Monday, May 3, 2010

Working Cows

This weekend was sunny, and warm:  perfect cattle working weather. So, after closing up their small engine repair shop for the afternoon, Justin and Joe hopped on their four wheelers and zoomed out into the long pasture next to our farm. The cows were scattered over several fields so the guys wove back and forth on their ATV’s moving mamas and babies into small groups which eventually merged into one large herd. It looked like a twenty acre square dance. Finally the cows and calves were all gathered at the gate.
     I was drying dishes when I looked out the window and saw the first of the 25 cows and calves funneling through. I threw down my towel, pulled on an old pair of boots and ran outside, grabbing a big stick on my way to the cattle pen. Our set-up requires the cows to cross a small creek and then follow a fence to the end of the pen where they turn and enter. Saturday was like every other round up. Most of the cows trekked obediently to the opening, but there was one rogue cow (I won’t tell you what Joe called her) who refused to go along with the crowd. Every time we had most of the cows turned into the pen, she threw up her head, whirled around and charged past one of us (usually me) back out to the open field. Every time, Justin hopped on his four wheeler and gunned it, racing to get in front of her. Joe attempted to hold the other cows in place while I ran huffing and puffing to take up a strategic cow-turning position. Every time the cow galloped towards me, I waved my big stick and hollered hoping to turn her. But, the old cow figured out pretty quickly that I belonged in the hen house behind me with the other big chickens so she just slobbered derisively on me as she cantered past.
     Finally, she got tired of running circles and joined her bovine friends. Joe swung the gate shut and then the sort out began. He stepped into the pen with the crowded, restless herd. They signified their displeasure by stomping and bawling and kicking at him. Joe waded around in the black gumbo of feces and urine, ignoring their distress and gently sent them two or three at a time into a smaller pen. From there he moved them into a long, narrow passageway with a head chute at the end. It’s designed to fool the cows into thinking they’ve found an escape route. Each time a cow stretched her head through the narrow opening, Justin pulled a lever, pinching the gate shut around her neck. While she kicked and struggled, he climbed the fence, leaned above the 1250 pound animal, jabbed a needle into her neck and pulled it back out before she could trap his hand against the side of the pen. I was, as always, amazed at how quickly and calmly my son worked. Once the vaccine was administered, Justin poured on some wormer and then released the cow back out into the pasture where she circled around bawling until she located her calf.
     Of course I had the most important job of all. Early in the afternoon, one of the cows kicked a hole through a board in the pen. Whenever a cow sees a hole, she forces her head through it and then bulldozes her way to freedom. My job was to intimidate the cows and keep them from escaping. I am much braver when I have a fence to hide behind. The only hazard I faced was streams of liquid green poop that squirted out of the cows as they moved away. In spite of their size and stink, the cows were interesting to watch. They love their babies and a lot of their movement in the pen was directed at keeping them in sight. They were also very curious about me, sometimes smelling my scary stick and then licking their noses. A cow is not afraid to stick her tongue all the way into her nostrils.
     We finished up in about an hour and a half. Several cows were loaded into a trailer to be moved. Then, the rest were released to mosey back to the pasture, while we moseyed back to the house. As the sun sank behind the mountains, we sank into our porch chairs and listened as the last of the mamas and babies mooed their way home.

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