The Sego Lilly, or Mariposa, is in full bloom. Like a Milky Way of stars twinkling and trembling in the breeze of the sagebrush ocean, the view of them is enthralling on the Hat Creek Ranges, starting at 6000 feet elevation. As I sailed on the narrow trail through their fragrant and wavering stems, I leaned into the turn as my motorbike lugged up the hill through the dense fir forest in search of cattle.
It was a beautiful day in Idaho’s high country, but it was heating up. It meant that the team had to keep the beeves well hydrated and perhaps shaded up for part of the day. I had come up to check on Clint and Leslie and bring them a few supplies in my overstuffed backpack laden with fencing supplies, a grub hoe for any noxious weeds I may encounter, and 2 well wrapped Full Sail Golden Ales to refresh and cool down my crew when they arrived back at camp. I was now 35 miles from the main ranch headquarters, and a motorbike could make it in about a third of the time it took a pickup just because on it, I could go around the rocks instead of over them.
Clint and Leslie’s four day stint had started two days ago when my horseback crew of Linnaea, Jake and I handed the herder’s baton to them at Skull Flats Camp. It was our fourth camp, and was farther up and farther in on an increasingly mountainous and forested range. It was getting progressively harder to get supplies and even messages to the crew in camp as they were hopelessly out of cell service, deep within the broken and remote country they called home for the summer. Roads here bear only a very slight resemblance to the travel ways most of us are familiar with; these are more like rocky stream bottoms and are hard on pickups, ATVs and even my two wheeled conveyance. This is truly horse country, where they are without a doubt the best transportation, as the Bear Hat Shoshoni knew so well in the days they traveled and thrived in this country, still virtually unchanged since their day.
The lousy roads and negotiating a stock trailer up such two-tracks is why we just leave our horses up there. Sometimes we let them run with the cowherd for the day’s graze; other days we just leave them to forage on their own by cow camp.
I turned my bike off and listened. Nothing. Only Clark’s nutcrackers and canyon wrens. I smiled at the nutcrackers, because I knew that it was only a matter of time before the birds would discover us and be true to their other name: Camp Robber. The gray jays would relentlessly steal victuals from our camp kitchen; anything left out would be fair game.
I coasted the bike down hills, engine off whenever I could. It was the silent way to move through the forest, and I often could easily surprise game with a 30 mile-an-hour stalk of motorbike turned mountain bike. We used to have a wolf den in these trees, and I was hoping to spot one of the 150 pound canids if indeed they still resided here. But instead, I cut the tracks of a steer, and then another.
And then, there they were. As I came into an opening in the dense pine forest, I could see the whole herd before me, scattered over 200 acres. Most were grazing the deep green; others, basking in the sun. Their caretakers were nowhere to be seen over the thousands of acres of sagebrush and broken timber I could see from my vantage point.
I let out a high wolf call. It reverberated across the canyon and echoed in the cathedral of tall trees behind me. Wolves howl because it carries, and when trying to find someone, it’s the best way to penetrate even the darkest timber. We can learn this from them. The birds stopped their din for a second or two, and far on the timbered ridge above me, I heard a clear but distant response; quite like a coyote yip, but too low.
It was Clint. He and Leslie were high on the ridge where they could see everything, even mountain ranges 60 miles away and not a single sign of humans. I started hiking up through the forest, leaving my bike behind. We met in another 10 minutes, and they looked relaxed as the cattle they cared for.
It was only a few minutes of pleasantries before we began to talk shop, as all of us are passionate to continue learning by doing in the moving and placement of beeves on some of the best grazing this world can offer. In a nutshell, it’s why we are up here, creating the best wild protein we can while caring for the land we love.
We talk personalities of individual steers. And we talk the dynamics of bovine personality and how it affects movement. Every person on our 3 crews is a student in the lingo of bovine, and we are always learning, refining techniques to allow the beeves to do their very best.
Clint related his latest observation: “Just something I noticed when we are trying to get the leaders—you know, the ones who are always trying to walk out and explore ahead—to turn and graze like the rest of those bringing up the drag.” The drag is the tail end of the herd, and often, they are the ones grazing. Because our herd is mostly comprised of young animals, many of them like to just walk on out and see new country. One of the challenges of a husbandry professional in wide open country is to get those wanderers settled and at peace with their current surroundings so they rest and eat instead of walk and lose weight. Like humans, all beeves are different. Some are compulsive wanderers and explorers. Some have personalities that are more loner than herdmate. It’s our continuous job to make everyone in the herd comfortable—it’s a sort of bovine counseling, if you would allow me. We get them to rest easy and relaxed with their herdmates in new and very unfamiliar territory.
In complete contrast, for perspective let’s say, virtually every other beef in the US is raised in confinement. Even rare always-on-pasture grass fed beef lives on small pastures. There is simply no place to wander to—only the fence on each side of them a hundred yards or so away. Alderspring beeves, on the other hand have a pasture that is 70 square miles in size. They could wander for days and weeks, and never revisit the same meadow. I’m not saying that the small pasture way of grass fed is wrong and this is right. It’s just different than what we do, and it is what it is.
So we have to learn from the cattle and handle them in a way that settles them, giving them security in the trust we earn. It’s a process that has been going on millennia before the revolution of fencing changed everything. Starting with stone fences built by slave and peasant in Medieval Europe, the art of herding has slowly disappeared. It’s a lost art.
That’s why many cattle are “driven,” pushed or “punched,” using stock whips and even electric cattle prods. Agressive dogs like Blue Heelers bite the heels of slow or wayward cows—the ones we like that take time to eat and smell the roses. These are all tools in nearly every other cattle operation I know of, because they are in the business of simply pushing cattle to a new confined pasture.
Clint continued: “So if we ride ahead and turn into the herd with our horse and stop those leaders, we have got to quietly get their body oriented back, pointed to the herd.” What Clint was talking about was easier said than done. I trusted his intuition; after all, he had years of experience herding the wildest of the wild—2000 head of bison on 100,000 acres. The communication he was alluding to required subtle body cues given by the head and body of the horse you are on the back of. A quiet swing of the horse’s head here—a step to the right—then a step to the left, in an elegant dance of experience—years of it—by rider and his mount. We all still were learning the dance. “If we just stop them, when we move away, they’ll just continue moving out, stretching the herd out over several miles. And that creates stress on us, trying to keep everyone together, and runs our horses ragged.”
I nodded in agreement. This subtle change in body position was key to settling the herd.
Clint went on: “But here’s a key point. If we turn them around, and keep the pressure of our presence on them for a second too long, they will just continue moving. We’ll create momentum—energy—in the herd whenever we apply pressure, and they’ll continue moving right through the herd all the way to the other side and punch out that way. So we have to turn our horse back off with non-threatening body language immediately with a perfect sense of timing, or we’ll cause a reaction the other way.”
I had seen the same thing. In fact, I had even seen it where the energy of movement transferred to the far side of the herd, and other cattle besides the ones I had just turned spill out of the herd a quarter mile away. It was like a domino effect, or creating a wave in a swimming pool, moving that energy through the herd to the other side. But if the wave is created quietly enough, it won’t spill over the opposite edge.
As always when I check on my crews, it was a meeting of the minds. It was an exchange of ideas that sharpened our perception and knowledge base about how to partner and understand these animals that so many in our world today call dumb.
As I coasted my gravity run and silent bike down through the broken rubble strewn trail back to Skull Flats Camp, I thought of our animated discussion. Is this science, this discussion and trial of herd principles? Is it science when no one researches herd dynamics and bovine communication, and we are learning from experts funded by government and chemical company? Isn’t science based on the rigorous testing of hypothesis followed by peer review? Indeed, that seems to be the current definition of science, and we were ridiculously out of the mold.
So what is this then? Is it art? Is the grazing of these wild landscapes that an art based on observation of silent bovine?
I think it is. But like an accomplished painter, our brushstrokes lie in the practiced partnerships with equine and bovine and their tie to the landscape. They may be silent partners in audible tones. But no less expressive in nuance and the subtleties of relationship to each other and the land itself.
All we have to do is take the time to walk in the silence of wild country and listen. And study on the music of the spheres.
I hope you can take the time to do some of the same by going outside, inhaling deeply; observing and listening. It may be in the likes of Central Park. Concrete and pavement always end; we just need to find their terminus. For in the human genome, I believe that we foundationally need and thrive in contact and concert with the natural world.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowboys of Alderspring.