"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mimi's Rancho

One of the things I missed about being away from Oklahoma was not being able to visit my friend, Mimi, at her ranch, which is about one hundred miles to the north.  Oklahoma City sits on the crosstimbers, which is where the eastern deciduous forests give way to the Great Plains.  At my house in far southwest Oklahoma City, we are pretty flat with long, rolling wheat and ranch land stretching towards the west.  In contrast, Mimi's ranch sits up on the Osage with long, long vistas, abundant white rock and fantastic grazing land.  We have plenty of scrub trees in my neck of the woods but trees are sparse around Mimi's ranch. 

When we moved home from Virginia, last December, I'd hoped to be up there, pretty quickly.  As kids, she would summer with her grandparents in Newkirk (they were wheat farmers) and they always made room for me to come visit.  Mimi fell in love with a cowboy from the area and married him when she was seventeen.  At that point, she left the big, bustling metropolis of Oklahoma City (I say that with a smile), for good.  

For years, they lived in a tiny little farmhouse west of Newkirk.  Eventually, they bought ranchland out east of there.  Not long after buying the land and building a big, beautiful house, her marriage broke up.  If it had been me, I probably would have packed up and moved back to town but she made the decision to ranch on her own as a single woman/single mom.  She mends fences, works cattle, feeds cowboys, maintains the house, raised two successful daughters and has steadily improved the land with barns, paddocks, chutes, etc., etc.  She keeps the place absolutely neat as a pin.  And yes, she does it, herself.  She's built an incredible life. 

Mimi's motto (hung in her kitchen):
Ahem.  Contrast that to my wimpy self who got poison ivy that kept me sick from February through most of April.  It made me so sick over for so many weeks that my husband was honestly worried I was going to go septic and die - it was that bad.  I was really sick.  I hate to be a hypochondriac but the thought occurred to me, too.  It really was awful.  And a side effect was that I didn't get up to her ranch to visit during that time. 

During most of April, husband was out of town for work so I was grounded with the girls since I couldn't take them with me.  They aren't ranch dogs and haven't the sense to stay away from a cow.   We weren't set up to leave them more than a few hours since they stay in the house.   About that time, Mimi was initially diagnosed with a bad heart condition (since re-diagnosed to something less lethal, thank god) and stayed with the daughter in Stillwater for a few weeks.  Even after getting the good news that she wasn't on death's door and could return to her ranch, during most of the summer, she stayed with her daughter during the week to babysit her beloved grandbabies.  Long story short, I just never got up there.

But Saturday night, Mimi called to ask if I wanted to drive up and help her work cattle.  She had roughly 100 cows and an equivalent number of calves.  She was working two pastures and what she needed to do was pregnancy check all the cows; separate the "open" cows from the impregnated ones to drive to the sale barn;  vaccinate all of the ones she was keeping;  replace faded or lost ear tags; and tag her Angus babies with a special ear tag.  The "babies" were born this past spring so are a goodly size.  She has just about the same number of males and females. 

As an aside, in a couple of weeks, she is going to wean the babies from their mamas.  She'll separate the boys from the girls and keep all of them away from their mamas.  According to Mimi, it gets very loud with all the mooing.  At some point in the next few weeks, the boys (steers) will make a trip to the sale barn (think hamburger).  She'll keep about ten of her best females for breeding stock and the rest will also go to the sale barn.  She hopes they end up being bought for breeding purposes so they can live somewhere on a nice pasture in the lap of luxury. 

Mimi has eight Angus bulls.  She is justifiably proud of them and during breeding season, keeps at least two in with each pasture of females to increase the chances of getting babies.  She started out ranching with a variety of breeds but has been breeding Angus for a number of years.  I noticed that many of her older cows were red or yellow but the vast majority of the younger ones are the dominant black. 
On a regular basis, babies pop up a different color but the lighter colors are definitely in the minority.  I tend to take more photos of the lighter ones because their expressions are more obvious. 

During the spring roundup, they do the branding, dehorning and castrating - think cowboys on horseback, dogs helping to herd (and surreptitiously snatching up mountain oysters that have been tossed into buckets).  Compared to that, this was quite calm and sanitary.  Not as exciting, of course, but there is plenty of excitement going on, regardless. 

So on Monday, I drove up I-35 to the Blackwell exit; stopped to buy a visor from Wal-Mart (the wind was up and it is the only thing that has a prayer of holding back my thick mane); drove east to 77; then north to Newkirk and back east towards the ranch.  Even with the stop at Wal-Mart it took less than three hours. 

My heart just caught in my throat at the sight of her house up on the hill.  It's has been several years since I've been there and I have happy memories.  Moreover, with her heart health scare earlier in the year, knowing I would see her hale and hearty, working alongside the cowboys made my own heart sing.  Here are a few photos:
Mimi and Jack:

Mimi wasn't home, yet, but I know how to get in.  The sun was bright and just about the only shade was right next to the house and under the ranch trucks.  I saw a shadow under a truck waving up and down and laughed to see her big mutt, Jack, laying on his side, happy to see company but too blissful to do more than flop his big ole' tail.

Some guard dog!

Jack is a complete love.  She found him wandering down a dirt road when he was no bigger than a mite - maybe 6 weeks old with no house or water in sight.   Lucky she found him because he'd not have stood a chance on his own. 

Cats everywhere: 

This shows how little the above kitty is (you'll need to squint):
Mimi has a couple of affectionate, adorable house cats and there are many, many barn cats  keeping the snake and mice population in check  The kitties were everywhere but most were too wild to tolerate being touched. 

Mimi has two old gentlemen horses, both about thirty years old, that she keeps in the west pasture by the house so she can keep an eye on them. 
They look malnourished but they are just very old and probably not long for the world.  They are, literally, "put out to pasture," to enjoy their old age.  This one is Chico:
I vividly remember Chico in his prime.  He was gorgeous, muscular and robust.  It was startling to see him so elderly and frail looking but he is still bright, curious and engaged even if he is living in a little old man's body. 

Mimi took me out on the four wheeler before dinner.  I'd never been on one but it wasn't hard to drive.  It was fun!  I nearly ran over a covy of quail that were marching cluelessly down the road.  Mimi took this photo of me using my camera:
Still prefer horseback, though. 

We hit the hay relatively early in order to be out gather cattle by 6:00 a.m. 

Due to cloud cover, it was still dark at 7:00 a.m. but as it lit up, the cattle came running towards the truck when Mimi ran the siren. 
For the uninitiated, honking or playing a siren on a truck is the traditional (modern) way to gather a herd.  They will rush towards the truck and follow it in hopes of being fed.  When it comes time to work them, you generally just drive into, or near, a corral/paddock and they will follow you right in.  My job was to open and shut gates, primarily, and call out, "Hello Mrs. Cow!" from the window from time to time.  Mimi would always run the siren when I would say that and at first I thought it just reminded her to do it.  Later, I wondered if she just didn't want to hear me sound so annoying.   The south pasture had most of her younger cows with their calves.

After we'd shut them in a small fenced area to work them, later, we drove back to the house and corralled the cattle in the nearby pastures.
Mimi keeps her older cows, first time breeders and more sickly cows near the house to make sure she is close by if they need help. These older cows have been around the block a few times and didn't want to come up to the paddock because they suspected something was up. They eventually came into the paddock after Mimi and I filled the feed troughs with "cake" to entice them inside. As they milled around, it was pretty dusty. I could tell a lot of these were her older cows because so many still had horns and there were fewer Angus.
Everything had gone like clockwork so we had an extra 45 minutes or so before the vet was supposed to arrive.  Accordingly, we rode Shorty (in front) and Jigger out in the pasture, just for fun:
My legs are too short for even the shortest length on the adult saddle and if we'd had time, we'd have switched to a kid's saddle.  Just call me Stumpy, I guess.   I rode Jigger and he was an absolute sweetheart. 

Around 9:00 the vet and cowboys arrived:
The promptly began running the girls down the chute.  In addition to Mimi and the vet, there were 5 - 6 cowboys (I don't count as help).   This little guy (age two) also helped out and, amazingly, stayed out of the way. 

His right red boot showed the whole morning:
He is an old hand at this sort of thing and has tagged along with his dad for most of his walking life.   His daddy used to bring his big sisters until they got old enough to indicate they weren't interested.   He was no trouble but not only was his daddy there, running the chute, his grandpa was also there to keep an eye on him. 

The vet (Larry) would pregnancy check the girls (he would do this by touch, with an arm down the rectum).  He was amazingly fast and shockingly clean.   He wore a long plastic sleeve that he changed from time to time but barely got a speck of nasty stuff on his clothes.   If he called out that they were "open," that meant they weren't pregnant.  "Open" cows will head to the sale barn on Friday.  They don't care if it was because they were infertile or had miscarried.   If he called out if they were "OK, that meant that they were about four months pregnant.  If they were pregnant but less than four months along, he would call out "3 months," "2 months" or "short" (which meant the cow was less than two month pregnant).  Here are a few photos while this was all going on.  Mimi and JR:
First cow throught the chute - "What the hell just happened????:"

Mimi with W-D40 when the chute was acting sluggish and loud:

According to Mimi, Jack doesn't have any cow sense and isn't much on herding but he loves riding on the back of the truck and doesn't get in the way:

This old girl was "open:"
This cow was put in Mimi's pasture by neighbors, years ago.  No one would claim her:
Gypsy is an old dog that barely gets around these days.  She was still excited to see the cattle being worked and wandered over to supervise:
Sometimes the cows would get panicky and kneel down in the chute.  I think this one looks like something out of Dr. Seuss:
Some cows only had stubbs of ears.  Apparently, the ones born too early or in a cold snap get them frozen off.  Seriously.  You can't tag some of them because they don't have long enough ears.  Mimi casually remarked that she doesn't need the tags for them because she remembers which ones they are.
Look mom, no ear tags!
Sigh.  Is it any wonder foolish old women fall for cowboys? (Even cowboys who are married fathers of three who you personally remember when they were still in short pants - I'm just saying). 
Pregnant cows were vaccinated, purple insecticide was sprayed on them, and their ear tags were replaced, if needed (and they had sufficient ears).  My job was to keep track of which cows (by number) were open, short, 3 months or 2 months.  Knowing when her cows are due helps to know if the baby is premature and also lets Mimi have a better idea of when to expect them.   When we switched to the south pasture, we did the same thing but the calves were also there and all of them needed a new ear tag.  My job was the same as at the house but, in addition, I added ear tag numbers to correspond to their existing "calf" tag.  Someone else snapped the tags on their ears.  No thank you!

Mimi was pretty happy that they only had 5 - 6 cows that were open.  Most of them were elderly cows that she has had a long time.  She is fond of them and it bothered her that they have to go to the sale barn.   Not only are they slaughtered, but apparently they get really scared when they go.  

A couple of "open" cows were young, pretty and apparently healthy.  I wondered why they didn't keep them and try again, next year.  When you are raising cattle for profit, I guess sentiment doesn't count for much.  The only reason they wouldn't be pregnant would be if they were infertile or had miscarried.  I suppose if they lost a calf once, the chances are good that they will, again.  And Mimi says that if they ever have a C-section, that's it.  They can't risk another birth.   Because she moved the bulls out of the cow pasture in July, the cows were all far enough along to be able to detect whether they were pregnant, at this point. 

After we finished up, we headed back to the house to eat cornbread and Cowboy Chili Beans, and clean up.  The cowboys won't come inside which is probably good because they are filthy.  I left my favorite boots on the porch and it occurred to me that I should have worn my work boots instead of my favorite scuffed up pair.  They are scuffed up, yes, and very comfortable.  But for stomping around the cow chute, the work boots (made of tough buffalo hide and with a thicker sole) would have been the more sensible choice.  Here are Mimi's work boots:
And I especially liked these cowboy boots on the daddy of the little boy:
I got back yesterday afternoon, sore and tired but had a terrific time.  Mimi claims I was a big help (trying to do the heavy lifting and also keep track of the paperwork is really stressful) and asked me to come back, next time.  Regardless of whether I was "actually" much help; she just enjoyed having me around; and/or knows I want to be helpful, I plan to do it if I can. 

My dogs, especially Pearlie, were pretty upset that I'd gone.  Pearl was so stressed that she wouldn't eat and threw up a few times.  This worried my husband because he was afraid she was sick.  As soon as I got home, she perked up and began playing and eating, so he relaxed.  Mimi loves her animals and takes wonderful care of her pets but the role of dog on Mimi's rancho vs. Penny's ranchette is quite different.  I can't imagine Mimi's Jack being so distressed if someone left that he threw up and wouldn't eat.  He adores his family but he is a dog, not a baby.
But on the other hand, to be honest, I can't imagine an emotionally healthy child acting as kooky as Pearl just because her mother left overnight, either. 

Happy Quilting, Penny, Evelyn and Pearl


Suzanne Kistler said...

Love the description of your day. Married to a dairy vet, our beef experiences have been few and far between.

Oh, Penny, ahem... The arm is not inserted "into the birth canal" as you so delicately put it. The arm goes in the rectum, so they can palpate the calf from the side and determine its presence and/or age.

Not pretty, but it works.

When one of my boys was in kindergarten, the teacher asked, "What does your daddy do?" He answered quite honestly, "He scoops the poop out of cows' bottoms." He had no idea that Dad was doing anything more than that.

Dad eventually set him straight.

Thanks again, I enjoyed the show!

Penny said...

I will correct the description of the vet! Thanks for the info - I didn't get all that close to see what he was actually doing it certainly explains why they had crap all over them!

Anonymous said...

"Osage" brings back fond memories. My great uncle lived in Foraker, my mother was born in Webb City and grew up in Shidler. We would visit every other year or so when we were kids, and the high point was "riding" horses. Of course Charlie led them along...although the last time we went a neighbor let us ride his Shetland ponies - yes, Foraker was little girl heaven.


Miriam said...

Thank you for all the great photos and your description of your time with Mimi and her cattle. It is certainly a very different life from mine here!

Miriam said...

.....love the photo of you on the 4 wheeler!!! :)

Perry said...

This is a wonderful "tale". ! almost feel as if I had been there. And there is something about a cowboy, regardless of age, isn't there? lol Thank you so much for sharing all of the pictures and such vivid descriptions of what was occurring. It must be very hard to be a woman and run a ranch by yourself, and I admire your friend for being able to do that, and you are a true friend to pitch in to help. Thanks again for this post!

Sherry said...

How much fun is that?! I haven't been on a horse since June or July of 1997. I sold my son's and my horse just a couple of weeks before marrying and moving 320 miles away.

It's also been a long time since I've helped my now deceased father-in-law with his cattle.

However, I still love the site of a man in jeans and boots! ;o) But DANG! So many of them are just soooo young. Not to mention that I'm married. I can still look though!