We run cows and calves, sometimes yearlings. Yearlings are calves who are almost a year old or older than a year. And of course then they go to two year olds. After the calves are weaned from their mothers ( removed from each other so the calf can no longer suckle the cow) they live all together in their own herd, for t least a time. By weaning the calves off from their mothers, it gives the cows a chance to gain weight. This is usually done in the late fall/winter. The calves learn to become independent and live only on the feed available to them, be it graze/hay or grain, or a combination of all or some. Weaning is not painful for either cow or calf. Many ranches are set up so the cow and calf can be next to each other so they can still see and hear, but the calf can not reach the udder and so can not suckle. Usually by the end of a week, the cows have pretty much forgotten their calves and go on to rest up and get ready for the new calf they will give birth to later on. The calves forget their mothers, by and large and enjoy the company of their own herd of similar sized cattle. At times we will put an older cow in with the calves, to help them settle and become a leader if the calves should panic at some sound, or sight…they are the most easily startled. It’s all new to them, similar to when a child goes to school, away from it’s parents.
Most people know about branding. Branding has gone on for centuries. At one time slaves were branded. A brand put on a creature, stays for the rest of it’s life. Most would think it is terribly painful. I myself have been branded. Accidentally of course. I can testify, that yes it hurt, but not as much as getting a vaccination. We, like most ranchers, pride ourselves on doing any job as neatly, efficiently and as quickly as we can. When your dealing with a live animal, no matter the size, you do the job at hand, the easiest and best way possible. For the animal! Yes, it is much more painful for the people doing the work. There are several ways to do the job. Each has it’s own reasons. The point is to capture and control the calf, whether by hand, by using ropes or a chute. Care is always taken, no matter the system, to not harm the calf, and to protect it and the people doing the work, all the while by doing it in a speedy, safe atmosphere. Some calves are roped from horseback and lead out of a holding area, by the neck or the hind feet. There are pro’s and cons to each way. Some push the calves down an alley way and into a metal chute, which can then be tipped on it’s side. At some branding’s, people grab a calf by the hind leg and another person, the partner, grabs a front leg on the same side and the calf is tipped to the ground and then held by those two people. One holding down the front end and the other the back end. No matter which system is used, the object is to get the calf immobilized for it’s own safety and also for the people doing the work. It will get vaccinations to prevent it from terrible diseases, casterated if it is a bull calf destined for beef and of course branded. The brand is put on with a very hot iron and happens quickly. Specific people who are very knowledgeable and skilful do the actual branding. So that it happens quickly and cleanly. This mark will be on the calf for the rest of it’s life and it must be done so it is easily readable, sometimes from long distances away. Because of this brand, an animal can be traced back to where it originally was born and raised. Think of it is a trademark and return address, all in one. In cases of sick cattle and needing to know it’s origins, the specific animal can be traced back thru’ any owner, no matter how many times it has passed into someone else hands. Some years ago when Mad Cow was found in Canada, and the authorities knew some of the cattle from that herd had come into our state, in just a matter of a few hours, the cattle were located here, by the use of the brand system. So it is very important for many reasons. Ear tags can fall out, ear tattoo’s hard to read or become non legible, but a hot iron brand on the hide is there for ever. If you find an animal in your herd and know it doesn’t belong to you, by reading the brand, you can locate the proper owner. When ever a bovine is sold or moved out of the brand area, they are inspected by a brand inspector. His or her job is to make sure that only the cattle from a specific ranch are being sold or moved into another state or region, so that it is very hard for people to steal anyone else livestock. It is a system that has worked for centuries and no one has been able to find a better system. Our ranch brand is the V/4. Walter Dennis registered it with the state in 1902 and we have used it ever since. It is registered with the state as all legal brands must be and we are the only people in western SD who can legally use this mark. It is our copyright and identity. We, like most ranchers, take pride in it and what it stands for. And when we sell one of our calves or cows, we know that all the world can look at that brand and know where it came from and who it represents. That is why many of us talk about “riding for the brand”. It means that anyone who works with us is loyal to us and how we do the work given us. It is our reputation on the line. We do not want to ruin that.
Rain, or maybe a better word is, moisture! We live and die by it, as ranchers in this area. We are really a high desert region. Out average annual moisture is around 15 inches a year. Some years we get 20 inches. Some years we get 10. If it doesn’t rain, our grasses don’t grow. If our grasses don’t grow we have no feed for our livestock. And it isn’t so much how much we get as when we get it. We can have dry winters and then get good rains in the spring and thru’ the summer, and still grow lots of feed for livestock and wildlife. Some winters we will get a lot of snow. And the wind will drift into big drifts. And when that melts, the grass underneath and close to it, do well. Usually, much of it runs off and runs down the creeks and watersheds. Of course the ground soaks up some, depending on whether the ground is frozen under the drift or not. For years we relied on the snow drifts causing the running water, to fill stock ponds, known as dams. Because it was where we had dammed up the creek, to hold the rain fall or snow melt from running on down the creek. We, like most in this area, have many wells to pump water up and into storage tanks so the livestock and wildlife can get their daily drink. We still have dams and in wet years, they make up a large portion of the water used by the livestock and wildlife on this ranch. But we love our wells as then we do not have to depend on rainfall or snow melt for livestock water. This ranch sets on a shallow water table and several different layers of water tables. When my Grandfather homesteaded here and wanted a well, he took a short handled shovel and dug a hole until he could no longer throw the dirt out. But it wouldn’t hold a lot of water and you could pump it dry with a hand pump. Later when things became more mechanized, my Grandfather, my father and I have all hired well drillers to come in and sink deeper holes. No, we are not using up the water. The levels have stayed the same. The earth replenishes it’s self by the rainfall and snow melt. All those dams I mentioned? With all the water backed up? It slowly soaks in deeper and deeper into the earth and returns itself to the water tables. And when we get our wetter years with higher amounts of moisture, all that water running down the creeks, soaks in at the bottom of the creeks. We have springs, also on this ranch. A spring is where the water comes to earth and seeps out, because it can not sink in any deeper, because of over saturation of the ground, or there is a level of non porous rock. So the water travels down, tho’ we think of it as coming up! It seeps out and collects at ground level. In the fall months, after the long hot summer and we get a hard freeze, the trees lose their leaves and the grasses dry up. None of them need as much water, if any. And we see the water levels rise in our creeks where it is “springy”. Moisture, we love it! If it wasn’t for moisture, we, nor our livestock or the wildlife, could survive in this area. So you will hardly ever hear us complaining about rain! Dust seems to last much longer than mud , around these parts!
Most people don’t realize that wind is what helped to make this country hospitable by man and animal. When it snows and the wind blows, the wind will blow the snow off much of the hills, on the upwind side. This clears the snow away so the livestock and wildlife can graze. When our ancestors arrived here, one of the first things they had to get used to was the wind. And they were smart enough to capitalize on it by using windmills to pump the water from their wells. So tho’ the wind can be annoying at times, it is one of the reasons we can live here.
I almost feel like it should be against the law to cut down a living tree in this country around here! Because we don’t have many! I have planted thousands on this ranch. Many didn’t live. This land is not real conducive towards growing trees except along the water courses. But trees slow down the wind, especially nice in the winter for livestock to get behind on cold windy days. So my grandfather, my father and I have all planted lots of trees, in what we call shelterbelts. The US government over the years have had programs to encourage people to plant trees and do what is necessary to keep them growing. My Grandfather, Walter, must have been ahead of his time. He would take a team and wagon and go to town. Town being 50 to 60 miles away. One one of his trips, he camped alongside the Belle Fourche river, south of here. In the morning he pulled up small cottonwood trees and laid them in the wagon box and shoveled wet sand over them. When he got home, he had his ground all worked and he planted the trees. This would have been about 1914 or so. Many of them are still here and living, tho’ many hive died.
My father moved back and took over the ranch in 1950 and moved a house in behind those threes and then started planting more. The year I was 18 I planted several rows of trees and then off and on, all my life, I have planted more. I read that we as human are hardwired to want to live in a sprawling savanna with scattered trees. Works for me! Since we built the new house on the hill, we have every year planted more trees, upwind from the house. In this country, it’s alway nice to have a place to get out of the wind or into the shade of a tree.
Since this ranches inception, horses have been an integral part of it. Draft horses were used to supply the power for any task to big for man’s muscles. Pulling wagons and plows, mowing machines and stackers. Saddle horses were used to go from one place to another, to work the livestock and of course, just for the fun of it! We still use horses many days of the years. For many years I used a team and wagon or sleigh to feed hay to the cows in winter. Oh, I had the use of a tractor, but preferred the horses. They have the ability to listen and can be controlled by voice, if trained to it. Not tractors. I could power them by feeding them on hay and oats I raised. I couldn’t raise gasoline or diesel fuel for a tractor. I still enjoy driving a well broke team. For fencing they are ideal, as they can walk along and you can have all your needed equipment in the wagon, in easy reach. They will go or stop on a voice command. When working cattle, from the back of a well trained cow horse, you have a decided advantage as you are taller and bigger and faster than any bovine you are trying to get to do what you want them to. A smart cow horses will do most of it’s own thinking when sorting a cow off from it’s friends. Just show the horses which cow you want and set down and hang on! For many years, I tried to train a new horse every year, because a horse, unlike a car or pickup, appreciates in value for many years as it gets older and wiser. So I had a willing friend to train and then sell to someone else who didn’t have the time, energy or skill to train one. I could make a little pocket money and be doing my work as I trained them. Now that we have grandkids, most horses don’t get sold from this ranch. The littlest kids ride the oldest, most trained horses, when they ride. As they grow and learn, they ride horses with a little less training, and they learn to train the horse. It is a great system. No one ever gets on a horse that they can not control. The old story about cowboys putting dudes on an unbroken horse, to see them get bucked off is a myth. Based on a small truth perhaps, but I have never seen it in my life. And we don’t allow people on our horses who would harm them from neglect or abuse. When the work is done at noon or in the evening, the horses are fed and watered before the rider. Horses! Gods most noble creature.
A year on this ranch.
Our years really starts in late winter, early spring… when we start getting new calves. Cows have to be checked to see if any need assistance having their baby, especially if they are first time mothers. Known as First calfers. They are bred to light birthweight bulls so they will have a smaller calf, as the cows are smaller and haven’t reached their full size. If one does need assistance, they are either caught in the pasture by rope and saddle horse, or driven to the corral and put in a chute or shed and then caught and the calf helped to be born. At the end of calving season, comes the branding where the new calves, who are much bigger now, get inoculation for diseases that plague them. Black Leg is the most common. They get the brand of the ranch they belong to and then are free to go with their mama until late summer or fall. Then they are gathered again and all the calves get a booster shot to keep their immune system high to help them from getting sick. After another month or three, in late fall to early winter, they are either weaned off from their mothers and shipped or driven to the home corral, or sent to a sale ring to be sold to new owners. After that it is winter and the cows must be checked for pregnancy and then turned into pastures that have lots of saved up grass or fed hay or grain or a combination of all three or two. And before you know it, it’s another new year and time to start again!
All cows are cattle, but not all cattle are cows. Confused? Cows is a generic term and can be used to describe any age or sex of bovine. Bulls are the sires. Cows are the mothers. Calves are the babies. There can be heifer calves or bull calves or steer calves.Asa herd they are all referred to at times as “cows”. Steers are the bull calves who have had their testicles removed. This is done to help them grow into more tender beef and also, because of the casteration, they don’t get as much testosterone as a bull, they are easier to deal with amongst themselves and those of us who deal with them. Calves are fed on grasses or grains mixed with forages and then eventually taken to a large size and butchered to provide us with food and leather and more things than you can shake a stick at. Did you know Jello comes from beef by products? That and many more come from a butchered beef. Most people think that only steers are fattened and butchered, but that isn’t true, depending on the breeding, many of the heifer calves are also fed out for beef. Some are even spayed to keep them from cycling. Most are not. Many heifer calves are run over to yearlings, turned with a bull, in hopes they will breed and have a calf the next year. The ones who don’t get bred are referred to as “open”. Most of those get fed out either by the owner or sold to someone else to feed out and make beef. And older cows who are open and bulls who are no longer of a good age or are too closely related to cattle in their own herd, are also sold and fattened to be come beef. They are referred to as “culls”. Hamburger, sausage, about any kind of beef you can eat comes from them.
Graze might be a better word, as the cattle and wildlife eat more than just grasses. I have read that in this area we have over 100 different kinds of grasses, forms and woody plants. From my observation on this ranch, we have most of them. They all reach their peak at different times of the growing season. Both the cattle and wildlife know that and select them at those times. Some innate sense of what they need in their bellies. I have seen cows, even with lots of good grasses available to them, eating leaves off from trees. Yucca, or Spanish Bayonet is a spiky plant with sharp points. the natives used to use the roots for soap and they re also known as Soapweed. At different times of the year cattle love them. One species of Sandreed is very tough and almost woody until the following spring, where it is broken down because of weather throughout the year and then cattle will et it and it is high in protein. Some cattle that have been feed all their lives never learn to eat certain varieties of the graze, but those that do teach their calves to eat them. Even the ones in their stomachs they will give birth to in spring. The grasses and forks and shrubs of this area, given a chance will always come back, even after the land has been farmed for years. This land is amazing and yields great returns, if you work with it and not against it.
In all the time my family has spent on this land, we have practiced conservation. Ideas have changed over the years and what were at one time thought of as good practices have been found to be lacking perhaps, and new and improved ways of doing things have made a lot of changes. At one time, plowing the ground and farming it so as to plant different crops or grasses was thought to be the best idea. Now, most who do any farming , do so with the use of chemicals, to get rid of weeds and prepare the ground for a new planting. The “dust bowl” years of the 30’s changed a lot of minds, but it still took many years for people to change the way they farmed. The same with grazing livestock. As a child, my father had certain times of the year when we moved the cattle to different pastures. A certain number of cattle were put into a pasture in spring and that is where they stayed until fall or early winter. Now, we understand that it is better for the cattle to graze a small area and move on. Similar to what people do who have nice green lawns. By putting larger numbers on smaller areas, the cattle have to pretty much eat what is in front of them or some other cow will.. it is called competition. So they learn to not be so discriminating in their tastes. We went thru’ a time not so long ago where we went into our pastures and cross fenced them, making more, smaller pastures. We ran yearlings at the time and we would move them ever 5 to 7 days more or less. We found by doing this, the cattle hoof action on the ground loosened the soil a bit, helping to plant new seeds and of course the cows ate grasses, forbs and plants that before, they would not have. They also concentrated their manure and urge, so were fertilizing the ground better. This gave all the plant an even start and they were o equal footing, so to speak, in the amount of rainfall and sunlight they recieved. So the faster growing species of grass, could out compete the woody plants and “weeds”. And by doing this we found we could run more cattle than we had before. We also, for several reasons, quit putting up hay annually, as we had for years. The land that was seldom grazed and dedicated for hay, was the lower, more productive ground, that would raise more pounds of feed to the acre. So by eliminating haying on this ranch, we could run about a third more cows. On years where we have more rainfall, and extra feed, we do still have some hay put up at times. But we hire someone with the machinery to come in and do it, for a payment or for part of the hay, they put up. We have found, year in and year out, what with the cost of the machinery needed, we can buy what hay we need, for the same or less cost than what it would cost if we did it ourselves. At some point in the future, that may not be true and at that time we will make a correction. But for now, what seems to make this land thrive, is to use cattle to mow off the grasses and plants and move them on to fresh grazing. In the last few years it has come to my attention, that be training our cattle to stay in a tighter grouped herd, they can do so with out having to use the constraints of fences. Which is great, as fences cost a lot of money to build and maintain. It does take a bit more time, as you need to be out and around the cattle every day, but then, I enjoy saddling a horse and riding around and through the cattle. And it seems like others do also.