Good day from the Barthelmess Ranch.
Hi! My name is Leo Barthelmess. I’m going to talk about what a challenging summer the ranch and region had. In my last blog posting I discussed the drought we were in. It is now the end of October and most of the measurable precipitation we received came in mid-September. The 2 inches that we recorded brought our location up to about 4 inches of total precipitation since January 1. This is close to one third of the normal precipitation that the area receives. This is the lowest recorded amount since records were kept.
With temperatures approaching 100° many days during the summer the range lands dried out very quickly. As the heat continued to take its toll on the vegetation the quality of the forage for livestock and wildlife diminished on a weekly basis.
In order to protect to our grazing resources and maintain livestock health and protect wildlife habitat we moved the cows and sheep often to varieties of forage that were still green but would not remain very long into the future. One of the forage species that we were able to use through midsummer was yellow blossom sweet clover. This plant is a legume that is very nutritious for livestock and wildlife. It matures very early in the summer season and the stems become very brittle and unpalatable as it dries up. So in order to capture as much food value as we could from this plant we moved the livestock often. We would move the livestock into a new pasture and when they had eaten about a 3rd of the clover or started eating more grass than clover we would move them to a fresh pasture that contained ungrazed clover. By using this strategy we were able to capture a high-value forage crop before it was too dry to use. This strategy also enabled the livestock to access new fresh water regularly. When the clover was no longer palatable we continued on our regular grazing program that included the normal harvest of native vegetation. The native vegetation at this point was mature and had created seed for future use, but still remained palatable and nutritious.
Taylor French spoke of low stress stockmanship in one of her recent blogs. The Barthelmess family is also a practitioner of low stress stockmanship attending some of the same schools as the French family. I wanted to make note of this because without the stockmanship skill set we had learned it would’ve been very difficult, if not impossible, to create a positive outcome for our livestock and grazing resources. We would not have been able to move the livestock easily. As Taylor mentioned, low stress livestock management enhances herd health and grazing management. As often as we moved the livestock this summer we could have very easily created a situation that could have contributed to unhealthy animals and poor range land health.
One of the dangers that this strategy created was the ungrazed grass became fire fuel. The news was filled with reports of large uncontrolled fires throughout Montana and much of the North American West. Our community had several fires during July and August, but thankfully everyone was prepared to fight wildfires with new equipment or well-maintained equipment. We live in a large wonderful community whose members were willing at a moment’s notice to travel a hundred miles to help put out wildfires. All of the local fires were fortunately contained fairly quickly and did not create huge devastating losses to the families managing the property. This was partially due to cooperative weather that created manageable fire situations. Other communities across the West faced serious weather systems that led to devastating fires and large acreages burnt despite the best efforts of professional firefighters. In the end, Montana suffered a record fire season that was financially devastating to many homeowners and small businesses.
As I said above, thankfully rain came in September with some grass species generating new green leaves that greatly increase the forage value of the plants. The cattle are in fall pasture now as we prepare for shipping the cattle to market. There are water wells and fresh grass in the fall pastures which will help the market cattle put on extra weight. This will also help the cattle staying on the ranch put on extra weight to prepare for the coming winter months and the bitter cold.
One of the daily activities necessary during a drought in the fall pastures is checking the semi-dry creek beds for animals that are stuck in the mud. Despite the fact that the cows have access to fresh, clean, well water, they will sometimes choose to go to the nearest wet spot available for a drink. Some of these wet spots are 1 inch of water sitting on 3 feet of mud. And as cows or calves, or sheep venture out into the mud to get a drink of water they will sometimes get stuck or bogged as is a common description of the situation. Most of the time they will survive 48 hours in this situation. So we have been checking these dangerous areas every 24 hours with an ATV for the last 30 days. If we find an animal that is bogged in we will go get a tractor and a long line and try to pull the animal out without creating injuries. Most of the time this is very successful, but occasionally the outcomes are less than desirable. We cannot move the cows because that is where the food is. So we will continue to check the bogs until the water and soil freezes and then there will no longer be a threat.
The cattle look remarkably healthy despite the lack of rain. We preconditioned the calves the last week of September. As Taylor French pointed out, preconditioning is a series of shots and husbandry practices that aid in the health of the animals as they mature. During the preconditioning process we weighed the calves and their weights were only a small amount below our historical average. Since preconditioning, we have not found any animals with health issues that required attention. With a little over a week to go we are prepared for shipping, hopefully the weather continues to be supportive.
As the fall continues we will make time for meetings, fence maintenance, as well as getting the equipment ready for winter.
I’m looking forward to the holidays and spending time with family and friends. It would be a special blessing if 2018 yielded average precipitation.
Thanks for reading.