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Eastern Sandhills Diary

Spring Cattle Drive - May 20, 2009

Jennifer BurtwistleLast Fall I promised to tell you about driving our cattle home from our west pastures. However, that adventure didn’t go quite as planned.

It started out as a drizzly day, and quickly progressed to a windy day with horizontal freezing rain, not at all conducive to photography – especially when I forgot the camera. My husband, Jim, and I arrived at the west pastures with a manual transmission diesel pickup with his ATV loaded in the back. I had just had eye surgery and was not seeing particularly well, and am generally not allowed to drive the stick shift vehicles since I tend to ‘round off the gears’. Jim is an excellent herdsman, and is gentle with his cattle, so they trust him and come to his calls. He started calling them as we drove into the pasture, and they began to follow the pickup as planned. Jim was going to have them follow him on the ATV and my job was to meet them on the road to help drive them home. But, to make matters more complicated, the ATV refused to start, and the herd was surrounding us, understanding that it was time for them to head home. Jim decided to walk ahead of them, in the freezing rain, across the pasture. It had to be a very long mile for him, but he looked very much like the Pied Piper with his entire herd behind him. I snapped a couple of photos with my cell phone, but you can imagine what those looked like. It took awhile, but I found my way to the gate and met him on the road, and we drove the herd home. After hot showers, dry clothes, and a pot of coffee, we were finally warm.

Driving the herd out to the west pastures yesterday was, by contrast, a splendid adventure. Aside from yet another ATV incident, flat tire this time, all went reasonably well.

Jim, our son, Will, and Jim’s brother, Rich, rounded up the herd at around 6:00 a.m. The cattle seem to know when it is time to travel and they were eager to head out. I say that because they were literally running toward the west, making it hard for their month-old calves to keep up. We drive cattle using ATV’s rather than horses now – partly because our horses are old and deserve a rest, and partly because ATV’s stop when you want them to. [photo 1 – to come]

The cows did not keep up their initial pace and slowed considerably after a mile or so. The guys were headed across neighboring pastures, a distance of approximately 6 miles. I stayed home to prepare a picnic lunch and met them with the diesel and trailer when they reached the highway. Crossing a highway with a herd of cattle can range from being tricky to disastrous, but this year was remarkably uneventful. There was no traffic from either direction, so the cattle crossed and headed down the gravel road on the way to the west pastures. As mentioned earlier, one ATV blew a tire when Jim ran over a broken off tree stump, so we loaded the ATV into the trailer, and Jim hopped into the pickup with me. Our daughter, Laura, agreed to walk to help drive the herd. Will gave her a ride to catch up with the cattle. 

ATV and trailer 

The wind had picked up, and the road we were on carries fairly heavy tractor-trailer traffic to a feedlot, so there was a lot of dust.

A lot of dust

We needed to travel about 5 miles along this road to the point where we headed across pasture to our destination.

Driving the cattle down the road

There is always at least one cow bent on reaching greener pastures ahead of time who jumps a fence and has to be redirected back to the herd.

A cow who jumped the fence

The calves tended to fall behind the cows, preferring the grass in the road ditch to the gravel road.

Calves fall behind

Will grew a little impatient at times with the 4 mile-per hour pace.

Will gets impatient

Will received instructions about which gates to close up ahead while Jim gathered more rocks for his make-shift cattle ‘motivator’, consisting of an antifreeze jug found in the ditch that he filled with gravel. He would toss this behind the cattle startling them, so they would continue to move along.

Jim and his cattle motivator

Good friend, Cole Stevens, who helps us drive cattle each spring, took his turns walking.

Cole takes his turn

Laura or Will occasionally helped a trucker navigate through the herd by leading them through on the ATV.

Helping a trucker navigate the herd

As the cows traveled further, the herd tended to spread out, which actually made it easier for the traffic to move through the herd.

The herd spreads out.

Cattle drives also provide ample opportunities for some father-daughter bonding time.

Father-daughter bonding

We finally reached the point where we let down the fence and crossed the neighbor’s pasture to get to our pasture.

Turning into the pasture

Jim stapled the fence wires back to the posts and continued on foot behind the herd. Laura and I drove the rig around the road to the pasture and waited for the herd to arrive. We could see the herd at a distance and watched as Jim counted the cattle as they passed through his gate.

Herd in the distance

The guys waited for the cows and calves to pair up, and then headed toward us.

Heading back

When the drive was finished, we rested and had a picnic in the make-shift shade of the trailer, while Laura sent text messages to her boyfriend.

Resting in the shade

The drive took about 5 hours from home to the pastures 13 miles to the west.

Jim returned to the pasture later last evening to check on his herd and make certain all the calves had found their mothers. His job for the next day involved helping another neighbor drive cattle to a different pasture.

Fall in the Sandhills

October 25, 2008

It was a glorious fall day here today – trees and meadow grasses yellow and rust-colored against the clear blue sky, with gentle breezes and the temperature around 65o. Several small formations of high-flying Sandhill Cranes were heading south overhead, a sure sign of the approaching cold front forecast for tomorrow evening. On this morning’s two mile walk down our gravel road, we were accompanied by our three cattle dogs and seven of the barn cats.

The Hay Is Made

A short while ago, we finished digging the potatoes, collecting the remaining dry beans, and removing the homemade tomato cages from the garden. Aside from the impending freeze, we needed to finish up in the garden so we could turn the bulls into the area. One pesky fence-jumping bull had already ventured into the garden, giving the kohlrabi haircuts, and chomping small heads of cabbage in half as he grazed through. It was, however, amusing to note the evidence of the effects of these cruciferous vegetables on his digestive system.

Guilty Bull

Our cattle seem to know when it’s time to come home from the large pasture 15 miles to the west. One sign is that they become increasingly difficult to keep fenced in. Since rain has been unusually plentiful this year, the pastures are uncharacteristically green and luxuriant, so we are in no hurry to bring them home. Normally by October, the pastures are nearly brown and can no longer support the herd, and it’s necessary for the cattle to be at home where they can graze the ‘after-grass’ on the meadows – the newly green grass that grows after hay is harvested.

Munched Cabbage

The native prairie hay harvest, or “haying,” took forever this summer. Normally we finish up in about three to four weeks, weather-permitting. This year, however, we ‘hayed’ a day here, a day there for months, again because of all the rain. Area farmers are experiencing the same thing now as they try to harvest corn and beans. We have yet to complete the task of moving the hay home to the bale yards. This week’s 2+ inches of rain put a damper on this for the moment.

Hair Cut Kohlrabi

One of our fall-calving cows had twin black angus calves today. My husband, Jim, calls them “dinks” – really tiny, as is typical of twins, and adorable. They are spending the night in the barn so their mama can realize she has two to take care of. Otherwise, a tiny wandering calf might fall prey to coyotes that roam the area at night.

View Down The Lane

A far as area school activities are concerned, late October is the time for band competitions, volleyball tournaments, and post-season football. As parents of two teens, both fully involved in sports and band, Jim and I spend a considerable amount of time traveling to as many activities as time allows. We live 21+ miles from the school, and can drive for up to two hours in one direction for games – and farther yet for band competitions. We realize that this time of our parenting lives will pass quickly, so we try not to complain too loudly about the fuel bills. Watching games with other parents, neighbors, and friends is a large part of the social life of rural settings like ours. Between sets and quarters, we catch up on all the news.

Chambers, Nebraska Marching Band

In a few short weeks we will be weaning the calves and driving the herd home for the winter. It never ceases to amaze me how one or two lead cows will know the route home, and will head toward the correct gate, crossing a section while avoiding the blowouts and other obstacles. I will blog again then with a full description. Until that time, take care and be of good cheer!