Ranch life isn’t easy. Wyoming ranchers have to deal with wind, early snow, late snow, summer snow, drought, heat, fire, bad mama cows, stupid heifers, ornery bulls, wind, good (and bad) horses, ropes gone wrong, wind, machinery, mountains, irrigation … and did I mention wind?
I’m a country girl and have been for much of my life, with horses, cattle, goats, chickens, and gardens in my background. But I’ve learned that the Kentucky farming I grew up with and lived with much of my adult life isn’t the same as dealing with commercial cattle herds, thousands of acres of grazing leases and private property, early snows, center pivots, and wheel lines.
The title for this book came from an experience my grown daughter had on her small ranch in Pavillion, Wyoming, and it is the first story in this book of true tales. Pavillion is about 20 minutes from where I live outside of Riverton on 10 irrigated acres.
While the actual event was heartbreaking for her, like many things in life, the pain gets better with time and telling. And sometimes you can even find the humor in the hardest, most gut-wrenching tales.
So I invite you to sit back and enjoy these true stories from friends and family. I hope they help you better understand the investment of heart, family, and money that is required for this way of life. And maybe you'll get a smile or even a chuckle out of the true life tales of Wyoming ranch life.
Please contact Kim Brown to potentially be interviewed to have your "true tale" of Wyoming ranch life included in this book.
The commercial Angus heifer’s name was Piper. That in itself is unusual in Wyoming, where running ranch operations with hundreds of cow-calf pairs doesn’t leave much room for sentiment and cow names. That doesn’t mean the ranchers don’t care for and respect their animals, but in this case we’re talking a smaller herd operated by a cowgirl who had culled the bovines involved until it was made up of “not wild,” “tame,” and “pet” cows that will load on a trailer in the middle of a field.
But before we get into the tale, I need to give you a little background on the main character, my oldest daughter, Barbara Martin. She’s a knowledgeable vet tech, a hand with a horse, and as a well-known rancher in the Riverton, Wyoming, area said, “She just ‘Barbaras’ an animal until it gives up and does what she wants.”
She is a passionate steward of all of her animals, but she recognizes them for what they are and the places they hold in this world. If by being a little more tame they have easier lives with humans—and are a bit easier to handle on a small ranch—then that’s a bonus for all involved.
This coming-2-year-old commercial heifer had been produced from a registered Angus cow and was sired by a well-bred commercial Angus bull. We looked forward to including her in the production of our herd since we wait to breed our heifers til they are 2-year-olds (unlike most commercial ranchers who breed heifers as yearlings).
Piper was raised by Barbara, and the heifer was one of the “tame” group that wasn’t quite a pet, but was heading that way. In the spring when the other cow/calf pairs, coming 2-year-olds, and yearling heifers were headed to summer pasture, this one went along.
Our friend Bob owns the summer pasture, and he is not only a friend, but has come to appreciate having cattle on his land that he doesn’t have to watch out for every time he’s out irrigating or working in the pasture. No cow is going to “eat” him for getting too close to her calf, and when our last herd bull Mongo was there, he would come up and eat horse cookies out of your hand.
Bob, therefore, had gotten to know our herd better than other ranchers he had leased land to before us, and he had noticed this heifer wasn’t “right” and alerted us between our visits as to what he’d seen.
Barbara was able to get Piper penned up and her temperature taken, finding fever and hearing some not-so-great respiratory noises. So Barbara loaded Piper up on the trailer and took her back home to get some TLC and antibiotics.
For the next few days the heifer Piper seemed to be holding her own, then as cattle do, she suddenly took a turn for the worse. Veterinarians were consulted, medications changed, and the heifer quit eating. Barbara gave her a smorgasbord of choices, and for a couple of days Piper started picking up.
Then the weather changed, which in Wyoming we know because you can have four seasons in one day.
Wyoming gets a lot of wind, and blowing dirt sure doesn’t help any animal in respiratory distress. This was one of those wind storms that blew in with cold temperatures that also brought some snow and held on for a few days before warming back up. But despite shelter, medication, and around-the-clock care, Piper got to the point she was suffering.
Barbara put her down humanely with one gunshot, then loaded her up in the front-end bucket of their ancient farm tractor to take her down to the sinkhole.
A quick side note about the ancient tractor. It is a ‘76 Allis Chalmers Barbara and her husband picked up for a steal as the hydraulics wouldn’t work, and it would spontaneously die every time it was started at the last owners place.
Luckily, part of the “old girl’s” problems were easy fixes, but she is old and has many idiosyncrasies. One is that without being plugged in for several hours, she won’t start if it is colder than 60 degrees outside. As with any older tractor, she tends to “mark her territory” by leaking several types of fluids. Also, a mechanic figured out that there were paint chips in the fuel tank, and occasionally one of the larger chips will obstruct the tiny fuel line outlet at the bottom of the tank, thus killing the tractor from starvation.
Barbara is a tough, sensitive cowgirl, and she hates losing. Combine all that with the loss of a 2-year-old that was bred to improve the genetics from our small herd, and you have some financial pressure along with the emotional heartbreak and stewardship pains.
Tough women cry, and cry she did. It didn’t help matters any that her husband was on a 10-day off-road motorcycle trip.
Barbara managed to get the tractor started, wiggled into the tiny corral where Piper spent her last days using a 40-point turn and scooped the heifer into the bucket. Barbara headed to the bottom of the property to put Piper in her final resting spot.
But, about the time she got half way down the property, the tractor started choking out, coughing, wheezing, and spewing black and blue smoke. Through tear-filled eyes Barbara “lost her Baptist” and cussed the tractor, telling the old girl that now is not the time to get clogged up!
Unrepentant, the tractor choked again and finally died.
Barbara tried to start it several times to no avail. Then, she noticed the fuel gauge was on E.
Well, explained a lot. Just because she and her husband had filled up the multiple 5-gallon diesel containers on the last trip to town didn’t mean that either of them had remembered to actually put fuel in the tractor.
So, she walked back up to the top of the property, retrieved some five-gallon containers of diesel, and loaded them into the bed of the truck and returned to the tractor.
She said a prayer and the old girl fired up, but immediately started to choke and sputter.
Apparently, when the fuel had gotten low, the paint chips got closer to the fuel outlet.
Barbara slammed quickly into fourth gear and hauled butt across the bottom of the property toward the sink hole. At that point the bucket’s grapple across the dead heifer was a blessing to keep her from bouncing out of the bucket.
As she got closer to the sinkhole, the tractor died and refused to start. As with all hydraulic equipment, you can release pressure without the motor running, but you cannot engage it to activate the grapple to open or close. So, she tilted the bucket hoping the heifer would just slide into her final resting spot.
The heifer slid about half way out of the bucket before her shoulders hung up in the grapple that would not open without the tractor running. The blessed grapple from moments ago now was the obstacle!
Having gone through most steps in the grieving process…denial, anger, bargaining, depression, more anger ,and finally acceptance, Barbara climbed out of the cab of the old tractor and assessed the situation.
While in hindsight Barbara now laughs about the incident, at the time she had reached the end of her emotional rope and the knot was slipping. Who knows what goes through a person’s mind as “logical” when emotions are high and patience is thin.
Barbara decided that with enough pull on the only thing she could reach—the heifer’s tail hanging out of the bucket—and a little help from gravity, she could probably get Piper unwedged and in the hole before it got dark.
Sitting here reading this we all can think of the many ways this could have gone wrong, but the Good Lord watches over fools, children, and ranchers. And swinging back and forth from a dead cow’s tail over a sinkhole as dark is coming on and your spouse is out of town is probably on some Darwinian cowboy list.
But, swing she did, multiple times, until the thought crossed her mind that this could and probably would end badly with no one to even know where to start looking for her body. Just then, she felt the heifer’s shoulder give, and Piper started to slide out of the bucket.
Barbara lept back, and the heifer landed on the edge of the sink hole, rolled a half roll, and got her head wedged under her shoulder. After unsuccessfully trying to push from the top of the hole from multiple angles, she repelled down into the sink hole by the heifer’s tail and pulled and pulled.
Again, the Good Lord stepped in and helped Barbara recognize that this was probably an even worse idea than hanging from her tail when Piper was in the tractor bucket.
Fortunately, Barbara’s efforts—or divine intervention—did result in the heifer becoming unpinned.
Climbing wearily out of the hole, Barbara gave Piper one last push, and the heifer fell to her final resting spot in a peaceful, perfect position.
Barbara called her husband and through sobbing sentences explained that the tractor had died, and she was going to leave it down in the field to graze with the horses until he got home from his trip and blew out the fuel line or they pushed it into the hole with the heifer.
Now, with time and distance, Barbara can tell the tale of the tail with a smile.
Just another day as a Wyoming rancher.
A "pet" heifer Hazel licking Barbara.