Head(ed) West, Young Man

Landon Foster, grandson of Jim and Mary Bradford and son of Dale and the late Madonna Foster, is the guest blogger this week:

I am currently representing the third generation here at Brad Z Ranch. I am a senior in high school this year with plans to make my career in the beef industry. I am going into the Marine Corps Reserves immediately after this school year. After I get all my training done, I plan to go to Iowa State University to study Ag Business and Animal Science.

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Dale and Landon Foster in Wyoming

This summer I had an excellent opportunity to get some ranching experience in the west. I was able to spend two months working at the Hoodoo Ranch in Cody, WY. The Hoodoo is a working ranch of about 250,000 deeded acres along with thousands of acres in BLM and Wyoming State Trust leased land. The ranch spans from six to twelve thousand feet above sea level. It is a cow-calf operation. The herd consists of 3,500 Charolais-based cows with some purebred and some Red Angus cross. Hunt Oil Company owns the Hoodoo. The Hoodoo is the largest of their five ranches. Their brand is the Palette brand. It is the shape of a painter’s palette. Hoodoo means “pointed rocks” in Shoshoni.

During my time at the Hoodoo, I lived in a bunkhouse on the ranch. I learned a lot in my short two months there. One of the first things I was told was that the old saying holds true in the west today. “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” Water rights are a big issue in that part of the country. It’s something we don’t think anything of here in the Midwest. That area of northwestern Wyoming typically receives about 6-10 inches of precipitation per year so water rights are very important, and it can be a touchy subject. I had never been around irrigation before either. That was interesting to learn about. The Hoodoo has about 3,000 acres of irrigated ground in the valleys, which is mostly used for hay, but some grazing as well. Most of the irrigated ground is under pivots. The rest of it is flood irrigated with ditches and dams or gated pipe. Irrigation is time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive. River water is especially difficult to irrigate with because you can’t keep debris out. However, crops would be impossible to grow without irrigation. When the mountain snowpack has all melted and is gone, and the reservoirs begin to dry up, water becomes scarce and there are often death threats and tension over water.

Farming in Wyoming is a lot different than in the Midwest. They level the ground and roll in rocks every spring. The barley farmers in the area are able to get their tillage work done during the January thaw because there is no mud to stop them. There are a lot of specialty crops grown in that area. Some of the more common crops are: barley, hay, pinto beans, sugar beets, wheat, and a little corn and canola. Not much farther west you would see a lot more potatoes.

The Hoodoo’s farm ground is spread out a lot, so it is divided up under five foremen. These foremen are responsible for farmland, and two of them each have half of the replacement heifers. There are thirteen full-time employees and several part timers at the Hoodoo. This includes a manager, assistant manager, office secretary, five foremen, and five cowboys.

This year they kept back 850 replacement heifers. Most of the other calves are marketed through stocker and feedlot operations. The Hoodoo retains ownership on most calves. I was able to help with AI on the heifers. Working cattle on large-scale operations is pretty cool. Things have to flow well and keep moving in order to get anything done. We bred 425 heifers each day for two days. I thought they would be really long days, but we were really efficient and got them done fast. We did each group in about four and a half hours. We only had four chutes, but we kept a steady flow of cattle and switched out AI technicians on each one, so we never stopped moving.

I was fortunate enough to get to do some cattle work, but I spent most of my time making hay. My job was to switch back and forth working for two different foremen. I spent a lot of time making hay, fixing fence, and working on equipment. The fencing can be fun because sometimes you have to get creative with it since you can’t drive posts into rock very well. Making hay is a much different scenario in that dry of a climate. However, the hay is usually of better quality. It is easier to get dry hay put up and it is done with less work because you don’t have to rake. Self-propelled swathers are really cool as well. They are simple to run and move fast in the field. The best part is that you don’t have to look over your shoulder the whole time. Irrigation is time consuming and expensive, but you can put the hay up right because you can control the water and it won’t get rained on. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, so we still have problems. We cut one field and checked it early the next afternoon. It was still really wet at that point. By that evening it was too dry to bale. It just turned to dust, so we decided to wait for some dew. Unfortunately, the dew never came. After about a week of waiting, we decided to make a dew machine.

Our dew machine was fairly simple. We mounted a sprayer tank on a flatbed trailer, hooked it up to a pump, and ran a pipe across it, then hooked a hose to the pipe. Then we put spray nozzles on the ends. It took us most of the day to get it right, but we had it down by dark. So, I sprayed “dew” all night while Ron raked behind me. We raked it to hold the moisture in long enough to bale it. It took us two full nights, but we finally got the field done. Most of our baling was done at night when we had dew otherwise it was too dry. So, we baled all night, and mowed, picked up bales, and worked on equipment all day.

Other than being arid and brittle, the climate is a lot different in other ways too. That is quite the adjustment when you are used to the Midwest. The other main differences are the elevation and growing season. The growing season is a lot shorter. At about six thousand feet elevation, we started cutting hay the third week of June. At seven thousand feet, we started the second week of July. They usually get two cuttings.

The Hoodoo spans from six to twelve thousand feet above sea level. That is a really good range to have because during the summer the cows graze the higher mountains and let the lower stuff grow, then as things dry up and get eaten down, they work their way down and graze the lower stuff. It is all hard, nutrient dense, native, short grasses. Most of the ground is covered with rock or greasewood. However, there is some really good grazing land as well. The only problem with trying to graze the higher elevations is that the wolves and grizzly bears kill some calves and end up scaring the herd back down the mountain.

The Hoodoo has a plane that they fly every morning to check for wolf and bear kills. It is also handy for spotting cows to round up in that rough country. If they spot a wolf kill, they report it to Wyoming Fish and Game, who then comes in and kills problem wolves. I was surprised to find out how well they work with ranchers in spite of environmentalists and animal welfare groups pushing against us.

On my last day, I finally had the chance to go to a branding. That was a cool experience. I really enjoyed it. If you are like most people from the Midwest, you probably haven’t been to one before. It is more of a social event than work because there is usually a BBQ or picnic afterwards. People from other ranches come to help, and in return we help them too. It is sort of an honor to be invited to a branding. I met some pretty cool people that day and it was a good chance for me to do some more socializing. Brandings really show off the best that the ranch lifestyle has to offer. Everyone there is working hard and having fun. Women and children also help as much as they can. Even two year olds are out riding horses and practicing their roping skills on a dummy. There is no such thing as a lazy ranch kid. They are all out there pulling their own weight. They don’t sit around and watch TV or play video games. Ranchers have strong family ties and high morals. I would like to see more of that in the world today.

The only thing I didn’t like was that because it is a large-scale operation, there is a lot of repetition. I would prefer to do something different every day, which is why I like farming and ranching so much. I’m sure I could work round that problem if I needed to though.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up down the road, but it sounds like I would have a pretty good shot at working for the Hoodoo. I would like to come home to the farm. I will just go wherever my opportunities take me. I had a great summer and I learned a lot. Part of my reason for wanting to go out there in the first place was that I have been skeptical of how well cattle ranching in Iowa works. Iowa isn’t really ranch country, but I realize now that it does work. Every place has its own pros and cons and if Iowa is where you have an opportunity to get started in the cattle business, I wouldn’t pass it up.

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