The Life of a Ranch Cow

Yesterday morning was one of the most beautiful mornings we’ve had all Fall. Granted, I was helping a neighbor ship his calves, (which is always a fun day – shipping day is one of my favorite days of the year) and right now, I feel guilty for the fact that where we are, we didn’t get pounded like they did further west. We still have calves to ship. I didn’t carry my phone this morning so I have no photos, but trust me when I say there’s nothing better than riding a gorgeous gray mare, with a solid long-trot, out to gather cows, when the sun isn’t yet over the horizon.

The sky was purple, blue and pink with just a hint of red where that big ball of fire would eventually be seen. The temperature was cool- about 45 degrees. Just right. Behind me, to the West, there were thunderheads and the sky was a beautiful purple/pink/blue tinge. Mamas and babies, headed toward the corral. It was the last time they’d be together, but the babies are big enough to not need their mamas anymore. They just don’t know that.

In Western South Dakota there are 1.2 -1.5M cattle . Since the Missouri River runs through the state, essentially cutting it in half, the state is often referred to as East River/West River. We’ve spoken before on this blog about West River cattle bringing a premium because the quality of the grass here is better than anywhere else. Sorry, Kansas Flint Hills. We win!

The view from Scatter Butte.   #gorgeous

With the press, albeit poor, that the “Storm of the Century” is getting, I figured this was as good a time as any to share how cattle on a ranch in the Western US live; how summer pasture and winter pasture may differ, and hopefully I will clear up some misconceptions. How a storm of this magnitude can kill cows – due to hypothermia and why it’s impractical for us and most ranchers, as well as not good for your cows to live in a barn during storms.

I can’t speak for every rancher, but I can speak for us and what I observe in our area and for the ranchers I’ve met (in MT, WY and other places). Where we live it’s not cows per acre, it’s acres per cow. What’s the difference you ask? Well, for example, Missouri out-ranks us in cattle numbers because they get more rain there than we do here. Therefore they can have multiple cows per acre instead of say, oh 30 acres per pair (a cow and her calf). So here there are cows spread out over large distances. Here it might take you four or more hours to cover a pasture horseback. Often our cows are four or more miles from home. We can see for miles, with wide, open spaces, draws and of course, where we are the Missouri River makes a beautiful backdrop and marks the East/Southeastern Border of our ranch.

My Saturday involves cattle and a gorgeous yellow horse! #ranchlife #ranchhorses #ilovehim #agrowlife #ig_fv #luckygirl

Because so much land is required to raise a calf and provide for a cow here and in, MT, WY, and NE, often cattle are moved to a “summer pasture”. That pasture may be on a piece of land you own, or it may be leased. It may close to where you live, or it may be far away. We are fortunate enough to summer and winter in the same place, but that’s not the case for everyone. Summer pasture may have a different kind of grass or cover than a winter pasture.

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And yes, the grass is still that green even though it’s October!

south dakota cattle, south dakota cowgirl photography, ranching in south dakota, ranch life, cattle in south dakota, the south dakota prairie

south dakota cattle, south dakota cowgirl photography, ranching in south dakota, ranch life, cattle in south dakota, the south dakota prairie

south dakota cattle, south dakota cowgirl photography, ranching in south dakota, ranch life, cattle in south dakota, the south dakota prairie

south dakota cattle, south dakota cowgirl photography, ranching in south dakota, ranch life, cattle in south dakota, the south dakota prairie

The river marks the eastern edge of this pasture. In the summer the cows like to pile into it to cool off and get some relief from flies.

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If you look closely you can see hay next to two wind-breaks. This is where our cow herd weathered Atlas. we often use this pasture in the winter, and for calving because it provides good cover and protection from the elements.

A pasture full of #brangus 3yos and their calves! #happy #ranchlife #peaceful

Because of the lay of the land, some of our pastures are better suited for wintering, and some are better suited for summer. But at the same time, as a rancher, you’re in the business of managing grass- that’s the resource you’re responsible for so based on how the grass recovered from previous use, and what kind of rain you’ve had we sometimes aren’t in the best pasture for the time of year because grass has to have time to recover. How we winter our cattle depends upon how much snow we have. We like to keep our cattle on pasture as much as possible. We expect that cow to go out and do well on her own with as little help from us as possible. We breed for hardy (which is why we have brangus cows), easy calvers, that are good doers. We like a smaller cow that raises a big calf (that’s our breeding preference). Normally, when it snows in South Dakota in late fall through Winter, it typically doesn’t melt off. At least not here. When most people move their cows to a winter pasture, they’re usually close to wherever you’ve stacked your hay, they’re close to water (usually an automatic waterer, or you’ve got to open water), and they’re typically close to you, so it’s easier to trudge through snow to feed them and check on them.

Cows are tough, awesome, creatures. I just love them. They can withstand temperatures of a NEGATIVE 30 and they can handle wind chills beyond sub zero if they’re given adequate feed and a place to get out of the wind. It’s also a good idea to bed them down with hay.  In the case of Atlas, however, there was 12 inches of rain, followed by 48 hours of snow. (Or in our case, just rain, with temps in the low 30s and wind chills in the teens – for 2.5 days.) I know you’ve probably all been cold and wet in your life, so imagine being cold and wet, wearing only a sweatshirt and jeans, standing  a 60 mph wind.  And then let’s have you stand in snow. It wouldn’t take too long for you to get hypothermia and die either.  This storm was so early that the cows aren’t yet “dressed” for really cold weather.

A cow is a lot less likely than a horse to paw through snow to get at grass. A horse will paw and really forage in the winter, cows, well, notsomuch. During winter months out here, in snow, we make sure the cows are in a pasture with a windbreak, or good draws for them to hunker down in. And if the snow gets too high, we feed hay. They are also often supplemented in the winter with “cake”. It’s a high protein feed pellet, that the cows are pretty sure is candy. Before a big storm comes, we always unroll lots of bales for the cows to bed down in, so they can stay warm. Added benefit: They can eat it while they lay down! Score one for the cows!

A Brangus Cow Sizes me up after a December Snowfall.

A Brangus Cow Sizes me up after a December Snowfall.

The South Dakota prairie can be at once beautiful, desolate, kind and harsh.

The South Dakota prairie can be at once beautiful, desolate, kind and harsh.

Here where the cows are drinking from the river, there's a thin sheet of ice on top.

Here where the cows are drinking from the river, there’s a thin sheet of ice on top.

The River isn't frozen all the way over, but usually it freezes through, enough that you can drive a pickup across it. And ice fisherman do. I will never understand that!

The River isn’t frozen all the way over, but usually it freezes through, enough that you can drive a pickup across it. And ice fisherman do. I will never understand that!

Because the cows are so far from “home”, and because most ranchers in this part of the country are “Cow/Calf” operations (which means we are in the business of raising calves), it’s not as easy as one might think to just, bring the cows home, and be “prepared” for a storm. Cows, truly are, as a rule, good to go on their own. They’re smart, they’ll find a place out of the wind and the elements as much as the pasture will allow. When you go gather a herd off a large section of land, you disturb them. The mom may not be near her baby when you arrive. Often you’ll see a “babysitter” cow with 15 calves sleeping near her. She’ll watch them until the other mothers come back. How this works out exactly, I don’t know but I’ve seen it. Cows obviously can walk faster than their calves, so even during a gather in the best weather, you’re still jostling the herd, and sometimes it takes a long time for baby to find mama again, or vice versa. Unless you have brangus cows. They pair up in about 45 seconds. Hehe! I can’t help myself. I’m sorry. Brangus cows ROCK!

That is one of the reasons you don’t just go gather your cows before a storm and put them in a barn, or get them closer to home. A lot of times when cattle are on summer/fall pasture, it requires trucking them home. As I said earlier, your pasture might be close to you or it might be far away from you. The fastest, most effective way to get them home when they’re not close, is to put them on a big cattle truck and take them home, rather than trail them home. And sometimes, trailing them home isn’t feasible because you’ve got too many busy roads to traverse or what not.

The second reason is that most ranchers can’t afford a barn large enough to house all their cows in inclement weather. If they do have a barn, they use it for calving, or as a sick bay, and there may be 1-10 cows at a time in it; they’re there for a few hours, maybe a week at most, and then they’re back out doing what cows do – grazing.

Third- keeping cows in a barn is not only un-natural, but it’s dangerous and can be unhealthy. Cows can get restless, and calves and cows can trample each other. It’s also a good way to spread sickness. In this particular storm, there were cattle corralled and in barns, with feed in front of them, that still perished. Mother Nature has her wrath. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, there’s nothing we can do about it. Ranchers learned long ago, that death is part and parcel of this business. It doesn’t mean we ever get used to it though.

In the wide open spaces of the West, we do the best we can to work with Mother Nature, and do what’s best for our cows at any given time.

Ranching is a tough business. It’s not a 9-5, 5 days a week. It’s many long hours, it’s late nights, all-nighters, and it’s a responsibility none of us take lightly.

I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. Also, please be sure you 1. vote on the photos for the calendar and 2. makes sure you check back often as I’ll be updating everyone on fundraising and the aftermath of Atlas.

Happy Trails, and Happy Friday.

XO Jenn

What's on your mind?

  1. You are so awesome Jen to take the time and share with the Public the REAL story of what it takes to provide this great country with the BEEF they love so much. With you permission I would like to share socially and excerpt in a couple of our Blogs.

  2. So often in life it’s easy to just look at what we can see on the surface. What you’ve shared here is an example of somethng beneath the surface. Atlas, as horrificly devastating as it was, will enable plenty of positive things to evolve from it – the opportunit to educate for one. Thank you for your willingness to inspire people with your real-life account of ranch life. I feel blessed to have met you through ag bloggers. Here’s to better connecting people to where their beef comes from moving forward.

  3. Hi, we live in south central Kansas, south of Wichita 60 miles, 10 miles from the Oklahoma /Ks. line. The very southern end of the Flint Hills. We were both raised on farms and with cattle. mostly Herford. I still think they are the most beautiful ones.
    my folks usually had one horse,sometimes 2. My Mother is 95 and still loves horses.
    This area has been blessed this summer with rain in July and Aug. The 3 years prior were terrible dry. Lot of the ranchers across the state sold a good share of their cattle just because there was no water , enough anyway and the grass in pastures was none. This was just not Ks., but Oklahoma and Texas. The rain we had this summer filled the ponds . most had time to clean the ponds or make new ones. by the time the rain came they were ready.
    The wheat had some spring rain and did good. The fall crops, maize, soy beans. Cotton The cotton will be cut about Nov or Dec. But the beans are being cut and all the others look good. Also there was a LOT of hay baled this year . my Brother got 3 times in one cutting then he had all 3 years. So that is what has been happening here.
    We do not farm now, but enjoy seeing the activities. We laugh about one farmer has just gotten 2 oil wells in his beautiful wheat field. I know he is smiling all the way to the bank. ha
    There is a lot of oil drilling in this area. I guess there is a lot in western Kansas.
    Sorry about the cattle loss. It seems there is always something Mother Nature throws at us. Seemed when I was home Dad would always find a cow that had been hit by lighting. It was like losing a family member.
    Thank you for letting me go on about this area. Thank you for taking the time to let the folks know what goes on in your life. Sharon Drake Oct. 12, 2013

  4. Jenn,
    As I was thinking about your post, it came to me why most people have a hard time understanding ranching. I don’t think they can wrap their heads around the vast area that ranchers work with. That is unless you have seen it for yourself. Most people are used to thinking in how long it takes to get to work not how many miles.
    When we talk to townies about how many acres we farm, they think wow, that’s alot. But they relate it to their house lot. When actually we are on the small side of operation sizes compared to the large farmers out there.
    It is hard for people to understand ranching or farming because they try to compare it to what they know. To me this is where we have to start the “conversation” with them.

    • How do you best recommend we explain that? Maybe a little known facts post? I am 20 miles round-trip from my mailbox. 75 miles one way from Wal-Mart, 220 miles from the nearest Lowes, and it takes about 4 minutes to long-trot one mile on a horse?

      • how do we do that? It needs to be done by someone. The people in Government really need to know because they don’t have a clue. The member of PETA don’t either.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to write this.
    Here in the Shenandoah Valley of VA, agriculture looks far different and we have a hard time imagining the wide open spaces and the harsh realities of life and work in the West.
    I just had a customer ask me all the WHY/HOW kind of questions relating to the storm Atlas…and I had no real answers. Thanks for enlightening me. I will be sure to share with those I know.
    My heart is so heavy for all those who lost animals and their livelihood in this awful tragedy.
    Thanks again.

  6. My dad always said “the only person who never lost a cow is the person who never owned one”. Thanks for your writing.

  7. Thanks so much for this! We have a cow/calf operation in Maryland where we also winter pasture our cattle. Even though our density of cow to acre is huge compared to yours, I can’t imagine gathering and moving all the cattle from the summer pastures with so little notice of a storm, let alone with all the rain and winds that were already in play.
    Education is key – so many people just don’t understand the logistical challenges of trying to move big herds of cattle.