To paraphrase Robert Frost; “Something there is that doesn’t love a calf” specifically wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and bears, just to name a few. Actually if you stop and think about it, the above predators actually do love calves: for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unfortunately that fondness for beef causes many a headache for cattlemen. Predators are but one of the many obstacles that are faced daily by cattlemen.
Several years ago, for example cattlemen were faced with a drought that left traditional grazing lands almost totally without the life giving water and subsequent grass that the cattle need to survive. Cattle producers all over the West had to buy feed to keep their herds alive. In addition, the availability of feed grain has diminished because the government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to subsidize the production of alcohol for so called “green fuel”. Guess what? When grain is used to make alcohol, there is less available to feed cows, hogs and chickens. Presto Chango! The price of food rises astronomically. The poor cattlemen as well as we consumers are caught between a rock and a hard place.
It takes a very special type of person to be a livestock producer. They have to battle predators, rising feed costs, disease and market price fluctuations. They expose themselves on a regular basis to driving rain, freezing cold, and blistering heat. Then, as they are working at a haystack loading incredibly heavy bales of hay into a truck, they pick up a bale to find a coiled rattler underneath! Yes indeed, it takes a special breed to be a cattleman. I suspect it’s a form of mental illness. Fortunately for the rest of us however, there are still a few individuals crazy enough to be cattlemen. I, for one am glad they are.
A few weeks ago, one of my cattleman buddies invited me to come and observe his semi annual round up and branding operation. It was really an eye opening experience. For a couple decades now, my partner Don McGeein and I have been catching rattlesnakes on local cattle ranches. We usually concentrate on removing rattlers from the areas where the rattlers and humans might come into contact with each other. We work around houses, barns, corrals, loading pens and even outhouses to remove potential trouble. A rattler on your front porch or a rattler in your outhouse can ruin your whole day. At any rate, my friend Bob invited Don and I to his round up this year and it was a real education for us.
As we drove up to the cattle pens, my initial impression was one of total chaos. There was a frenzy of calves, cows, horses, and people milling around amidst a cloud of dust and emitting a clamor of unintelligible noise. It seemed like a madhouse with the inmates yelling, calves bawling and no rhyme of any sort to the madness. As I stood and watched for awhile I began to discern some patterns emerging out of the chaos. There seemed to be some sort of order to it all. Every person had a specific job. The more I watched, the more sense it all made. There were ropers who roped the calves by the head and feet, there was someone who turned the calf on his side and sat on him. There was someone who branded the calf, and others who did the vaccinations, ear notching and castrating. There were people who opened gates at the right time and moved the untreated calves in and others who moved the treated critters out again.
I was also struck by the democracy of it all. There were old people who looked like they might be 80 and youngsters who weren’t much over 8 or 10 years old. There were white folks Hispanic folks and even a black cowboy from Oakland! There were folks who spoke English and Spanish and Basque.
It didn’t seem to matter what your background was, as long as you did your job. More than anything, I was struck by the learning that was happening.
Older folks were teaching the next generation skills that they had learned a generation or two before. The torch was being passed; another generation of cowpokes was being initiated in a trade as old as America. When the work was all done everyone sat down to enjoy lunch. About that time Josh went off to explore his surroundings. Before long he came back and reported that he had discovered a snake on the backside of a haystack. Upon investigation, it turned out to be a baby rattler about 12 inches long. We soon detached the head from the little viper and Josh got to pose with his trophy for a picture which I promptly sent to his Mom. Boy was she thrilled!
Now the headless rattler resides in a half pint bottle of 80 proof vodka and can serve as a permanent reminder of Josh’s first roundup.
Until Next Week