Diane Prather: Time for shipping, big paychecks

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Diane Prather

At this time of year, area ranchers are busy gathering up livestock, hunting up stragglers (animals that have strayed off the property), and shipping.

Remarkably, this same fall schedule has been followed for years, changed only by modern advances.

I remember how it was when I was growing up on the family ranch. Fall season started with gathering the cattle that had grazed all summer on the national forest.

Community ranchers had a grazing permit, and all of the cattle ran together so gathering time was a big deal. I think it was about September when it started.

Gathering was done by horseback, and all of the cattle were brought down from the high country to a graveled county road that led to the ranches.

Our ranch was the first one, so our cattle were sorted off. The rest of the cattle were taken on to the second ranch and sorted off and so forth.

During the gathering, which lasted awhile, the gates were left open at the forest boundary to allow cattle to come home on their own, and some of them did.

The county road ran right next to our house. We girls slept upstairs and sometimes during the night, we heard the sounds of cattle hooves as they walked on the gravel.

Miraculously, some of the older cows and bulls knew exactly where they were. They even bawled as if to say, “We’re home.” The next morning, we found them waiting at the pasture gate.

Herd count was taken after the ranchers thought they had gathered most of the cattle.

Then, additional rides were made to find strays that were hidden in the timber or had wandered off into other ranchers’ properties.

Today, as back then, cattle are still gathered on horseback, although 4-wheelers are often used with small herds.

It isn’t uncommon for a helicopter to search large acreage for strays.

Once gathered, the cattle were put out on mown hay meadows. One of my fondest memories was riding around over the hay meadows in a pickup truck with Dad on beautiful fall days, checking out the cows.

Calves that had left the ranch as babies were as tall as their moms. I thought those Hereford cattle were the prettiest animals I’d ever seen.

Around the first of October, plans were made for “shipping,” or selling the calves. (“Shipping” probably got its name because the calves had to be transported elsewhere.)

I know that there were probably nice weather shipping days, but I associate wet (sometimes snowy), cold, muddy weather with shipping.

The cattle were gathered up on each ranch. The early morning of shipping, the calves and cull cows and bulls were sorted off and loaded onto the trailer of a semi-truck. (I think it was Gray Trucking.)

From there, the cattle were hauled to a stockyard in Craig. I remember it to be south of Craig, near the railroad track.

The cattle were brand inspected and loaded onto boxcars. Their destination was the Denver Stockyards, where the cattle were consigned to the Lowell Commission Company.

Sometimes the heifer calves were sold privately to buyers and transported to those locations. Private dealings with buyers is more common today.

Also, cattle are hauled by truck, now. Some ranchers even own their own semi-trucks.

Once the cattle were loaded onto the boxcars, Dad and another rancher or two boarded the passenger train for Denver.

This was necessary to make sure the cattle were sorted by brand and fed and watered. They visited with buyers and attended the auction.

Dad told us about going right to sleep on the train because it had been a long day, and he liked to sleep to the rhythm of the train wheels as they moved along the track.

My brother, Duane Osborn, remembers a story Dad told him about his time on the train.

There was a coffee pot on a pot-bellied stove. The rattle of the train wheels caused the pot to move to the very edge of the stove, but it didn’t fall off. The porter, who had worked on the train for a lot of years, said that he had never seen the coffee pot fall off.

While Dad was in Denver, we were left to do the chores and to listen to the bawling of the cows.

While we waited, we hoped that the calves would sell for a good price because it was the big paycheck of the year. There was no telephone in our house then, so we just had to wait.

Today, there is still uncertainty as to cattle prices, and the calf paycheck is still the big payment for the year.

Sometime after shipping was over, about December, the replacement heifers were weaned from their moms.

Back then, there was no weaning of calves before shipping, and there was no such practice as “preconditioning.”

Cattle grazed on fall pasture until the snow set in.

Then, the winter schedule began.

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