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Fence Lines: Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth and gates shut

by Marie Johnson

My yard is more than 140 acres of grass, rocks and sagebrush. I take care of more than 200 animals, two small boys, one cat, one dog, two turtles, three horses and a couple hundred bovines being raised for eventual beef production.

This is good information to know because knowing your neighbor also tells you a little about yourself. But I share this information with some trepidation because over the years I’ve been told a good rancher keeps his eyes and ears open and his mouth and gates shut, and I very much want to be a good rancher. I read and hear a lot about what goes on in town, but if ranchers in the neighborhood keep to the “mouth shut” practices, folks will forget about us until we are romanticized in some old-time western. And romance is not what keeps us doing what we are doing and, honestly, neither does money, because we all could be doing something else that makes a lot more money a lot easier, but we keep doing what we do. Its attraction is so strong, it seduces other people into wanting to try it. Wonder why?

Right now, things out here are easy. It’s the slow season. No irrigation; water is being stored by nature up in the mountains as snow. Grass has been cut for winter hay. Calves have been weaned and weighed, light ones shipped to markets, heavy ones shipped to feed lots. Cows have been checked for pregnancy, open ones (not pregnant) have been sold and cows going to calve, this early spring, are in the pasture needing to be fed just once a day. All I have to do now is clean out the barn – sanitizing it as best as one can an open air barn with mice and owls as residents – readying it for the calves that will be born in the next three months. Healthy, big and strong calves born under good conditions and fine weather to knowledgeable moms will never see the barn, but weak, small and sick calves will, and so may the strong ones if they are born in severe cold weather to an inexperienced mom or dropped in a ditch.

Calving is the beginning of the year, but it is something you have prepared your stock for all year, putting the right bulls with the right cows at the right time for the right length of time. Throughout the year, you have been giving correct inoculations for disease control and health management. Record keeping and experience come together to help you make decisions now. January also lets one reflect on what the market has done to cattle prices while fixing fences cows have torn up over the last year or getting the books ready for tax season.

The kids, the cat, the dog, the horses and turtles are doing fine. The cows are fattening up mostly from the weight of the calves they hold rather than from the hay fed to them. It has not yet been cold enough for the creek or ditches to freeze over, so I don’t need to break ice in the early mornings for the animals to get water. Snow has collected mostly in the mountains for good resort skiing and not burdened my cattle with knee deep trudges to the hay mangers or caused the animals to seek shelter in sagebrush from the cold bite the winds falling off the mountain add to the white powder.

The holiday’s traditions have passed and year-end reflections set me examining certain customs. I don’t look forward to the long and cold nights of checking heifers in the dark, but something keeps us doing this. Like expectant parents, we are worried and afraid of what is to come, but we are also excited. Traditions live only as long as your children want them to, and I wonder what traditions my children will develop and which ones of my own I will keep.

Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 9, and Bradley, 6. Her column, “Fence Lines,” appears once a month in the R-C.

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