Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The babysitter

I really cannot explain it but when you deal with cattle I think it makes you more aware. Cattle are not necessarily the most intelligent of all creatures but they certainly are not ignorant. They are very much a creature of habit and learn things through repetition. We still gather cattle into the corrals at each respective range or pasture the same as we always have. We always use the same direction of approach and the same entry gate. Cattle can become very conditioned over time and this helps to add to predictability and makes life easier on us as well as the cattle.

I have mentioned before in this blog how yearlings (steers and heifers from 10 to 13 months of age basically) are highly energetic but also highly excitable. I often compare them to human teenagers away from home for a sports tournament in the hallways of a hotel. They can cover ground rapidly, have lots of energy but sometimes they have about as much sense as Tiger Woods giving a speech on fidelity and monogamy. I sold the bigger steers and the heifer yearlings that were not destined to be mother cows last week. I kept back the replacement heifers (virgin yearling heifers to be bred this spring to calve next spring) as well as the lighter weight steers and heifers. The lighter animals will continue to grow and be sold as “grass cattle” in the early spring or may be kept and turned out on grass to be sold in mid to late summer.

I always keep a few momma cows around the home place each winter to live with the yearlings. These adult mothers tend to settle the group as a whole and also give a boost to the total average IQ of the yearlings. If we were talking human terms these would be like the “room mothers” you had in elementary school. Usually these cows that stay with the yearlings are chosen based on four criteria. I will discuss the criterion and then talk about one mother cow that has lived with the yearlings every winter since she has been alive.

One type of cow that often is chosen is what I call the “grandma”. This is a cow usually in her last or second to last year of production. They have some type of issue, maybe they are getting arthritic and cannot move well over long distances, maybe they are a bit on the thin side and need some extra nutrition, maybe they have been super producers for me and I want them to have a little extra nutrition and comfort. The yearlings are fed a highly nutritious diet and do not have to range over lots of area for their sustenance. Think Queen Elizabeth of England but more physically attractive. *shudders*

The second type of cow is the natural leader. I have some cows that will follow my pickup to the Jersey shore if I drive slow enough and let them have a bite of hay now and again. These cows are absolutely invaluable when it comes time to gather the masses. Cows have a very structured “pecking order” that is ever changing. The pecking order of the cows changes based on size, age, and respect from others as well as personality and ability to fight. This particular type of cow is usually one that was at one point in life near the top of the pecking order but has fallen some mostly because of age. When placed among the yearlings she still is feared as a leader. Think Catholic school nun sister Mary Margaret with a wooden ruler under her habit and she is not afraid to use it.

The third type of cow is what I call the “wild cards”. These are the cows that get to stay home with the yearlings by default. Maybe they do not respect hotwire fences well. Maybe they are just plain wild and mean but do such a great job of raising a calf you keep them around longer than you should. Sometimes these are cows that are just fine at home, but when loaded in a truck or trailer and sent to a different environment they go nuts. These are the good baby producers but have a high level of maintenance and are generally a pain in the ass. Think Kate Gosselin or Angelina Jolie.

The fourth type of cow is; well she just is something. These are rare cows and can take on almost legendary status. I can certainly not give parameters to these cows. The only thing I can say about them is they usually earn the right to die on the same ranch they were born on. They either just plain will not come into the corrals, or as the cow of today is they will come in to the corrals, but when pressed they will gracefully jump the fence and return to their comfort zone. These cows are almost like ghosts. One minute they are right there, the next moment they have sped through the sorting gate and escaped to where they want to be. Think cattlemen standing there cussing while also defending her honor based on her previous production and profitability.

This morning cow 16y was absent from the main group and I knew exactly what that meant and where she would be. She is the rare fourth type of cow I have explained. She is a great cow, mother and a descendant from an original cow family on the ranch. She calves every year in the last 10 days of January. She always goes down to the tall grass flats to calve. Her calves are always in the top 10% of weaning weight and profitability. She is not really mean and not particularly wild. She will not lead a revolt, but she will silently sneak off on her own during a gather. She will follow a pickup, she will eat hay off the back, and she will wait until you head for the gate and make a mad dash to freedom. If you happen to close the gate before she escapes she will gracefully scale the fence and then stand just outside the gate and laugh at you. She reminds me of my father every time I deal with her.

Today’s picture is cow 16y with her heifer calf born today. Think nervous cowboy grabbing her calf to apply an ear tag while looking at those dual stickers on momma.

Today’s real environmentalist species found on the ranch is the yellow head black bird aka Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus.