Monday, May 30, 2011

Satisfying Beef

Montana Beef: A New Perspective

My cabin below Ear Mountain, Montana.

Calving season ended for me about a month ago.  As it came to a close I reflected on the season.  It was probably the coldest and toughest calving season I have experienced.  Temps were as low as -38 on one night and many nights were below -20.  Most of my work was done at night all alone.  Well, I had the company of a fine black cow pony.  Although he doesn’t talk he’s probably smarter than Mr. Ed.  When I got lazy he kept me focused--most of the time.
Anyway, as I reflected I got to thinkin’ . . . calving cows is a strange job.  The goal is to save as many calves as possible.  Simply keep them from dying.  I hadn’t calved any cows for about 10 years, but I kept my reputation by losing only one calf all season.  That one drowned when the first calve heifer backed up to the creek and dumped her pride and joy in Montana’s winter springwater.
That isn’t the strange part.  The strangeness enters when I think that every calf that I save becomes a wonderful meal for someone in a year or so.  If my calves live, you get a savory prime rib for New Years, or a juicy hamburger on Memorial Day, or an all-beef frank at the ball game.  It brings back the ubiquitous evening TV mantra by the television cowboy Sam Elliot, but in the heat (or frigidness) of the moments of calving I don’t hear that voice--only much later.
Sometime in March I had an experience that cemented my relationship with the cows, calves and my wonderful black horse.
I normally have a 12-hour shift, and when it is frigid the cows need to be checked every 15 minutes.  There isn’t enough room in the shed for all of the cows that are calving.  And, when a cow is calving outside and is brought inside, she usually stops calving--I guess it upsets her rhythm.  So, I let them calve outside and then take the calf to the shed on a sled.  Once in a while the cow follows; most of the time she doesn’t and I make an extra trip back to bring the cow in.



The black cow pony.

I normally have a 12-hour shift, and when it is frigid the cows need to be checked every 15 minutes.  There isn’t enough room in the shed for all of the cows that are calving.  And, when a cow is calving outside and is brought inside, she usually stops calving--I guess it upsets her rhythm.  So, I let them calve outside and then take the calf to the shed on a sled.  Once in a while the cow follows; most of the time she doesn’t and I make an extra trip back to bring the cow in.
My black horse likes to chase cows to the shed, but near the end of a shift he’s ready for the saddle to go and the grain to come.  In his defense I get tired too, and that sometimes causes problems.
We had brought 12 or 15 or 20 calves in that night.  We only had a few minutes left on our shift and one final calf to bring in.  As I had done countless times that night and the previous month’s nights, I drug the sled alongside the slimy calf, leaving the sled’s rope around the saddle horn and dropped my reins to tell the black horse to stay.  It should be noted that I was dressed for the weather--two pairs of long johns (top and bottom), insulated Carhartt bibs, double insulated Schnee boots, a double layed wool hat, an extra-long poly neck gaiter (that combo allows me to cover my head, neck, and face leaving only a slit to see from), a heavy parka and my cowboy chopper mitts.  For the uninformed, cowboy chopper mitts are simple leather mitten shells with double insulated wool liners.  They are the ultimate in warmth, but in the words of the late outfitter Art Weikum, “You can’t do anything but look like a monkey having sex with a football!”  (In my words there is little manual dexterity.)
Decked out in this Michelin-man suit, I grabbed the calf by two legs.  As you grab a new-born calf his slime squishes out of his fur and runs all over the chopper mitts.  As I turned to put the calf on the steel-reinforced sled, I noticed that the sled wasn’t were I had originally left it.  It seems the black horse was ready for oats about ten minutes before I was ready to give them to him.  He was secretly looking back past the saddle and ever so slowly plodding to the shed.  No problem.  I just hastened my step to catch up.  The black horse took this as his cue to speed up as well.   I know he thought, “Heck, if my rider is moving faster toward the shed, I should oblige him and move faster too.”  I gripped mr slimy calf a little harder and sped up.



She is neither a Persian nor a Greek, but she is as tough as any 300--GET AWAY FROM MY CALF!

The additional force caused my greasy package to let out a beller.  Most people only hear something like, “Baaaaaaa,” but mother cows hear, “I’m surrounded by wolves and one of them has me by the testicles!!!,” which causes the mother to blindly attack the wolf (or person) who must have her baby by the testes.
I must add that although my black horse likes to chase cows, he had a bad experience with some bulls a while back and when a bull or cow runs toward him, he runs the other way.  So, now the horse isn’t in a hurry for oats, he’s in a hurry to keep from being rammed by a mad mother cow that knows something is attacking her baby.
The cow is moving faster.  The horse is moving faster.  The sled is moving faster, and I am moving faster, but in six inches of snow with my winter bundle on I’m having a tough time keeping up with all the activity, which includes staying ahead of mama cow.
I dropped baby calf on the sled and made a faux pax.  In an effort to gain some balance and propel myself ahead of mother cow’s anti-wolf attack, I placed my chopper mitt that had recently been covered with several gallons of calf slime ON THE STEEL-REINFORCED SLED.  Now, my mitten had become one with the steel-reinforced sled.  I as well.  As I tried to trot alonside the sled and ahead of the cow, and being tired at the end of my shift it was difficult to decide (instantaneously) if I should remain with the warm dry comfort of my wool lined chopper mitt, or should I escape the confining sled (and snot-blowing cow) and plunge my hand into the Arctic blast.  I truly enjoy my comfort, but self-preservation forced me to removed my hand from the mitten and gathered up my black horse.
It’s surprising how many words, sentences and paragraphs it takes to explain a 15 second blast of activity.
I bedded the cow/calf pair in the shed, jerked the saddle off, turned the horse out, gave him several gallons of grain and dragged myself to the pickup.  The engine barely turned over, but finally caught and after 15 minutes I could see through a 4-inch diameter porthole.  The porthole never grew, and with blowing snow the four-mile trip to the cabin took over half-an-hour, and when I arrived I was greeted by another snowdrift to climb over.





Once in the cabin, I shucked the winter wear, and as I dropped an inch-and-a-quarter rib steak in the pan and threw a spud in the microwave, a warmth began in my stomach.  It spread throughout my body, and a slow smile gained my continence.  I gave a little chuckle because I had an entirely different perspective on Sam Elliot’s television mantra, 
“BEEF.  IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER!”

2 comments:

Anna said...

Hi Dennis, I followed the link to your blog from Gordon Setter Crossing and noticed that you live in Augusta. I went to MWSB in 01-02 and my youngest brother is there this year. I still think it's the most beautiful place on earth! We helped at a cattle branding in the spring and that is definitely a smell that one remembers! I enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the pictures of the calf birth - very cool!

Dennis A Carroll said...

Anna, Thank you for your comment.
I remember when I worked for Mark and Julie Young in Augusta, we used to have folks from MWSB come to the brandings every year.