By: Christy Belton
Winter is a welcome visitor to the ranch this year. Following a crazy-hectic fall schedule, we are looking forward to the simplicity winter offers. Although the cold winter weather doesn’t usually make a rancher’s work easier, it does add a degree of predictability to the job. Spring, summer and fall demand taking advantage of every hour of daylight to fix fence, harrow fields, irrigate, harvest hay, and gather cattle at a relentless pace. Winter demands feeding cattle on a regular daily schedule and routine is allowed to take a front seat.
While most locals can’t wait for that famous Champagne Powder to blanket the slopes, we can’t wait for it to cover the meadows so we can pull the feed sled through the snow and feed our cattle. Our day begins when the barn door opens and the black Percheron work horses diligently stroll in for their morning grain. As they eat, they are harnessed with simple leather gear that will enable them to pull with amazing force and grace. Done in less time than it takes for a cold tractor to warm up, harnessing only takes a few minutes per horse. The horses are then led in two’s to the feed sled equipped with runners that allow smooth pulling across the deep snow. Once they’re hooked up, they’re driven to the appropriate hay stack where they patiently wait, steam rising off of their backs, while we hand load a feed sled with about 6,000 pounds of hay.
Once loaded and following a stern voice command, the horses work in unison with a powerful tug that frees the sled from its ruts. The horses then fall into a routine and together they pull the load through the snow. The cattle fall in behind the sled with the dominant ones keeping pace in an effort to get a taste of some green meadow grass hay before it’s pitched from the sled. We scatter the hay along a trail that allows the herd to spread out and eat without pecking order pressure. With the bells on the harness ringing, the snow creaking under the weight of the hooves and the horses labored breathing; it is a melodic reminder of why we love what we do. After a few trips around the feeding area, we head back to the barn where the horses are returned to their respective stalls and allowed to cool off while they finish their morning grain.
Somehow the routine seems to set the bar for the rest of the day and we are energized but relaxed at the same time. We are able to connect as a family and with our animals. We often say there is no better way to start the day than by feeding cattle with a team of work horses. Wintertime gives us the opportunity to slow down and take notice of how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy this lifestyle.