Back to the Homeland

I spent the majority of the past week in my hometown of Ennis, and it was wonderful to be home on the ranch and to give a couple of programs to boot.  My trip home was a little scary, as I ran into some freezing rain and black ice around Bighorn.  Following a semi down the hill into Custer, I white-knuckled it watching his trailer try to beat him down the hill, first on the left, then the right.  I promptly got off the freeway and took the frontage road all the way to Billings.  However, all the good gas mileage I got from going 35 in 4-wheel drive was cancelled out by the gale-force, tornadic winds from Reedpoint on.  Yes, I just referenced hurricanes AND tornadoes to describe Montana wind.
On Tuesday, I spoke at the Madison Grazing Seminar, where we had a great turnout of 60 people.  This also happens to be the occupancy load of the Ennis Fire Hall meeting room where the seminar was held.  So of course my question was, “What happens if you break the fire code at the fire hall?”
But no one busted us, so we went ahead with our meeting. I spoke about cow body condition scoring and the impacts of cow condition and nutrition on reproduction and colostrum production and quality. We passed out my audience-response clickers, and folks worked in teams since I didn’t have enough.  It was a lot of fun to give a talk at home, although there were lots of people who didn’t get all my red cow jokes.  I realize that not all of you reading this will get it, either, and I’m totally okay with that.
We started feeding a little cake to our 2- and 3-year-old cows while I was home.  The 3-year-olds know what it is, as they were fed it last year, but the first-calf heifers are sometimes a little scared of it at first.  There’s really no good way to describe the hilarious sight of half the bunch running full-speed toward you while the other half runs away when you honk the pickup horn.  Soon enough the whole bunch will have it figured out!
On Thursday, I went to Ennis Elementary School to give a program about Montana agriculture.  I was invited by the local Farm-to-Fork group, who have been featuring a local food at the school each month, and January was beef month.  So I went back to the very same grade school I attended and spoke to kindergarten through 4th grade students.  This experience, and others like it, re-affirm that it was a good decision for me NOT to become an elementary school teacher.
The kids completed an activity that helped them identify agriculture plants, animals, and products that are grown in Montana.  When you grow up in southwest Montana, you probably know about beef cows, hay, and maybe potatoes.  So it was fun to teach the kids about pinto beans, lentils and sugarbeets.  Even though the activity was the same for each grade, the students really determined what direction the discussion went.  Here are a few of my favorite moments from the day:
·         Parents of 4th graders must have had a fair amount of state pride when their children were born, judging by the names Jordan, Kinsey, and Madison.  There could have been more, but those girls in particular wanted me to know their names very much.
·         The 2nd graders, after learning that we could grow sugarbeets easily in Montana, but that another source of sugar – sugarcane – probably wouldn’t do so well, went on a brainstorming mission about how we could do it. “We could grow it inside by the fire! And if it grew taller than the ceiling, we could cut a hole in the roof and make a tube for it to grow in!”
·         I ate school lunch with my kindergarten and third grade teachers.  That was pretty surreal.  Then I got to see one of my favorite junior high and high school teachers, who is now the high school principal.  On the flip side, it’s probably pretty surreal for them that I am “Dr. Endecott”
·         One darling kindergartener said to me, “I’m a cowboy. See my boots and my belt?  And I’m even wearing a vest!” I almost died right there on the ABC-123 floor rug.
·         The 3rd graders were particularly grisly.  They wanted to know all about livestock slaughter.  So I told ‘em.  Bet their parents are really thrilled I came to present at the school!
·         Two members of the 1st grade were able to identify, on sight, without prompting, a sugarbeet and a lamb chop.  They both got high fives, just for being awesome.
Here’s a picture of us in action – my lovely assistant on the left, Miss Clark, and I were in 4-H together back in the day.
Next week I’ll be on the road again, leaving Monday and returning the following Monday.  Yes, that’s right, it’s January.  The most glamorous month of the year in my glamorous life. Roundup, Fort Benton, Helmville, Hall, and Helena are on the docket – I’ll keep you posted!  Feel free to make comments, I’d be happy to hear from you!

“Now our windshield’s a painting that hangs in our room, It changes each mile like the radio tune…” —Rodeo Moon, Chris LeDoux

Naked Pesticide Applicators, Unite!

Today, I wrapped up my tour around southeastern Montana in Forsyth.  It was literally the tenth time in a week I gave the talk – not sure if it got better or worse with time, but it’s pretty well memorized by now.  Here’s a list of things I learned on the road this week:
·         While 2010 was a really good hay year, you didn’t predict your cows would practically eat their weight every day since November 22nd.  Selling all that “extra” hay you had in October is starting to look like a really horrible decision.
·         Long underwear alter the fit of dress slacks, but that’s a fashion risk I was willing to take.
·         Colostrum supplements do indeed have an expiration date, and it was a revelation to some…”you’re damn right, I’m going to start checking for expiration dates!”
·         Block heaters and ipods are two of the greatest inventions of all time.
·         You tend to get a better answer from me if you just ask the question you want the answer for, rather than beating around the bush with 27 lead-up questions.  I may or may not have said, “Don’t beat around the bush, man, give it to me straight!”
·         I have a set of audience-response clickers, and scatter a series of multiple-choice question slides throughout the presentation.  One of the questions is about thawing frozen colostrum. One of the answer choices is “thaw it in your armpit.”  At ~70% of the locations, at least one person answered “thaw it in your armpit” – I truly love smartasses like myself.  That would be my answer if I was in the audience.
·         The new Jason Aldean and Jamey Johnson albums receive two thumbs up.
·         One of the other speakers was a pesticide educator from the Montana Department of Ag.  At one of our stops, he asked, “What is the most important personal protective equipment you can wear?”  The response: “Gloves.”  But he heard, “Clothes.”  I may or may not have said out loud, “Dear God, please wear clothes!  Whatever you do, do NOT spray naked!”

Next week will also be spent away from Miles City. I will be giving a talk at the Madison Conservation District Grazing Seminar and working with K through 4th graders at Ennis Elementary School about where their food comes from.  So, basically, old home week.  Stay tuned for more escapades from this asphalt cowgirl.

Here’s a shot of some wintry badlands from this week.  Disclaimer: I did not take this photo while driving.

“Now our windshield’s a painting that hangs in our room, It changes each mile like the radio tune…” Rodeo Moon, Chris Ledoux

Feeding Cows in Siberia

This week, I’m one of four speakers on the Southeastern Montana Winter Ag Series.  It’s an annual event around these parts, involving 8 communities in 5 days.  I’m giving the same talk this week as I did at Cow Capital Beef Day last Friday, focusing on preparing for the calving season.  We began in Jordan on Monday afternoon, traveled to Circle for an evening program, and went to Broadus today for a mid-day session.  The weather yesterday left a little to be desired – single digits, above and below zero, accompanied by a stiff wind, which was busy relocating large quantities of snow.  In Jordan, we had a nice discussion about the impacts of the miserable weather on cow nutrient requirements.
The range of temperatures where an animal doesn’t have to do anything “extra” to maintain body temperature is called the thermoneutral zone.  The low temperature of that range is called the lower critical temperature.  This temperature can vary – for example, a cow with a summer hair coat, or a wet coat regardless of season, has a lower critical temperature of 59 degrees.  Cows with a heavy winter coat have a lower critical temperature of 17 degrees.
The rule of thumb is that for every degree below the lower critical temperature, a cow’s energy requirements increase by 1 percent.  So if it’s 20 degrees below the lower critical temperature, the cow’s energy requirements increase by 20 percent.  This could be met by feeding another 4-6 pounds of good quality hay, or 2-3 pounds of grain in this example.  Interestingly, protein requirements remain unchanged during cold stress.
Just like people, cows are impacted by windchill, so the actual temperature needs to be taken into account when calculating extra feed needs during cold stress.  Here’s the National Weather Service’s windchill chart.  You can also it by clicking this link: windchill chart
As you can see, it sure doesn’t take much of a breeze to lower the effective temperature when you start with a pretty low number!
Tomorrow I’m off to Ekalaka and Baker, and I’m looking forward to visiting with more of my favorite people – Montana ranchers.

Colostrum: Breakfast of Champions

Yesterday afternoon, my winter programming run began with Cow Capital Beef Day here in Miles City.  It’s one of my favorite programs each year – people from all over southeast Montana attend, weather depending, and it’s the first time we all get together after the New Year.  It was also the site of my debut Extension presentation in 2007, so yesterday was my 5th anniversary at Cow Capital – my, how time flies.
I spoke about preparing for the calving season and the topic of colostrum was one I got a ton of questions on.  So I thought I’d make at least a token effort to make this blog educational and write a bit about some of the questions I got.
Colostrum is the first milk that a cow gives after she calves.  The baby calf is born without a functioning immune system, and the antibodies contained in the colostrum allow the calf to receive “passive immunity”.  It’s called that because the calf absorbs the antibodies across the gut wall rather than making its own antibodies to an immune challenge.  That part comes later in the calf’s life, and it’s called “active immunity”.
There’s a bit of a time constraint on the whole colostrum thing, too.  The calf is only able to absorb the giant proteins that are antibodies for a short time – like 12 or so hours.  After that, the gut wall begins to close up and the antibodies just pass right by.
Calves with failure of passive immunity are twice as likely to get sick before weaning, and 5 times more likely to die.  So the colostrum conundrum has a big impact on the bottom line, too.
Yesterday folks wanted to know if purchased, powdered colostrum worked as well as natural colostrum milked from a cow, and if frozen cow colostrum from last year’s calving season would still be good this year.  Although nothing beats the real thing, powdered colostrum is better than nothing at all.  There are both supplements and replacements on the market – the replacements have higher concentrations of antibodies than supplements.  Antibodies are proteins, and can suffer from cold damage, so frozen colostrum from last year might not be quite as structurally sound as it was last year, but will still be helpful in a pinch.
When talking about thawing frozen colostrum, I always use the example from the 1980s anti-drug commercials: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.”  Just like frying an egg changes the protein structure, heating frozen colostrum too fast or too hot does the same thing!
Calving season will be here before we know it!  Here’s a little reminder of just why that’s one of the most rewarding seasons on the ranch.

Tomorrow I’m helping tag and weigh the Custer County 4-H steers and put on a livestock quality assurance workshop for the kids – we’ll see what kind of a rodeo results!  Then next week, I’ll be a speaker on the Southeastern Montana Winter Ag Series.  I’ll be sure to report on all my travel adventures!

“Welcome to Tradio, You’re on the Air…”

About a year ago, I joined a rotation of Extension folks in southeast Montana who record a weekly radio spot, which airs on Miles City and Forsyth stations.  We have enough people so that each of us only comes up in the rotation every 2 months or so.  Each spot is 3 minutes and airs on Friday mornings during a break in the Tradio program.  For those of you unfamiliar with Tradio, it’s basically a call-in garage sale, where people trade their unwanted crap to one another. 
Here’s a text version of a typical call:
DJ: Welcome to Tradio, you’re on the air….
Caller: Yeah….uh…… hi. I got 3 parakeets, a couple of Charlie Russell prints, and uh……oh yeah! Three shelves of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. Anyone interested can call me at 555-1578. If I’m not at home, leave a message. I’ll call you back, I promise.
DJ: Okay, that was 555-1978. Thanks for calling.
Caller: No, wait! I said 555-1578.
DJ: Oh, sorry, 555-1578.
Now, this isn’t how all the calls go, but they are my favorite kind – the ones with a crazy combination of goods on offer and a caller who can’t remember what they have for sale.
But back to the Extension radio spots. My topics have ranged from cow body condition scoring to grass tetany to pinkeye – I try to base my spot on what types of potential problems or events might be happening on ranches at the time.  Because of my crazy travel and my type of luck, I’ve had some adventures getting my spots called in.  Here are my top 4 favorites, in no particular order:
·         I’ve called in from my pickup, pulled over on the side of the road where there was that one good mile of cell phone reception on top of the hill.
·         I’ve called in from the airport in Washington, DC, with flight announcements blaring in the background, all while being distracted by a Kobe Bryant wannabe flying around the corner into my “quiet” hallway, shooting balled-up paper at the garbage can…he missed. Repeatedly.
·         I’ve called in at 6 o’clock in the morning, the day the spot needed to air, on my way to the airport for a vacation trip to New Mexico because I forgot until just that moment.
·         I’ve called in from my office on what I thought was a regular day, forgetting that it was during Tradio. The technician said, “Hello, would you like to be on the air for Tradio?”  I said, “Oh no, I was just calling to record the Extension PSA for Friday, I can just call back later.”  She said, “Don’t worry, we can do that right now, just hang on a second.”  The next thing I heard was the DJ, saying “Welcome to Tradio, you’re on the air…” 
I thought about starting my spiel, but I didn’t want to take away from someone’s parakeet-selling time.
Stay tuned, my “winter run” begins tomorrow, January 7, with Cow Capital Beef Day in Miles City, and there’s bound to be escapades to report.

Disclaimer: This is not a recent photo. Note the presence of green grass.

Road Trips of Epic Proportions

January is one of my busiest travel months. Makes sense, right? Ranchers have more “free time” in the winter to attend meetings and educational programs.  As a result, I get to hone my bad-road driving skills each year.  The winter program season actually kicks off in Miles City on Friday, which is a treat for me! But then the travel reality sets in next week, when I’ll be a speaker on the Southeastern Montana Winter Ag Series. Jordan, Circle, Broadus, Ekalaka, Baker, Wibaux, Terry, and Forsyth:  8 communities in 5 days and around 950 miles…but I get to sleep in my own bed every night!
Other destinations for programs this month include my hometown of Ennis, Roundup, Fort Benton, Helmville, Hall, and Helena.  Wow, quite the alliteration there at the end!  I’ll stop there; I wouldn’t want to overwhelm my readers with my February schedule.

I did a quick search for a map of Montana, to provide a reference to find all these fabulous locations.  Except that Helmville and Hall weren’t included …I guess if you’re curious, you’ll have to pull out an atlas, or I might recommend my favorite travel planning resource: Google Maps (!

Instead, here’s a wintry picture to get you in the spirit!

“Still I drive these horses through the rain and snow, This high speed rodeo is all I know, I’m an asphalt cowboy, Born to run underneath the stars” —Asphalt Cowboy, Jason Aldean

2011: The Year of the Asphalt Cowgirl

Hello and welcome to my blog, “Escapades of an Asphalt Cowgirl”!  I’ve been watching a whole lotta ESPN, and they have declared 2011 as “The Year of the Quarterback”.  I much prefer the way “The Year of the Asphalt Cowgirl” rolls off one’s tongue, so I hereby christen it as such. 

Allow me to introduce myself…my name is Rachel and I travel. Alot. Mostly for my job.  Hence the Asphalt Cowgirl nickname. I’ve been told more than once that I should write a book about my travels, so I’m starting a blog. Sometimes I don’t take direction very well…

I work for Montana State University as an Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, and spend quite a bit of time on the road, conducting educational programs about beef cattle for adults and youth.  This blog will showcase some of those adventures, or escapades, if you will.

Here in eastern Montana, we rang in the New Year accompanied by temperatures well below zero.  I’m posting this picture of cows and green grass at my family’s ranch last August in protest, and as a sad reminder it’ll be awhile before we see that kind of day again.

Stay tuned for new escapades during the new year!

“Now our windshield’s a painting that hangs in our room, It changes each mile like the radio tune…” —Rodeo Moon, Chris Ledoux