Cow Standoff – Babies Under Threat

Large caterpillar (probably at Instar 4) trying to make it to a monarch

In the last blog post, I relayed the near loss of the incubator milkweed plant and my aborted protective camping almost-adventure. I also detailed how my cattleman and I agreed that it would work out to shift the cattle to the south part of the ranch a few days early for a rotation of 10 days. However, he was not able to move them until Sunday…I had to ensure the baby monarchs’ protection for one more evening and day.

Like Saturday morning, I rose before the sun to make sure I was moving before the cattle were. I was out the door at 6am, and there were already several cows up. They were in the vicinity, but not adjacent to the milkweed. Still, it was too close for comfort. The dogs and I made our way to the milkweed patch to stand guard for however long it took the cattle to circulate away from this section of the ranch.

The sun began to lighten up the sky, and one by one, the cattle began to stand up from their nested slumber in the grass to begin their morning ablutions. I stood guard as the dogs showed their joy playing a game of wrestle and chase. Who wouldn’t be excited to be outside first thing in the morning, the cool air stinging your cheeks, a brisk walk moving the blood in your body, the slight breeze shifting your fur. The smell was crisp and alive – a good day to guard a plant full of caterpillars.

Dave watches the drama unfold from the other hilltop

As time went on, the cattle migrated around the hill. I went home for a cup of tea and breakfast – in front of the large window looking north to keep an eye on the situation. I calculated how close they could get before I would need to run up the hill to get to the patch before them. Then…trickery! A separatist cow group splintered off from the herd and went up the hill. It was like they remembered the green of the milkweed and made a plan to circle back. I ran out the door, the dogs at my heels, jumped in the neighbor’s Polaris and drove as fast as I safely could up the dangerous incline. I had to approach with care. If I chose the wrong side to head them off, they could stampede over the plants all but assuring the destruction of the patch. This pushed me to the steepest, rockiest side of the hill. As I watched the cows continue their approach, inching closer and closer, I could drive no further. The rocks were too plentiful. Jumping out, I ran across the tilted hillside, dodging milkweed and rocks. The dogs were there first – stopping the cows in their quest just feet away from the patch, and the treasure of the caterpillars beyond. Breathless as I ran, I said “leave it!” – lest they move them toward me and trample the plants. They obeyed – standing like schoolyard bullies daring some poor kid to make a move. It was like this when I finally got to the east side of the patch. Millie and Beatrix standing like statues except for the slight lick of their chops contemplating – no savoring – the thought of a chase. I imagined them thinking, “Make my day.”

It was a stand-off.

Cattle are smart, and they don’t like to be stationary for too long. The drought had taken its toll on the land, and they were going to chomp those bright green plants they had seen the day before. Their ringleader is Skull, and she brought about 10 of her toadies along with some their calves. As a rule, I give a wide berth to all mamas with their babies, and I certainly did not want to put pressure on any of them. But, this was my one patch of ground, and I was not going to cede it. Skull is about 1,500lbs, black with a white face that leaves black fur around her eyes giving her that skull-like appearance. Creepy. She is not someone you would want to pick a fight with. She stared at me demanding that I get out of the way. The dogs inched closer to her as she tossed her head. Then she looked back at me, and I said, “You have 364 and a half acres to graze. This is my half acre. Go on…GET!” Oh boy, she did not like that. She hit her hoof to the ground and scrapped the dirt, then snorted. Dang – she was getting agitated. I tried a different approach in a softer voice, “Oh sweet, sweet skull. Please understand. I love you, but I love the monarchs more right now. Why don’t you go take your posse and eat some other plants?” Another stomp, scrape and snort. Things were not looking good. The issue, it appeared, was non-negotiable on both sides, and I would not be moved. Sensing the moment, and tired of the conversation, Beatrix and Millie looked at me. I nodded, and they were off. Barking and moving forward at the splinter group. Some of Skull’s toadies peeled off right away and headed down the hill, but a few others hung on. Skull stepped toward the dogs, but they were undeterred. The girls redoubled their efforts; they were not fooling around. Skull and her team relented and reluctantly made their way down the hill, slowly, knowing their size and desires. Then, nearing the bottom of the hill, Skull stopped and looked back up the hill at me, the dogs now sitting by my side staring back at her. It was clear I had won this battle, but the war was yet to be determined. She turned back around and meandered off, head held high.

With the tense moment passed, I turned to regale in the treasure that was protected. The caterpillars were safe. There were large, medium and small ones eating. They were thriving. Beatrix and Millie saved the day.

Badass Canis familiarus

With the cattle moved on, I set my sights on figuring out how I would get the Polaris back down the ultra steep hillside. Photos do not do it justice. Driving down is almost like going over a cliff. I created a plan of careful movements to position the vehicle nose forward using the same track I had created to get up the hill. I took a deep breath, loaded myself in the unit, put my seatbelt on, placed my left foot on the break and my right on the acceleration, shifted in reverse and took off the break. It lurched forward for just a quarter second before I caught it with the break pedal. Breathing again. I reversed, got it into position and carefully went downhill in low gear.

Images are deceiving. This is not a gentle slope.

Nectar and Monarch Sightings

The nectar of the milkweed is a crucial source of food for a newly emerged butterfly

With the cows to the south, I could feel comfortable going on vacation. My pet sitter texted me with a sighting of a monarch on the back patio. I nearly cried. It isn’t just one. There are several sightings now. I really believe this place was chosen as a nursery because of the added nectar (Thank you CARCD and Xerces for grants and extra plants). In the last two years, there has been no evidence of caterpillars chewing on plants. This year has been good for early blooms. We have a wide variety of plants flowering. It has been this way since January.

After returning from vacation, I checked on the incubator milkweed. It was gone – stripped down to nothing but a few buds at the base of the plant. This is as intended. The caterpillars eat, and eat. They then find another plant to ravage until they are large enough to make their chrysalis. I counted 5 on one large plant and one on another. There was evidence of slight chewing on a third large milkweed, but I did not see any caterpillar.

As I was returning, imagine my shock when I found 4 A. Californicas emerging from the soil of the first milkweed patch, AC1, closest to my home – the site I had been watching with despair at its non-return. In years past, this site had as many as 11 individual plants. This could be good news for any late comers to the ranch who want to start their family here. Lesson learned – never count out nature.

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