The primary type of ranch found in
Montana is the cow-calf operation. Calves are generally born
in the spring and sold in the fall, when they are shipped to
feedlots in the Midwest to be fattened for beef. There are
numerous occasions during the year when cattle must be
sorted, and it is essential that the cow and her calf are
On most ranches the calves are given an
ear-tag soon after birth that matches up with the mother.
The cows stay pretty close to their calves for the first few
days especially, and it's usually easy to tell which two are
a pair. But as they get older, the cows and calves get
pretty mixed up in the group and it can take awhile to get
each pair headed off together.
Keeping the cattle paired up is of
continuous importance for the 6 months of the year when the
cows have calves. There are plenty of opportunities for the
pairs to get separated. If they don't find each other within
a couple of days the calf ends up as an orphan. A calf will
grow an obvious pot-belly if he hasn't gotten a reasonable
amount of milk during his first few months, and will never
catch up in size to his peers.
During calving season a stockman is
constantly reading every cow and every calf to be sure that
the cow has been sucked and the calf has a full belly.
Neither cow nor calf are taken anywhere separately unless
something is gravely amiss. If a cow becomes separated from
her calf, both will wander around bawling, looking for the
other until they reconnect.
The first cutting of pairs is done a few
weeks after birth. The cows generally calve in a period of
60 days. During that time the "heavies" - cows that are
getting close to calving - are kept in a field where they
are checked regularly.
In most management situations the pairs
are moved to another field a week or two after birth, as
they become old enough to move out well with their mothers.
Ranches that use horses daily during
calving are becoming fewer and fewer. That job of pairing
out cattle afoot from a lot deep in manure is a tedious and
frustrating one. On a "horseback" ranch, however, the job is
pleasant - to be done in a small pasture from a good vantage
point on a sunny afternoon.
When calves are ear-tagged, the job of
pairing is made easier - simply look among the herd for
matching numbers. Some calves can escape the tagging
process, however, and the larger ranches don't ever tag the
calves. When there are no tags, the pairing job is done by
When the calf is sucking, the
identification is positive. But they eat only so many hours
a day. Some cattle get real ignorant when you try to pair
them up, and the cow and calf take off in opposite
directions. Other times they just show no interest in each
other. It is necessary to watch each cow and calf until they
"talk" to each other, or make some other indication that
they belong together. Then the pair can be sorted off with
A rider or two might make several passes
through the calving field in an afternoon, throwing together
a handful of pairs on every pass - whatever the riders can
keep track of - and pushing them into the next field,
keeping a precise count of the numbers.
There may be reason to sort pairs again
after calving, before taking the cows to summer range. They
might be sorted by age, by color, by ownership, or by
breeding group. This time, rather than gathering pairs out
of a field of heavies, the group of cattle may be held up in
a fence corner while the pairs are identified. Then you can
move in and work the two from the herd until the pair is out
together, and send them to join the rest of the cut on the
other side of the gate.
Cutting pairs is a good time to develop
reining skills. Leading your horse in the 'dance' of working
this cow and that calf - who might be separated by several
other cattle - out of the herd and through the gate really
enforces an interdependence. Usually the pair will stay
together pretty well when they are sorted out together. But
occasionally they'll split up on the way out, and some fancy
footwork will be necessary to keep them both in the same
The dance gets more intricate when you
are working with a good team. Each rider circles through the
bunch cutting out pairs, always watching his teammates to
help turn back a cow here, turn out a calf there, throw in
another pair or two to a cut moving out from the herd, and
keeping each group of cattle on the appropriate side of the
In the summer, if a cow or calf needs to
be brought in from the range to be doctored, they are always
brought in by pairs. It much harder to trail a cow whose
calf is behind you, and almost impossible to drive a single
calf without his mother. And you want the calf to have the
benefit of his mother's milk during the time either one may
be in a corral for treatment.
Later in the fall it may be necessary to
cut pairs again. This time to separate herds that have been
pastured together, or groups of cattle to be shipped at
A couple of situations stand out in my
In the fall of 1973 I was working on the
Mitchell Ranch, in the Bear Paw Mountains 34 miles south of
Chinook. They were running 1200 cows, and the corral
facilities at the headquarters would only hold a fourth of
Nearly all of the cattle work we did
there was in whatever field the cattle were at the time. We
had a portable corral setup that was transported in a
trailer that doubled as a loading chute. With all the panels
in a circle, we could corral about 400 pairs. We branded in
the portable corrals, and we did the fall pregnancy testing
in them. We would also ship out of them.
ith 1200 calves to ship in the fall, it
would take 10 truckloads to get them all. (A semi hauls
around 100 calves, and we kept back some 200 heifers for
replacements.) There were only 5 semis hauling cattle in the
area, and loading all of them would be a day's work, so we
had to be prepared to ship on two different days. Steer
calves bring about 5% more per pound, and must be weighed
separately. We also needed to cut out the top end of the
heifers to save for replacing cows as they got too old to
remain in the herd.
The week before we would ship, we brought
the entire herd up closer to the headquarters. Five of us
were ahorseback: Lawrence Mitchell - in his 60s, Doug
Mitchell - in his 30s, Doug's wife Joanne, Doug's
brother-in-law Noel, and me. We gathered them into a fence
corner and began sorting off the steer calves and their
We couldn't separate the cows from their
calves with a week to go before shipping. The calves would
have lost some 25 pounds apiece and would be far more likely
to get very sick from the stress of weaning and shipping.
Neither could we deal with the whole herd on the days that
we would be shipping less than half of them. So we had to
separate the 1200 pairs into 3 herds that would be handled
on different days.
With the herd in the corner, each of us
ahorseback would study the cattle in front of us looking for
a calf to "mother up". As soon as any of us spotted a pair,
that person would swoop in, cut them off, and head them for
the gate. If anyone else had a pair headed out, we might
throw ours in with theirs as they headed out. The remaining
riders made sure the herd stayed in the corner.
As a rider pushed more cattle out the
gate he would add them to the tally, and as returned to the
herd he would holler out the total number we now had out. It
was into the third day when we had 500 steer pairs out the
The week had started out with nice fall
weather - 40o and sunny during the day. By Wednesday,
however, the temperature had dropped and snow was falling.
I had been riding my horse Red for the
first two days. He was a 4-year-old QH/Arab cross, and an
excellent cow horse. I had broke him the previous winter,
and used him every day for several months during calving,
branding, and trailing. After being out for the summer, I
had ridden him again trailing the cattle home from the
reservation. But after two solid days of cutting, Red was
On the third day I gave Red a rest.
Charley was a big tall horse that was used as a spare. When
I started out on him I understood why. He was tall enough,
and I had on enough clothes, that I had to maneuver him into
a low spot to get my foot into the stirrup. His gait riding
out to the field was rough and awkward. And when we started
cutting out pairs, it was obvious that he had no cow savvy.
By that third day we'd already gotten all
the steer pairs that mothered up and handled well. Now we
were after the renegades that were hiding among the heifers.
They were harder to find and harder to cut out. I was on a
horse that didn't understand what we were doing, and didn't
have much rein. The weather was colder, the light was poor,
and the snow made traveling more difficult. Cowboying was
beginning to lose its joy. I was sure glad to head back to
the barn later in the afternoon.
On the fourth day I saddled Red again. It
was great to be back with my partner! We had enough steer
pairs to fill the first group of 5 trucks, and now we were
sorting off the better heifer pairs that would be kept on
The snow was beginning to pile up, and
footing was becoming a problem for the horses. The snow
began to cake up under the shoes, making snowballs that
could build up several inches thick. The weather had been
nice when we started, and none of the horses had pads under
their shoes. I tried spraying "Pam" on the bottom of their
feet, but the oil soon wore off and the snow built up again.
Without shoes the horses would have no traction.
Noel had an old school bus outfitted as a
camping rig. By midweek we pulled it into the field so that
we could go inside to take a coffee break and get out of the
weather. And it kept on snowing.
At noon on Thursday, Red was dragging
again. I took Charley for the afternoon work. By the end of
the day I was worn out from pulling, turning, and spurring
that horse to do my share in sorting out heifers.
On Friday we were getting toward the end.
With 500 steer pairs and 200 heifer pairs out, there were
still 500 pairs. We opened another gate so that we could
send steer pairs one way and heifer pairs another. The job
went faster with the herd trimmed down in size - a fourth
the cattle makes it four times easier to match up what's
I started out on Red, and rode him until
morning coffee. Then I changed to Charley and rode him until
noon. Neither Red nor I were having fun when we went back
out after dinner, and I swapped horses again mid-afternoon,
but we finished the job just at dark.
On Saturday the horses finally got a rest
- but not the men. The cold and snow would pull weight off
those calves that would cost thousands of dollars. We would
have to feed them until shipping day.
Fifteen years later I was calving 800
cows on the Blacktail Ranch west of Valier. Most days we
would spend a little time cutting the older pairs out of the
calving field and into "the Brush". The calving field was
some 40 acres near the house that was flat and open. The
adjoining field was some 80 acres along the river, covered
with trees and brush. The cattle were protected from the
weather there, and the field had a bench that was high and
dry and a good place to feed and look the cattle over.
As cattle prices began their cyclical
increase the spring of 1987, the owner began selling pairs.
I would get a phone call on Monday to confirm how many
trucks to expect on Wednesday. Each truck held 45 pairs, and
it was essential that the cattle on the truck were pairs.
After the first phone call, I attempted
to cut out pairs in the traditional way - I rode into the
field, cut out a few pairs, and took them across the bridge
into the next field. But I soon realized that this wasn't
effective. The older calves would quickly disappear into the
brush, leaving the younger calves near the gate. There was
too much cover and not enough help to gather all the pairs
into a fence corner.
The next week I tried a different
approach. Riding into the "Brush" field from the calving
field, I set my dog on the first calf we came to and I began
to whistle and holler. The calf let out a bawl, and cattle
began to bellow all through the brush. We raked through the
field, pushing the older pairs toward the bridge where I had
left the gate open. Anything that was young or not mothered
was left behind. With this strategy it was the oldest and
wiliest calves that were the first ones across the bridge.
When we got across the bridge I closed
the gate behind us. The bunch that we had started out of the
brush was now at the end of a long, narrow, open field. Now
we simply positioned ourselves to let the cattle sort
As a cow left the bunch and started
walking down the fenceline, we watched to see that she took
her calf. Often the pair left together. Sometimes a cow
would walk a little ways, then stop to call her calf. If a
cow kept walking without her calf, we could take a step or
two forward and turn her back. If two calves were following
a cow we could turn the whole works back to mother up again.
As each pair went past us we added them to the tally until
we had a truck load, then we followed them up and locked
them in the corral. The dregs we turned back into the brush,
to be paired up another day.
My method worked well, and I had no
complaints from the recipients of the cattle, until "Oly"
was sent to work with me. This fellow was as big and strong
as an ox, and did about that much thinking. I had watched
him load hay on a truck one day, standing flat-footed on the
ground to pull bales off the stack above his head, squat
down and throw them up on top of two tiers of hay already on
the truck - I'd have stood on the truck and pulled the bales
right straight across.
We almost had a fist-fight the first time
he went out with me to sort off pairs. He wanted to ride
into the brush and pull off pairs one-by-one as he had been
taught to do. I assured him that wouldn't work in this
situation. He was furious when I pushed a big bunch of mixed
cattle across the bridge so that I could let them sort
themselves out in the open. He never did concede that my way
was better, but I refused to take responsibility for the
load as he would have put it together. I was certainly
relieved when I was able to leave that situation and go back
to haying on my place a few miles downriver.
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