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Ode to the Night Calver

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Well-known member
Feb 11, 2005
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northern Nebraska Sandhills
The evening of March 31st was the last shift for our night calver, Kenneth. He has been steady every night since February 21st, from dusk to dawn. On only one occasion during this six week period did he leave the ranch, and that was for just a few hours when he went to town to buy groceries and to do his laundry. He was totally dedicated, and I think there were very few calves born during the nights that he didn't watch as they came into the world. There was not one dead calf that came while he was on duty. He turned 60 years old sometime in March.

Kenneth has always been a loner. He worked for us full time from the spring of 1988 until late summer of 1992. When he signed on with this outfit, he leveled with me and said that his track record was not too good and that he was making no guarantees of how long he would be here. He said right up front that he had a bad temper, and would probably not give any notice when he quit. I had met him at spring brandings in years past, and knew him to be a good hand. I told him that would be okay, and that every day he worked here we would have that much more work done than we had the day before. He ended up staying four years and three months, and he gave me two weeks notice before he left. I was proud at the time, because that was the longest he ever worked for any one ranch, and I was the only one he ever gave any notice to when he quit. One time, on another ranch, he got a feed tractor and stack mover big time stuck out on a soft hay meadow. He solved the problem by walking back to the bunkhouse, packing his suitcase, and driving off down the road. His boss at the time owed him for two weeks of pay and had to send the check to Kenneth's mother.

When Kenneth came to work for me in '88, he was recently divorced and was paying child support on four kids. He was a hard worker, and the best fencer I've ever had the privilege of being around. He had his own fencing tools, and they were well taken care of. His most prized possession was a hand-made brass tamping stick, with proper spacing measurements for 3, 4, 5, and 6 wire fences. I issued him his own ranch pickup for fencing, but every night he would clean out the pickup and unload his personal fencing tools. Guess he figured there was always an off chance that I would abscond with his pickup, and he didn't want the fencing tools to get away from him.

In his spare time, I had Kenneth tackle our somewhat messy shop. He diligently cleaned it corner by corner. He built shelves and steel racks, and spiffied up the place until it shined. Each tool had a special home, and he guarded the whole deal like a mother hen would her chicks. Even though I still liked to think of myself as "the boss" and "head honcho" of "my ranch", it was with fear and trepidation that I entered the shop. It was almost like Kenneth was a librarian, and any books (tools) that I wanted to use, would have to be checked out and returned in a timely fashion or penalties would be due. I complied to the best of my ability, because it was nice to have someone around who cared so much.

Kenneth worked hard, but when he went to town he also drank hard. One day when he worked here the first time, he needed to go to town. His birthday was in March, and he needed to renew his driver's license and pay the taxes and licensing fees on his car. He fed early that day, and went to town before dinner. He was back home by five o'clock and I could see him unloading groceries at his house where he batched and did his own cooking. We were getting a big run of calves that day. Our kids were little, so Mrs. Soapweed was not able to help much outside. Kenneth was the only hired hand I had at the time, and I was feeling pretty swamped and under-the-gun with work that afternoon. I was happy to see Kenneth drive in the yard earlier than expected, so I slipped into the house and called over to his house on the telephone. When he answered, I asked if there was any chance he could get in the heavies before dark, as I had many other chores yet to do. He refused. Needless to say, I got instantly mad but fortunately held my tongue. After I hung up the phone, I was stomping around the kitchen, grousing about poor help. Then it occurred to me, "I'll bet he's drunk." I went on about the business of ranching, and got in way after dark. Several night checks also had to be made, and sleep was a rare and highly-prized commodity.

The next day, ranching carried on as usual, and I said nothing to Kenneth about my disappointment in his actions. Later in the day, we happened to be riding together in a pickup. He said, "You know, I'm sorry about not helping you last evening. I was so drunk, I couldn't even have saddled my own horse."

I said, "I suspected that you were, and that is why you were let off the hook. If I had thought you were sober when you turned down my request, you'd have probably been fired." He said, "I know." To use Spike Van Cleve's words, we decided to "let sleeping, by God, dogs lie."

It was shortly after that incident that Kenneth quit drinking, cold turkey. As far as I know, he hasn't had a drink since.

A year ago, in early February, Kenneth called me out of the blue and wondered if I could use any calving help. When I asked if he would consider doing the night calving, he jumped at the opportunity. It worked good last year, and it worked equally as well this year. He left with a pretty protruding pocketful of pay, as I compensated him well and he sure didn't spend much while he was here. Just hope he wants to come back again next year, as he is top of the line.
That's what makes you so special, Soapweed. You appreciate what is important in life. What a neat story you shared with us. Probably to some, Kenneth was a loser; but to you Kenneth is a real winner~and that is why he will return to work for you.

We have a night calver that has a daytime job. We are so fortunate to have him. He comes at midnight for about a month. He goes horseback through the heifers at midnight, 2:30 and again at 5 am. We feed him breakfast at 5:30 each morning so he can get to his day job. (Not much fun with this darn new time, I hate it. Now I will be getting up at 4 am. to get breakfast. Wish I was more of a morning person.) Anyway, people have asked us how we have managed to have him do this for us. He has helped us eight years now. We have all the gates fixed so he can open them horseback as he rides through the heifers. When it is nice he doesn't go through the cows. Anyway, I thought about the question a bit, and I said, "you know, we just don't have much trouble. I think that may be why he will help us. Plus we appreciate him and let him know it." I asked him the next morning if us not having much trouble was one of the reasons why he continued to help us out and he affirmed it. In 8 years he has pulled 5 calves total. This man should have his own place, he loves ranching, but it wasn't in the cards for him to have one, I guess. He grew up ranching and is a good hand. I wrote a poem for him and I'll post it here.


He rolls into the ranch about midnight
Come rain or sleet or snow;
With a 10-hour job behind him
He's had a short nap and is ready to go.

The colt's jumpy as heck on his first check,
But practice makes perfect, they say.
He'll travel this path in the darkness
Many times before light of day.

Each trip tells a different story
Of weather and cattle at night.
He's looking to see if there's trouble~
The boss trusts him to keep all things right.

This isn't a job for just anyone.
It's something not learned overnight.
But he's given his whole life to it
And works at it with all of his might.

The struggles happen often~
Whether calves die or they live.
He's alone with God and the knowledge
That they're saved because of what he can give.

He doesn't do it for money
And certainly not for fame~
It's that cattle are his second nature
And it's all about what keeps him sane!!!
That was a neat tribute Soapweed. It brings up thoughts of help we have had around here over the years.

One summer's day we were riding back to the ranch here, and this guy was riding an "active" horse of mine that wanted to grab his tail at real and imaginary things. My companion was getting fed up with it, and as we were riding along the river bank he just spurred the horse straight into a deep hole. This river is not a real going concern most times, but he sure found a nice deep spot to go in. As he and the horse crawled out of the water he say's, "boy, that wasn't real smart was it".

Another time, a different employee and I had moved some cattle, and as we trailered back home we noticed a calf stand up from behind a sage brush and stretch, a calf we had missed earlier. The wind was blowing a gale but we felt we better rope the calf to pair it back up with it's mother. This guy normally wore a flat brimmed buckaroo hat, but this day called for his brand new scotch cap due to the wind. A flat brimmed hat is about like a frisbee in a big wind. We got the calf on the face of our big dam and the wind hit full bore and the guy's cap just sailed out into the water. I was laughing so hard the tears were about to come, but I got the dirtiest look you ever saw in return. It was worth it though!

One last thing that comes to mind, is when we had a guy from Florida that worked here a while. He really wanted to tough out the cold weather, as he said he hated the heat and humidity of central Florida. We were moving some cows during a heavy fall snowstorm, but a calm day that was real pleasant. I had told him that I heard that as the snowflakes got larger that it was a sign that it was almost through snowing. Pretty soon we couldn't see each other on either side of the herd, and he says, "well, it ought to quit snowing about anytime now!" It was just too dang funny.

Another 30 mile drive in October tested his mettle fairly well, as the first morning started out well below zero. His teeth could be heard chattering from quite a distance.
Great stories, Kenneth should be in a poem of some sort I'm sure. great poem FH, did not know you had that in you, but that is a dandy. Someday I might tell the stories of the guy I had from New Jersey that knew everything there is to know about ranching, although he had never seen a ranch before he came out here on a guided hunt with his millionaire dad, bad part it like like thinking about my exwife and it still pi$$es me off to this day so I try not to think of him too often!!! :x
beautiful postings soapweed and faster horses.....i agree with sw---did not know you had it in ya, fh!! what a beautiful, pleasant surprisef!! :wink:
Good poem, faster horses. Night calving is one of those unsung hero type of jobs. No fun, but mighty necessary. It is a lot more glamorous reading about it than being a participant.

Jake, those were interesting hired hand memories. My mother always had aspirations of writing about the many fellows that worked on our ranch through the years. One guy from Maine showed up and got on the payroll. He was a self-proclaimed spaghetti making expert, and convinced Dad to invite the whole neighborhood in for a spaghetti feed. Mom bought all the necessary ingredients, and wouldn't you know it, about noon of the day of the big spaghetti supper this feller turned up sick as a dog. Mom had to go ahead with the spaghetti plans all by herself, but she came through with flying colors, and the neighbors went away well fed.
I bet your mom filled in plenty of times, Soapweed, and did it with grace.

You are so right about night calvers. And they have to have some knowledge~can't just get someone off the street. We used to do it all ourselves, but just 'can't cut the mustard anymore.' LOL!!

It is interesting what Doug, our night calver, relates to us in the morning. How the cattle do different things in different weather. Even where they bed down is different. We run the two year olds and three year olds together and he can tell the two's from the three's in the beginning because the two's all get up at first when he rides through them. It is old hat to the three year olds and they just stay laying down, as does the two's after a few nights.

Our neighbors hired a night calver and he stayed in their living room between checks. Didn't do 'em much good as far as sleep goes because he proceeded to read the paper out loud to them all night long!!!
Back when we ran a herd of cows, I got some small brass bells and tyied them to the flap on my chaps zippers. They had a pleasnt sound and let the cattle know who and what was coming at night. In later years I have sung and/or whistled to let them kno of my presence. Seems to work about like the old timers singing on night herd.

Maybe sometime I'll post a short story about singing to a bunch of yearling steers, that I wrote and was published some years back.

Have any of you tried feeding late in the evening and check to see if you had less calvers born after dark? I did it several years with varying results. Had some neighbors who swore by it.

Seems like if I had my chioce, I'd calve them at the same time and way as deer as I've never found a dead doe with a fawn hanging out of her! Tho' I used to see a few dry's every year but no more! Everyone seems to be having twins!

Wonder if we have more or less deer know than 30 years ago. My bet would be more.

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