A Life With Cattle and Horses
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, Idaho
Cows are the abiding passion of my life – along with my horses, my husband and family, but not necessarily in that order. When I was growing up in the 1950’s, girls didn’t become veterinarians, but that didn’t deter me from wanting to spend my life working with horses and cattle.
I became fascinated with cows at an early age. My father was raised on a small farm in southern Idaho then became a Methodist minister. He still loved the land and animals, and took my little brother and me to the family farm for visits. I remember those trips to “Grandpa’s farm” as a small child – fascinated by the cattle grazing there.
When I was 4 and 5 years old, my parents left me with a farm family on several occasions when they had to travel. I tagged along with the big kids to do chores and feed cows and one of my best memories is sitting in the feed bunk by the barn, where the dairy cows were eating hay. I loved the sweet smell of their alfalfa-chewing breath, and their inquisitive faces as they took wisps of hay from my hands with their agile tongues.
When I was 10 my parents acquired a small acreage in a canyon up a creek near Salmon, Idaho, and 2 years later started buying the neighboring ranch. This was a dream come true, because now our family had cattle and horses. During my teen years I worked on the ranch – irrigating our hayfields with water ditched from the creek, building fence, riding range to look after the cattle – to earn some cows of my own. The annual calf crop from my small herd helped pay my way through college.
My younger brother and I became best friends during those growing up years, working together on the ranch as we irrigated, rode range, stacked hay, cut and hauled wood for winter (he cut it with a chain saw and I stacked it in the jeep to haul home) and dug post holes. We had lots of fences to build; some of the old boundary fences were falling down and there were very few internal fences on the ranch.
We built a fence around the garden, and a fence to separate the horse pasture from the rest of the fields. Our most heroic effort was to help build 3 miles of fence around our 320-acre mountain pasture – the part of our ranch (originally a separate homestead) that had never had a complete fence around it. Dad paid us 50 cents an hour or 50 cents a post-hole. On the pasture and garden fence we made more money by the post-hole, but on the ridges in the mountains it might take several hours to chisel a hole through the rocks and then we were glad for 50 cents an hour!
Dad’s ranch was a small “cowboy” outfit, with very few facilities for handling cattle. We looked after our herd on horseback when they were on summer range in the mountains behind our place. The cows calved in March and April in the pasture next to our house, and we hoped for good weather because we didn’t have a barn. We herded them into our corral when we had to catch them, roping the calves for branding and vaccinating.
I enjoyed helping Dad with the cattle work. It was difficult sometimes, when helping a heifer calve, or trying to treat a sick cow. We didn’t have a headcatcher or squeeze chute for restraining them. One spring in the late 1950’s was miserably cold and windy. Many cows had sore, chapped teats and were kicking their calves – not letting them nurse. We had to rope some of them and snub them to a post in the corral. I held the rope (dallied around the post) while Dad milked out the cow (trying not to be kicked) and put bag balm on their sore teats.
There was also the anguish of losing the ones we couldn’t save, such as birth problems out in the field if we were not quick enough to find them in time, or the bull who ate poison plants along the creek and died, or the weak calf with diarrhea that we brought into the house and tried to keep warm on a bed of rags in the basement. We didn’t know enough, back then, about supportive fluids and proper medical treatment. Many of the scour “bugs” we contend with today were unheard of on our little ranch at that time, just starting to be brought into our area. We lost that calf. I sat beside it while life slipped away, agonizing over its death, vowing to become a better “cow doctor” when I grew up.
I also vividly remember my first difficult calf birth. My parents were at a meeting in town and just after dark I went out to the corral to check on a heifer that was due to calve. She was in hard labor, lying flat on her side groaning and straining. The amnion sac had appeared with two little hooves in it, but the heifer made no progress. I sat beside her, suffering with her. Pale moonlight glistened on the amnion sac as the little feet tentatively entered the world but could come no farther.
I realized she needed help so I ran to the house and tried to phone my parents – without luck. I hurried back to the corral and sat by the heifer awhile but didn’t know how to help her. Finally in desperation I ran back to the house and phoned a neighboring rancher. I was young and shy, and it took a lot of courage to ask him to help, but the heifer’s plight made me brave. The rancher came and we pulled the calf. That baby survived because of the intervention of a timid child. I was so proud and happy; I felt like a fairy godmother to that calf.
From those early experiences with cattle, my lifework took shape. Learning everything I could about cows, their various problems and illnesses and how to successfully treat them became one of the driving forces of my life. I went to college and graduated with a degree in English and history because I couldn’t become a veterinarian – vet schools were not accepting women at that time – but I was unhappy away from my cows. I considered going to another college and taking undergraduate veterinary courses just for my own benefit, but married a rancher instead.
Ever since 1966, my husband Lynn and I have been intensely involved with cattle on our mountain ranch, part of which was the original home place my Dad started buying in 1955 – which he called Sky Range Ranch. Here, on Withington Creek, Lynn and I have now been raising cattle (and a few horses) together for nearly 48 years.
But we didn’t start out on the creek that first summer. After Lynn and I were married in March 1966 we spent our first spring, summer and fall on a dairy farm near Gooding, Idaho. We didn’t have a honeymoon; we had to go home from the wedding and milk the cows. Lynn was leasing that farm, and had a small herd of Holstein cows. Dairying was a quicker way to get into agriculture at that time than trying to start out with beef cattle, because bankers would more readily loan money for a dairy operation. Our long-term goal, however, was to have a ranch. That fall we sold the dairy cows and moved back to Salmon, Idaho where we both grew up. My parents leased their ranch to us (which we would eventually buy), and we began buying one of the neighboring ranches on the lower end of the creek.
The move from Gooding was a major undertaking. We had very few household belongings, but many animals and some farm machinery. Friends and family helped us make several trips with trucks and trailers. On our last trip, Lynn and I brought our pickup – with our dog Liesl and a box of cats in the cab with us (and bags of clothing), and 7 dairy calves in the back. We pulled a big flatbed trailer that Lynn had made. On it was a 1940 Oliver tractor, several half barrels full of tools (the barrels were nailed to the trailer bed), plastic pipe from our water system, and anything else that would fit. It was so overloaded we barely made it up the steeper parts of the highway through the Craters of the Moon National Monument. A friend drove a stock truck loaded with cows and Lynn’s horse Bambi.
We were optimistic dreamers, thinking we could make a living ranching here on Withington Creek, but with hard work and determination, we succeeded. When my dad bought his little ranch at the upper end of the creek in 1955 there were 3 small ranches on the creek, none of them big enough to support a family. Dad had a job as a preacher; he bought the little ranch as a sideline because he enjoyed raising cattle. Lynn and I bought Dad’s little ranch as well as half the ranch where we’re living now, and for 40 years we leased the other parcels, putting it all together. With hard work, and my writing, this was enough land to have enough cows to create a livelihood.
It’s still a marginal ranch. It’s beautiful country, but not very productive land. Our ranch consists of steep hill pastures (native bunch grass) but not enough hay ground. The only places we can grow hay are the small meadows along the creek where it’s not too steep to irrigate and operate haying equipment. We maximized our grazing potential with cross-fences to facilitate pasture rotations, and bought a little extra hay. Thus we were able to run 180 cows and 30 to 40 yearling heifers (and all of them named!). This, along with my freelance writing, enabled us to make a living on this creek and raise our children here.
It was a tremendous challenge – to create new ditches and repair old ones, and build more than 10 miles of new fences and repair the old falling-down fences on parts of these ranches. There are more than 25 miles of fence and 10 miles of ditches on this strung out place. Our ranch is more than 5 miles long but most of it is very narrow – just the land along the creek canyon and some of the surrounding hills.
Because of the challenge to create a living from this marginal but beautiful land, we became innovative, tough and enduring, but it’s been a very satisfying life. We created our own hardy type of cattle, and have learned a great deal about raising cattle and horses.
My writing began as a way to express my interest and passion about animals. In high school, I started writing articles about horses, then expanded my efforts to include cattle. After selling 50-plus articles to horse and children’s magazines (and my first book manuscript – A Horse in Your Life; A Guide for the New Owner, published in 1966, the year I graduated from college), I began writing a few more books (including a couple of children’s books) and as many articles as I could for horse and cattle magazines as a way to help make ends meet as Lynn and I struggled to make a living and pay for our ranch. It was my “off farm job” that I could do at home, in the early morning hours before daylight, or in between checking the calving cows or riding range in the summer.
Now, more than 12,000 articles and 23 books later, I am still writing for horse and cattle magazines, still enjoying my relationship with cattle, still trying to learn everything I can about these marvelous animals and sharing my experiences with my readers. I also interview a lot of people around the country for some of my articles – veterinarians, horse and cattle breeders, university professors and researchers. I often write about health care topics and medical problems in cattle and horses, and if it’s a problem I don’t have a lot of personal experience with, I talk to some of the experts in their various fields.
My philosophy concerning cattle, horses and writing is to help others learn through our experiences, as other folks have helped me, and to try to put it in terms that are easy to understand. In 1997 Storey published my book Your Calf: A Kid’s Guide to Raising and Showing Beef and Dairy Calves and in 1998 published my Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, in which I tried to bring insights from 40 years’ working with cattle, sharing the helpful things I learned along the way – about cattle behavior and “cow psychology”, calving problems, treatment of various ailments and diseases, cattle feeding, breeding and genetics, etc.
Other “how to” books followed, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, Getting Started With Beef and Dairy Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, Cattle Health Handbook, Stable Smarts, Care and Management of Horses, Understanding Equine Hoof Care, Horse Conformation Handbook.
My most recent book, published in October 2014, is called Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch, telling about many of the interesting and unique horses in my life. I will be following it this year with a book of Cow Tales from an Idaho Ranch, a collection of stories about some of our adventures with cattle – some of the heart-warming experiences and interesting critters we’ve been privileged to know.
I feel the most important book I’ve written, however, is Beyond the Flames: A Family Touched by Fire, telling about our daughter’s horrendous burn injuries in 2000 (after which she spent the rest of that summer in the ICU at the Intermountain Burn Center in Salt Lake City, Utah fighting for her life). This unexpected detour totally changed our lives. The blessings that evolved from this journey, and the people we continue to meet along the way are a wonderful example of positives that evolve from negatives, of triumph over tragedy, and how the good can outweigh the bad things in life. This was a book I felt compelled to write, to tell our story, in hopes it might encourage others who are suddenly thrust into trauma and life-changing crises.
Through it all, our family has become stronger. We are blessed to still have a daughter, and grandchildren, and all of our family living here on Withington Creek. Lynn and I have turned over our upper ranch (my father’s old place) to our son Michael and his family, and our daughter and kids help us here on the lower place. It has been wonderful watching our grandchildren growing up enjoying the cattle and riding horses. A farm or ranch is still the very best place to raise kids!