With the bite of winter cold in the air, the cowboy steps up on a horse to gather the cattle. The dawn light breaks over the sky and the breath of each animal is visible. All of the neighbors are at the ranch to help with this work, just as all the ranchers will be at another neighbor’s ranch in a few days to help. The ranching community relies on neighbors’ helping with fall cow work. If this circle is broken because a ranch has been sold and the new neighbors do not understand the century-old tradition, it is a burden that ranchers from other circles have to help carry.
Once the cattle are brought to the corrals the work begins. It may be a day to vaccinate calves, wean calves, pregnancy check cows and heifers, or ship the steers and heifers to market. Once the routine of working the cattle starts, the ranchers begin visiting and joking with each other. The drudgery of work is made fun with all the neighbors.
If it is shipping day, the steers and heifers are weighed on site or transported to the neighbor’s scales. The cattle are sold by the pound to a feedlot where they are “finished” on a diet of hay, corn silage, grains and supplements. Care is taken to get the cattle across the scales as stress-free as possible because stress causes weight loss. Once the cattle are across the scales, the semi trucks roll into the ranch yard, the cattle are loaded and a convoy of semis head down the road. A whole year’s worth of work is rolling out the gate. Ranchers only have one major pay day and this is it. They send cull cattle (cattle no longer suited for the rancher’s herd program) to auction barns too, but the bulk of the income is from the calf or yearling crop.
If the purpose of the day is to vaccinate calves, the calves are separated from their mother cows and are run through the chute for vaccinations. This is a calf’s second set of childhood vaccination shots for diseases. They are given shots for pneumonia, black leg and brucellosis. In about two weeks, the calves will be weaned from their mothers after the inoculations have had time to increase the calves’ immunity. The cows are separated from the calves. The calves are left in the corral and the cows go back to pasture. Now the rancher hopes the fencing job will hold. Once the cows and calves have been separated for a week, they don’t try to get together any more. The calves are now becoming young adults. This gives the mother cows five months to get ready for their new calf.
Once the calves are weaned, the cows are “preg checked.” Sometimes, ranchers pregnancy check before they wean. The cows are run through the chute and the veterinarian checks to see if the cow will calve within the calving window, which is usually a two-month period. A cow cycles to be bred every three weeks, so this allows for two breeding cycles. If the window is kept at two months, the calves are all a more uniform size when they are ready to be shipped. Some ranchers will remove the bulls from the cow pasture to better regulate the calving window. This way the rancher does not depend so much upon the vet’s input as to date of birth. The cows are also given their yearly vaccinations and a pour-on liquid is used to get rid of lice and worms. The cows’ eyes, feet and teeth are checked. If the cow passes all the tests, she is good to go for another year. If she doesn’t pass a test, she becomes a “cull” cow and is shipped to a sale barn.
The heifers that are almost two years old are usually tested a different day. The rancher picks the “replacement heifers” which are pregnant with their first calf. These heifers either add to the herd or replace culled cows. The rancher sorts out the best heifers and pregnancy checks them. If they are going to calve in the two-month window, they are kept. After the veterinarian has given the thumbs up, the heifer is given her yearly vaccinations for vibrio and lepto along with the pour-on.
The bulls have to be “trich tested.” The veterinarian does this test. Trichomoniasis is a venereal disease that bulls retain and pass on to the cow causing her to abort her calf. Bulls have to be tested if they run in a common allotment (the same land shared by multiple ranches for grazing) with other ranchers’ cattle or when nonvirgin bulls are sold for breeding purposes.
Once all of this cow work is done, the cows are ready for winter. Everyone who comes to help the rancher work the cows especially enjoy the end of the work day. They all go to the house and sit down to a feast which is much like a Thanksgiving dinner.
From RealRancher Jonita Sommers – Pinedale, Wyo.