Coldwater — Sunrise had a tough time breaking through the morning rain but when it did the dark, purple skies over Comanche County treated those on foot or on horseback to a perfect rainbow.
Dee Scherich and two ranch hands quietly watched the weather and light show through a half-open barn door as they dried and saddled their horses. They were setting out to gather a small chunk of the nearly 900 cows and their calves scattered across the 17,500 acre Merrill Ranch, 27 miles southeast of Coldwater.
Cowboys, intent on lending a hand, were trailering their horses from as far away as Hutchinson and Andover and it was hoped they would show up by 9 a.m. They'd help gather, rope, brand and inoculate the calves. The previous night's inch-plus rainfall had made the county's sandy, ungraveled roads and the ranch's 1.5 mile winding driveway slicker than peanut butter.
The good news was that the rains were forecast to stop soon and the wind would pick up and dry out the landscape.
The bad news? The wind would be blowing around 50 miles an hour -- nothing new for this part of the world.
Keeping on schedule
Scherich, the energetic, 63-year old ranch manager, was smiling under the light rain as he helped load horses into a trailer.
"With cattle work you're pretty much committed to a schedule," he said, "and that's why when the wind blows 50 miles an hour you go about your business."
Another day at the office.
The horses and riders arrived on time and after a powwow in a field of wind-whipped brome grass, six riders scattered in four directions.
Most wore leather chaps to disarm the sharp thorns on the sand plum bushes that grow in places where cattle like to hide from the wind.
Because of the high, gusting winds all but ranch hand Chris Lawless traded their cowboy hats for cinched-tight ball caps.
"Taking our pictures in these," Scherich said jokingly, "we'll look like a bunch of darned farmers."
He planted more than 1,000 acres of wheat this year but like the sign says ... Merrill Ranch.
Bringing them in
Less than an hour after they set out, the riders were heading their horses at a fast walk for the pens in the northeast corner of the ranch. They were pushing small herds of 20 to 40 head of cattle. After the first count fell short they returned to the pasture to find more.
The sky was filled with fast moving clouds that sometimes parted allowing splotches of sunshine to warm the day. Small cedar trees, not tumbleweeds, rolled across the pastures. Buffalo grass grew in scattered patches in the midst of soil made red by high iron deposits. These are part of the Red Hills, which are found in six counties in central Kansas near or on the Oklahoma border.
In contrast to the red soil are the white topped buttes and outcroppings of gypsum that make the ride along U.S. Highway 160 between Medicine Lodge and Coldwater a visual treat.
At the pens, Dan Tevis of Andover and Justin Williams, Abbyville, moved portable fencing to enclose the roping area. Merrill cowboys Jim Sheetz and Chris Lawless began separating the cows from their calves to make room inside the pens. The mothers let out low-pitched, mournful bawls as they formed a line outside the pens. Their calves echoed as higher-pitched tenors. This was the first time the unweaned calves had been cut off from their milk supply.
The quiet pastoral atmosphere was gone.
Terry Snyder of nearby Wilmore and Scherich were setting out syringes and bottles of "Vision 7" a drug that protects the calves from Black Leg disease and prevents them over eating.
Before they left the pens and returned to their mothers, the calves were vaccinated and branded. The little bulls got the same treatment plus they were castrated and a non-steroid implant was placed in an ear.
'Rope and drag'
About 80 calves and a few cows bunched against the far side of the pen. No volunteers stepped forward.
So, the cowboys used an old method called "rope and drag" to deliver the calves to the propane- heated branding irons and syringes.
The back feet or a leg was roped, the cowboy wound his lariat around the saddle horn and each calf was dragged about 30 feet, usually on the stomach, across the grassy floor of the pen.
Then, a cowboy gripped a front leg and placed a knee on the calf's neck pinning it to the ground while another held a rear leg with his foot against a rump avoiding a sharp hoof. White smoke rose as the branding iron burned through hair. Other cowboys moved in with a syringe or scalpel.
It was all over for each calf in about 30 seconds.
The action looked like an "Indy 500" pit stop.
When each bewildered calf's legs were released from the rope's loop, it headed for its mother. The calves, probably born in early February, each had a brand new do on it's left hip that looked like a picnic table with a line under it ... the Merrill Ranch brand.
"Rope and drag can look inhumane but it's not holding a calf in a metal or cement pen but against God's earth by another soft body ... not a steel squeeze chute," Scherich said.
He said the method is more efficient and "all you need is one pickup to carry the irons and supplies and riders on horseback."
An official with the Washington Cattlemen's Assn. said the pain inflicted by branding is similar to getting a tattoo or having your tongue pierced.
17,500 acres of grass, wind and sky
In an open range where there are no gates, brands are meant to head off rustlers and they also come in handy when bad fencing causes neighboring herds to mix.
By the end of the day 150 calves were processed and reunited with their mothers.
Only about 750 pairs to go.
But, chasing cattle across 17,500 acres is nothing new for Dee Scherich. He grew up here. His dad, Virgil managed the ranch from 1945 to 1976. After teaching science at Inman High School, Dee returned to manage the ranch with his wife Phyllis and three teen-age boys.
"We told them we'd stay until our sons graduated from high school," Phyllis recalled. "Now we have grandchildren and we're still here."
Out here, the sky is big, the roads are long and the wind almost never stops blowing.
It's 27 miles to the grocery store and it's easy to put 1,000 miles on your car every month just going to town.
At it's widest, the Merrill Ranch measures 12 miles from north to south. In the winter three pickup trucks drive 100 miles a day carrying feed to the cattle.
What's the attraction?
"It's a way of life," explained Dee Scherich. "But honestly, my work is my hobby and if you open your eyes you'll find something to do."
He talked about not being able to trailer the horses during bad weather and having to ride for over an hour to get to the pastures to begin gathering cattle.
"But, we get to visit on the ride and tell stories and that's the way life is supposed to be ... isn't it."