the last trailer ride

This is a challenging year. Conditions caused by last September’s wildfire burning the majority of our fields and pastures, the silt and ash that flowed into the ditches, the drainages and across some fields during the spring thaw, the cool dry spring that delayed the regrowth of grasses, the drought conditions and the prolonged triple-digit temperatures (that generally occur in August) combined with windy days drying out whatever grasses are left, well, difficult decisions are being made in regards to the herd size. We have to consider the impact we will have on the grasses, forage and the biology of the land if we do not reduce the herd. Overgrazing was a problem since the homestead began. But is not an option for the future health of the ranch and the herd. And with the limited availability of natural forage, how are we going to feed the livestock? Last year we purchased 163 tons of hay. We were forced to start feeding September 9th, when normally we begin feeding in December. By April the grasses are usually growing but this year it appeared that Spring never came.

Drought conditions are predicted to cause a shortage of hay. So now all the small livestock producers have to compete with hay brokers whose business is to go about buying up all the hay from large and small growers and then either selling hay via auction, buying and holding to sell back to the farmers and dairies at crazy, stupid prices. Some of it is being hauled out-of-state and out of the country. The big commercial, subsidized outfits can afford to purchase expensive hay and brokers to buy their hay, but the little guy gets the short end of the stick. Nice…

But with the conditions we are facing now – drought, shortage of feed, high temperatures and the possibility of some idiot starting a fire again (not that there is much left to burn on our place) we had to start culling pretty aggressively on the herd. It is teaching us how to cull. If conditions continue to go the way they have been there may be a lot more farmers and ranchers in our position. And once they start to jettison their animals, the prices will come down more than what they already are.

Over a month ago 3 of the bulls went to the abattoir. A friend had a date set well over a month in advance but he didn’t have enough critters to fill his ticket so we were able to add some bulls into the slot. That was an expensive trip in more ways than one. Not only did it cost the loss of some good genetics that could have been profitable to another cattlemen, we had to replace the tires on the stock trailer and repair the fender. Yes, a tire blew out. We knew it was time for new tires and it appeared one more trip on that set would make it. Then with the money from the bulls new tires would be bought. It never seems to fail that once you put something in the stock trailer with a heartbeat that something goes wrong. Not always, but Murphy’s Law somehow falls into play. Besides, that location on the highway must be ‘tire blow out alley’ since I see a lot of tread laying on the road in that section. Maybe a bypass is needed…..

At that same time we sent off the 3 bulls, we placed five 2-year old bulls at the feedlot feasting on ‘snacks’ (hay silage) to add a few more pounds onto their frames. They did quite well with weight gain. The highest gain was a little over 5 lbs/day and the least was around 3 lbs/day. These boys were loaded up and went on their last trailer ride.

beef packing plant in the distance to the left of the mirror
weight gain check before loading up

Herefords are amazing. Not only are they cool to look at with their red with white faces, they are incredibly efficient grass convertors. They were designed to perform well on poor quality forage and for hardiness. Within 2 weeks of moving here a couple of dear, concerned neighborly neighbors had some things to tell us ‘outsiders’ from California. Part of the directive was that the ‘grass’ on our property was crap and would never support any livestock whatsoever. But it does support livestock when you have the right genetics and don’t overuse the resources on the land.

Another loss of forage for this year was that the grazing allotment burned, too. Not surprising that it is in similar shape as our ranch since they butt up to each other but it had a lot of sagebrush and overgrowth of weedy trees like hawthorn and chokecherry. Those areas are still blackened and it will be years before anything will grow there. When the wind blows all the exposed ground sends topsoil and ash into the air.

storm blew through… no rain, just dirt and ash… looked like when the fire came
range cow hightailing out the back gate

As the deadline came closer to making the decision as to whether we were going to run cattle on the allotment this year, it wasn’t hard to conclude that the answer was going to be ‘no grazing’. 80% of the allotment burned or was damaged by fire. We made the decision not to run cattle to allow recovery of the range despite needing the feed in the untouched area. We want to be good stewards and take care of it as our own deeded land even though there are some who just don’t see it that way – just ‘free’ grass for the taking. Despite the tearful promises of ‘we will keep them off the burned areas’ it was within 5 days of turnout on the north end that we saw range cattle putting pressure on the burned areas, where the grass was struggling to grow, to eventually putting pressure on our fences. Then fence jumping cattle within our fields, eating our feed for our cattle or open cows looking to be bred ending up in with the bulls. It’s a small town with small town politics… and gossip.

But as the drought tightens its grip on the western states, fires rage and the high temperatures suck the life out of any measurable drop of moisture in the vegetation there will be farmers and ranchers who will be making that hard decision on reducing their herds or flocks, too. Feed will be expensive and difficult to come by in these areas.

We worked the cattle over a couple weeks ago for pre-breeding and wellness checks. The yearling bull group has 6-7 possible candidates on the list to be steered and sold. The females are also being given a hard look over as to who will be auctioned, culled or who will stay. Difficult decisions will be made – the herd will become smaller in size but hopefully more refined. I’m sure we’ll have the ‘maybe we should have kept #XXX’ or the classic ‘what if…’.

We started out with 4 cows and one bull and they grew and flourished on our ‘crappy’ grass… we can do it again.

He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair…
Isaiah 61:3

Pray for rain and relief from the heat and fires. Until next time…

8 thoughts on “the last trailer ride

  1. Karen I am sorry this is happening to you. Sounds like some very hard decisions! Keeping you all in my thoughts and prayers

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  2. Karen – Thank you (as odd as that sounds, reading a post like this) for your insight into how things work for livestock raisers in a really bad year. I am sure this sets back any number of plans that you had (and, as you say, things always go awry at precisely the wrong time).

    Forage is, I am sure, hard in the best of years, and this has not been the best of years.

    The price of beef will drop – briefly (not here, anyway), then sky rocket as there is less on the market.


    1. The beef packers run the show and set the price. Hopefully that will change – there is some works in the wind. There is a great disconnect between what the livestock producer gets paid compared to what the packers are making. And it just isn’t by a little bit of margin.

      Any year can be a bad year… it’s just like gardening 😉


    1. Thank you for stopping by the blog! There are some really nice people in town, but like all towns there is about a handful that… well….ruin it for others and give the town a bad name. The few shops and eateries are run by nice people, locals and ‘outsiders’, who want to bring life back to a dying town despite the ‘insiders’ club. If you do find time when you drive through, stop by and check some of them out. 🙂


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