The 7 year plan
Spring of 2011. We were new to The Basin and so were our cows. We were figuring things out and hoping they might too. They'd been in meadows their entire lives, Husbeast was new to grazing permits that involved outside grazing country and I had grown up with BLM and Forest Service range that cattle ran on year 'round.
It took us a few weeks to get settled and get calves branded. When the time came to turn out, we had the plan in hand and knew where the cows needed to go. No sweat.
Well, other than the fact that the way "up to the top" was a mile long switchback road that climbs about 500 feet from the meadows. We had to get 200 some pair up the mountain.
We recruited the help of our neighbors and 12 of us tackled the project that day. If you've ever been behind one cow that doesn't know where she is supposed to be going and doesn't want to go where you are trying to convince her she should be, you know what it's like to multiply that by 200 and add calves that are slower, weaker and, well...dumber and try to get them all to the target zone together. Instead of being strung out and moving along with a goal in mind, they moved like a swarm of bees whose nest was disturbed. We mashed and yelled, used dogs and wore out horses, climbed horseback then afoot and lost cows and calves that outran us to the bottom. It took us most of the day to get the majority of the cattle to the top and to water. We couldn't have done it without the 12 of us and we probably would have welcomed 12 more that day. For the rest of the summer, we pushed and mashed and showed cows their new digs, hoping and wondering how long it would take for them to get the place figured out. It was a long summer for all of us. I do remember saying that someday we would be able to open the gate at the bottom of the switchback and point up the hill and those girls would go. It was a wish, a hope and to be honest, a prayer...
The next couple of years were still long pulls up that mountain when the time came, but they began to figure out their favorite haunts and things began to get a bit easier. One fall day about 3 years into our time here, I looked out the window and Husbeast was driving up the switchback and every cow we owned was following him. The calves had been weaned so the cows were easier to convince that time.
We simplified things after that and began to sort cows by their calving dates. We took pairs up in smaller groups and while they still fought a bit, it was much easier to move a smaller herd than all of them at once.
Last year, because of the timing and because we had the help, we took them all at once again. They didn't mother up at the top as well as we hoped and we had a few who came back on us. It was, however, the easiest they had ever gone up in the six years we'd been making the drive.
Spring of 2018. Our 7th year here. We've sold cows that couldn't make it on the desert. We've bought replacement heifers, raised replacement heifers and continued to weed out those that didn't fit well with the country. When calving rolled around we were already thinking ahead to how the cattle would go up the mountain. We were considering again that we might split them by when they had calved and take them up in smaller groups like we had before. But the bulls did too good a job last year and the calves came in a clatter and we were about 90% calved out in 60 days.
We headed out to gather, the day of our branding, with nearly everyone we had invited. The cows tried to outrun us in all the wrong directions, they wouldn't bring their calves and we fought them the mile or so that we needed to go, from the pasture to the corral. It was the worst they had ever come in!
I looked at my friend and said "going up the switchback ought to be fun this year."
She laughed and we joked that maybe we shouldn't call them for help going up this year. We were all imagining the nightmare that trip was shaping up to be.
About a week ago we moved all the cattle into the meadow that was at the bottom of the switchback, to let them get their fill and graze the meadow down before we tried to talk them in to going up.
Each morning when we looked outside we could see several cows up on the hills and our hopes that they'd want to climb the mountain on their own, grew a little stronger each day.
A couple of days ago, four of us pushed the cows and calves out of that meadow and worked on foot to get each and every calf across the river. Some swam, some walked with their mothers, some went the wrong way and came back to us. We spent a couple hours making sure that each one was baptized and across with the cows before we left them to graze the face of the switchback.
We looked out every morning and in the evenings and saw cattle scattered across the face, above and below the road that would take them to the pasture they need to be in.
Today. Today we drove out to get monitoring pictures and to see if any had made their way all the way up.
When I think of driving through the gate and finding cows and calves scattered from there to the first set of water troughs and beyond toward the springs in the canyons, it makes me want to cry. They did it. Seven years into their lives here, for the oldest of our cows, they did it. They made their way to the top and they took their babies with them. The youngest of the calves who wanted to swim the least and the oldest who marched up right behind their mothers were napping, grazing and nursing as if they'd been born on the top of that mountain.
The only thing that would have made that better, is if I'd actually pointed to the top when we pushed them all across the river that day.