Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sorting Cattle

A few weeks ago, Clayton and I prepared to move our cattle from the winter pasture across the valley to a spring pasture. As a small, family-run cattle operation, we don’t have a big semi truck to haul all the cattle in one easy load. Instead, we haul 5 or 6 small loads in our trusty stock trailer pulled by the pick-up truck. It takes most of the day, driving back and forth from the winter pasture in the Stansbury area, to the spring pastures in Rush Valley.

On this particular morning, Clayton and I, and of course our 1 year old daughter, were the only cowhands available to move the cattle. Joshua came to help a few hours after we got started, as well as Joel later that afternoon. So how many cowhands does it take to round up 50-plus head of cattle? Just one. Clayton and his horse did a great job of rounding up the cattle and herding them into the corrals. It was touch and go for a moment at the end, when the cattle were crowding and jostling at the gates to get in the corral and a loose panel fell down. I thought for sure that the entire herd would turn around and bolt, but luckily, they didn’t.

So we got all the cows into the corrals. When I say “cows” here, we’re talking about 26 mature cows with their 26 calves, 6 two-year old heifers, 2 yearling steers, and 1 good-looking bull. The corrals are divided into two sections: the west side, which is where the cattle entered the corral, and the east side, which is connected to the separating chutes. The east and west side are connected by a small gate. Theoretically, you move the cattle into the east corral, then into a small adjoining corral, and from there, they are moved through the chutes and into the trailer.

Here’s some helpful information for you: it’s stressful for the cows & calves to be separated from each other for a long period of time. Mothers, you know how it is when you don’t know where your baby is or what’s happening to her. You worry. So do the cows. We generally try to make the traveling easier on the pairs by keeping the mamas in the same load as their babies. That way, when they get to the corrals in the new pasture, they don’t freak out because they can’t find their baby. And the babies stay calmer, because they’re with their mamas. Makes sense to me. We can comfortably fit about 6 or 7 pairs of cows & calves into the trailer at one time.

 In order to get the pairs together to go for their journey across the valley, first we have to get 6 or 7 pairs into the east corral. Now. You may be thinking to yourself, “How hard can this be? You move 6 or 7 cows into the east corral, and their babies are right by their side, and there you go. Finished.” Well, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t always work like that. It would be much easier if each calf was glued to its mama’s side and never wandered off to hang out with its calf buddies. And for those calves that we have not yet tagged & identified, it would be much easier for us to identify which cow they belong to if they would stop trying to nurse from every cow in the corral until they find their real mama. My point is, it’s a lot harder than you think.  Cows, in general, like to do things their way. They don’t always cooperate like we’d like them to. It mostly goes back to the cows being a prey animal and humans being predators. Cows have a strong fight-or-flight instinct when they are in a seemingly dangerous situation. Most of our cows will flee rather than fight, but we do get an occasional cow here and there who wants to fight. So when you’re sorting cattle, you have to use just the right amount of pressure to get them to go where you want them to go.

Alrighty. Back to the story. Clayton manages to get 6 or 7 pairs into the small separating corral with my help from the outside. Since I had to watch our little girl, I stayed outside the corrals and identified pairs with the help of my trusty calf book. I’d call out tag numbers to Clayton, and he worked his magic by getting them together in the corral. In the meantime, our baby girl is wandering around, eating dirt and chewing on rocks. I decide that it’s healthy for her to do so, because I’m a good mom like that, and just keep an eye on her so that she doesn’t do anything gross, like eat cow manure. We get the first group of pairs loaded into the trailer. Then we must decide who is going to do what. We have a few options. Option 1: All three of us could go together in the truck to drop off the load. It’s helpful to have more than one person with you while you’re driving the cattle, because the extra person can get out to open & shut gates, direct you when you’re backing up the trailer, and share heartfelt conversations. However, since we were short-handed, I knew it would be more useful if one of us stayed back to sort another load of pairs to be ready to go when the truck got back. Which leads us to Option 2: One of us drive the truck, the other stays back to sort out another group. Now, I’ve driven the truck & trailer several times, but I’m not totally comfortable doing it by myself with a full load of cattle. What if something happened? What if a tire blew, or the truck breaks down, or any number of horrible possibilities that I am not fully equipped to deal with? So I “volunteered” to stay behind and sort out another group of pairs. Clayton and the baby take off in the truck, and I am left behind to get the job done.

Picture me, 5 foot, 4 & ½ inches, standing in a corral full of cattle. They’re big. They can kick. They can charge. They can roll their eyes at you in a threatening manner. I admit, I’m a tiny bit intimidated. But intimidation be hanged, I need to get a group of cattle sorted before Clayton gets back with truck and sees me as a no-good worthless cowhand! My goal is to get all of the mama cows with their babies into the east corral, keeping the heifers, steers, and bull in the west corral. I figured Clayton could help me sort the mamas and babies into pairs when he gets back. So I start out, fearless in my determination to get the job done. I have with me a “sorting stick”, which can be a length of PVC pipe, or a long but sturdy stick, or a stock whip, or whatever you can find. The sorting stick is used as an extension of your arm. When I want a cow to move away from me, I can reach out with the stick and tap it on its rump, and that way, my body is not close enough for the cow to kick me if she chose to do so. Or, in the case when mean Bull #49 was chasing poor Joseph in the corral at Grandma’s house, the stick can be used to whack a charging animal on the nose to encourage them to turn away from you.  My sorting stick that I used on this day just so happened to be an old wooden curtain rod that we had used the previous weekend at my daughter’s birthday party to break open the piƱata. It happened to be in the back of the truck when we arrived at the cattle pasture this morning, so we grabbed it to use as a sorting stick. Hey, it works.
So there I am, little old me, with my curtain rod in hand, trying to sort the cattle, all by myself. It would have been a lot easier if there were three of me. Or even two of me. I’d make one of me be in charge of guarding the gate, and would make sure the cows that were already in the east corral did not escape back into the west corral. That’s one of the hard parts when you’re by yourself, is that you have to leave the connecting gate open so that the cows you want to move can go into the other side, but there’s nothing there to stop the cows from coming back out. I’d manage to get a cow or two into the east side, but they’d always slip back into the west side while my back was turned. So I’d chase them back into the east side, and give them a stern lecture, punctuated with much waving of my curtain rod, threatening them to stay where they were or else. Then it’s back over to the west side. Most of the calves were chillin’ in one of the far corners, so I focused mainly on moving the grown cows. But of course, the cows that I wanted to move over were hiding behind the heifers and the bull. I try ineffectively to move the heifers and bull out of the way, but let’s face it, I’m a teeny-tiny bit scared of the bull and I’m sure he knows it. Same thing goes for this one cow, cow #14. I think she’s mostly bluff, but she’s always pawing at the ground, trying to intimidate me. I don’t think she or the bull would actually charge me, but I’m pretty sure the bull wouldn’t hesitate to move me out of his way if I were in it. I’m keeping one eye on the bull & #14, and one eye on the gate, and one eye . . . oh wait, I only have two eyes. I switch tactics and try to lecture the cows, and tell them in plain English just exactly what I want them to do. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Ok, Patch-Eye, you take your little calf with you and go join your friends in the other corral. No, no, no, don’t run into that corner! Turn around and go that way! No? Ok, how about you, #23?  Will you please go into the other corral? Don’t you turn your back on me! 23! Stop ignoring me and get over there! You, heifers, get back away from that gate—don’t make me come after you with this curtain rod!”
Cows: "Moo."
These conversations were largely in vain. I can’t figure out why.

Well, to make a long story just a bit shorter, by the time Clayton returned, I had managed to get 3 pairs into the east corral, along with 2 mama cows without their calves, and 2 heifers that weren’t supposed to be over there, but that’s just too bad. I’m sure all those people driving by on the highway must have gotten a good laugh, watching some girl waving a curtain rod ineffectively at a bunch of cows. And of course, Clayton went in the corrals and in no time, all by himself, had sorted out a nice group of cow & calf pairs. What can I say? He’s amazing.

 Next time, I’ll drive the truck.
What a stud!


old teacher said...

When I lived in South America I used to see folks herding cows all the time..... I'm afraid of cows, they're big, with beautiful brown eyes that watch me like I'm Sunday brunch. So one day, I'm on a mountain path and a whole herd comes up.... just the cows... and me, near tears, hugging the cliff...shaking, literally shaking, sure that they'll either stampede or gently nudge me off the cliff.... and just when hysteria begins to overwhelm me, I see the "cowhand" 8 year old boy with a simple switch! Calm, sure, collected and in complete control of the herd. Pride now totally gone and confirmation that I am, at heart, a total weenie. You rock!

Joseph Sagers said...

I like the way you described me as "whacking a charging bull to encourage them to turn". That sounds much more heroic and awe-inspiring than me soiling my pants and tripping over old truck parts while my arms flailed wildly with a stick. Thanks Ruth!