Quiet heifers, with good memories, made life easier by almost sorting themselves

DECEMBER 25

We had cold weather for awhile, down to -12F with a nasty wind (making the temperature equivalent to about -30). Lynn covered our old well better, to make sure the water pipes in the bathroom didn’t freeze. The old hand dug well is right next to the house and we don’t use it anymore, but it creates an air space next to the bathroom. Andrea’s younger kids stayed with us that weekend while she took Emily to a hockey tournament in Idaho Falls, and Lynn drove to town several times to keep the fire going in Andrea’s stove at her house, to make sure her pipes didn’t freeze.

Ten days ago we put more protein tubs out for the cows, and for the 12 weaned heifers below the lane; they are all still grazing in spite of the snow and we don’t want to feed hay just yet. A week ago we moved the cows (and their protein tubs) to the fields above the house where there’s more rough feed. Even though the short green feed is deeply snow covered, they are cleaning up the old tall grass on the hillsides and along the ditch banks, thanks to the protein supplement. We are trying to stretch the feed as long as possible because our hay supply is short and we can’t afford to pay $180 per ton for hay. The protein supplement they are eating daily (to balance the dry grass) is less expensive.

Last Thursday we had good luck and got five of our six pregnant heifers sorted out of Michael’s herd on the lower place. Last year we leased Michael and Carolyn some of our cows, including six heifers. But with the price of hay so high last fall, they decided to not buy any hay and cut down their cow herd to match their hay supply. They sold more cows (older cows or cows with problems) and opted to not lease any. We were pasturing the leased cows for them so those cows were already home, but the six heifers were still with their group of heifers and there was no easy way to sort them out.

When they put 150 of their cows on the lower place, their 40 heifers and our six were part of that group. After they started feeding hay, we thought maybe they could string part of a big bale up into our “post pile” pasture across the creek and we could help them sort out our heifers. But they hadn’t gotten around to doing that yet, and soon would be taking the group to the Maurer place for calving—and would have to sort out our heifers and haul them home.

But when I was feeding my horses Thursday evening, I saw some cows coming up through the “Orange Bill” field (a small field between the lower place and our field below the lane). That field wasn’t supposed to have any cattle in it, so I realized the gate between it and the lower place must be open. Lynn and I were about to hike down and chase them back, then realized they were heifers and one of them was ours. A few more were coming; a large part of the herd was finding the open gate and coming up through the little field toward our place. We saw there were several more of our heifers near the front of the group. So we opened the gate into our field and Lynn guarded it (so our 12 weaned heifers wouldn’t get out) as I carefully sorted our heifers one by one around the corner and through the gate. Our heifers, being gentle and tame, and remembering us from when we fed them a year ago as weanlings, were fairly easy to sort out of that big herd of cows — which speaks highly of their intelligence, memory and trust, since they hadn’t seen us for almost a year. There were only five of them in that group, however. The sixth was probably down farther on the lower place with the rest of the cattle. We got our five sorted out and herded the 45 extra cows back down through Orange Bill field and out the gate they’d come through, and shut the gate.

We kept watching for the other heifer every time we drove by the lower place, but didn’t see her until yesterday. Lynn was heading out our lane to drive up the creek and deliver Christmas gifts to neighbors when he noticed two young cows near the gate, away from the main herd. One of them was our heifer and the other was a three-year-old cow we sold last year to Michael and Carolyn — and she had been in the group that came into Orange Bill field a few days earlier, so she knew about the gate. He slowly and quietly opened the gate without startling the cows, and got the three year old through the gate, and then the heifer knew where it was and followed her. He locked them in that little field and came to get me. We fed some hay to our group, to help keep them happy on our side of the fence and as an attractant to the heifer and her friend. They came hiking toward the gate when they heard us feeding. The difficult part was getting the timid heifer through the gate without the cow, but we managed to do it, then took the cow back down to join her herd on the lower place. So all our heifers are safely home again!

JANUARY 5

We started feeding hay to the heifers after that day of luring our final heifer home, but didn’t start feeding the cows until a few days ago. There’s still some feed left in their pasture, but it is covered with snow and they’ve eaten most of the rough feed that was accessible.

Last week a deer was killed by a cougar right above our house, in the midst of our cows. This is the third cougar kill in the past two weeks. The other two deer were right next to our neighbour’s house above us. We hope the cougar won’t start killing cattle; Michael and Carolyn lost two calves to a cougar three years ago. We talked to a fellow who might try to hunt it with dogs, since cougar season is open now, and his daughter has a cougar tag.

Lynn plowed driveways again, and plowed a better trail up to the haystack, to make it easier to load hay. Michael and Carolyn took their cows down to the Maurer place for winter feeding and calving. I’m glad we got our heifers — saving the effort of sorting them out down there and hauling them home. It snowed all day yesterday so we increased the cows to full feed, since they can’t get at much grass to graze anymore.

On Saturday our friends Pete and Bev Wiebe from Kelowna, B. C. arrived, and stayed two days on their way south to help with a mission project in southern California, rebuilding some homes that burned in the brush fires. Pete and Bev are the ones who helped make it possible for Andrea and me to go to the World Burn Congress in October. Pete is a burn survivor, and we got acquainted in 2000 after Andrea’s accident, when he wrote to us to give encouragement. We have been very grateful for their friendship, and enjoyed their visit in our home.

JANUARY 17

After some very cold weather we had several days of unseasonably warm, windy weather. The snow settled, enabling the cows to push through the soft snow and graze a little. Then it got cold again and everything is a sheet of ice.

We brought the heifers to the corral last Saturday to vaccinate. Our driveway is so slippery that we first spread a pickup load of material (from one of the manure piles that’s not too frozen) along the driveway so we could get the heifers safely moved without them falling down on the ice. We vaccinated and deloused the pregnant heifers and put them in the maternity pen, since they’ll be calving in February. Then we vaccinated, deloused and tagged (with brisket tags) the weaned heifers. Andrea helped us with the heifers. Her kids stayed in the house (it was a cold day) and drew pictures and entertained themselves making things with paper, scissors and glue.

Michael and Carolyn hauled some of the old big straw bales (still in the stackyard on the upper place) down to Maurers and are trying to get ready for calving. They had their first two calves on Thursday. Yesterday they sorted their cows, putting the early calving cows where they can watch them. Our neighbour, Roger Solaas, brought his wood splitter and helped Lynn split more of our woodpile.

Today we went to Andrea’s house downtown to celebrate Samantha’s birthday (she was six on January 15) and Emily’s birthday (she’ll be 11 on January 19), and got home in time to do chores before dark.

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841

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