Mel, a long-time Arvik family friend, is here at the VX helping Beau calve heifers. Mel is just one of those people who makes you feel like everything’s gonna be okay.
An employee at a PV cow camp wouldn’t usually have help calving heifers. We take a pretty simplistic approach to calving heifers at the PV. After all, it is April. We’re not trying to calve in the middle of a January blizzard. The grass is green and the days are warm. So there are no night checks around here, and there are strict orders from the boss not to spend a lot of effort trying to save a dying calf. You might call this approach survival of the fittest, and those who spend a lot of time micro-managing their cattle might find it unbelievable at best and cruel at worst to expect a first-calf heifer to get the job done. But the sheer numbers of cattle we deal with give us the privilege of not holding dear every crazy-eyed heifer and every determined-to-die calf; the sheer amount of country these guys have to cover every day makes it impossible to babysit every last cow. Her ability to produce a calf without fuss is what makes her worth keeping in the cowherd. In summary, the PV tries to hold true to the business model: “We’re not working for the cows; the cows are working for us.”
That said, we are not heartless humans, and we do what we can to help these girls out. Calving heifers around here is still extra work. Beau and Mel ride through the pasture the heifers are calving in at daybreak and at dusk looking for potential problems. Once a heifer calves, she and her calf are turned out onto fresh pasture, so the time invested in pairing out heifers alone is time-consuming. Beau and Mel — along with our coworkers at their respective cow camps — have pulled a few calves, and milked out a couple heifers, and hauled off a handful of dead calves to keep the coyotes at bay. And there are always the inevitable “I’m-a-first-time-mom-and-I-can’t-remember-which-calf-is-mine-or-even-if-I-have-a-calf” sentiments to deal with.
On top of all that, there’s the everyday work to be done around here: the aged cows are calving in other pastures, the waterlines continue to flow, the bulls are getting restless, salt and mineral must be distributed, and fences must be checked.
As I said, here at the VX we have been spoiled by Mel’s help this spring; part of a cow camp employee’s usual job description is calving heifers solo. But our distance from ranch headquarters and the other three camps makes it difficult for co-workers to get up here to help us… and, let’s be honest, the kids and I aren’t a lot of help for Beau when it comes to handling heifers.
Mel comes to us with a wealth of experience. He “retired” from cowboying a few years back and has been day-working ever since. His most recent job was with Redland Red Angus, where he was employed for 28 years and where he and his wife, Karen, delivered many a registered red calf. Prior to that he worked for the Kemph Ranch in the ’70s, where he calved out Hereford heifers bred to Simmental bulls (not a match made in heaven, especially back when Herefords were among the smaller breeds). While at Kemphs’, Mel attended a Colorado State University workshop to learn how to perform caesarean-sections. He later also learned how to use a special tool to literally break a heifer’s pelvis in order to deliver a too-big calf. (He does not have fond memories of that last-resort option.)
Let’s just say Mel has seen a lot of afterbirth flow under the bridge. We Blakes have sure enjoyed hearing his stories about his experiences and learning from him. Though he’s staying in the bunkhouse, Mel eats lunch at our house every day, and the kids are growing pretty fond of ol’ Mel. He plays checkers, spins circles with the babies, and even has a few magic tricks up his sleeve.
Mel and my folks go way back. He and his wife, Karen, both graduated from the same school as my mom (Custer). And when my dad came from Minnesota to Montana as a high school graduate looking for employ, Mel’s father was the first to hire Dad, and Mel was accordingly one of Dad’s first Montana friends (they worked together that fall during sugarbeet harvest). Mel and Karen and my folks have just kind of done life together. They’ve shared a few special trips — twice to the NFR! — and when I was growing up, I usually spent the night at Mel and Karen’s house when my folks went on the annual bull-buying trip to Canada (that was back in the day that the ranch used colorful little Beef Booster bulls on first-calf heifers. As Beau says, the resulting calves would nurse an antelope if they took a mind — but they didn’t exactly perform in the feedlot after weaning). Mel always challenged me to a game of Jenga back in those days… and I must’ve stayed at their house at Redlands’ during calving season, because I remember begging him to wake me up for a night check. (I think he let me sleep through it and I never knew the difference!)
Having Mel here has been good for several reasons. He’s not only helping Beau through calving, but also with typical ranch projects here at the VX which it just plain takes two capable people to accomplish. (2 capable people > 1 capable person, 1 mom, 1 five-year-old, 1 three-year-old, and 1 one-year-old. Got your junior high math skills on?) Together Beau and Mel have been putting in new gates, reworking old gates, even cleaning the barn top-to-bottom. (I would like to personally thank Mel for being a good influence on my husband. I have been pestering Beau about cleaning the barn since we moved here… but Mel didn’t pester, he just got to work.)
Also, Mel’s the sort of guy who gets to the barn a little early so he can comb out his horse’s mane and tail… and even Beau’s horse’s mane and tail. Suffice it to say he does the sorts of things a person does when a person isn’t overwhelmed by the daily task of keeping the children alive and/or hasn’t been kept up all night by a baby who insists on kicking her parents in the ribs as she sleeps.
One more interesting note on Mel: he is a Seventh-Day Adventist. We have not only had several interesting table discussions on faith and their approach to it with Mel, but I have also been challenged to prepare lunch daily without the use of pork… which I never realized I was so dependent on. (The Old Testament warns that pigs are unclean animals, so that’s why Adventists abstain. And in fact, the Seventh-Day Adventist church promotes a vegetarian lifestyle, their reasoning being that such was God’s original intent for humans; but Mel still eats meat, just not pork.)
So it turns out that we Blakes love our bacon, sausage, ham, and barbecue around here. Guess we won’t be converting any time soon.
The important thing is, though, that we all love beef. And cows. And heifers. Well, except for a couple of them…
© Tami Blake