The Yearling Days
September 26, 2018
Here in western Montana most ranches are what's called "cow/calf" operations. The owners maintain a herd of cows and sell the offspring at about six months of age, the calf crops go to feedlots, most of which are in areas that produce a lot of grains, especially corn.
They'll stay in the lots until they weigh 1,100 to 1,200 pounds, at about a year of age, when they are sold to the packing plants. It varies from property to property and region to region, but in this area most calves are born in February, March, and April, a majority of the properties getting about 80 percent of their calves in 30 days. Ranchers expect a death loss of one or two percent, but a bad weather spring can increase the death rate, of course.
The babies are vaccinated, etc. at birth and branded not long before they go to native pasture in May, depending on the spring weather and amount of grass available. The cows are vaccinated when the calves are branded,
Almost all the calves are sold to "contract buyers," the middlemen between the ranchers and the feeders. Selling via the internet is becoming more popular every year.
In the Helmville area the calf crops are taken off the cows, weighed, and loaded onto trucks near the middle of October. Ranchers keep a number of the best heifer calves as replacements for the aging cows in the herd which will be sold for slaughter at the auction ring.
After the calves are shipped, the owners put the cows back onto the meadows, then start feeding hay when the grass is gone and winter arrives.
Until the mid to late 1950's the calves were sold as yearlings, having been kept over on the ranch for another year. With better ranching techniques and more precocious cattle breeds and crosses, that practice has practically disappeared.
I can remember the yearling days, and as an 8 or 10 year-old found the fall months especially exciting. From the grade school I attended I could see the family's ranch, and knew when they were working cattle.
When school let out for the day I walked and ran the half mile from town to the corrals to get in on some genuine cowboy action. It was the real thing for me, and I could smell the burning hair from branding and see the dust cloud over the corrals during the entire walk.
My grandfather was the corral boss, of course, and things could get fast and furious when he was around the chute. He branded the animals and my father dehorned them. My great uncle ran the squeeze on the head catch, and my two uncles kept the chute full of cattle and pushed them into the head catch.
In those days there were always a few men in Helmville who had a roof over their heads only when they had a job. Alcohol had put and kept them in the role of pariah that they played in the world.
For my grandfather, kids had to stay out of the way until they were old enough to contribute their part to the effort at hand. I remember one day I found a small stick and was at the tail end of the chute trying to help get the cattle in. I was on the outside of the fence, but one animal managed to kick me and make me cry.
Right away the men told me to get back from the chute so I didn't get hurt again. I backed to the far side of the corral and just stood, chagrined at being left out of the action.
I had been there for some time, when a fellow named Art, one of the ne'er do wells from town, walked over and handed me a broken ax handle to which he had wired a piece of bridle rein. I had my own whip. Art gave me a deep look which I took to mean that we were equals in the effort of living. He never spoke a word. Over sixty years later I can still see him.
The little whip allowed me to stand on a fence rail and wave my new tool around in the air. I felt special, first because I was able to participate, and second because an adult had given me an adult look.
For a long time I would see Art in Helmville, hunched up against the evening chill, knowing he was going to sleep outside that night. I was always sorry for him because I thought he deserved better.
A few years later Art was killed by a train in a tunnel near Bearmouth. I think that the little whip is still hanging somewhere on the ranch.