BLACKFOOT – At 9:30 a.m. on a cloudy spring day this week, seven riders, five dogs and 170 head of cattle set out from Pratt Livestock Co. on Weeding Lane northeast of Blackfoot on the first leg of a journey that may be one of the few surviving traditions from the old west — a cattle drive.
But instead of the thousand or two miles that brought beef cattle from Texas to the northern states those many years ago, this one is only going to the Blackfoot Mountains.
Still, it’s a journey of 40 miles or more that will take several days and be repeated until the entire herd of Hereford mother cows and their offspring are on summer range.
The Pratts — Gary, Anita, and their family — are carrying on an operation started by Gary’s parents, Eldro and Bonnie, on land homesteaded by Gary’s grandfather in 1904, making them one of the oldest ranching families in the county.
When the weather is fine, the Pratts never lack for someone wanting to join the annual drive, but volunteer help is scarce on days like today, and the drovers consist of their son Mark, daughter-in-law Wendy and grandchildren Seth and Anna, along with Anna’s fiancé Cole Lickley, Seth’s fiancee, Leah Gibson, and family friend Dave O’Connell from Pocatello.
A drive would normally require more riders, but on this day they have the assistance of a squad of Border Collie herd dogs — Wendy’s two spayed females Kate and Dot, Mark’s dog Raleigh, Anna’s dog Clyde, and Seth’s dog Elsa.
Gary had to be elsewhere doctoring sick animals, so Mark and Seth were the trail bosses. I joined Anita in her pickup truck, which was loaded with lunch for the drovers and extra coats in case they were needed.
“That’s my job title,” Anita joked, “just in case. Just in case they need something they forgot to bring, my job is to go get it.”
The sky is overcast and occasionally spitting rain, and the temperature is on the lower side of 50 as the cows and calves are moved out of their winter pasture and started down the road. Their destination is a pasture on Presto Bench that Anita calls “the holding pen,” the first stop on the drive. “The first cows get the grass,” she said, “and we have to haul hay for the next ones.”
Although they’re getting chilled and will soon be forced to don extra coats and slickers, the drovers said they prefer the cold, wet weather to a hot, sunshiney day because it’s easier on humans and animals alike. None of them, especially the calves and dogs because they’re closest to the ground, will be eating dust, and the haired animals won’t be suffering from the heat.
The herd is made up primarily of first-calf heifers, Anita says, and they’re a little harder to haze along than the cows who’ve made the trip several times already.
“The older cows will just line out and head down the road because they know where they’re going,” she said.
Also, being new to motherhood, the young cows seem to worry a little more about their babies.
The pace is slow and the herd is allowed to stop periodically so the calves can get a couple swallows of milk. The animals also find the green grass along the roadside attractive, and would stop to graze if they’re not kept on the move.
Anita stops the pickup as Gary pulls up beside us in his three-quarter-ton truck. He gets out and hands over a bottle of pink liquid for safe keeping. True to his nature, he can’t resist cracking a joke. “If either of you feel like you’re getting a case of scours, drink some of this and call me in the morning,” he says, jumps back in his truck and is gone again.
Getting out of the valley is the most difficult part of the trip, Anita says, because the route is lined with farm fields — some filled with cattle, some with crops — and houses whose owners wouldn’t appreciate a herd of cattle traipsing through their yards and gardens.
Some of the fields are fenced and some are not. Some have a couple of strands of electrified wire between them and the road, which do nothing to deter the calves, who easily slip through.
The dogs are in constant motion as they race back and forth on the edges of the herd, turning back errant calves, going unbidden into the fields to retrieve those that jump between the wires that can’t touch them but would require the riders to open a gate and go inside after them.
“This is where the dogs really shine,” Anita said. “They know what they have to do without even being told. Some drovers don’t appreciate the dogs, but I tell them, ‘Try it without them next time’ “
There’s a bit of excitement when Cole’s mount, for no apparent reason except plain exuberance, turns on to buck, but he stays in the saddle and rides it out. Farther on up the road we pass a field filled with Black Angus, and a huge bull heads at a run toward the herd, possibly picking up the scent of females in estrus from the air and thinking some of the passing cows might be happy to see him.
Wendy, as handy and brave as any of the men, reacts quickly before the bull can reach the fence and possibly even come through it. Opening the gate and racing inside with her dogs, they turn the bull back before the wreck happens, and even before Mark arrives to help.
It takes three and a half hours to cover the 10 miles, and when the trail boss says it’s far enough for the first day, the hungry drovers gather around Anita’s pickup as she opens the tailgate and unloads from coolers in the back seat the turkey sandwiches, potato salad and cherry duff dessert she spent the early morning hours preparing, along with potato chips, a huge container of hot coffee and hot water for tea or hot chocolate.
While the rest of the crew eats, Wendy and Seth hurry away to tighten up some loose spots in the pasture fence. When everyone has eaten, they spend a half hour or so visiting before loading the horses into stock trailers and heading back to the ranch to take care of other chores, one being getting a few herd bulls branded and ready to join the drive the next day.
The bulls are burly Herefords, a breed the Pratts have stuck with while the fields of other ranchers around them are filled with Black Angus, the breed that’s currently popular and being hyped from meat markets to restaurants and fast food places
“When the hide’s off them, you can’t tell the difference,” Anita says. “We’re happy with the Herefords,” Gary adds. Even so, several years ago, when Mark grew up, graduated from college and took over some of the responsibility of the ranch, Gary started a herd of Longhorn cattle as a hobby and came to love them. Because the Longhorn bulls throw smaller calves, they began breeding their first-calf heifers to them, resulting in fewer problems at calving time.
The following day the cattle were moved to the next resting spot at the old Busenbark place long the Blackfoot River south of Cox’s Corner, and the day after, the bulk of the herd was started on the trail. What’s left — the mother cows with the smallest calves — will be trucked to journey’s end at Paradise south of Brush Creek and east of Morgan’s Bridge where they’ll spend the summer.