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Cattle Drive - Day One

6-22-14, Valley Falls, OR - I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to participate in a two day cattle drive, pushing a mixed herd of cows, calves and bulls onto their summer range in the National Forest.  Friday we gathered the cows from the west side of my friend Geren’s range and pushed them into his upper meadow. Yesterday morning, we drove them from the meadow, 14 miles to a holding pen on their grazing allotment in the Forest.  We were going to finish the last 10 miles of the drive today, but decided to give the cattle, horses and dogs a day off to recover from a very long and tough day on Saturday.

Friday morning, I saddled up Bill to gather the cattle on Geren’s range. We had several square miles of very rugged terrain to cover. As Bill has a touch of arthritis in in hind end, I knew he wouldn’t be up to running up and down the hillsides, gathering up the cows. So we restricted our activities to pushing the herd up a draw as the remainder of the riders combed canyons, hillsides, draws, and pockets of brush and trees for the cows. As the cows were rounded up, they were brought in to the herd that was moving in front of me. Approaching the west side of the property, my horse and I were kept very busy, keeping the cows bunched up and not wandering off. By the time the remaining riders joined back up, Bill was pretty worn out. For the last mile or so, there were seven riders working the cattle so it was much easier keeping them together and pointed to the upper meadow. By noon, the cattle were temporarily enjoying the lush pasture in the meadow and we had a three mile ride back to the house.  As I was pulling the saddle off Bill, I looked in a pair of tired pair of eyes and saw that he was tuckered out.

Strung out for a half mile, the cattle herd consisted of more than 600 animals.  There were 300 cow/calf pairs and 16 bulls.

Yesterday morning, we were in the saddle and riding back to the cattle by 6 am.  We knew it was going to be a long day, as we had to herd the cows through 14 miles of forest and up and down several mountains to reach our destination for the day, a holding pen on Swamp Creek. I was up on Doc and it didn’t take long for him to get into the swing of things.

The crew for the drive consisted of, Geren and Candace Moon (the ranch owners), Steve (a Professional Cowboy and ranch employee), Geren’s daughter Chrisie, Steve’s 16 year old daughter Alicia, and his 12 year old son Tyler.

Reaching the upper meadow, it took about an hour to comb the cattle out of the pasture and build a herd for the drive. This was the first time Doc had herded cattle (other than for fun) but he had no problem staring a 2,500 pound bull in the face, and walking towards him until the bull turned (horses have little respect for cattle.  In fact, Candice’s little sorrel was fond of biting them on the butt if they were too close). Doc wasn’t as quick on his feet as the little quarter horses, but he made up for it with shear intimidation.

Set amongst the pine and aspen, with a couple of nice springs, Geren’s upper meadow is really gorgeous.

I was teamed with Steve’s 16 year old daughter, Alicia for the gather in the upper meadow. She has been herding cattle since she was barely old enough to walk and is definitely a top hand. While waiting for some cows to be pushed in front of us, she had no problem occupying her time with a couple of text messages.

Doc and I, helping to bunch and hold the herd near the wire gate, leading from the upper meadow to the National Forest.

The Moon’s grazing permit for this section of the National Forest has three separate pastures. Our objective was to drive the cows to the furthest pasture, then every two weeks, they are moved to pastures closer to the ranch.  After they return home, the cows are driven to another section of forest, which has another four pastures. Finally, in October, they are driven home ahead of the winter storms.  To get the cattle on the farthest pasture required a drive of 25 miles through pristine wilderness.

Normally the cows are pushed down logging trails or little used National Forest roads, but occasionally we had to take off cross country through the woods.  As long as the cattle are all willing and able to go, it’s not hard to keep them in a herd and traveling straight ahead. However, later in the day, they tend to stray when green grass and water is in sight. Also, the young, strong heifers in the lead want to move out, while the lazier and weaker cows and calves congregate in the rear. That’s when seven cowboys (cowgirls) and five dogs earn their pay.

It gets a little dusty riding drag.  When the cows are on a good section of road, it’s a fairly easy job; however, when you encounter obstacles, like deadfall trees or fresh grass alongside the road, cowboys and dogs can be kept busier than a three legged cat while rounding up strays and keeping the herd bunched up and moving.

Every hour or so we stopped for a 15 to 20 minute break. This provided an opportunity for the cows to rest and mother cows and calves to be reunited.  If you think this would be a nice quiet moment to enjoy nature, think again. Cows and calves recognize each other by the sound of their voice.  Multiply this by 300 times and it get pretty noisy.

We stopped for lunch on the top of Moss Pass.  Gene and Babe, a couple that work for the Moon’s, had a nice lunch waiting for us.  As a bonus, Gene got to observe a couple of young ladies that were getting dressed to ride their mountain bikes. They nonchalantly stripped down to nothing and changed into their riding clothes.  Babe had to check Gene’s pulse for irregularities after this particular incident. Gene told the girls that we were herding some 2000 pound range bulls that might not be too friendly for people on foot.  As a consequence, the rest of us never saw hide nor hair of them. -  I think he did that on purpose.

Riding with 12 year old Tyler. If you remember, he was the young buckaroo that got pitched off his horse while roping calves at the branding a couple of months back. Tyler enjoys playing basketball. To keep in shape, he would occasionally break off dead pine branches and pitch them at the butt of a cow that was lagging behind the herd. He got a lot of 2 point shots (hitting the cow in the butt) but failed to get any 3 point field goals (sticking a branch in the butt). Sometimes it doesn’t take much to keep kids (or adults) amused.

Two hours after lunch, we drove up to Ben Young Creek, the first chance we had since morning to water the cows.  Being smart, Doc and I headed upstream for a drink. There were two reasons for this; first, the water wasn’t muddy, second, there was some water.  Even though the creek was running at about 5 gallons a second, 600 cows drank it dry downstream for several minutes.

Doc was really grooving at his new role in life. Several times, I thought I heard him humming the old Willie Nelson tune “Mares, don’t let your colts grow up to be cowhorses”.

There’s nothing like a drink of cool mountain water and the taste of some creek side grass.

Another three hours of driving got us to our destination for the night, a 100 acre enclosure, straddling Swamp Creek. As the cattle, people, dogs and horses were getting tired, this was the most difficult part of the trip. When the cows got bogged down in a pile of deadfall aspen trees, Garen pulled his revolver and fired a few shots in the air. It got the cows moving, but Doc was sure that he was the one being shot at.  He bolted about 50 feet, but soon got over it.

The cattle, all bunch up and ready to turn into their overnight pasture on Swamp Creek.  We had just traveled down a three mile long canyon, choked with brush and trees. The cows were tired and ready for some water, grass and rest.

The hardest working critters on the drive were the dogs, each of which can be worth 3 cowhands.  This shot shows Chrisie’s dog jumping down from behind the saddle after he had been lifted up for a few minutes of rest.  These tough little dogs have no problem facing off against a full grown cow or bull that wants to put up a fight.  If needed, they’ll give a cow a good bite on the heel or nose to get them to do what’s needed.  Occasionally, they get a little too aggressive and have to be pulled off an animal with a loud “Get Out” from their master.

After the herd was penned, we had a two mile ride through the woods to get to our pickup point.  Altogether, we were in the saddle 14 hours and rode 20 miles (straight line distance).  If the distance chasing stray cows and riding up and down the herd were counted, the horses traveled about 50 miles each.  The more energetic and active dogs each put in about 100 miles. All this to bring a herd of cows 14 miles into the forest.

Alicia and her dog getting in a little rest while waiting for the horse trailers to show up. You can see she is sporting a good scrape below her eye, caused by a tree branch when she was chasing a stray.  I don’t think you have to tell this young lady to “cowgirl up”.

People, dogs, horses and cattle were all tired and a little sore today.  Yesterday’s drive was long and arduous, through some difficult terrain.  Since the cows have plenty of grass in their enclosure for another day, we decided to take a day off before finishing the last 10 miles of the drive tomorrow.

Reflecting back on the day’s adventure, I considered myself very fortunate to have participated in this wonderful event. Slowly, but surely, cattle drives of this nature are becoming a thing of the past. More and more, ranchers are using double-deck cattle trucks, which haul 35 pair at a time to their grazing.  In the meantime, the best I can do is take a couple of pulls off the whiskey jug, eat a couple of corn dodgers and say “Yee-haw”!

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