The First Year – Struggling; by Carole Mercer

The first year
Struggling

Chapter 3

I now have too much hay in the barn. I need something to feed. I have one Morgan horse that I come with me on an earlier trip to Eagle Point, Oregon from Woodside, California. The mare is Suzi, an overly fat Morgan and she is not going to eat all that hay in the barn. However, Suzi would like to try to eat all the hay in the barn. She is a Morgan horse after all…

So I proceed with a brilliant plan that borders on stupidity. I purchase three Quarter horses.

I think I will become a “Cutting Horse Champion.” I totally am embracing the “cowgirl” fantasy .The Quarter horse mare has a colt foal at her side and is in foal for the spring of next year. Talk about a “ready made” trio of horses.  I am also “training” a big Quarter horse gelding named” Tony.” He will make a great rope horse when I buy my herd of cattle. Suzi is my driving horse. I must think I have lots of time on my hands.

The cinder brick horse stalls are four feet deep in sheep manure. I dig out all four stalls by myself and spread it over the fields by hand. The stall doors are too small for the tractor to drive through. The wheelbarrow and my number 2 back hoe (a shovel) clean the stalls.

Southern Oregon is murderously hot in the summer. The days are about 100 degrees or sometimes hotter… Thank goodness the nights cool down to 80 degrees. I have the above ground pool lining fixed. Sarah, my daughter and I climb into the pool regularly. The cool pool water is a lifesaver. I skinny dip. There is no one other than Sarah here. She lives in the pool, but she insists upon wearing her swimsuit. Remember she is only ten years old.

I also figure out how to run the wheel line. A wheel line is a monster sprinkler system on huge wheels. I have twenty-three sprinklers that spray water out twenty-four hours a day during the irrigation season. . Mostly I don’t care about important details. If I did care I could tell you just exactly how many pounds per square inch of water pressure comes from my huge water pump. The pump sucks water from the creek into the wheel line and onto the hay field. I am just relieved that I can make the water come out of Antelope Creek in to the underground pipes and into the wheel line and onto the field.

I have hand lines as well. Hand lines are twenty feet long, three-inch aluminum pipes that fit into each other. They must be moved once a day as well. I have twenty hand lines to move daily. I hate the hand lines, but move they must. I pick up the pipes one by one and move them to the next riser and hook them up. If I do not fit them exactly into the next pipe I get a “blow out” of water and must turn off the hand lines, empty them and refit them. I learn to be very careful about putting the hand lines together. There is no “hurry” in this tedious and strenuous job. Here I learn to care about “important details.”

I listen to the click, click, click of the sprinklers. Little do I know that for the next twenty some years, every summer, my life will revolve around the clicking sound of those sprinklers!  I am just relieved that I figure out how to drain the wheel line, pull start the Briggs and Stratton gasoline motor on the wheel line, move it with the” forward/backward” lever, reconnect the hoses to the wheel line and get the water sprinkling. I then move the hand lines twenty feet to their connection to the water pump. In the beginning I fight for every drop of water that comes pumping out of the creek. I have no idea how to do anything with this irrigation system. Only by horrendous trial and many errors do I figure out this cumbersome water irrigation method. . I still cannot pass a field that is being overhead watered without feeling great compassion for the time, effort and expense that goes into turning dry ground green. I develop a love-hate relationship with my lower 20 acre hay field that exists even to this day.. The water is not free. I pay the power company about $15.00 dollars a day for the electricity to run my pump.

My upper fields are flood irrigated. I believe that the ancient Aztecs and Romans figure out that water flows down hill. Very simple to irrigate by flooding the ground. Floodwaters turn brown ground green too.  Man made ditches bring water to my upper fields every two weeks for 36 hours. It is my job to open floodgates and make sure that the water flows down hill. I carry a shovel at all times and move water by opening gates and closing gates. Flood irrigation is simple and direct and not a high energy consumer. Water works by Mother Nature’s own gravity. I just have to keep the ditches clean and the water moving. I love flood irrigation. I pay Eagle Point Irrigation District for the ditch water. No irrigation water in the West is free.

My summer revolves around water. I pay the Rogue Valley Irrigation District for my hay field water. Water unused is wasted water and wasted money.  The water in the creek is not free. I move the wheel line daily. Moving the line takes me a couple of hours each and every morning because I still have no system and do not understand all the mechanics. I gradually gather more knowledge of the system and if everything goes well…then I can get it done in an hour and half. I walk the entire time, as I have no four wheeled ATV to ride. I learn to move irrigation lines off a horse.

Somehow the first months of living on a ranch get away from me. Suddenly September comes. Sarah goes to school. She is in sixth grade and doesn’t know anyone. Sarah creates herself. She decides to become a straight “A” student.  The school bus picks her up at the end of our quarter mile driveway and she rides to school with the not always so nice farm neighborhood kids.  Sarah likes the school and makes some good friends at school.  She likes most of the classmates and they like her so she is making the best start possible for a painfully shy child. For her eleventh birthday, Sarah has a party. I have seven sixth grade girls here for hot dogs, cake and ice cream. I have hay down in the field. Rain rolls in. Sarah’s party turns into a “hay hauling” ordeal. I teach one eleven old girl to drive my old white Ford Bronco as it pulls one flat bed trailer across the field. I teach another little girl to drive the tractor as it pulls a small flat bed trailer across the field.

The little girls start walking to pick up this second cutting of September hay. The bales are light but the girls are small.  Slowly I realize that there are strange pickups appearing in the field. The neighbors are arriving to help save the hay. With an unusual array of girl children and old neighbors…the hay is pulled from the field. I again feed the hay crew. Everything in the refrigerator is cooked and served. There is not a crumb of cake nor a drop of ice cream left in the house. All the girls, except Sarah think this is the coolest birthday party ever.

Even now when I sometimes run into a 32 year old young woman who was at that party that day she says.

“Sarah’s hay party was the neatest party I ever went to. I got to drive the tractor.”

I try to do some substitute teaching. Not much work comes my way. Real life is emerging on the ranch. I need money.

I need some type of cash flow here on the Rolling Wheel Ranch. Yes. The ranch now has a name. I call my ranch the “Rolling Wheel Ranch.”  The name comes from the wheel line rolling across the lower fields watering the growing hay and because of my love of the rolling wheels on my carriages.  I have a brand too. RWR, which stands for “Rolling Wheel Ranch. My brand is registered for cattle and horses with the state of Oregon. I have the horses, but I need the cattle. No money coming in so I might as well spend the savings on cattle. I can make money raising cattle. After all, I own a ranch that has lots of grass.

I know nothing about cattle.

Another idea that borders on the brilliancy of stupidity occurs to me. I decide I want all black registered Angus cattle. I still harbor “city girl’ ideas of how a ranch should look. Over a period of several months, I have learned to bale hay, move irrigation lines, flood irrigate, feed a hay crew, keep an above ground swimming pool algae free, collect firewood for winter, marginally fix fences and to clean up a very dirty and unkempt ranch.

I think all my cows should match so they will look “pretty” in the fields. I think that mama cows simply go out into the meadows and baby calves magically appear at their sides. I see the mama’s and babies everywhere in all the meadows and fields surrounding my farm.  By the end of September, I find a herd of twenty Registered Black Angus mama cows and nine babies. Come January and February I expect twenty newborn calves.  I can just see the dollar signs being born in the fields…

Life goes on. I am busy rebuilding fences so my cows will stay home. I am building a pond for the winter runoff. I am building paddocks for the too many horses I have purchased. I am building gates so I can move the cows from one field to the next. My freshly built, crooked gates actually open and close. The fences sag in places, but at least the wire is up off the ground. I begin a lifetime romance with what I call my “cob web” fences. Mostly these fences work. I am the tiny spider that constantly spins a thread to keep the fences all together.

My dad flies up from Atherton, California for a visit. My mother died seven years ago, so she never knows that I purchase a ranch. Ranching is a business that I know less than nothing about.

My dad is proud of Sarah’s achievements in school. He just looks at me and says

“What ever possessed you to buy a ranch?”

I smile and reply,“I have always wanted to be a cowgirl. Remember I grew up in Wyoming.”

My dear old dad just shakes his head.  He is in his late seventies.

When he leaves his words of wisdom are short and to the point. “Good luck. You are going to need it.”

“Bye, Dad.” I reply. I think I am filled with luck.

I am still learning to ranch every day. There is an enormous amount of pride taken in raising cattle and hay. (Remember…I haven’t raised a calf yet…I bought this herd.)  All my hay is in the barn and the cattle have been turned out to “pasture off” the hay field. One of my favorite pastimes is to ride my Morgan mare across my twenty acre hay field and watch the cows. The other day my dogs and I walk down Antelope creek and enjoy the autumn leaves turning all shades of color. I feel like I am in an English watercolor landscape.

An epidemic of pink eye jolts me into reality. This epidemic is not a school child pink eye epidemic but a cowherd pink eye epidemic. I have no idea that cows ever had any problems. Remember, I know nothing about cows. I call the vet. Jim Perry arrives. Jim is still my vet today. The man never hurries. The man never moves quickly. The man never speaks loudly. The man never gets excited. He is one hell of a vet.

Jim says “Looks like we have a problem with pink eye.”

I say “Oh my god. What am I going to do?”

Jim says “Looks like we will have to give them shots.”

I look at him like he is the crazy person who buys a herd of cows and has to admit that she knows nothing about cows.

“Shots!” I say. “I don’t ever handle needles. Needles make me faint even if I am not going to get the shot. I never have given a shot to anything.”

Jim says, “Looks like you are going to learn.”

My eyes and mouth gap open in total surprise at his words. I stare. I think that the vet is the one who gives shots. The thought of me actually giving a shot to a cow or anything animal never enters my mind.

I ask. “Just where do I give the shot?”

Jim says with his continued easy drawl “Looks like you have to give them the shot in the eye.”

I think I am going to faint. “Can’t you just give them the shot?”
My tone of the voice is begging.

Jim drawls

“Carole, if you are going to be in the cattle business, you have to learn how to take care of the cows. You can’t be calling me to be giving these cows shot every couple of days. Why you have twenty cows with pink eye and the nine calves are coming down with it too. You can just watch and I’ll show you how and then you will just do it.”

I look at him like he is the crazy person. He’s the vet… not me. I didn’t go to college to be a vet. Vets give the shots…not me. I faint when I get a shot. I know I’ll faint when I give a shot.

We begin to run the cows though the squeeze shoot. Jim shows me how to put the nose clamp on the nose so I can snub down the head of the cow and then give her a shot in the eye.

I almost faint.

I cannot faint because I have all my savings tired up in these cows. Fainting is the easy way out. There is no easy way out of this problem. I open my eyes and pick up the needle and begin to give the cows shots. I have to give shots every three days for nine days. I give the shots.

I cannot faint.

I learn one of the very first lessons in ranching. I do most of the work. My hands are now the hands of a boy. I have no fingernail polish, no long nails and many calluses. My hands grow to be the hands of a guy. My fingernails have not seen nail polish in 22 years. In the winter, no matter how many gloves I wear and lose, my thumbs and fingers split and bleed. I slather on the cream. Nothing helps my hands except “Bag Balm.”

The cows get better and I survive. I am introduced to the beginning of real life on a cattle ranch. My cows have not even started calving. Oh boy…do I have a world of knowledge to learn about cows.

I need to wean the big calves off the pregnant cows. The only creature I have ever weaned is Sarah. She loves her baby bottle as a two-year-old toddler. Weaning her off her bottle was a series of losing the bottle and having her believe my mothering lies I told her about losing the bottle. I wean Sarah with deception.

I cannot very well loose the mother cows. I separate the nine “weanlings” from their mothers. I still have no idea how I managed to perform that trick.

As time goes by, I discover I am very good at handling mother cows and their babies. I am quiet and slow. My method works. In the beginning I just did not know I have a hidden way with cattle. My method of separating mother cows and their children is simple. I am slow and very quiet.

I pen up the newly weaned calves. Fortunately for me I have a nice sturdy corral. I feed the big babies hay. The sad big babies call for their mamas and the sad mamas call for their big sad babies. My ranch sounds like an out of tune symphony of tubas playing a very sorrowful song. The song goes on for three days and nights and then suddenly mothers and babies accept the separation. The music stops.

I learn that I cannot turn those big calves back in with the mothers. I must take them to the auction to find someone to buy the calves. Weaned calves are called “weaners”.

I cannot keep up with all the ranch work and the new Quarter horses. I sell them and barely break even. The only horse that I have now is my bay Morgan Mare, Suzi.

I need to brand and vaccine all the cows. I climb on Suzi and gather in the cows. I sift and sort from her back. I am in my English saddle. I don’t have a western saddle, just the English one. Suzi does an admirable job.  I never get off her to open or close a gate. At one point I think I am actually aboard a REAL cutting horse. No cows get away from Suzi. I never get my feet muddy.

The far neighbors come over and help organize a cattle drive to the neighbors squeeze shoot and sorting pens. I do not own this necessary equipment.  I rents ea shoot from the Grange during the pink eye epidemic.    This cattle drive is the first of many to come. Many the cattle drives that I take part in will be with other people’s cattle. To drive cattle down public roads takes a certain amount of organization. You need people on horses and people in trucks and people on four wheelers. Some people race ahead of the cattle and block drive ways so the cows don’t gallop through flower gardens and vegetable gardens or raid hay barns. The entire drive needs good people. The far neighbors know enough people and we make the two mile drive smoothly. We manage the entire cattle drive with two men, two women, and two little kids on horseback. Then you add a pickup load full of little kids racing in front of the herds to block gates. Remember that this drive takes place twenty-two years ago. Kids can still ride in back of pickup trucks and this drive took place in an area that still was considered the “country.”

My heifers need their “bangs“ shots. Only a certified vet can give that shot. This shot prevents brucellosis in cattle.  As we run the cattle through the shoot…I am so nervous that I am shaking. I cannot even brand my own cattle.  My greatest achievement is that I give an old limping cow a shot of penicillin. Wow. Big deal. Then I learn that I must give her another shot in three days. Gulp. Giving shots to cattle give a whole new meaning to “Cow poke.” I’m the one that faints at the sight of needles. I have managed to give shots in the eyes, and shots in the neck. I guess I will learn to brand too.

I help to “pull a calf“ belonging to another neighbor. The calf is born backwards and alive.  I think that cows just magically have their babies in the meadows and eat grass. Little do I know how much work and effort goes into raising cattle.

Winter settles in on my first year in Southern Oregon. I now must feed my mama cows daily. I have a feedlot by my barn. The cows come in through the terrible big sticky mud to be feed. The feedlot is a muddy, sticky mess mixed with cow manure. I am weight lifting now. I toss down lots of bales of hay every day. Where I think I have too much hay…I now worry about not having enough hay. I hope my hay lasts. I hope I last.  The rain keeps coming. The feedlot mud deepens.  I must do something.

I contract for delivery of rock for the feedlot.  The rock man says that I must hire a bulldozer to move the mud. The dozer price is $45.00 per hour plus travel time.  I have no spare change. I climb on my little Ford tractor and move the mud and barnyard goop myself.  The rock man delivers four-inch shale rock in a pile. I slowly push the rock around. I use the front-end loader to pick up teaspoons of shale rock and spread it down the path to the field to make a solid rock road for the cows to come in and eat out of the barn. I order more rock. This time the rock man brings three quarter mines gravel to put on top of the shale rock. I move that rock teaspoon by teaspoon and level the feedlot and the path to the field.  I am totally amazed at what I can do and then did with the tractor. When pressed for money I functioned. I build my first road.

Substitute teaching dries up for me. I teach only two days in December. My barn full of hay looks more and more empty. Hopefully things will get better in January.

What fun. Today is December 24th and we wake up to SNOW.  The snow continues to fall gently for the rest of the afternoon.  My dear old Dad is visiting with Sarah and me this Christmas season. Sarah and I are so excited that we jump up out of bed, toss on our winter boots, mittens, scarves. Coats and outside we go.  Sarah and I make a couple of good snowballs and hold a great snowball fight. Splat! Sarah’s aim is perfect…I get the snowball on the back of my head.

Three neighbor girls come over to play. The four girls run and play in the hay field for a couple of hours.  Snow angels and snow sculptures abound in the field.  They troop into the house, warmed up, dried their wet clothes in the drier and then out they go again.

I could not stand to miss all the fun. I grabbed my lariat and a sled that lived on the shop wall just in case snow ever fell.  I saddle up my only horse, the Morgan Mare, Suzi and we all head out to the field.  I wrap the lariat around the horn and the other end of the rope is on the sled. We have a glorious time on a sled ride around the twenty-acre hay field.  The kids sit on the sled and I pull them around while riding Suzi. What a wonderful day. When we are all wet and cold again, we go up to the house, I put Suzi away. The kids peal out of wet clothes and we gobble down hot soup.  Next year I have a real sleigh.

December 25th comes softly in on the quiet of falling snowflakes. Our first Christmas in Oregon is white. We awake at 5 am and check to see for presents from Santa. Sarah and I find none. I build up the fire so the house will be warmer when we try again for Christmas. By eight o’clock, the hose is warmer and Santa came.  Grandpa (my dad), Sarah and I, plus the dogs, Popsie and Dolly, open the presents and chow down breakfast.  I fed the hungry stock and we jump into the pick-up and hustle off to the little country church held in the tiny one room schoolhouse located a quarter of a mile from our ranch.

Grandpa wants to know what to wear to church.  I assure him that is very casual. It is a simple little church and the minister has on his Levis. He is also wearing a patch of cow manure from his barn. He too feeds his stock before he comes to give his sermon. I find something very humbling about attending a small church where everyone knows everyone else and we all visit the stable on Christmas morn to feed our winter, hungry stock…  After church we are invited to our neighbor’s house for dinner. Dinner is late because the other neighbor‘s bull has escaped and is busy helping himself to the hay in our near neighbor’s barn. One more act of Christmas spirit consists of loading a one ton bull into the trailer and sending the visiting bull home.

Grandpa and I take the Christmas tree down on December 26th. Sarah leaves for a visit to friends in San Francisco. Grandpa leaves on the plane for his home on Tuesday. I find myself gloriously alone for the week after Christmas. The time alone moves in slow motions.

The calving of my cows is yet to come.

12 Responses to The First Year – Struggling; by Carole Mercer

  1. jns767 says:

    “I pen up the newly weaned calves. Fortunately for me I have a nice sturdy corral. I feed the big babies hay. The sad big babies call for their mamas and the sad mamas call for their big sad babies. My ranch sounds like an out of tune symphony of tubas playing a very sorrowful song. The song goes on for three days and nights and then suddenly mothers and babies accept the separation. The music stops.”

    This is my favorite part – he he, poor Weanies!

  2. susan overstreet says:

    Carol,

    Best chapter yet, absolutely enchanting.

    susan

  3. susan overstreet says:

    Oops. Accidentally sent this to the New England show posts.

    Carol, what were the names of the registered Morgans you owned while in Woodside?

  4. Carole says:

    Chular’s Valentine and Piping Hot Princess
    were the Morgans that lived with me in Woodside. Valentine was a lovely black mare and Suzi ( Piping Hot Princess) was a solid big heavey bay mare. Hope that helps. Carole

  5. Daniel Millard says:

    This is so exciting to read. I think that it’s a wonderful start. I cannot help but add details to the story in my mind, only because I spent so much time there and know all the places like the little church… Thank you Carole!

  6. susan overstreet says:

    Hi Carole:

    Thanks so much. I remember you owning Valentine when here and could not remember her name. She was a lovely mare.

    Susan

  7. Carole says:

    Susan.

    How nice you remember Valentine from woodside, California.
    My first”Valentine” was such a nice mare ,I call one of my Dancing Morgan’s barn name “Valentine” in honor of my first “Valentine.’
    I now four of the nicest horses that I have ever owned and I have them all at once. Old age has it’s perks.Carole

  8. Colleen says:

    Oh Carole, Your experiences brought back some fun and fond memories of my own. I used to run cows on 3000 acres in Concord, CA at the Naval Weapons Station. We did have some fun out there.

  9. Carole says:

    Colleen,

    Isn’t wonderful how one reading jogs so many nice memories. Share them. Write them down….We’d love to hear them. Carole

  10. Kristi says:

    Brings me right back to that very hay field where so many wonderful memories flood my mind and heart. Thanks Carole. Please keep writing.
    XOk

  11. kristobal says:

    Wow,
    really incredible.

    *WONDERFUL*

  12. lindahastings says:

    I am back to reading and writing in the early morning. So quiet at 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning. I just read this story and was enthralled. It is so wonderful that when we are dreaming about something, the dreams come true with some effort. You write as if we (your readers) were there. Looking forward to our spring time and more riding. Winter is a time of reflection. It is so exciting to see what is next in store. Thank you Carole

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