Last year only a little over seven inches of rain fell on the ranch, the driest year since Don’s great granddad put the property together and they started keeping records. This past winter there was not as much moisture as usual although a blizzard in late April added some but it came during calving season and some calves were lost. Don just shrugs recounting this, normal in the long list of things to just deal with in the ranching life.
“There is no such thing as an average year,” Don tells me. “Every year brings a different set of problems to cope with. May is supposed to be cold and wet but this year it’s warm and dry.” Again he shrugs.
Today the forecast, the early morning start is always with the TV turned to the weather, is for temperatures in the nineties, possible record highs. All the pastures are brown and dry, even the meadows in the valleys are late to green and grow.
Don and his crew cut out forty heifers from the two hundred he saved as replacements to be bred this year. It was necessary because he’s not certain if there will be enough rain this year to provide enough good quality hay and pasture to take all of his animals through next winter. He has several hundred yearling steers and heifers to be sold late this summer and will cull any cows and heifers not pregnant after the breeding season. He can’t feed cattle over the winter if they are not going to produce a calf next spring.
While we were driving across a pasture Don called the sale barn in Valentine, sixty miles from the ranch, to arrange for their sale. We are in one of his three-quarter ton flatbed pickups with a large hopper on the bed filled with “cake”. The cake is a pellet form of protein supplement made from corn and soybeans with minerals and vitamins and other ingredients. He has a small calculator in the cab that he programs to run an electric motor attached to the hopper that turns a conveyer belt and meters out the cake. We are going to feed the culled heifers to put some additional weight on them before they are sold. The hot weather that is forecast for today and tomorrow should help them shed their patches of rough winter coat. He thinks they’ll do well at the sale and on the phone is helping the sale barn manager flesh out the sales pitch. Pass Ranch has a good reputation for quality commercial cattle and he’s confident that whomsoever wins the bidding will get good value.
Yesterday, Sunday, I went with Don to do “chores”, feeding cake. We went to three different pastures. My job was to get out of the truck at each barbed-wire gate we came to and to open the gate. Don drove through and waited until I closed and secured the gate then we continued. He has the cattle divided into several groups scattered in various pastures.
We pulled into the pasture holding several recently purchased young bulls. He pulled a knob on the dash and a siren wailed, telling the animals he is here with “treats”. He got out of the cab to open the trap door so the cake could be released then we sat and waited until all the bulls ambled over. When they all arrived, some rubbed themselves on the truck, giving us a ride resembling one of those mechanical devices outside the grocery store. After they were all in attendance he drove in a circle metering and spreading the cake on the ground. When the prescribed amount was deposited he got out, closed the trap door and we were off to the next group to be fed. He alternates feeding the groups so the cake is fed to about half the animals on the place each day. The groups not fed cake are still fed hay that day because of the lateness of the grass this spring.
The first time I visited the Pass Ranch, Thanksgiving holiday in 1954, we loaded large sacks, probably sixty or seventy pounds each, maybe more, into the bed of a pickup then drove to the pastures, honked the horn to call the cattle then had to open each sack and walk with it to meter out the cake. Some of the cattle would push and shove the person with the sack, difficult to maintain balance when it was still full. This way is a lot easier.
For those unfamiliar with barbed-wire gates this is what they look like:
Sunday afternoon we did upkeep and maintenance chores on Don and Susie’s house, originally built in the early 1900’s and remodeled several times. I never thought much about it previously but think of how much work it takes to maintain your own home. The ranch has two nice, but old houses their son’s widow lives in the newer one about a hundred yards away. There are two manufactured homes about a mile away that the families of the hired help live in, there is a old bunkhouse, now unused except for storage, two large metal barns for equipment and workshops, an old frame barn, a three-car garage with a woodshop, a large calving barn, untold miles of barbed-wire fencing, cattle guards, pens for working the cattle, corrals. All the buildings except the equipment barns are wood siding and in the extreme weather of the Sandhills need repainting on a regular basis.
Oh yes, all the pastures and meadows have at least one windmill and stock tank, the large ones more. The newest innovation is to pipe water to tanks, no windmill or well needed. I have no idea how they get it all done on top of working and caring for the livestock, including a dozen or more horses. The same place that Don’s grandfather operated with as many as twenty-five or thirty cowhands, depending on the season, he now runs with a man and wife team and one other hired man. Huge expenditures for equipment make this possible, but equipment also needs to be maintained and repaired. His newest tractor is about twenty years old.
This afternoon Don is working a large tractor with a blade in front and an earthmover behind.