Monthly Archives: September 2011

Notes on ‘Still Cowboys’

Much of this business is about the odds, the likelihood that it will rain, that we will get the job done, be in the right place when the time comes, the reliability of which is always refined by experience. Then there are the odds that PETA will use this piece as an example of inhumane livestock practices that reflect poorly on our contemporary culture, already overburdened with popular judgments. Though the chance is fairly small, it concerns me, nonetheless, but misses the point of the story.

The difference between cowboys and cowmen are but shades of experience—the bigger picture as opposed to tunnel vision. I think of good cowboys as men of action, not indecision, and believe good cowmen look ahead through the eyes of cows. But there’s still a little cowboy in us all, regardless of age.

In this post about how we spent Labor Day, the heifer would have died, untended. In retrospect, we should have secured her front legs with the rope, but usually when they’re down, they stay down until the calf comes with a little help and we leave the pair to clean-up and bond. If we had been able to hold her to standstill, she might have lain back down—you grab what you can as it happens.

Robbin saw it, and probably thought of the corrals that were a quarter-mile away before we did—but we’re men of action, cowboys in our 60s and 70s riding a Kawasaki Mule. Whether or not I’ve captured the graphic and coarse humor that seems indigenous to this culture, I think it’s a fair reflection of what happened in a conversational style—educational if not entertaining. We are who we are, just trying to keep our livestock alive.

Time to Talk

Clarence & Robbin

Still Cowboys

Having missed three heifers, one with a fresh calf, across the creek when I fed, Robbin & I jumped in the Kubota to see if we could find them yesterday afternoon, eyes peeled for coyotes. We found the pair, but also our neighbor’s heifer across the fence, down with legs up, looking dead at a distance, but trying to have her calf.

We went for him and the calf pullers, parts that have outlasted their canvas bag, big jug of water, lubricant, disinfectant and penicillin. As an afterthought, I grabbed a stiff lariat rope someone had left at the shop. Clarence beat us to his first-calf heifer, on his knees with some hay string in the shade and surrounded by the heifer’s mates, his Kawasaki Mule running when we arrived. We assembled the pullers after slipping the OB chains around the calf’s front feet, connecting the OB chains to the big chain from the jack with a quarter-inch bolt and nut, the original S hooks long-straightened and lost.

She was a big heifer with small pelvis in obvious pain as we applied pressure and lubricant. The calf’s feet were big and he was alive. Just as we were making progress, she jumped up, Clarence with a hold on the OB chains, me with the breeching, pole and jack, scattering the channel locks we used for a jack handle, cross-country. It was a fairly even pull to begin with, and I thought she was wearing down when the pole I was holding disassembled, leaving Clarence with a grip on the chains. Approaching 73, his legs couldn’t keep up with his grip, and out across the pasture she trotted, dragging breeching and jack, swinging from the chains connected to the calf’s front feet.

We had the rope—a 7/16th x 30-foot cable I tied to the axel of his Mule. We drove towards her. I needed a big loop, already loosing 5 feet of length from the bowline on the axel to the passenger’s seat, leaving me only a coil and a half in the hand I held-on with as I swung with the other, not sure whether to jump clear when I caught or duck under my slack as it got tight. What ran through my head without resolution became academic after several misses, and having to unwind their slack from around the axel. From the shade of our original oak tree, Robbin said it was pretty good watching. A one point, the heifer was turning in a tight circles left, the centrifugal force of which, as Clarence kept up, made standing and staying aboard my full-time job.

The chase brought us closer to the corrals and an ancient, Linton squeeze. I got the gate afoot, Robbin fell in behind her on the Kubota, and Clarence turned her through the gate on the Mule. Long story short, we saved the heifer, but lost a huge calf.

Over drinks as shadows crept across the canyon, we replayed the afternoon. My first cowboy hero, Clarence ran this ranch for my Dad and Granddad when he was 16, and I had to ask him, “How old do you think those pullers are? They were still in their canvas bag when I got here out of college in 1970.”

“Sometime in the Fifities, I guess.” He replied.

“Do you think Dad would throw too big a fit if I wasted money on some new ones?”

Big Dog Back

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Since my early a.m.post, I’ve fed the 1st-calf heifers, finding the lucky calf above. Coyotes go for the hamstring. The calf must have bawled and the young cows ran him off. The girls were understandably nervous this morning. My coyote with a ‘taste for veal’ is obviously still around.

Addendum: A Taste for Veal

I try to leave the coyotes alone except for calving time, not liking the killing of anything anymore, believing that too much pressure on the local population will only produce bigger litters and more fertile females in the future. Though inconsistent, I think my process becomes more seasonal and individually selective.

Since posting ‘A Taste for Veal’, I haven’t seen a coyote. Somehow, the word is out. I do see a few tracks padded overnight, over the Kubota’s on my rounds, but none of the inquisitiveness of pups drawn to the scent of afterbirth. Assuming the rifle shots have been associated with the sound of the Kubota, they’ve kept their distance the past three days. Even nighttime serenades have decreased from choruses to duets and trios.

With some perspective, perhaps the coyote’s boldness or its lack of respect for humans spawned my lasting anger. I am these heifers’ provider, protector and midwife, if need be. Perhaps with better timing I might have saved the calf. But it is what it is: a less than attentive mother who’ll not make the cowherd—pretty as she is. But she’s not alone, some didn’t breed, a few aborted or produced stillborn calves. Around the first of December when we brand, we’ll make a sort for town, not wanting to perpetuate these genetics. It’s why we keep so many heifers, knowing we’ll always have some to help pay the pasture rent.

My attitude and behavior towards coyotes evolves a little each fall during calving time, when they’re all fair game in my crosshairs. Some die and some understand to move on to less risky places. With plenty of ground squirrels, rodents and crippled game from hunters and poachers, they are not starving, not forced to kill calves. I want the ones that have a taste for veal.

STAYING WARM

                                  …and all that we have
                            to love may be what’s near
                            in the cold, even then.

                                                – William Stafford (“So Long”)

So much for fleeting fantasies and retouched dreams
that seldom see canvas, that cannot feel the cold
nor help you walk the uneven ground of shadows

and circumstance, anymore than unravel chance designs
of lichen on speckled granite rock. No perfect world,
no perfect perception left to rise from the herd,

the human press, to warm the soul. We wander off,
letting go of this and that we thought we would become—
we bought or thought we stood for when it mattered.

Even now in this instant, we are not the same, yet
near at hand is the tool and the template, the axe
and handle, everything we touch at the level of love.

A Taste for Veal

Nostrils full of Hoppes #9, I am surprised when Robbin closes me into the office. I can’t smell anything else, not its combined scent with WD 40 and 3-in-1 Oil wafting throughout the house. Too long postponed, I’m cleaning rifles, still angry over the Wagyu calf we lost yesterday.

Zach & I fed the heifers about 8:30, short in a suspect count on the east side of the creek. We fed the bulls and replacement heifers down the road, then got back to the house about 11:00. I left in the Kubota to get another count and to check on the heifer with new calf at the north end of the pasture, having spotted a young coyote nearby when we fed. Though open to the hillsides, the heifers are calving along a mile and a half stretch of the creek.

There were four pairs nursing across from the house when I left the driveway to check on the heifer and calf. Getting a count on my way back, I approached where the pairs had been, when a big coyote jumped up from the creek ahead of me, running across the flat towards the steep slope. I rationalized that my two misses from dirty barrel and dusty scope, long shots half-way up the hillside, were at the least, fair-warning and educational. I finished my count and was driving home when I spotted the motionless form of a calf on the green bank, head downhill, across the creek. I whistled twice. Nothing.

Within the thirty minutes I was up the road, the 1st calf heifers had finished nursing and left to clean-up the last stems of alfalfa hay, about a 100 yards away. Without a babysitter, without a sound, the coyote killed a week-old calf. I inspected it, a hole for a hindquarter as the meat bees swarmed. No mother around.

A few hours later on my way back from errands in Exeter, I identified the heifer standing vigil over the carcass. I recorded her tag number and went to the house, angrier. Certainly not our first calf lost to coyotes, I could picture the thick-bodied male in the scope, broadside, head high, cocky and aloof on the hillside. I began imagining, piecing together what went down, giving him human attributes—I hated the SOB and wanted retribution. No clever trickster, just a bold thief stealing what might have been an $850-calf next May.

Initially, I was going to haul the carcass up the canyon, but as she continued to bawl beside the calf into evening, I left it, hoping all the new mothers on both sides of the road might hear her complaint all night and pay closer attention to their calves. But I thought it strange when shortly after dark, her bawling was moving farther away.

This morning the carcass was gone. After several circles, I found no drag marks in the dry grass within a hundred yards, no bones, no hide. Whatever packed it off, picked it up. Even the feral hogs would have left something. The second suspect in this grizzly caper: a small bear that has been working up and down the creek these past few weeks.

THE THIEF

He falls out of canyons cut between the steep
hills to the dry-grass shadows of sycamores
to watch the new calves nurse and play

themselves to sleep on short-cropped green
along the creek, waiting until first-time mothers
leave to graze. All the world is good to fresh

pastoral dreams, as the big dog meanders
among them, touches noses, tears a hamstring
holds and muffles a short cry in its throat.

Half-way up the hill, he looks back, full
of himself and the heavy half-a-hip in his belly
as the dirt flies, as a swarm of yellow meat bees

takeover before the heifer returns. She stands
vigil, trying to bawl her baby back to life
and follows as he drags it off into the night.

TODAY

Unlike any other, the day waits
under dark covers and doesn’t care
if you are there, or not,

to see her details, to watch her
dress—always changing
into something new.