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Recalling good and bad winters at 92

February 27, 2012.

This has been an “open winter.” That saying refers back to the time of the early settlement of the West when the open range areas of western United States and also Western Canada were being settled by homesteaders and ranchers. If the winter had very little snow and mild weather, the winter would be referred to as an open winter. During an open winter, the livestock (sheep, cattle and horses) could graze on the open range (grass) and no feed or very little was needed to winter the animals.

I can remember when as a young boy, I listened to our neighbours, my Dad and grandpa talking about an open winter or a hard winter. At that time, it was hard to gather feed for the winter. My Dad sometimes seeded a crop of oats or rye and he could sometimes get threshed straw from some of our farmer neighbours. Other times, we trailed cattle to the farming areas north of us, like Assiniboia, Limerick or Lafleche where crops were better. Some cattlemen even put the cattle on rail cars and sent them to Manitoba. During the dry ’30s, the government and the railroads assisted with the cost. The winters were hardly ever the same and all the cattlemen did their best to get feed stocked up ahead for a hard winter.

As I said, has been an open winter. The cattlemen who have grass for winter grazing have fed very little. Over at the Big Muddy ranch, my grandson has not fed any range cattle at all. He does feed range pellets. Lloyd, at home here, feeds a little on the stormy days and most of the cattlemen are having an easy time wintering their cattle.

Good year for cattlemen

This past year has been a good one for us cattlemen. We had a good summer. There was lots of rain, an abundance of good grass and hay. Prices were good for both cattle and grain. We received over $1,200 per head for our yearling steers at 18 months of age. All other classes of cattle were all a record-breaking price and now we are having a nice winter.

Never have I seen so many bales stocked up around the countryside. I had coffee with a bale trucker who has made many trips this winter trucking hay to Texas. This is most unusual for our area to be hauling hay away down there. Over the years, it has been good for both countries to sell a product both ways.

In a few days, March 1, I will have a birthday and I will be 92. I believe my readers will agree that I have seen a lots of seasons come and go. I was the fourth child and my birth took place in a homesteader’s tar-paper shack 15 miles south of Lafleche. My Dad and mother were ranchers on the south side of Wood Mountain area. They had an adobe house and there they raised 12 children. The first was born in 1913.

The day I was born was a cold, windy March blizzard. The nurse, Mrs. Meeker, was there alone with my mother. My Dad was at home five miles away caring for my three older brothers. Mrs. Meeker had let the fire go out because she only had a stove pipe through the wall. However, Mama told me later that everything went well and five days after my birth, Dad took Mama and I home to our adobe house on Rock Creek.

My three older brothers did not like the attention I got from my mother. Gene, aged four, said “Put that baby in a sack and take him back to Meeker.” (the nurse).

The years went by; some good years and some not so good ones. My Dad’s plan was to break horses and sell them to the farmers for them to use in farming their land. The horse business was good for a while and then the usage of tractors became common. The next thing to happen was the 1929 world market crash followed by an extreme drought. These put together gave my Dad lots of problems. His family continued to grow despite drought and very low prices for his products, which were mostly cattle and horses.

Sheep to the rescue

Dad’s ranch was right on the Montana border. Dad took note of how Montana ranchers were coping with the drought and poor markets for horses and cattle. Dad noticed that many ranchers in Montana had sheep along with their farming and cattle. Dad went to the feeder show sale in Moose Jaw and in 1931, he came home with one ram and 20 female sheep. I was 11 at this time and he made me the sheep man of the family. Dad continued to buy more sheep every fall and by the winter of 1933-34, his herd was up to 500 head.

That year in the fall of 1933, he rented a set of buildings (a two-room shack and a small barn) and here he planned on keeping the sheep over winter. I left school in early November and went to the place to live with the sheep. This deserted farmyard was surrounded by a half section of Russian thistles and beyond the field of thistles was a very abundant growth of grass (prairie wool).

The sheep bedded down around the barn. I, along with my dog, Fritz, lived in one room of the house. We had a coal and wood stove, a table and a good thick mattress on the floor with lots of good woolen blankets. Fritz slept with me and we were warm at night. I had a radio and listened to the news and hockey games. I was located five miles from Dad’s home place. I stayed there until February 20. At that time, there was a good thaw in February and I herded the sheep home on February 20. The sheep did well that winter and helped Dad meet the expense of running the ranch. The cost to Dad for keeping the sheep on this abandoned farm was food for me and the dog, and wood for the fire to keep us warm. Two tons of loose feed for the sheep — a mixture of wheat and thistles, and of course batteries for the radio, was all I needed.

In two and a half months, I was home twice. That winter showed Dad and I how sheep could stand the cold. They needed someone like me to guide them and protect them from a bad blizzard or to keep them safe from the coyotes.

Dad had very good sheep. They were Rambouillet and were very hardy and had lots of wool to keep them warm. I kept sheep for over 25 years and I have the greatest admiration for them.

I will be 92 years of age in three days. I believe that I have lived through a very interesting time. Now, I am starting to move my land and livestock down to future generations. †

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