Winter Feeding in British Columbia

Winter Feeding in British Columbia

by Doug Saba of Enderby, BC, Canada

I was 27 years old in October, 1977. I had broken my first team of horses that summer. They had been saddle horses before. They each weighed about 1000 lbs. I wanted to find a job for the winter using my team. I put some ads in British Columbia newspapers, as follows:

“Man with team and sleigh wants job winter feeding.”

In the Cariboo and Chilcotin regions of BC, ranches were often a long way from a town. I figured that it was possible to get such a job.

I got a reply from a family in Quesnel, in the Cariboo. I took a bus up there to find out more about it. They drove me fifty miles out to the ranch. It had a log cabin, a few small outbuildings, some fences, meadows, forest, and a lake, and 75 hungry cows. There had been some problems, and neither of the brothers were able to stay out on the ranch for the winter. What I didn’t realize at that time was that most of the hay had not been brought back to the ranch after it had been baled.

My job would be transporting hay all winter, at first from three miles away from the shamrock meadow, and then from 10 miles away. My girlfriend, Karen, who I had met that summer, would join me for the winter. I was hoping for a peaceful time. I decided to keep a diary. I was looking at it the other day, and got quite a few chuckles. Oh, the folly of youth!

November 18th, or thereabouts: Saturday night.

In one week my sweetheart, Karen, will join me here. I hope for a peaceful, prosperous winter. It’s 10 below zero tonight. Darn cold for this time of year. All is well on the ranch.

Wednesday, November 21st.

I slept in this morning, until 9:00 o’clock. I have a bit of a cold. It got up to 12 above zero today, and it felt real balmy. Snowed in the afternoon, quit by dark. Keeping real busy, getting the cows fed, watered, and getting wood in. Also building a deck on the sleigh. Hoping the horses can pull it OK. I sure like keeping busy.

Kind of wish I had my own farm sometimes. But what people go through to get a farm is outrageous. I think things will work out here this winter, if I don’t freeze to death. I doubt it. I’m too stubborn.

I dreamed last night that I was helping my friends Lorne and Diana with their log house, and that they were not finished yet. It’s a long skid from the shamrock meadow to the home place, but it will be fun all the same.

Monday, November 27th : 30 degrees above and snowy.

Nice to have my partner, Karen, around. Things going well. Close to finishing the sleigh deck. Still wondering if the horses will work on it.

Wednesday, November 29th.

It was an upsetting day for me as the horses almost ran away with the sleigh. Too much go! So we have to start slow and take some spunk out of them. I had a dream last night where somebody threw a couple of knives at me and got me in the legs. I have a lot to learn, all those wisdom things.

Friday, November 31st : Still warm and snowy.

Beautiful out. Horses are going now. Just for the record, I pulled some logs in for firewood yesterday and that calmed them down a bit. Today, early, I built a stone boat and they pulled it, no problem. So we went up to the shamrock meadow and got an 800 pound bale of hay, which we pulled onto the stone boat with the horses, then came home. Real fun, feeding with the horses. So now we’re in gear to do it. Just about! Not feeding with the sleigh yet.

Monday, December 4th : 25 degrees this morning.

Been kind of slack on this diary. Well, the hay is diminishing at the shamrock meadow, 36 bales left. I figure we brought down eleven as of Sunday. Today I hope to hook the horses to the sleigh, but not if they’re acting funny. We seem kind of overworked. Got to try and take it easy, and not kill ourselves, especially not hurt ourselves.

Tuesday, December 5th : 16 degrees this morning and clear.

I’m very happy because yesterday the horses pulled the sleigh. We had a good supper with Kevin. We had chocolate cake and cappuccino coffee. We had our own party, and played the guitar all evening.

Today we’re going to stockpile the hay from the shamrock meadow. We’ll take the sleigh up as well as the tractor and wagon.

Thursday, December 7th : 10 degrees, cloudy.

Horses going better. We’re getting a little tired, maybe take tomorrow off.

Friday, December 8th : Warm and snowy, 22 degrees.

Kind of took a part day off. Slept in. Gave the horses a rest. I’m trying to get a barn moved down here to help the horses keep warm.

Sunday, December 10th : 12 degrees this morning, 28 degrees tonight at 9:30 p.m.

I saw a coyote today and an owl by the haystack. This morning I went to the shamrock meadow, and it was very cold, then it warmed up by the end of the day and started snowing hard. I got covered in it while sitting on the sleigh. Karen is going to town tomorrow in Jessie, our truck. Only 16 bales left at the shamrock. Thinking about getting a moose or a deer for winter meat. Only 15 days before Christmas.

Monday, December 11th : 20 degrees this morning.

Kind of a grey, windy day. I went up to the shamrock today and prepared the barn for skidding with the skidder. Karen went to town in Jessie. I got my first message today on the radio saying that Karen and Jessie made it there okay. Was I ever pleased to get the message! I figured she made it okay, but getting the message made me feel so important! The loggers moved into the trailer today. Kind of don’t like having neighbors so close, but they seem like nice guys. Also, they might come in handy. Sure a lot happens around here, considering it is the middle of winter.

Thursday, December 21st : 20 degrees this morning.

One more trip up to the shamrock meadow. It got down to zero the other day, and I thought we were in for a cold snap, but I guess not. This morning at 7:45 I could still see three or four stars alone in the clear sky, and the moon was about half gone. The horses are going fantastic. I guess everyday day work is the ticket. Have to remember that. Around Christmas we’re going to Vancouver.

Saturday, December 23rd : 25 degrees this morning.

Another bleak, windy, threatening, snowy day. It looks as if we’re snowed in, until someone can plow us out. I wouldn’t mind, normally, but I’d like to get out for Christmas. It sure is nice to have the horses and sleigh, especially when the machines don’t work. Only the truck works at the moment, and the snow is too deep to get around in. Pat should be around today with a starter for the skidder.

Monday, December 25th : Nice, still day, 26 degrees.

Pat came in yesterday and brought us a Christmas package of oranges, cranberries, nuts and more. A real nice gift. We had a quiet day with a goose at the end of it. We made perfect pigs of ourselves. Right now we’re in agony from eating too much goose.

On Saturday, Woody came to pick up some cattle for Patricia. He is a guide in the Chilcotin area. We had just come into the ranch with a load of hay on the sleigh when we met Woody. One of the lines got caught under the tongue, and the team took off, cantering in a big circle. Of course, we didn’t know what was happening, and I couldn’t stop them. Then, for some reason, after several circles were made, they stopped. At that very moment, this native cowboy, who I didn’t know was standing there, walked up to the front of the horses, grabbed the caught line, and said, “Line under the tongue, runaway every time.” I was amazed to see him, and to find out what caused the runaway.

Woody turned out to be quite a character, full of humor. He was raised in the area, and I think that horses, cattle and runaways were just normal life to him. It was nice to socialize with somebody who was so full of fun. He kept singing this song about “me and the sweetheart and the homestead.” The next morning we took the train to Vancouver for a one week holiday, so I’ll sign off for a week. So long, anybody.

Tuesday, January 2nd : 0 degrees, or around there.

So I return from my travels. Most of the vegetables froze in the root cellar. The house was a mess, after Pat and his wife stayed in it over the holidays, but they left a bit of food. It had been very cold while we were gone, 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I’m glad I was gone. We may be in for some more. I’m sort of sorry I missed it. There’ll probably be more. Karen is still away. I’m glad to be back, and don’t mind some time to myself. Also looking forward to Karen’s return. I feel relaxed, and reflective. It feels good.

Wednesday, January 3rd : 6 degrees this morning.

It was a nice, sunny day, but it’s getting cold now at 8:30 p.m.

Today we hauled hay to home in anticipation of colder weather. The animals are all okay. Sometimes I get a little tired of not having my own home. Oh well, at least the owners leave me alone for the most part.

Next time I take a job winter feeding, I’m going to ask for more money, unless it takes less time to feed. May be I’m lazy? At least, I’m basically my own boss.

Thursday, January 4th : 33 degrees below zero this morning, and clear.

Well, I found out today that you don’t have to get cold at this temperature, if you’re smart, and keep your head, hands and feet warm, and keep moving. Once you stop, you get cold very fast. I walked beside the sleigh today to keep warm. I pulled 800 pound bales out of the first stack with my horses, Bo and Freckles. It was a beautiful, sunny day. And I sweated all day. In the morning, I was scared of being cold, but wasn’t cold all day. It got up to 5 below zero, and now it’s dropping again.

A new calf appeared today, all wet and cold looking. How it survived, I’ll never know. Right now it’s sitting in front of the wood heater, just like a dog. Am I dreaming or what? I hope he’s okay. I gave him some milk with molasses and rum. He doesn’t seem very hungry which could be a bad sign. On the other hand, he could just be enjoying the heat. He looks pretty content. He did have a very active day. I wish Karen were here as she always wanted to have a calf in the house. When I was a child, I longed for a baby calf. Now I finally have one!

Bo and Freckles are working awfully well. I was carrying some hay into the house for the calf’s bedding, and the cows tried to follow me into the house. The whole herd was down here by the house. They’re all very hungry. I’ve been feeding them three large bales instead of two while it’s cold like this.

Friday, January 5th : 36 below zero this morning, clear and still.

The snow squeaks when I walk on it. Well, winter feeding at 30 degrees below zero is okay, but would be better if things around here were better organized. The stackyards don’t quite keep the cows out.

The truck barely works. The hay is miles away. Sounds like a chapter out of a Richard Hobson novel, doesn’t it? Well, it may well be. Working alone here is very hard. I can see how much easier it could be. Besides that, things aren’t going too bad. Excepting – about 15 cows were in the stackyard all day. I’m doing my best.

The little calf found its mother today! I toured him around in the pickup, until we found Mama. After his supper I loaded him back in the pickup, and he’s sleeping in the harness room. It’s still cold, 20 below and it’s only 5:30 p.m. I figure as long as I look at this experience as an adventure, and don’t worry, things will keep going fine. Yours sincerely, and all true, I swear, Doug.

I was just reading Bukowski, and in one way he reminds me of myself. He always keeps working, but can’t make any money. In my own way, I’m in the rat race. I struggle to keep 75 cows alive, while other people struggle to make a mortgage payment.

I hope my struggle has some future use, maybe on my own place. It sure costs a lot to live. Maybe we all live too high. Today I had to use whatever I could to feed the cows. First I used the horses. Then I used the truck. I felt that if I hadn’t used the truck, the cows wouldn’t have got enough hay, plus I had to give the calf a ride to find his mother. I find both machines are useful, though I prefer the horses.

Saturday, January 6th : 38 degrees below zero this morning. Getting a little colder.

Believe it or not, I sweated like a pig most of the day. I can hardly believe it. Well, nobody showed up today. I was expecting someone to come. I’m hoping that they’re at least thinking of their cows. Maybe they’re buying a new wagon, or plowing out the stack, the one ten miles away.

Boy, working alone here is sure a big chore! Just trying to get through a gate with 75 hungry cows milling around! At the end of the day I was pulling this bale of hay with the truck. I was trying to get through this rickety gate into where I kept my horses. Just as I reached the entrance, the bale came loose. My horses were on one side of the gate, and 75 cows plus ten horses that had shown up on the other side. What did I do? I thought fast. I tried to hook onto the bale again, and failed. The hungry herd drew nearer. In desperation, I backed up, closed the rotten gate, then drove off and scattered a bit of hay I had in the back of the truck, hoping to detour them a bit. I took a breather, then drove over to the bale again, untangled my ropes and looped them around the bale, hopped into the truck and drove through the gate very quickly, jumped out, grabbed my pitch fork, and had just enough time to get what cows were in the corral out. I made it. It was very dark. The cows were still hungry, as always. I gave them three bales that day.

Now I have ten horses to feed. Unless someone comes tomorrow, I’ll have to go out for help. Only three or four bales left in the stackyard. Enough feed until Monday night. We have to clear a path to another stackyard. I have no time to worry, though, as I’m too busy running around keeping all these cows fed. I’m kind of enjoying the challenge, in a perverse way. It would be a great help to have Karen here now, but her time away is good for her. I haven’t wanted to write for a long time. It wasn’t until tonight that I felt like writing again. I’ve been alone for three days, and that usually makes me want to write. I think it helps me to keep sane. Maybe someday I’ll write more true life adventures, who knows. See how I feel.

You know, I feel really alive tonight, something about working myself so hard. Life in the raw. I kind of enjoy it to a point. One bit of news to pass on is that when eggs are frozen solid, as some of mine are, they are just like billiard balls. They sound just like them.

Sunday, January 7th : 36 degrees Fahrenheit below zero this morning.

Clear, still and sunny.

Monday, January 8th.

Pat came out yesterday and gave me moral support. We tried to get the skidder going, but couldn’t. We were able to get into the far stackyard without the skidder. I have to build a gate for that stackyard. Pat figures this is the coldest winter since 1968-69. That’s the winter I was going to school in Dawson Creek. I think he’s right. This cold spell started on December 26th and it’s January 8th today, with only several days above zero.

Saturday, January 14th : 35 degrees below zero this morning.

Karen got back last Tuesday. She brought a tape deck and two pair of snowshoes. Last week was warmer, with several days slightly above zero.

Monday, January 15th : 44 degrees below zero this morning!

It’s the coldest that I’ve experienced here. Luckily, we have a system working out where we can walk out to the nearest stackyard, which is only a stone’s throw from the cabin. We can roll out an 800 pound bale without horses or a machine. We did that before breakfast and fed the horses. They were seriously shivering. I’ve never seen horses shiver before or since. Then we fed the chickens and geese and rabbits, the ones that hadn’t frozen to death. Now we’re back in the house again, and won’t go out again until around noon. It should be up to 20 below or warmer by then. It’s clear, still, and sunny, needless to say. If it wasn’t sunny, it would be impossible to go out. Inside the log cabin, I can feel drafts coming in from all the corners.

Life has gotten a lot easier for me since Karen got back, and if the weather warms up in a week, we can start hauling hay with the truck from ten miles away. That’s where the rest of the hay is. We need a new wagon, and we need to get the tractor with the loader down there, and the stackyard has to get cleaned out. This should be interesting reading in a couple of years. This afternoon we’ll harness up Bo and Freckles, and walk them out to the far stackyard, and pull out one more bale for the cows. We don’t get cold that way, by walking. In this weather it’s easy to get cold if you stop moving.

Sunday, February 4th.

A lot has happened since I last scribbled in this diary. The weather has been zero degrees during the night and ten or fifteen degrees during the day. We had a few calamities since we got back from town last weekend. First, I stuck the tooth of the front end loader through the back window of the truck, while loading hay. A calf drowned in a water hole on the lake. I guess I made it too large? Then, this morning, I drove into a large hole with the truck; the flu and carelessness being the cause. This flu leaves me feeling low. It’s all I needed, for something like this to happen, to make me feel worse. We’ll see if we can get it out. I’m not going to write any more right now, I feel terrible!

Saturday, February 10th : Zero degrees Fahrenheit this morning.

Winter still hanging in there. The truck made it out of the hole okay. I recovered from the flu, and was completely better last Tuesday. We went riding on the team, over to the Blackwater River. The snow is sure deep. We went snow shoeing several times as well. The truck has developed a strange, clanging knock. We’re waiting for Doctor Pat’s verdict on it. I’m worried that the engine is just about gone, in which case we’ll have to find another means of hauling hay from ten miles away. The cows have to be fed, I know that. Maybe that’s all I know? The truck had gone through a lot of heavy abuse this winter because the hay was left at distant points. No wonder it’s in the shape it’s in.

Other than that, things are going good. I smoked some bacon on the roof of the cabin a few days ago. I’m still doing lots of leather repair. Signing off until next time.

Tuesday, February 13th : 15 degrees below zero this morning.

The four by four needs a new engine. We have Pat’s truck here. This truck has no chains or water cooling system we can clip onto the tractor. We have very few bales of hay around here, so we’re going to try to make it to the ten mile away place to get some. We’ll have to light a fire under the tractor, and possibly under Pat’s truck as well. Lots of challenges today, keeps the time from dragging, anyway. Right now it’s 7:30 a.m. I’m drinking coffee, and Karen is feeding the horses.

February 14th : 40 degrees below zero. Clear and very cold.

Just for the record, this is the worst situation we’ve been in since we’ve been here. We have about five or so large bales of hay up about one and a half miles away. The rest is ten miles away. The 4 x 4 is shot. Plus, the road is unplowed.

The machines would be very hard to start, even if we could get there. We will feed the cows today by pulling hay in from one and a half miles away. We’ll walk up, and skid them down walking. That way we can stay warm. I hope and pray some help arrives. We need it!

Now it’s evening. It warmed up to ten below. It was a very exhausting day. We started around 6:00 a.m. and ended about 7:00 p.m. We pulled a bale down with the horses in the morning. Kenny the Logger ploughed out the stackyard for us and exposed the last five bales. That helped a lot. Kenny said he’d load up our truck with hay if we could get it up there, so when we got back, we put the torch under the truck, unharnessed the horses, and left them tied to the truck in case we couldn’t get the truck going. And we couldn’t. It was 3:30 p.m. by the time we decided to abandon the truck idea, and had to re-harness the horses. Just as I was finishing the harnessing, I was very much relieved to see Kenny arriving with two bales of hay on his loader. We fed out one, and put the other one in the corral. Kenny told me that he had skidded the two remaining bales out of the stackyard. He didn’t want to make another trip, so Karen and I set off with the sleigh.

It was dark by this time. We got up there and loaded them on the sleigh with our pitch forks, then came home and put the sleigh in the corral. A very, very LONG day!

We have enough feed for tomorrow and possibly half of the next day. I will try to go out tomorrow in Pat’s truck, and get more hay. Somewhere, somehow? I’ll see if I can get the tractor started ten miles away, then if all else fails I’ll go to town and try to score a load of hay there. We try our best!

Today was like the old and the new working together for a common cause: feeding cows. It was very beautiful – I think we owe the loggers a mince meat pie! Karen’s idea! Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode of “Feed those Hungry Cows!”

Friday, February 16th : 10 degrees below zero this morning.

It’s a nice morning, no wind. The cold weather hangs onto this country like a huge icicle. Yesterday I was getting ready to go into town in our truck, Jessie, when Kevin came with a load of hay, so I didn’t have to go. There’s no way we can make it down to the hay ten miles away, and the chances of getting the tractor started down there are slim. Kevin has promised to bring more hay in today.

Tuesday, March 6th : 30 above this morning.

We’ve had about a week of mild weather. It rained yesterday. Maybe spring is around the corner. The roads are getting mucky. It will break-up pretty soon.

A lot has happened since my last entry in the diary: Karen and I drove to Prince George. Going out is an event. We have two new calves. We lost a yearly after it got under a fence and couldn’t get up. A cow died while giving birth. And the big loss is that we think we might have lost five or so cows through the ice, which isn’t our fault. The lake isn’t fenced. We chop a hole in the ice close to the shore, for the cows to drink from, but they like to stroll out farther to find a hole of their own, maybe a muskrat hole. I was told that if they hear the ice cracking, they all bunch up together for protection, and of course they all go down. Anyway, we’re down that many on our count.

The four by four has a new engine, but it isn’t running yet. Karen and I figure that we may head out of here around the end of March. Apparently the road into this place is just about impassable from the middle of March to the end of April. If it’s not one thing, it’s another! So we might have to park our truck a mile and a half up the road.

March 20th : Sunny and warm! We leave here today!

January, 2004: Conclusion:

There’s no way I could do that now. I just don’t have the physical stamina. I’m glad I wrote it all down. Since then I spent 11 or 12 more years after that living in the Bush, but living an easier life. Basically homesteading our own place. Not that it was easy, but compared to that winter, everything else has seemed fairly easy. Now that I’m in the middle of raising three children, I sometimes think about that winter and wonder which was harder, feeding 75 hungry cows at 30 below zero, or being wakened up in the middle of the night by crying children again and again. I haven’t got it figured out yet.

Presently, for my relaxation and to help support my family, I grow and sell organic vegetables with the help of horses and tractors.