup and radio.
There is just this land my family loves so much, and these cows we have worked so hard to make into what they are today. My camera, dogs and coffee round out the list, and are also all things I love and hold dear.
It is a joyful task, and that joy doesn't diminish as the cows arrive. As they trail in I get to look at them, admire personal favorites, mentally change less outstanding individuals, and enjoy all over again these animals that we are blessed to make our living from while admiring the results of the care we've provided over the winter months in their current shine and condition.
Once the feeding is over, I often take a moment to drive back through the cows, or stop and enjoy the fact that they are completely happy and perfectly content, munching away on their cake or hay, and that they will also be warm and full until I return. Just look at the cows above. Sometimes it's hard to believe that this is part of my "job," because it's so fulfilling, enjoyable, and important, all at once.
To me, the chance to feed a cow is worth waiting for.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Balanced Diet

We hear a lot about eating a healthy, balanced diet as humans. Well, livestock are no different. They need a certain amount of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals in their diet to stay healthy, grow, have a safe pregnancy, and to produce milk after they've had their baby. Making sure they get a proper diet is the responsibility of their owner.
Another thing that comes into play for livestock, just as in humans, is the cost of their diet. As a rancher, I would love to be able to feed my cattle the best of everything. But, if I did that, I would be broke pretty quick, and then they would have nothing to eat. So, much as many families budget their food spending, ranchers also look at how they can provide the best possible feed to their livestock at the most affordable price.
Then there are "unique" years, like 2012, which resulted in a lot of feeds not producing as they were expected to. For example, without enough rain, a lot of grass that ranchers would normally make into hay for winter had to be grazed in the summer A lot of grains didn't produce enough of the actual grain to make it worthwhile to combine them, so they became hay.
When it was all said and done, ranchers had to do what they do every year - look at what they needed to winter their livestock, what they had on hand, what was available to buy, and how they could most effectively and economically produce a winter diet for their livestock that was affordable while also meeting their nutritional needs.
What did we do? Well, my fiancee (more on that later!), along with a lot of other producers, decided to grind hay. But, he went another step, and ground a lot of different kinds of hay into one big pile, creating a combination of forages that his cattle would like to eat, and which would meet a lot of their nutritional requirements. Here is a picture of the grinding setup, and all the hay he was combining to make a perfect meal for his cattle.
It's kind of like making a stir-fry, with some really good steak, some vegetables, rice and sauce, and mixing it all together so your kids will eat their vegetables and rice along with the meat and sauce.
He pays the guy you see above for the use of his machine. This year the guy was so busy that you had to be put on his list several weeks to months before he would actually get to your place. Planning in advance is also important to get the right feed, in the right form, at the right time, for feeding livestock.
 The way it works is you dump the bales into that big drum in the order you want them mixed. My fiancee was mixing about five different piles of hay together, ranging from some really good grain hay (some of that stuff that didn't do well enough to combine the grain this year) all the way down to some old, poor quality grass (this is valuable because it helps fill the animal up). He would drive around in his tractor from pile to pile and bring the hay in the order he wanted, and drop it in the drum, thus making his very own custom feed for his cows.
The engine on the front of the trailer runs the drum, and can be adjusted depending on the type of hay and speed that the rancher is bringing it. The conveyor on the back transports the ground hay to the pile, where it will be stored until it is fed.
Here he comes with the first type of bale, which is an older hay.
You just drive up, and drop the bale into the spinning drum,
Like so.
The drum spins the bale around while teeth on the bottom chew the bale, taking the blades of forage that could be well over a foot in length down to a couple inches.
How does this process improve the forage? By making the pieces of grass smaller, it makes them more palatable to a cow, and she is more likely to eat them. Mixing the high quality and poorer quality hays all together and grinding them means the cows will like eating it more than if you just rolled the hay out, and also means they will eat all the different kinds of hay at once. In comparison, if you rolled out a grain hay bale and an old grass bale, they would not eat the grass bale, and would waste it. Kind of like some kids and eating their vegetables.
Around it goes again.
The conveyor continually churns out the finished product into a pile. This is also a very dirty, dusty job, as you can see in the above photo. But it's worth it to have something good to feed your cows all winter, without having to buy a lot of additional forage.
Here he comes with another, different type of bale.
And another. You can see how more than one bale was in the drum most of the time, maximizing the mixing of the different hays. You can also see the controls for the engine on this side of the machine.
When he was all done, several hours later, he had turned multiple piles of almost useless forage and a couple piles of good stuff into something that would not only keep is cattle fed for the winter, but that they would like eating.
Here are his heifer calves, eating the ground hay mixture the next day. Since he is expecting these to grow at a specific level, he adds additional energy and protein supplements to their hay when he feeds it. This is another nice thing about having a big pile of ground hay - it works as a base for a lot of different meals for the different types of cattle he has on his place (calves, young cows, old cows, bulls). He can feed it straight out of the pile, or add different ingredients as he needs to for each group of cattle.
As I mentioned before, this is what a lot of producers in the western U.S. are doing with their various hay supplies this year to make feeding their cattle work, without going broke. Next year it will probably be something different for a lot of people, depending on the year, the cattle and numerous other factors.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shooting Skunks

For whatever reason, I am currently unable to upload photos to my blog. So, I'll have to settle for a story instead.
A few months ago now, I woke up to a light flashing across my window shades at 3:30 a.m. Our house is shaped like a big "L" so I can see the back deck from my window. I groggily glance past the shade, and see my brother on the back deck. Big deal, you may think. But, he was dressed in his moccasin style slippers, red gym shorts, Carhart coat and winter hat, which made for quite a site. Adding to his overall visual was the rifle he had aimed across our yard, and the flashlight he was also holding and attemping to shine on the something.
Being intuitive, I looked in the direction of his flashlight beam, and saw a skunk waddling along our yard fence, seeking a way out.
I glanced back at my brother, who had no idea there was another soul awake in the dark world, and he turned and headed back in the house. I opened my window, kept an eye on the skunk, and waited.
Presently he returned, walked out on the deck, looked around, then jumped off and conveniently stopped just under my window.
Helpfully, as any sister would do, I hollered out, "The skunk went toward the barn!"
The response was priceless. He jumped several inches off the ground, almost shot the gun in my general direction, and practically dropped his flashlight.
He quickly gathered himself, glared at my dark window, and stalked off toward the barn. A few minutes, and swatches of flashlight beam later I heard the telling shot, and later learned that was the only .22 shell he could find, which is why our house is still empty of bullet holes.
I was so tickled at such a well implemented scare on him that I could hardly sleep the rest of the night.
And that is the kind of family I come from people. We never pass up a great opportunity for a fun laugh.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Top posts of 2012

I have been in the land of no Internet for a while, but am back a couple days late to share my 2012 blog stats with you, and say a big "thank you!" to everyone who has continued to follow my blog, read my posts and take the time to comment and email me. I really enjoy hearing what you have to say in comments, and appreciate that you take the time to read what I post on here!
People from 10 countries read my blog, with the United States being at the top of the list, followed by Russia, then Canada. Roughly 3,000 page views occurred a month on the Double H blog, compared to just over half that in 2011.
The top posts of the year were as follows:

1. Pulling a Calf
It is great being able to show and explain what we do on the ranch, and this post highlights one such scenario where my dad pulls a calf to help out a first-calf heifer.

2. HSUS Targeting a Wyoming Pig Farm
HSUS put an undercover person at a Wyoming hog farm, and that person intentionally created situations that put workers in difficult positions, then secretly filmed it and added a lot of additional footage to make it look as terrible as possible. I never condone the mistreatment of animals, but I also think it's horrific when a person purposely puts animals and people in positions where one or both may be harmed, with the intent of creating inaccurate publicity for their cause.

3. Did you know: how much milk a dairy cow produces?
This question was posed to me during a classroom visit in 2012, and I was unable to answer it. I did some research, and sent the answer back to the classroom. Looks like I wasn't the only curious one.

Thank you all again, and stay tuned in 2013 for fun, excitement, pictures and stories from my life. Happy New Year!