Ranch Diaries: Early spring grass brings unexpected challenges

Roping a sick calf on a green colt.

  • The author holds the herd, while Sam sorts pairs at the gate.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Sam doctors a calf with scours.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Moving pairs to a new pasture.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Gathering unbranded pairs with our dog, Belle.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

As Sam and I saddled our horses early one morning last week, we decided we’d each ride a small circle instead of starting out together. We could cover more country, and hopefully, gather more cows with branded calves. At our hold-up point, a central water trough, we put our cattle together and pointed them west toward a new pasture.

Our job as riders was to keep the herd together, going the same direction at a slow, even pace. These cows are all first-time mothers and moving four miles with their young calves was a new experience for them. With fifty pairs intermingled, it was easy for them to lose track of each other and get confused. Some of the calves tried to leave the herd and run back to where they last saw their mother. Some of the cows tried to do the same, not realizing their calves were moving with the herd. Eventually, most of the cows and calves were a match.

Once the cattle paired up, it was quiet, with the occasional bawl of a calf looking for reassurance or a cow worried that her calf had gotten out of range. Cottontail rabbits were everywhere, zigzagging for new cover or huddling motionless on the ground. Meadowlarks flew up from the tall grass as I spotted tiny wildflowers in lavender and pink, Indian paintbrush, and cactus blooming after a recent three inches of rain.

We also spotted several sick calves, something we hadn’t anticipated. We were thankful for the new green grass, but we hadn’t figured on our calves getting milk scours — diarrhea caused by a sudden change in the mother cow’s diet or overconsumption of rich milk by the calf. We planned to treat the sick animals in the new pasture. At the gate, we cut back whatever animals weren’t paired up so they could go back and find their other half. We moved the pairs into the new pasture and settled them on the nearest water trough. The natural draw of water invited the cattle to stop moving and take a drink, rest and bed down­. And, this trough just happened to be in a flat meadow — a convenient place for Sam to rope.

Once he caught a calf, I got off my horse and flanked the little steer, or caught it off balance, and held it on the ground. Then I slipped Sam’s rope from the calf’s neck to its hind feet, and tied its front legs together with a piggin’ string, a small length of rope used for just such doings. I was anxious to see how Hoot, the bay colt Sam was riding, would do holding the rope by himself once Sam got off. He’d been roped on at two brandings in the corrals, but roping outside was a less controlled environment. If he wanted to take off, calf in tow, he could. If he didn’t keep the rope taut, the calf could kick free of the loop and I’d be left scrambling to get it back on the ground.

I was so proud of Hoot — a colt we raised and trained — as he stood there like a pro, facing the rope, doing his job. Sam slipped a few pills in the bolus gun, (a plastic tube designed to get pills into the calf’s throat easily), doctored the calf, untied it and helped him up. The bewildered calf wobbled back to his mother while Sam coiled his rope and stowed the medicine in his saddlebag. As I retrieved my horse, I saw the rest of the cattle had settled around the water, chewing their cud, their calves sprawled out in the spring sunshine, sleeping. 

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