It’s funny how different one year can be from another. For example, last year we brought the cattle home from summer pasture the first weekend in September and fed them expensive hay until they went back to pasture in late May. This year, we’re thankful that there was enough grass, helped along a little by September rain, so that the cattle could stay on pasture until October — last weekend, to be exact.
Last Friday and Saturday, before we moved the cattle, it had snowed 15 inches on summer pasture (which meant that we had to haul hay and put it out so the cattle would have something to eat) so even though the sun was out Sunday, we had to work in snow and mud to gather up the cattle, sort them and get them all loaded to come home to Pipi’s Pasture.
The county road was slick, and mud and water splashed up on the pickups and trailers. Backing up to the loading dock was difficult because after running back and forth over the snow, the tracks became icy. We had to use panels to lengthen the alleyway. We tramped around in mud, trying to work the cattle. In other words, it was a mess — but it was warm.
All of this triggered memories for me — of similar sloppy fall days when I was growing up on the ranch. I associate the memories with two ranch events: shipping calves and hunting season. (As mentioned at the beginning of this column, not all fall days were sloppy; some were dry and warm. However, I don’t remember them as well.)
I have been told that at one time shipping of calves was planned in September, but that was when I was very young. The idea was to have shipping out of the way by the time hunting season started. My memories of selling calves were in October and November.
“Shipping,” a term still used today, means sending calves to market. By fall, calves are good-sized and ready to be weaned from their moms. The calves are sorted off, started on hay and given their shots — all ready to go to feed lots. When the calves are weaned and ready to be on their own, they are sent to auction barns, where they are sold to feed lot owners or are sent directly to feed lots. Calves are trucked to their destinations.
When I was pretty young, the calves were trucked from our ranch to a stockyard area in Craig where they were loaded onto livestock cars of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad train and taken to the Denver Stockyards to be sold. One or two of the ranchers went with the calves so they could be sure the animals were sorted, fed and watered until the auction day.
In later years the calves were hauled to Denver or other locations (by then there were other auction barns) by trucks.
So the ranchers decided on a shipping day (as several community ranches sent calves together — at least in the beginning). Choosing a shipping day meant taking a chance that the weather would cooperate, just as it does today. Sometimes, they lucked out, and other times the weather was just plain awful. It’s some of those awful times that stand out in my mind.
Trucks were scheduled to arrive at pretty early hours, so we were up early, sometimes waiting for a while. When it was snowy, muddy and sloppy — much like our cattle-moving weekend, except colder — the ranchers worried about getting the big semi trucks up to the loading docks. Sometimes there were pretty big ruts. Cows and calves bawled. Sometimes, the wind blew.
All persons involved were cold and muddy.
Sometimes, hunting season was pretty sloppy, too. Dad and some of the other ranchers hunted in the high country and stayed at the cow camp. (There were no elk down at lower elevations as there are today.) During at least one of the seasons, some of our out-of-town relatives came to stay with us and hunt. I remember sloppy fall days when there were lots of muddy boots and outer clothes in our small house, and people were warming themselves in front of our gas heater. There was always the chance that hunters would lose their way while hunting out during a blizzard.
Oh, those sloppy fall days!