Last month, we loaded almost all of our lambs onto trucks and sent them to a feedlot in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. It is time for the ewes to be lamb-free for a couple of months so that they will be ready for the winter months, and their future liasons with bucks. One might think that the ewes are doing most of the work here, and one would be correct. The job of the lambs is to put on some pounds. Here they are, eating a high-carb diet and having their every need attended to. We went to see them the other day, and I think they were glad to see us.
It’s that time of year again. With the calves weaned, it’s time to learn which cows are pregnant, which ones are open (not pregnant) and which ones are due to calve later than we like. This keeps us from putting winter feed into a cow who is not going to raise a calf next year. Often the ones who were bred later will make a fine cow for someone on a different calving schedule, but do not fit our “program”. Our annual cycle is absolutely determined by our climate. We ranch at a high altitude, and even our low country is more than a mile above sea level. The long summer days and great soil mean that our grass is high in protein, perfect for raising strong and healthy livestock and wild ungulates. The short growing season means that we need to maximize that grass while it is available. Add to this our complicated schedule of a landscape scale rotation through private and state lands, and BLM and Forest grazing permits. This means that we need our calves to be born in a fairly small window, so that they will grow and thrive when conditions are optimal, and be a uniform size when it is time to sell them. We shorten that window for some of the cows by artificial insemination in late June. This does give us an added risk of bad weather during a shortened calving period–a risk we try to minimize by keeping them close to sheds and shelter during calving. But we will worry about that next spring. For now, we wait for Dr. McFarland’s cry of “pregnant!”, “late!” or “open!”. First he peers through the googles that show what the ultrasound machine is perceiving, then he follows up with an old-fashioned palpation if necessary. Some of the cows get vaccine, some get new eartags, and they all get a backpour for parasites. Then it’s on to the wintering grounds–just in time, for today we got our first real snow
Once a cook told me, “When Sharon said things would slow down after the summer, I didn’t realize that summer lasted until November!”. Well, it’s true–in my mind, the busy season begins when we start the sheep on the trail in mid-April and comes to an end when we ship the calves in the fall. The work doesn’t really end then–we still have to pregnancy-test the cows and trail the sheep to their winter country, but it really does slow down a lot. By now, all but the most die-hard hunters have gone, the sheepherders have gone back to their camps after a month or so around the ranch headquarters, and the cows are settling into their winter pastures. We still have some heifer calves to sell, but we have just put the steer calves on a truck. Their buyer is feeding them in Nebraska this winter. This means that we listen to several nights of mama cows calling for their babies, although the older cows know their calves are gone, and that their job is to nurture the calves in their bellies. We have few quiet nights this time of year, as we wean first the lambs, then the calves. We have a lot of guard dogs around until the winter bunches are settled in, so lots of barking accompanies the night song. Often the coyotes will taunt them, setting off a chorus of barking and howling that would put the Hound of the Baskervilles to shame. Soon enough, winter’s quiet will set in, with only the creaking of the ice and the caw of crows to break the cold silence.
We have been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners Program for a number of years. The Partners Program, along with several other partners, have helped us in a project on Battle Creek that includes a number of structures that enhance habitat for fish, especially Colorado Cutthroat Trout, and provide improved flood irrigation for our native hay meadows. This, in turn, benefits the wetlands that support our bird populations. The structures also protect the stream banks against erosion during spring runoff. The structures got a good test during the high runoff years of 2010 and 2011. We saved a lot of meadowland, but some of the structures took a beating. We had a Colorado structure that failed and was causing erosion. Thanks to NRCS and the Fish and Wildlife Service, we were able to repair and enhance these rock and log structures, and are good to go!