It’s probably a little surprising that July and August represent our slowest time of year here on the ol’ PV. January and February can maybe compete in the “slowest months” category, but nothing can really compare to that dog-days-of-summer feeling we welcome with open arms in the 7th and 8th months.
Everybody else in agriculture is crazy-busy through the summer. Why aren’t we?
1) We don’t farm here at the PV. We don’t put up hay. There are only cows, and in the summer they’re doing what cows were meant to do: take care of themselves.
2) Accordingly, the feedlot is empty.
3) Things around here are just that hectic the rest of the year, making July and August seem more like sport.
So what do we do in the summertime at the PV?
You might remember that the feedlot yearlings shipped or trailed out in May, so we don’t have to worry about them anymore. (A new crop of feedlot calves will show up when we start weaning the 2017 calves here soon.)
After branding was finished in June and the cow/calf pairs situated on summer grazing, bulls were turned out for breeding season about July 1. (Yup, it happens the old-fashioned way around here.)
So once the cows, calves, and bulls were all turned out on grass, things got a little easier for a few weeks. Throughout July and August the PV cowboys typically focus on checking water, distributing salt and mineral, and riding to check the cattle for health. I like this old cement tank at Horse Creek Crossing:
A majority of the mature cattle here at the main ranch summer either on Fort Pease or Froze-to-Death. Both are large summer pastures representing the PV’s share of former grazing districts. Fort Pease, at 32 sections now, is home to almost 600 cows for the summer. Seven propane-powered wells out there represent the main sources of water for the Fort Pease cattle and must be checked daily — unless there is a big rain, which we haven’t had for months. A good ol’ guy named Orville, retired from his day job to the nearby hamlet of Hysham, saves our bacon and every single day drives those bumpy roads connecting the Fort Pease wells, ensuring the cattle have water. We are so glad to have Orville — me especially because he occasionally shows up in the morning with a carton of cucumbers fresh-picked from his garden!
On the northeast side of the ranch, Froze-to-Death, at 49 sections now, summers 1,100 cows. There is a single well out there: an artesian on the creek which runs year round at a single source. The rest of Froze-to-Death is watered by pits and reservoirs — 18 of them, most of them man-made. The whole set-up works great… until things dry up, like now. That’s when the guys starting checking every waterhole on Froze-to-Death regularly, as often as every other day, for thirsty cattle bogged in the dangerous, suction-like mud at water’s edge — mud which reveals itself and cures slowly as summer’s heat shrinks the size of a reservoir. In one recent week the guys pulled out two bogs: a cow that lived and a bull that was already dead. Both are indicators that, barring real rain, the cattle will soon have to be gathered off of Froze-to-Death… far ahead of our usual late-October fall gathers.
So the truth is that the drought is very real here this year, although Beau and Dad are sure we’re not as dry as the folks north and east of us. The other truth is that we often experience drought. We live in very dry, very short-grass country here in Eastern Montana. The most recent drought that affected us was 2012, when the PV shipped 900 young pairs to summer grass in Wyoming and received them back in the fall. And I’ve written before about gathering Froze-to-Death as early as August. And it’s pretty much an annual event to find a cow or two bogged in a dry reservoir somewhere: we’ve been real dry before.
Remember — we work for a corporate ranch. This means that, lest the sun don’t rise, those of us who work here get our paychecks no matter what, which also means that a drought is not as personal to us as it would be to a smaller, family-focused ranch. Additionally, because of the size of the PV land owner’s holdings, we have options that give us flexibility and options when it comes to handling the curveballs nature throws. For instance, our sister ranch the Broken O on Montana’s Sun River has extra hay on hand should our local sources run dry. The Q in Wyoming always has extra grass to lease to the PV. Our feedlot is available should the replacement heifers from Cedar Creek need a place to spend the winter. And in years gone by we have sold extra PV replacement heifers both to the Geronimo in Arizona and the Waggoner in Texas. The benefit of sister ranches is this: a drought like this year’s is less of a lifestyle-threatening emergency and more of a management puzzle to be solved.
As you can see below, our near-sighted view from PV headquarters in the Yellowstone Valley is lush and green, which can deceive the mind into ignoring the drought. The valley here is laced with irrigation ditches, and many of the fields are watered with irrigation pivots fed by river water.
(Here’s our little family, along with niece Taylor and nephew Nate, floating the irrigation canal in August. “Ditching” is a must-do summer pastime around here.)
But you can also see in that picture that where the valley ends, the hills rise up to dryland fields, and beyond the reach of the plow, to good old-fashion prairie. The dryland fields, of course, are the birthplace of tumbleweeds, and thanks to wind that blew steadily from the northwest through much of July and August, I dubbed this one the Summer of the Tumbleweeds. The darn boogers just keep blowing down from the bench, crossing (almost blocking a time or two) the Ingomar Road at Grierson Hill…
… and continuing down the coulees ’til they catch on our yard fence or pile up in a corner somewhere:
I’ve burned a lot of tumbleweeds in the trash barrels this summer, but it’s been hard to keep up.
So. All that said about our current conditions, the revised ranch plan for this fall (if we don’t get some good, slow soakers) is to start weaning calves early, to background the calves in the feedlot for 30-45 days, then to ship the calves out to make room to winter the mama cows in the feedlot — saving on pastures in preparation for next spring.
On another subject, people have been asking: have we had any wildfires on the PV this year? We humbly and thankfully can answer NO, at least nothing worth mentioning; our hearts go out to the family ranches across Montana that have sustained heart-breaking and life-changing losses due to wildfire this summer. We are not out of fire season here, of course, and so remain vigilantly watchful for smoke. But one reason we’ve been spared: we just have not endured the lightning storms this summer like we usually do.
The smoke rolls into the Yellowstone Valley here, though, from other parts of the state — and hangs like a heavy cloud over our everyday. We’ve been this smoky for several weeks now:
The smoke affects the allergies of many locals and serves as a constant reminder to us that our fellow statesmen west, north, and south of us are suffering.
Okay, so what else happens here in July and August?
Even though we don’t grow hay here at the PV, much hay and straw must be procured each summer in order to see the cattle through the coming winter. The ranch enjoys a long-standing working relationship with local farmer Greg Lackman, who grows all the corn for silage for the feedlot and much of the hay and straw, too. That means that Tawny’s main job for the summer (Remember Tawny? She’s worked here over 20 years. Here she is with our kids)…
… is using the ranch semi to transport big round bales from Lackman fields to the neat feedlot stacks she takes great pride in:
Dear Tawny is a master loader operator. She can actually handle three bales at a time with this big loader.
In addition to the straw and three cuttings of alfalfa which Tawny will systematically gather in, other feeds for another winter in the feedlot must be procured: loads of distillers grain from the Dakotas, for instance, started rolling into the ranch this past July, purchased early in anticipation of prohibitive prices this fall, and are stored in a shed awaiting feedlot cattle. Additionally, hay from other sources (besides Lackman Farms) is purchased annually and brought in to round out the needs of the feedlot and the cows that typically would winter out in the hills in the care of camp cowboys.
While the feedlot is empty this time of year, a custom crew comes in to clean feedlot pens and haul manure, the most natural fertilizer of all, onto Lackman grain fields:
A side note: throughout a lot of the summer, crop dusters zoom over ranch headquarters in their work as they spray Lackman fields. It’s fun for the kids to run out and wave.
One thing that keeps me busy in the summers as I follow in my mom’s footsteps: washing and filling bottles and jugs with fresh water to store in the freezer, on hand for Beau (or anyone else, for that matter) who’s headed out for a day of work in the heat:
Extra help at the PV this summer included Shane, who wrestled calves for the ranch through branding and then stayed on to shovel out bunks in the feedlot… and, most importantly in my mind, to weed-eat and pick up junk around headquarters here and even to mow my yard lawn a time or two. (I bragged to all my friends that every gal ought to have a 16-year-old boy at her disposal: a male with all of the muscle and none of the mouth! For example, one day Shane helped me to load a bunch of furniture to take to a yard sale, and not a once did he balk at the work I asked of him, or question my motives in selling a certain piece, or argue with me about the most efficient way to load the trailer; he just dug in and totally let me be in charge. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my husband dearly, but I find he isn’t nearly so cooperative when it comes to helping me accomplish my various projects! Ha! (We all wish Shane good luck this school year.)
This is also the time of year that any big-picture projects are most likely to be accomplished at the PV: think waterlines, new fences, corrals, procurement of new-to-us equipment, and other improvements.
(Because our corporate office is 218 lightyears… er, I mean miles… away, big-picture projects don’t often proceed the way we cowhands imagine they ought to, and several such projects are in limbo right now.)
UPDATE: September is here now; I’ve been trying to publish this blog for a couple weeks and the end of August completely passed me by. I just can’t stay up late enough or get up early enough to get everything done! Seasons are changing here, and activity is once again picking up. The cowboys have started gathering bulls. Tawny will soon take up her annual job of draining and scrubbing with bleach every water tank in the feedlot in preparation for new calves. And the corn silage is officially harvested. The custom crew that comes from Canada every year to harvest corn is pretty darn good at its job. (Three cheers for custom crews, right? It’s so much fun watching people who are really good at what they do… do what they do!) These fellas, with the aid of two state-of-the-art choppers, harvested and packed in the PV pit a little over 10,868 tons of silage… in four days! Their trucks can haul between 70,000 and 105,000 pounds, and every load passes thisclose to our front door on the journey from the PV scale (where every single load is weighed) to the PV silage pit, where the silage is unloaded:
Which means corn harvest is a good time for me to pack up the kids and get them out of the yard for a few hours at a time. Thankfully we have a chain link fence around our yard, and fairly well-behaved kids, so generally I don’t worry too much about the kids escaping onto the road… but those corn truck drivers drive like… um… heck, so I sure don’t like taking chances. And I don’t blame them for driving like heck — they’ve got a job to do! (Interestingly, most of the corn truck drivers on the custom crew are in the US on some sort of migrant ag workers pass for the harvest season — we’ve noticed through the years that the majority of them come from Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand, and also that most of them wear sweats and tank tops while they’re driving, which is always amusing because can you imagine someone showing up to work in sweats and a tank top? Perhaps it’s common attire in other countries, kinda like jeans here? This year Beau took Emi and Asher for a fast ride to and from the field with a driver of Irish origin. And he is not just Irish, but a one-armed paralympic sailor from Ireland, come to the States in the off-season on a quest to explore the world! Love the unexpected lessons that are presented to our little homeschoolers during our everyday here at the PV!)
And the news most indicative of our situation this fall after a dry, smoky summer: last week the guys gathered the first pairs off of Froze-to-Death. Their water was drying up, a few had been bogged in reservoirs, and it was clear it was time to start bringing cows closer to home in preparation for uncommonly dry fall works. The first weaning and preg-checking days are scheduled for late September, a few weeks ahead of our normal annual schedule, so things around here are about to kick into high gear.
Although, come to think of it, I’m not convinced that our July and August ever ambled along in low gear.
Oh, and one more thing: we hear there’s a 60% chance for rain later this week. Maybe, just maybe…
© Tami Blake