Sunday, January 17, 2010

Who's your momma

Sunday, the day of rest, well not really rest but compared to the other days of the week it is restful. Since we all took some time to enjoy Dakotas’s volleyball tournament yesterday we took some “working family time” today. I am going to ship (sell) some yearling calves this week. The bigger end of the steers and the larger heifers that are not going to be replacements are going to go “down the road”. Since the calves will be leaving it was time for Dakota (almost 13 years old) to choose her show steers for the 2010 fair season. She is also “buying” 5 heifers this year to start her own cowherd so those choices had to be made as well. I remembered the same situation 30 years ago with my father and I. Today’s post is about the similarities and differences between today and 30 years ago. The people are different, but the ranch, time of year and values are the same and will be 30 or more years from now.

The first thing that stood out to me was the gender difference and how that affected the ensuing conversation on picking the show steers. With dad and me it was two males with a hardcore stance as to the best choices. I would say something like, “that calf really is ‘showy’ and moves out well”. Dad would say something like, “yeah he is ‘showy’ and moves out well, he is showing he has no muscling and will be moving out of the show ring with a red ribbon!” Then a 30 minute heated but respectful argument would happen with lots of growling and spitting in the dirt. With Dakota and I it was much different. Dakota would say, “I really like that calf, he is deep bodied, has good muscling and besides that he is really cute!” Then I would say, “Yes dear, good choice, he is cute” as I wondered to myself if he was showy enough and if he moved out properly. Somehow it is just different when dealing with a girl.

The other thing I noticed that was different was the range of choices. When I was a teenage boy I already had in mind of who to choose from was between say 10 steers to fill 2 or 3 potential fair slots. With Dakota every calf in the lot had a chance to be chosen and enter the show pen. Even the 300 pound orphan calf that looked more like a deer crossed with an armadillo than a steer had a chance based on his “cuteness” factor. I try and keep my opinions to myself and let her make her own way and decisions. This was one of those instances that a veto was forthcoming if she fell for the deeradillo’s sad but cute pleas. Luckily she made a wise choice and eliminated him from consideration.

When it came time to choose the replacement heifers the similarities started to show. I don’t know how to describe it but some people have it and some people do not have this trait. Tomorrow you could take all the ear tags out of every animal we own and Dakota and I could still tell you the tag number of 98% of them just by appearance and mannerisms. Now, that may not seem that difficult until you consider most of them are solid black in color and other than size, body structure, movement tendencies and mannerisms they generally all look the same. Lots of cattle people can do this with their own herds. Part of learning the subtle but distinct differences between animals is the ability to know their particular history from birth.

Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good potential mama cow and this affects their choosing of replacement heifers. In general the criterion is; some depth of body, good leg structure, fertility, femininity, udder structure and potential ability to raise a good calf. The underlying issues that can affect choices are more subtle. Fleshing ability, mothering ability, longevity, temperament, and genetic history are other considerations. Sometimes the importance of these specific issues will be affected by the environment the cow will be faced with. The kind of cow that will be profitable for a good irrigated grass ranch in coastal Oregon is quite different than the kind of cow that will spend her life in the high desert of eastern Oregon for example.

My dad was a master “momma cow picker”, he could see a new heifer calf, a 10 year old cow or a 16 month old heifer that was ready to calve yesterday (basically a teenage pregnancy that most will run away from) and say, “Now there is a heifer just waiting for her chance to be a superstar momma cow”, and he would buy her for little to nothing and often these heifers would stay in the herd and be profitable for years and years. I am more focused on the genetic history and general structure of a heifer but I don’t know if I have any more success than he did with his unconventional predictions. As Dakota picked her heifers today I could see a happy medium between the ideas of her father and grandfather. I had already chosen 30 heifers to keep and had ranked them in potential of being a good cow. I had ranked the top 30 out of 74 head total.

As for my list she picked the heifer’s I had ranked number 2, 4, 5 and 7 which left me quite impressed but she also picked one that I would have not even put in the top 50. I was a bit puzzled by this particular pick so I asked her, “Why did you choose number 9207y?” she did not even hesitate for a second in her response. She said, “Her mother has always been a great cow, she is a cool looking blue roan, she is cute and I think she is the type of heifer Grandpa would have picked.” With a smile on my face and a lump in my throat I replied, “Good choice sweetie”. I expect 9207y will be with us for a long time and be very productive.

As we left the yearlings today Dakota asked me, “Dad do you think I will make any money on those heifers?” I gave the exact same response to the same question my father had given me 30 years prior. When I asked my dad that same question 30 years ago he said, “I started in the cattle business with absolutely nothing, over time I have enjoyed the business and TRIPLED what I started with.”

Today’s picture is of a fall calving cow that my dad bought as a pregnant long yearling,she is standing next to her 15th consecutive calf .Her calving date has not varied more than 20 days year to year. We miss ya Dad and thanks for helping us with our decisions today!

Today’s real environmentalist species found on the ranch is cattails aka Typha latifilia.