The snow is officially here, and has been here for a few weeks now. Our little island under the Crazies is white and quiet as the hum of shipping, preg checking and other fall activities has long since ceased. The hot, dusty days of summer have given away to a few feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures. The green gold that was still knee-high a month ago is now hidden under a blanket of snow and ice, waiting until next year. Actually, we’re all waiting until next year. The mama cows, still fat from summer and no longer missing their weaned calves, gather in groups now, their backs to the cold northern wind. Deep trails in the snow lead the way to icy waterholes, their frosted black ears perk up at the sound of the approaching tractor. Winter feeding has begun.
In the cycle of ranch life, the winter is a quiet albeit tedious season. Feed cows, keep waterholes open, service machinery, clear snow and repeat. Add in coffee and the occasional animal/machinery/mother nature disaster, and you have the daily experience for my Cowboy, winter edition. Of all these tasks there is one that really dominates winter life here on the ranch, and that’s feeding. Right now there are over 400 head of cattle on the ranch, 30 head of horses, and 2 feet of snow, all of this requires at least 15 bales of hay per day and at least 15 miles round-trip the seat of a tractor. Every single day. For months at a time. But, it’s essential for the health of the livestock and thus the health of the ranch itself, and so winter feeding is done everyday, no matter the weather.
Occasionally, I go with Cowboy to feed, though I learned early on that I have neither the patience nor the toughness of hind end to feed for 5 or 6 hours in a bumpy tractor. We now have a system worked out: I go with him on a weekend day but only if the temperature is above 0°. Cowboy picks me up from the house after he has finished feeding the lower pastures and is heading up-country, which just happens to be the halfway point in feeding. I meet him in my muck boots and overalls, with a hot cup of coffee to warm up his Super Tanker. Cowboy gets fresh coffee and I get the benefit of a warm tractor.
After a quick kiss and a long pull from his Super Tanker, Cowboy puts the tractor in gear and we are off again, speeding down the snow-covered road towards the next herd of cows. It’s 9 a.m. and already there has been technical difficulties in the form of a flat tire on the Haybuster. Huge and yellow, the Haybuster is an impressive piece of agricultural engineering — it can process and distribute several tons of hay a day without requiring the operator (Cowboy) to leave his tractor cab for loading, cutting, or feeding (if only it would open and close gates!). It can handle 2 large round bales at one time, and through a series of belts and blades, chops and spits out the hay into a perfectly straight rows. Cowboy loves it. I’m guessing that he feels the same way about his Haybuster as I do about my straight iron: not completely necessary for survival but it sure makes life easier and, well, better. Without the Haybuster, Cowboy will have to use the tractor and a “bale wagon” to get the hay out to the cows. The bale wagon is just a large wooden wagon or flatbed trailer that hooks up to the tractor on which 6-8 bales can fit as one time. The downside is that whenever you need to load or unload bales from the bale wagon you have to unhitch it from the tractor, go about your feeding and the hitch it back up when your ready, and, oh yes, make sure you don’t park it in a place where it could roll away on its own.
Feeding with the tractor is a process of unloading the bale from the bale wagon, cutting the plastic net wrap from the bale and then using the tractor, unroll the bale by pushing it with the grapple. And be sure not to hit any of the cows or calves that are mobbing the very bales you are trying to roll out. And try not to get the tractor stuck in a ditch or seven-foot tall snowdrift. Cutting and removing the net wrap from the bales can be challenging in frozen Muckboots and two foot deep snow – even Cowboy took a little spill while wrestling with the net wrap (and I know he is thrilled that I caught it all on camera!).
Finally, I took my turn behind the wheel of tractor, unloading and positioning bales so that Cowboy could cut the net wrap and come help me unroll the bales. After a quick tutorial on how to operate the grapple, Cowboy left me to handle the bales. The tractor growled as I released the clutch, lurching forward in the deep snow. Giggling nervously, I geared down and started to turn the tractor around. All of a sudden the tractor tilted and bucked wildly, both of its right tires bouncing through a snow-covered irrigation ditch. The grapple bounced violently and the top of my head brushed the ceiling of the tractor cab. Now giggling wildly, I did the only thing I could do… Hammer on the accelerator just enough to bounce back out of the ditch and back onto the road. When I finally had everything under control I could see Cowboy, standing 20 feet away. He had been waving his arms wildly throughout my wild ride and he was now shaking his head and faking a heart attack. I tried to play it off – Yeah, I meant to do that - but I think my hysterical laughter gave me away. Eventually Cowboy relieved me of my role as tractor operator and the day went with out a hitch. By the time we got home, I had one extremely sore hind end and a new appreciation for air-ride seats.
Why go with Cowboy while he feeds? It’s like any other job on the ranch that I help out with: 1. It has to get done and, on a ranch, everyone helps to get it done faster. 2. It’s a great excuse to get out and remember why in the hell I live out here on this island, and 3. I love spending time with my Cowboy, even if that means sitting in a tractor for 4 hours on a less than comfy seat. When you’re a rancher’s wife and time with you man is rare, you take it when you can get it, even if it’s in the cab of a tractor.
What do you do to spend time with the people you love?
Life. Love. Wild times. – MC
There’s more pictures from feeding and this winter (so far) in my Flickr feed on the right on this post or click here