February 7, 2018

by

A graduate of the apprenticeship program, Nick now manages the MP Ranch in New Mexico with his wife Amy.

The Chico is a large shortgrass prairie ranch just on the eastern edge of the suburban and exurban sprawl of the front range near Colorado Springs. It’s well-watered with several creeks running through it, and the wells are productive and shallow. The native grama and sacatone grasses make good winter-feed. The country is open, gently rolling. I did an apprenticeship there from 2012 to 2014. My mentors and teachers were mostly Duke Phillips III and Michael Moon, but I also learned a lot from Amy (then my girlfriend, now my wife) and Stuart, another apprentice, now managing a ranch in Montana. The general structure of the apprenticeship was to give each apprentice a part of the ranch and an accompanying herd of cows to look after.

The MP Ranch.

The MP is a brushy, dusty ranch in south central New Mexico. It’s about 110 sections in size, about one hundred miles in any direction to the nearest grocery store, and five hundred feet or more through gippy soil to the nearest water. Amy and I now manage the MP with a crew of three girls in their early to mid-twenties: Morgan, Alden and Sophia. Alden, or Aldo as we call her, the most seasoned of the three and an apprentice, had never fixed a leak in a pipeline, performed an oil change, ridden a motorbike, gathered a pasture horseback, or driven a standard transmission when she arrived at the MP with us last January. We now depend on Aldo, and the other girls, to perform these tasks, and many more, everyday.

Alden fashions a splint for an injured calf at the MP. April 2017.

Aldo came to ranching by way of a summer working on a dude ranch in Montana, and her interests in working with us were originally guest oriented. She likes taking people out riding, getting to know them, making sure they have a good time. We initially expected to have a guest operation as part of the MP, but, when this became unfeasible due to a lack of appropriate housing, we ended up with Aldo as a ranch apprentice. And how we’ve needed her! She’s hard-working, likes to finish the job rather than call it quits just because it’s five o’clock. She always has a positive attitude, no matter the task set before her, no matter how bad the day is going. She’s an artist, and whenever she’s not working, she’s drawing. She will put in a big day fencing, then come home and sketch a badger skull late into the night. She’s been an integral part of our successes on this operation. But how different Aldo’s interest and approach to ranching are from what mine were when I began my apprenticeship on the Chico six years ago. I was overconfident, prone to jumping in before I had a complete understanding of the task at hand. I still am that way. Less so now, most of the time. I tried to do it all myself. Aldo is cautious, circumspect, detail-oriented. She hangs back rather than risk doing the wrong thing and does not want to fail us. I always expected myself to get it done without any help. Aldo calls or texts whenever she has a question

1. Cattle handling—“Figure it out.”

When I started my apprenticeship at Ranchlands, I had no clear idea of what I aimed to get out of the experience. I did know I wanted to have a career in cattle ranching, and this seemed like a way forward with that. I didn’t realize yet that my stockmanship abilities were lacking, that I was not a very strong communicator, manager, or prioritzer, or that I depended on others to teach me things, rather than on myself to go out and learn about the things I wanted to know.

The apprenticeship was not structured the way an academic undertaking might be, with exams or grades, checkpoints or signposts of progress. For someone used to learning in a structured environment, as I was, the apprenticeship was frighteningly loose. Instead of being told what to do each day, I was given responsibility for making those choices myself. If I wanted to get better at riding colts, there was no one there to take me through it step by step, or to encourage me to get out in the evenings and get going, everyone was too busy. Sure, people would answer questions or help out if they saw me in a bind, but more often than not it was up to me to muddle through as best I could.

And I made plenty of mistakes.

The first time I moved cows on the Chico, I wondered why no one was working hard except me. I was used to a style of moving cattle where everyone is at the back pushing hard, calves stressed and running back, whips popping. I was at the back, trotting aggressively back and forth in a zigzag pattern. And there were Duke and Michael riding along on the side, way up front, just talking and visiting. How lazy they were! Yet the cows were going along at a good pace, better than I’d ever seen.

I gradually learned that when cattle need to be trailed someplace you try to use the cattle’s innate desire to follow other cattle to keep the herd in a long, sinuous column. Riders along the sides ride in towards the line of cattle to break up any spots where they, the cows, are slowing down.You do not want them crushed and spreading horizontally with a big pack of riders at the back, but you also do not want them to get so strung out that all momentum peters out and the cattle drift off course and start grazing.

There’s also an art to gathering big herds of cattle in the open plains country of the Chico. The gather is a highly coordinated, early morning, team event, each rider signaling by his position and the speed of his travel an important set of information to each other rider down the line. We did not use radios or cell phones for this. If one person went too slow, or fell out of position, it could wreak havoc with the pacing of each other rider and turn what may have been a smooth pasture move into a difficult slog. Likewise, if you arrived too late in the day at the back of the pasture, the cattle would be mispaired, calves nested down in the arroyos, cows in at water, and it was best to try again the next day but get started earlier.

Nick and Amy check in with their horses. February 2017.

The riders on point worked at a long trot to reach the far corners of the pasture, bringing in straggles of cattle to the central mob, and passing them off like a baton to the next rider in line. In a successful gather, all the riders and cattle would converge on the end point simultaneously, emerging from the gently rolling hills as if by accident, the cattle really going someplace at a good long walk, ears forward, excited by the promise of fresh pasture ahead, streaming out in long, loose columns. I love this, I learned to love it. I can remember more than a few times trotting around back and forth in what I finally had to accept was the completely wrong position! What an idiot I was. But isn’t this how you learn best? By making mistakes?

I became proficient moving cattle in this low stress, efficient manner, by making about every mistake a person can make. I let them string out too much, and then the next day, I kept them wadded up too tight. I pushed too hard and from the wrong side in an effort to get cows rolling out of a corner, and did the same thing moving cows off a drinker, stopping the flow of cattle completely and even turning them back the way we had come. I was in the wrong position for the gather, or too fast, then too slow. I put cows through the wrong gate, or let a big group of curious yearlings follow my dog in a big circle and miss the gate altogether. Duke and Michael made it look so easy!

Michael was quiet through most of the gathers or pasture moves. Often, we were far away from one another and out of cell phone service, which made it impossible or impractical for him to correct me moment-to-moment. Instead, at the end of each move I would ask him what I could do better for next time, and over the long trot home he would explain to me in no uncertain terms precisely when and how I’d gone wrong, and why this situation had been different from the last one.

I remember one time loading a group of horses in a trailer with Michael. We were flapping a flag at them, and they were milling around in front of the trailer, not wanting to go in. Michael kept murmuring “Figure it out, figure it out,” and flapping that flag. It got a little wild for a while, with those horses jostling in the cramped load out area, and I wasn’t sure if the fence would hold them or if one would get hurt. One mare, a bay with cholla stuck in her forelock, suddenly lined herself up to consider the trailer, and Michael quit flapping his flag. “Figure it out.” She stood, head down, snorting at the entrance, shuffling her front feet. She licked her lips, raised up and looked at us out of her right eye. Shuffle, shuffle. And then she made a heroic leap into the darkness of the trailer and clattered all the way to the front. The other horses followed, each pausing a moment at the pitchy, gaping door-mouth, before springing suddenly forward into the unknown.

Nick and his interns Mogy and Phoebe pause at a drinker after moving cows at the MP.

We gather the big brushy pastures of the MP by waiting until late in the day when the cows come into water. We shut waterlots to keep the cows from sneaking in and getting a drink in the night, and then we ride a circle through the country, picking up the thirsty cows standing outside the gate. It can take a week to gather a pasture, and there are always stragglers or strays.

Moving cattle on the MP is more about craftiness and anticipation than finesse and coordination, but the lessons we’ve worked at imparting to Aldo and the others have been the same as we learned back on the Chico: pay attention to the position of the other riders and adjust accordingly whenever possible, and a whole bunch of other stuff that’s hard to teach because each situation is a little different.

In the early days of Aldo’s apprenticeship, I remember receiving phone calls or text messages from a confused Aldo at the other end of the pasture, wondering where she needed to be. We’d made a plan before separating off, but things on the ground seemed so different, and everyone had needed to adjust their positions. I remember asking her how she wanted to gather a pasture and realizing she’d been daydreaming through our discussion of a plan. Or I’d ride near her and have to make a big whoop to get her to look up from her horse’s ears to notice where I was and shift over.

As a mentor, I’ve often struggled to let Aldo make her own mistakes working cows. So much of effective stockmanship has to do with seeing what the cow is going to do before she does it and moving in such a way as to prevent that from happening. I see where Aldo needs to be, and it’s hard not tell her to shift up a little bit, or, in higher speed situations, not to cut in front of her when she’s not in position to turn a cow back. After I’ve done something like this, Amy, a more patient and better teacher, reminds me that people won’t learn if I jump right in there like that, and it’s disrespectful. Godamnit, I know! But I still do it. I ride this little sorrel horse who very rarely makes a mistake with a cow, so I know I can get it done, but still, how will Aldo learn if I always come in to the rescue?

Nick and the “little sorrel” Manzanito sorting in the alley at the Chico. January 2016.

The reason this sorrel horse rarely messes up is that instead of taking him in hand and guiding him through each maneuver so that we never missed a cow, I’d put the reins on his neck and guide him with my feet as subtly as possible. And when he was late to the cow? Well, he’d have to chase her and bring her back out. Pretty soon he started to pin his ears back and really jump out in front of a cow that was trying to get past him, or put some effort into stopping with her so she wouldn’t cut back behind him. It’s one thing to stop a horse. You pull back on the reins, he sticks his nose out and roots around. He’s tense, heavy, his mouth hurts, he’s not really ready to turn around and run back the other way. It’s something else entirely for him to stop himself. His body feels relaxed, loose, his head is down, his hindquarters underneath him, and you’d better hang on because he’s already halfway turned around, ready to go the other way with that cow.

More recently Aldo started to ask questions she already mostly knows the answers to, like, when she’s riding on point, if she should go get the gate, or if she needs to turn them onto the fence. Asking questions marks a halfway point between Aldo making her own mistakes and me jumping in and preventing her from making mistakes. There’s always a way I would do it, but there’s also more than one way of getting cattle to where they need to be. My way might work pretty well, or it might not. Same with Aldo’s way. So I quit answering Aldo’s questions about where she needs to be when we’re moving cows. “Up to you,” I say. I have a feeling if I can keep my mouth shut she’s going to get this thing figured out.

2. Fences, water—“‘A’ for effort!”

In one of our very first meetings in the Chico leathershop, Duke explained to me that each pasture was like a home for the cows. The fences were the walls, the grass the groceries, and the miles of pipeline and drinkers the plumbing. It was my job to keep the cows comfortable in their home—keep up the fences, rotate the herd into a new pasture before the groceries ran out, keep a supply of salt and protein tubs in front of them through the dormant season, and be especially alert to any fluctuations or problems with the water supply.

I spent a day reviewing the pastures with the ranch foreman Allen, and then it was up to me to organize my days, weeks and months to take care of that part of the ranch, that group of cows.

I failed a lot, and when I did there wasn’t the sort of support I was used to. No one to say, “Oh well, good try, ‘A’ for effort!” Instead, just me, with another pickup stuck to the axle in deep sand, weighed down by too many protein tubs. Or with a spliced section of pipeline that I would need to cut, drain and re-glue yet again.

Nick, Phoebe, and Lizard check heifers at the MP. April 2017.

Because we were running such big herds of cattle, between 600 and 1,000 cows in one group, Duke emphasized staying on top of water systems. It could take just one day of an overflowing drinker or a down pump for us to get behind. Thirsty cows are stressed, drop condition quickly, don’t breed.

I started early and got in late every day. In the summertime I checked water before dawn, when the cows would start to trickle in needing a drink. Then I’d check again at the end of each day. And in the winter I remember getting in late most nights, after days spent pacing miles of electric fence looking for a short in the line, a place where the tiny bit of baling wire attaching the hot strand to the ceramic insulator was grounding out to the t-post.

The MP is an infrastructure challenge. The fences are old and haven’t been maintained for many years, and many of the pipelines are similar. The wells are deep and unproductive; the water eats away at an alarming rate any sort of metal plumbing parts. We use old diesel generators to power most of the pumps, which need to be maintained and checked frequently.  

Aldo is naturally focused and detail-oriented, an approach that is necessary to stay ahead of water issues on the ranch. She is as frightened as we are of losing a storage tank overnight, or of blowing up a generator as a result of some negligence. She takes notes and pictures, she calls with questions, she reports back at the end of each day.

Alden tosses hay to a steer in the corrals. February 2017.

We’ve also depended on Aldo for assessing many of the fence lines on the ranch for future repair work. After she’s looked at the whole thing from a motorcycle, from the back of a horse or on foot, we’ve asked her to estimate how many t-posts she will need, how much wire, how many days of work, and what sort of help. The first time she did this, she optimistically estimated she could complete the fence work in three days with one helper. That fence took a week or more to complete.

3. Planning—“They can’t be in the same place at the same time”

In addition to taking care of my herd of cows on the Chico, which included keeping a grazing chart which I would use to decide when and where to move the cows next, I was to assist anyone else with projects in their parts of the ranch, line out the interns, entertain the frequent ranch guests or school groups, and help to maintain the headquarters area of the ranch. Keeping all these different priorities running smoothly required us to plan. Once a week, the apprentices would sit down with Michael and plot out our days for the following week. In the early days, I was overambitious, crowding my days with a laundry list of tasks. My workplans week-to-week looked fairly similar, as I’d have to transfer the majority of tasks, still incomplete after a strenuous week, to the following week’s plan.

Nick and his collie Lizard at the Chico in 2014.

By the end of the apprenticeship, though still over-optimistic, I’d become better at prioritizing the important tasks for the week, and estimating just how long anything would take. When something went easier than planned, it wasn’t hard to find something else to fill an extra few hours in the afternoon.

Aldo recently started updating the grazing charts for the ranch. She also assembles the MP workplan and keeps up with the mineral and protein consumption sheets.

We generally plan our future pasture moves in an excel sheet, which allows us to quickly manipulate different variables, such as how long each herd will stay in a pasture, or how many cows will be in a herd. Then, we record each move in a paper and pencil grazing chart, which allows you to quickly check how long each herd stayed in a given pasture. Though planning is important, we also throw the plans to the wind when the situation on the ground changes from what we expected.

Last summer, for example, the moisture was spotty across the ranch. It would rain in one part of one pasture, and there’d be a dusty line where the moisture stopped. The precipitation we did receive came hard and fast, surging down rocky roads and depositing shovel loads of silt, and duff, not to mention the occasional pinon pine trunk, cholla cactus bough, rock or block of frozen hail, sweeping into dirt tanks, fences and into our shop and saddle house. We fixed washed out fencelines and we drifted cattle into the pastures that had received moisture, to take advantage of the greenup and tank water during the late half of the breeding season.

Aldo has never done the grazing charts before, but this seemed like a good opportunity for her to learn. It needed to be done, Amy and I each had other things keeping us tied up, and Aldo wanted to learn it. The past few days Aldo’s spent hours in the corner of our living room, hunched over the drafting table, parsing past move sheets, writing down pasture acreages, filling in cells with brightly colored pencils, deciding whether or not to include that yearling steer in the headcount for the heifer cow herd.

Aldo told me yesterday that she’s begun to understand why we were moving certain cows at certain times. “They can’t be in the same place at the same time!”

It’s such a simple realization it’s almost laughable, but it takes sitting down with the charts and taking responsibility for their upkeep and maintenance, to really start to understand why the cows moved when they did. We make a point to include the whole team in our grazing planning whenever possible, and explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing, but there’s a big difference between watching someone else make a plan and making that plan yourself, hearing an explanation and explaining things yourself. The process of updating these paper and pencil charts also teaches a person the importance of good, clear record keeping. It teaches you why we write down cattle numbers immediately after counting them through the gate, and just how many variables the movement of herds of cattle across a landscape must account for.

Nick and Alden on their way to move cows early in the morning. December 2016.

4. Twenty-five hours would be enough, probably

Aldo and Sophia trot into HQ at dusk. They finished the South Mesa fence sooner than they thought! It is a stretch of the ranch boundary that is particularly difficult to access, except by horse or on foot. It is a popular wildlife crossing and frequently in disrepair. It was also Sophia’s first day fencing. Aldo’s job was twofold: to fix the fence and to train Sophia to splice wires and to assess a fence for future repairs.

Amy resets a generator at one of the MP wells. February 2017.

Amy, Duke and I are in the shop, putting the #3 generator back together. It’s a big, nice, well-lit shop with a large wood stove in one corner, big doors on each side, see through paneling on the roof and enough space to bring in several vehicles or pieces of equipment to work on at the same time. The kind of space in which a person can dig into a project. Aldo and Sophia start putting away wrenches, sweeping out the dust accumulated through the day, rolling up extension cords. Duke, Amy and I are trying to get the screen bolted back into place in front of the radiator, but it does not seem to line up. Duke pries it in place with a screwdriver, while I slide the bolt into place, Amy tightens the nut.

It’s time to fire it up! I turn the key, and the generator turns over a few times but it won’t catch. I turn the key again, and now it sounds like it’s losing power, the starter sounds distant and weak. The symbols on the starter panel flicker and flicker again. It may be a bad battery, or something in the wiring harness. The wires are so old and they often short out. I wonder if there’s a vapor lock. We will get to troubleshooting the #3 another day, perhaps tomorrow. But tomorrow is Saturday and there leaks to fix, and the Ford needs to go to the shop. And who will do the checks? We joke around, and ask Aldo if she’d mind working on adding more hours to the day. Twenty-four hours is just not enough. We’re not asking for much. To the west and behind the houses and the shop chalky, juniper choked slopes are fading into blackness. Twenty-five or twenty-six hours would do it. That might get the job done. But seriously, Aldo, don’t work too hard at it.

 


1 reply to “An Apprentice’s Story

  1. Tony Dowling

    I enjoyed your piece, Nick. I have been at Chico and Zapata over the last five years or so and helped move a herd or two. I rode with Amy but you were back east in school, I think, just before you and Amy married. Quite the life. You have to enjoy it to stay with it.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *