Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

For those of us settled in the variable, yet traditionally moist climate of New England, the weather of late has progressed from notable to downright problematic as the worst drought in nearly 60 years has progressed.

What started as ideal haymaking weather (hot and dry) is continuing (hot and dry) and crisping our pastures and hayfields (hot and dry) while making our stalwart bovines more than a bit uncomfortable—if you find the consistent beating sun and low 90’s fare that has been served up day after day unpleasant, imagine if you weighed in excess of 1500 pounds, metabolized a good 50+ pounds of food a day while producing up to 50 pounds of milk—while, in many cases, pregnant to boot.

We have had to move the dairy cows to graze on one of our hayfields as the pasture regrowth has stalled, and while the four-time daily road crossing and water hauling has resulted in tasty grass, we have only bought a bit of time.

We need rain, and not just a passing shower, but a good old low-pressure front that settles in for 3-4 days of steady unrelenting precipitation.

The dryness, similar to two summers ago, is commonplace out West, and the dusty cow paths, stubby, crisp grass, and ever-beating sun make it easy to lose track of geography and imagine oneself on the plains of Montana or Wyoming.

Just yesterday Matthew, Mike and myself met up with our neighbor and friend Jeff Young down at Green River Farms, where Jeff is grazing his herd of beef cows this summer. We had purchased two of Jeff’s animals and needed to transport them up to Cricket Creek.

We are managing our own beef animals (in conjunction with our dairy heifers) intensely, moving them onto new grass every 24 hours. This means they are used to human interaction, and associate us with new food. Needless to say they are generally happy to see us.

Such is not the case with Jeff’s animals, whom have had free range of a twenty-acre hillside, complete with flowing river, large pond, shade, and undulating terrain. These cows have it good, and they haven’t been handled, herded, or so much as winked at since moving in at the beginning of the grazing season.

The scene of our escapades - looking across the valley at the hillside. The river can just be seen to the lower right, and the pond on the plateau halfway up.

By nature beef animals are more wary than dairy cows, and this group, after half a summer of good ole fashioned free range grazing (New England scale) rightfully saw us as trouble.

Our task was simple enough. Move the herd down to the corrals in the barn area, close them in, and sort out all but the two animals we needed. In my usual optimistic (and often unrealistic) fashion, I predicted needing no more than an hour to accomplish the task.

Upon arrival the herd was happily enjoying the hot afternoon on the banks of the Green River, alternately wallowing in the shallows of a deep swimming hole and chewing cud contentedly on the shore.

Our hopes of quietly opening a gate and calling them into the paddock came to naught as they did no more than perk up their respective ears before returning to their routine, and we moved down river, crossing over below the animals to spread out and push them toward the paddock.

This is where the title of this post comes in…the aforementioned dryness, the cows roaming the wide expanse, and the various fragrant weeds combining to create a scent not so far from that of sage was more than a bit Western.

Add in the animals clustered around the water hole, and a weathered cowboy on horse, beaten hat low on brow would have right fit in. More importantly he would have been highly mobile on his four-legged companion and well versed in moving cattle in such terrain.

But homage to Paula Cole notwithstanding, there would be no John Wayne riding to our aid (and Matthew wasn’t even wearing his midriff baring tee a la Paula). So when the herd saw us coming and decided not to cooperate, there was only the four of us, on foot, to patrol the 20 acres.

I will spare all the gory details, but we herded the animals down to the proximity of the gate at least three times (it was easy to lose count as dehydration set in) only to have them break at the last minute, breaching our line, and heading back for the hills. My initial hour came and went soon enough.

With each attempt we learned a little more—perhaps what differentiates us from our quarry? Though they seemed just as aware, knowing what we wanted them to do, and decidedly not doing it…

We became familiar with the land, and how we could use the topography, the ruined fence, and the river to our advantage. After the animals, so clearly mocking us as they kicked up their heels and once again galloped east up the slope, defeated us one more time, we contemplated our options.

Ultimately we opted for one last push, this time bringing in the cavalry, or perhaps more aptly, the mechanized infantry.

There would be no horses to aid our quest, but Jeff had suggested we bring our small four-wheeler down along with the cattle trailer and gate panels. Generally moving on foot works well, and is feels more comfortable and natural as a method of working with animals.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Mike mounted the gas-drinking steed and headed up again, Matthew and I loaded on back and front respectively.

The beef waited at the pond halfway up, and we spread out to direct them south to the fence line, and ultimately downhill and west to the river.

The lasting image of the day was Mike moving within 10 meters of the group, along the bank of the pond—in classic man vs. nature scene, he sat astride the four wheeler, engine revving as the 20-odd cows stared him down, unfazed by the new developments.

Ultimately man won, or perhaps the beef merely deigned to humor us, and slowly turned and headed down. The four-wheeler proved invaluable as Mike could zip around, moving from flank to rear and back faster than any of the rest of us could on foot, and our trio slowly pushed the herd toward the river.

Patience always seems to be the crux when it comes to animals and this was no different. After all of our failures, we took no risks, and made no effort to speed things along, letting the animals set their own pace.

We finally moved them across the water, happily splashing our own way through, to the open gate before cajoling them across and emphatically swinging the barrier shut behind.

The rest of the project went more smoothly. The sorting also had a Western feel, more rodeo now—with the wood plank fences and dusty yard, cattle milling and mooing.

In what seemed like no time our two ladies were alone and loaded on the trailer for the one-mile trip up the road. Congratulations were shared. Eat your heart out Paula…who needs cowboys?

This would have been a happy ending—just what Ms. Cole so yearns for in her song had the story ended there. It was hot, exhausting work, but it was also pleasant—exploring the new ground, working together and with the land, trying to connect with the animals and work with them, not against them (a noble goal, though not always easily attained), before ultimately prevailing.

Happy endings, however should never be assumed and 24 hours later we were right back wishing for our cowboy, even willing to settle for a late-career John Wayne.

To be continued…

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