"Ain't This Romantic" is the title of a forthcoming book
by Cowboy and Author Kent Hanawalt.
Click the titles below for excerpts.
April 15, 1973 began as a beautiful
spring day in the Bears Paw Mountains. The sun was spending
more time in Montana, now, after wintering somewhere farther
south. The color of the prairie was rapidly changing from
the bleached brown of last year's grass as the new shoots of
green pushed through and took over.
I'm not much of a tractor man, but I had
agreed to plow a small field not too far from where my
growing family was camped. I usually get quickly bored with
the driving around and around in circles that makes farming,
but the view today kept my mind occupied.
Overhead was a clear blue sky. Underneath lay fresh-turned
earth. Behind me were the crisp, clean mountains. Ahead of
me, across the prairie and on the other side of the Fort
Belknap Reservation, was the outline of the Little Rockies.
At noon my ears were relieved as I shut down the noisy
diesel contraption and walked the half mile home for dinner.
Fresh antelope steaks were cooking on the wood stove in the
abandoned bunkhouse that we had reclaimed from the mice. I
sat down at the table and pulled Amy, my year-old daughter,
up onto my lap. My wife Barbara put some dishwater on the
stove to heat.
The big south-facing
windows of the bunkhouse let in a lot of light. This was an
important feature of the building as there was no
electricity. The main house had been sold and moved off the
foundation several years before; the power poles had been
used to build a shed. We did have "running" water of a sorts
- it was running by in a little stream.
the noon hour passed, clouds gathered between us and the
sun. The light coming through the windows became less and
less. By the time I was ready to go back to the farming, the
wind had turned cold, and snow was coming out of those
clouds! I never did like to drive tractor, and this weather
was all the excuse I needed to quit for the day.
The wind and snow escalated all afternoon as I scurried
around to find a few more fence posts to saw for the fire.
By morning there were 3-foot drifts and visibility of about
For three days we sat by the fire and
watched the storm rage. We'd have liked to get up to the
ranch headquarters to take a shower and wash clothes, but it
would be foolhardy to set out in this weather. Evenings were
mighty short and the nights long without electricity to
augment the meager light coming in the windows.
On the morning of the fourth day the wind began to lose its
fury. The snow eased up and visibility improved. By noon the
sun was again shining over the prairie. We were still
thinking how nice a hot shower would feel, but our pickup
would never make it through the drifts that had piled up
downwind of every rock, bush, and tree.
Suddenly I heard the roar of exhaust as a pickup clawed its
way into the yard, chains on all four wheels. "Grab your
coat and your overboots", said the driver, "We've got a hell
of a mess at the home place."
As we headed
back toward the headquarters I looked all around at the
landscape. Drifts were everywhere, the coulees full of snow.
The ridges had blown almost clear, leaving patches of
frosted grass. Cows and calves stood in bunches everywhere,
all of them bawling. A tractor was plowing over, under,
around, and through the drifts to break trail for the pickup
following the tracks with a load of hay.
We picked our way where the snow seemed the most shallow,
gunning through the spots where it had piled up deeper, and
found our way to a haystack. Surveying the stack we found
the easiest access and used our scoop-shovels to clear a
Leaving the stack with a load of
hay, we were soon met by a noisy crowd of hungry cows. In
the storm the cattle had drifted with the wind into the
fence corners. They had been standing with empty bellies for
three days, humped up and shivering with the cold. Now the
cows were famished, and the hay disappeared as fast as we
could haul it out to them.
The hair on a
cow, even in the winter, is rather sparse. It could never be
considered "fur" as on a bear. In cold weather, cattle
depend on the heat generated by the digestion of the
roughage in their diet. A good ranch practice is to lay in a
supply of straw for the winter. During arctic weather, a cow
will consume twice the feed that she needs in nice weather.
Straw does not have much food value, and is therefore
relatively cheap. But the inefficiency of digestion is an
excellent heat source, and the leftovers make a wonderful
bedding to insulate the animals from the frozen earth.
But the winter was past, and most of the year's feed had
been fed. The stacks of hay were dwindling.
We put off a couple of loads of hay before we saddled our
horses. Cows were stranded here and there by the deep snow.
We broke trail in to each little bunch and then pushed the
cows over to where hay was spread. By dark we finally had
all the cattle fed. I took a pickup and followed our tracks
back home. After supper and a sponge bath, I fell into bed
The next day dawned clear and
bright. The spring sun was much higher in the sky than it
had been during the winter, and it glared off the new snow.
Feeding the cows was much easier now that we had trails
opened up, and it only took us until noon. After dinner we
were a horseback again.
As we fed we had
noticed lots of hungry calves, and an equal number of cows
with tight udders. Many of the pairs had been separated in
the storm and the calves had not sucked in days. Cows
identify their calves by smell. A number of the cows had
either forgotten their calves, or the distinctive odor of
their offspring had been overpowered by other smells in the
crush of bodies during the storm. Anxious mamas and babies
were bawling in every direction.
no way to know which one of the 1200 cows was the mother to
any particular starving calf. Four of us rode until we found
a bawling calf, gaunt and hungry. Then one of us would rope
him and tie him down in the pickup while the others looked
through the herd for swollen udders. Spotting a cow who
hadn't been sucked, a pair of us would swing in behind and
rope her down. Using rope braided from bale twine, we
hobbled her hind legs together, and pushed the motherless
calf up to suck.
Most of these
newly-orphaned calves were a little head-shy. They had been
kicked off before when they had tried to steal a meal from
other cows. After a few tentative motions, however, the
calves quickly went to work on the udder of the immobilized
cow. In the meantime, someone would have found another calf
who needed a mother, and the process was repeated.
At suppertime I again longed for a nice hot shower. But this
would not be a possibility for awhile - the power lines in
to the ranch had been blown down in the storm. In fact,
supper would be a problem for those at the ranch
headquarters. While my family had the dubious luxury of a
wood stove, two of the three kitchens at the home place
sported modern electric ranges!
forced air heating systems had likewise replaced the less
efficient but simpler modes of heating in the newer homes.
Our wood stove required a fair amount of labor to saw and
split the fuel, but it continued to serve us well when
others around us were trying to heat their homes and cook
their meals with a fireplace. When I returned home I
informed my wife of the good fortune of our independence
On the third day after
the storm, Doug's father, Lawrence, left us to battle the
drifts and feed the cows. He took some warm clothes, a
scoop, and his checkbook, and headed up the road toward
town. It took three hours of plowing through the small
drifts and shoveling through the large ones to make the five
miles to the wide spot in the road called Cleveland. But the
snowplows from Chinook hadn't yet reached there. After a
little gossip and couple of drinks at the Cleveland Bar,
Lawrence headed back to the ranch.
the next day Lawrence tried the county road. He arrived home
after dark with a heavy load on his pickup. In the box was a
tractor-mount snow blower. Trailing from the hitch was
Before retiring for
the night, the men attached a tractor to the generator and
connected the output to the electric panel of Lawrence's
house. For the first time in a week they had electricity to
run the lights, the furnaces, and the pumps!
The next morning the generator was moved to the panel of
Doug's house. During her eight hour shift of electrical
service, Doug's wife, Joanne, washed the past week's
accumulation of laundry, and cooked us a fine dinner.
Mid-afternoon the generator went back to Lawrence. At
bedtime the generator moved again. The night shift went to
the two big freezers up in the shop.
so the power was parceled at the ranch for two more weeks
while utility crews worked long hours replacing miles of
Meanwhile we continued to
find calves that had been weaned in the storm. Each of the
three milk cows was given four calves. Twenty-five more
calves were fed with bottles. A five-gallon butter churn was
used twice a day to mix up milk replacer for the orphan
The milk cows were fun to watch.
After several days of being forced to let the strange calves
suck, the cows claimed all four of the calves assigned to
each of them. The cow would call her brood and smell each
one before going out from the barn to graze. The experts say
a cow can't count, but these old girls always knew when one
of their four was missing.
weather returned quickly and began to turn the snow into
mud. But the snow wasn't gone soon enough to prevent a new
problem: sun-burned udders.
We tried to keep the cows in areas where
the snow was tramped down, but they liked to range off in
search of the tender new shoots of grass. The bright spring
sun reflecting off the snow caused the bags of lighter
colored cows to become cracked and tender. Now we were
roping cows for the purpose of greasing their teats.
And then we ran low on hay. The extra feed required by the
late storm had emptied the stackyards of bales. One morning
I was given a pitchfork.
I had seen some structures from afar
which I had taken to be straw-roofed sheds. The sides were
made of slab-wood and a black thatch was visible on top.
When we got closer I discovered that there were no open
sides. These were old stacks of loose hay surrounded by
Pulling open the panels
we found tightly compacted mounds covered with a musty,
weathered scab. Under this crust we found beautiful green
hay! These stacks had been there when the Mitchells had
bought the ranch seven years before. They had shrunk to half
their original height, but six inches down the hay was just
as clean and nutritious as the day is was stacked ten years
We continued to feed loose hay
every morning until we had the last stack cleaned up. Our
afternoon work included the job of roping cows to cut off
the rope hobbles that were no longer necessary.
By the first of June even the deepest drifts were gone. The
moisture was quickly absorbed into the earth to come back up
in the form of grass. The country was green and lush, the
air balmy. It was hard to believe how fierce the weather had
been just six weeks before.
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