Washburn, North Dakota
I’m a ranch-wife. Sometimes I’m a farmer. Sometimes I’m a cowgirl. Sometimes I’m a florist. I won’t tell you my age because I’m older than dirt.
My husband and I met team-roping and that’s how I got to his ranch. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, I just knew this guy was what I wanted and he invited me to come out and visit. He drove me out and pulled up in front of this old shack, and I was like, okay, we can fix it up, and he started laughing because it was just some old junk hole! I could have lived in a paper bag with him and I know we could have made it better. I hope he realized then that he got a pretty good deal …
I always wanted to be a world champion roper. I realize that’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.
There’s a boy’s version of calf-roping and there’s a girl’s version. There’s no gender bias at all involved with that. The girls have what’s called a break away: This tiny string breaks away your rope from your saddle and the judge can see when it breaks, and that’s the time you’re given. A guy will have to get off his horse, and the saddle and the calf are connected by the rope solid, there’s no breaking apart. And he goes down and lays the calf down and ties three of the legs up. If you want to do the men’s style, you’re more than welcome to. These calves are over 350 pounds, so if you can lift and put that critter on the ground, have at it.
One time we had a calf that had fallen into the river. Somebody from the other side of the river called the sheriff’s department over and he got hold of us. It’s just a 15-foot sandy bank, there’s no shoreline or beach. When calves get in that situation they are frantic, so it’s like having a Saint Bernard attacking you as bad as he can, that’s how bad they don’t want to be roped, they just want to find their mother. Our neighbor had made this boat ramp close enough to where the calf was. My husband somehow got the rope around the calf’s neck — mind you, every rope that we throw around here is barely 30 feet long, so we have just a little bit, once we get it around the calf, to wrap around a horse’s horn. We were able to shimmy that calf through the water a good mile to where this boat ramp was. Then somehow that calf got away. It was my husband, my son-in-law, and I, and we were all riding [after him]. By then the rope is soggy and awful, but I was able to rope the calf before my husband and my son-in-law could. Every year we seem to have one that’s going to fall in the river, but that particular year I was busting my butt because I was so proud of myself.
Right now, my husband and I are transferring our entire ranch over to our children. My daughter and her husband have taken over the cow portion, and then my son and his wife have taken over the farm portion. There’s a gray area in between where certain things have to be done together, for example, haying, which can be a money cash-crop or it can be to feed the cows. Everybody has to work together to make it, to haul it, to rake it, to stack it, and there’s a couple of other areas too.
Everybody knows that first week in June they have to come to Petersons’ because that’s our date of brand. You really try and stay with the main guys that help you, then you go and help them, and it’s the same way all over the state, you have ten or twelve really good friends that come and help you. They’ll bring their horses and their trailers and we’ll start at the crack of dawn. Everyone has their own job: a gate, a chute, a panel — whatever their job is each person knows to stay there. The cows are smart to this, they know they’re going to get shots and get separated from their calves, so they don’t want to go there. You can hardly hear anyone talk because of the cows bellowing so loud. After everything is separated, then we start giving shots and we brand the calves. The brand is so the brand inspector at every sale barn would catch that and say, you can’t sell that critter because it’s not your brand. After the shots and the brands, the cows are checked and doctored. Same with any calf that hasn’t gotten castrated at birth, it’s all done at branding. At the end of the day, six, seven, eight o’clock at night, everybody eats and is free to do whatever. Then the next day we proceed to sort them again and then they get hauled to different pastures. Our pastures are 23 miles away, so we have to get the big semis in to haul them out. A lot of people have to haul to their pastures just so they can rotate some of their grass so it stays under good management.
That’s basically what a cowboy and a cowgirl is, they have to manage those grasses so that you have it every year. Some grasses do better in the spring, and some do better in the fall. We have some cool- and some warm-season grasses, a mix. We have to be careful about how soon some pastures have cattle in them because we don’t want to destroy those cool grasses; they tend to be a little bit more weight gaining, so you want them to have a really good growth start.
We sell our cattle to be butchered in the fall, when we round up or bring in all the cow-calves, we get the calves weaned and they get sold right away. In the Southern states, most people have a feedlot of their own and they’ll retain that ownership through the life of that calf, until he’s ready for butchering. That takes at least a year. We aren’t set up for that at this ranch. It’s so much more trouble fighting Mother Nature, so going to market in October/November works out best for us. Ours are around 600 pounds in October. They weight about 100 pounds when they’re born. Our goal is for them to eat as much grass and have the best weather they can for the summer so that they won’t be stressed, they won’t be running around, running from flies and predators. That’s a whole science in itself.
Almost every day I use pliers, stretchers, wire, leather gloves, fence clips, staples, hammer — I have to have that all with me at all times. We’re fencing, and it is just a mess here. All the winter snowdrift destroyed miles of fence. The fences that we’re doing right now, some of them are older than 50 years old. Along one of them is some wire that we believe was used in World War I because it is incredibly barbed, and it has never ever been fixed, that’s how industrially well-made it is. It’s on some old ash posts, which also dates it because hardly any one uses wooden posts any more, they’re all called tea posts or metal post, unless they are in a low area or a swampy area; then you would use wood. This particular line, I hope it gets documented because it is an incredible piece of wire even though it’s dangerous. No cow would even think about touching this wire.
The cows will let you know when the fence is down because they’ll get out. There’s no way to know where they are when your land goes forever, and same with kids, when our kids would disappear, it was like, where do you start first? When my daughter was little and she was still in a diaper, she had a blanket and a cat, and the tracks in the dirt led us where she was. There have been kids that have been lost in sunflower fields and … you can’t just run to the neighbors’. It’s your entire job to take care of everything that goes right or wrong.
We had a rottweiler and one February we couldn’t find it. We had a border collie and she kept trying to take me to one tree area, and I kept saying I’ve looked there! I called the sheriff and radio stations and said, I’m missing my dog. By the third day, and it’s been 10 degrees most of those days, I did one more walk and this border collie kept pulling me over to this place, if she could have grabbed my hand she would have. I kept hearing a whimper, and it was the rottweiler. She was in a pile of old scrap iron. She’s gotten her head caught in a grain auger, and her neck was lower than her hind end so she couldn’t get out. Her feet had frozen to the iron she was standing on and she couldn’t get the pipe off her head. I ran down in the woods — a half a mile — to my husband and told him, “I found Tug, she’s caught,” so he was trying to figure out ways to get her off this iron pile without pulling her apart. We could not get the entire auger off her head. We took her to the house, and we put mineral oil and vegetable oil around her neck to try and slide it off, but that didn’t work. So then my husband got a cutting saw and almost set her on fire because the sparks caught on her fur! We finally found a tool that could cut if off. That was many years ago, and she still has a scar that goes all the way round her neck that I stitched up with stitching line and Anbesol, like for kids’ gums. That’s our go-to if we have to stitch up an animal, it numbs it enough that you can run a needle through. She lived through it. Her feet are still froze.
Some days it’s too much and I say, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t lift my tool up any more, I can’t saddle my horse, I can’t lift one more rock, but you just keep going. I think about those prairie women that have none of the conveniences we have, what kept them going is beyond me. They are the ones that I marvel at and that I have the most respect for. Women who had five or six or seven or eight kids and they had to feed them and clothe them and bathe them and they had nothing …
When we were dating I told my husband, there’s no way I wanna be doing this stuff when I’m 65. I wanna go travel and be where it’s warmer in the winter, but I’m over that now; I don’t know what I’d do other than work now. I may not like it a lot of days, but as far as providence, definitely I am where I belong.