Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Heather Smith Thomas's Notes from Sky Range Ranch: How I Became a Cow Person

Watching cows on Grandpa's farm, when I was 4 years old

I became fascinated with cows at an early age. My father was raised on a small farm in southern Idaho, then became a Methodist minister. He still loved the land and the animals and took my little brother and me to the family farm for visits. I remember those trips to “Grandpa’s farm” as a small child — and being fascinated by the cattle grazing there.

My first heifer, whom I named Bovina

When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents left me with a farm family several times when they had to travel. I tagged along with the big kids to do chores and feed cows, and one of my best memories is sitting in the feed bunk by the barn, where the cows were eating hay. I loved the sweet smell of their alfalfa-chewing breath and their inquisitive faces as they took wisps of hay from my hands with their agile tongues.

When I was 10 my parents acquired a small acreage in a canyon up a creek in central Idaho and 2 years later started buying the neighboring ranch. This was a dream come true, because now our family had cattle and horses. During my teen years I worked on the ranch — irrigating our hayfields with water ditched from the creek, building fence (my brother and I dug lots of postholes!), riding range to look after the cattle — to earn some cows of my own. The annual calf crop from my small herd helped pay my way through college.

Dad’s ranch was a small “cowboy” outfit, with very few facilities for handling cattle. We looked after our herd on horseback when they were on summer range in the mountains behind our place. The cows calved in March and April in the field next to our house, and we hoped for good weather because we didn’t have a barn. We herded them into our corral when we had to catch them, roping the calves for branding and vaccinating.

Digging postholes: As a teenager I earned my own cows working on my dad's ranch.

I enjoyed helping Dad with the cattle work. It was difficult sometimes, as when helping a heifer calve or trying to treat a sick cow. We didn’t have a headcatcher or squeeze chute for restraining them. One spring in the late 1950s was miserably cold and windy. Many cows had sore, chapped teats and were kicking their calves — not letting them nurse. We had to rope some of them and snub them to a post in the corral. I held the rope (dallied around the post) while Dad milked out the cow (trying not to be kicked) and put bag balm on their sore teats.

There was also the anguish of losing the ones we couldn’t save, such as when there were birth problems out in the field and we were not quick enough to find them in time or the bull who ate poison plants along the creek. There was the weak calf with diarrhea that we brought into the house and tried to keep warm on a bed of rags in the basement. We didn’t know enough, back then, about supportive fluids and proper medical treatment; many of the scour “bugs” we contend with today were just starting to appear in our area at that time. We lost that calf. I sat beside it while life slipped away, agonizing over its death, vowing to become a better “cow doctor” when I grew up.

I also vividly remember my first difficult calf birth. My parents were at a meeting downtown, and just after dark I went out to the corral to check on a heifer that was due to calve. She was in hard labor, lying flat on her side, groaning and straining. The amnion sac had appeared with two little hooves in it, but the heifer made no progress. I sat beside her, suffering with her. Pale moonlight glistened on the amnion sac as the little feet tentatively entered the world but could come no farther.

My dad and one of our first bulls, named Sifax

I realized she needed help, so I ran to the house and tried to phone my parents — without luck. I hurried back to the corral and sat by the heifer for a while but didn’t know how to help her. Finally, in desperation I ran back to the house and phoned a neighboring rancher. I was young and shy, and it took a lot of courage to ask him to help, but the heifer’s plight made me brave. The rancher came, and we pulled the calf. That baby survived because of the intervention of a timid child. I was so proud and happy; I felt like a fairy godmother to that calf.

From those early experiences with cattle, my lifework took shape. Learning everything I could about cows, their various problems and illnesses and how to successfully treat them, became one of the driving forces of my life. I went to college and graduated with a degree in English and history because I couldn’t become a veterinarian (vet schools were not accepting women at that time), but I was unhappy away from my cows. I considered going to another college and taking undergraduate veterinary courses just for my own benefit, but instead I married a rancher. Since 1966 my husband Lynn and I have been intensely involved with cattle on our mountain ranch, part of which was the original home place my Dad got in 1955, which he called Sky Range Ranch. Here, on Withington Creek, Lynn and I have now been raising cattle (and a few horses) together for nearly 44 years.

To be continued . . .

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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