It is a simple game of hide and seek. The cows hide their calves and I seek them out. With good snow my job is easier. I follow the main cow track in the snow and look for a single track going off alone. There are more than cow tracks to follow.
Cows usually prefer being near each other, and only go off to be alone if calving or sick. They so often travel the same routes, to and from water, the willows for shelter or the salt trough or feed manger, that they create a single clear track in the snow or clear dirt trails in grass.
Snow gives clues of who passed where, and even hints of when. Light dry snow moves easy in the wind so I know if a track is new today or if crusted over, from another day. Tracks leading away from a compacted area of snow shows where a mom had her baby and sheltered it for a few hours or a day. And when I see one large with one small print set going off into the field, I know both are healthy and moving.
Sometimes I do not have to walk the field searching. If the cow calved very early in the morning or very late the night before, she may walk her baby to the breakfast manger in the morning. Then all I have to do is count cows as they line up at the manger. If all cows are accounted for, I casually look around and see their new calves nearby. But sometimes a cow does not come up. Or a calf seen for a few days does not come with mom for breakfast, so to make sure everyone is all right I go and seek the calf or calving cow.
In the sagebrush field, where the cows are now spending winter calving, there are other animal tracks. It is easy to notice where the coyotes gather at a low place to slip under the fence. The wisp of wing tips brushed on light snow show where a hawk or owl swooped down to grab a small rodent. The turkey prints I mistook for goose until I realized these new prints look like large chicken feet with just the three-towed imprint, no webbing like ducks or geese. It could be the grey heron, but he is solitary and usually stays near the ditch. Preferring to stand in the cold water to catch his meals, rather than walk around in a sagebrush field full of cows.
A multitude of rabbit prints run wild across the field and are randomly crossed by coyote tracks. A convergence of both tracks and a scrimmage down to bare dirt shows where confrontations occurred that probably did not benefit the rabbit.
And smaller padded paw tracks might be stray cats, skunks, or other rodents. I am not a good enough tracker to know for certain. But examining the tracks can tell where they come from shelter and where they seek food. And as long as none of them are as malicious, spiteful or as obstructionist as the 112th Congressional House of Representatives they can stay unmolested in my fields, this year.
Marie Johnson is a Carson Valley rancher.