Vagneur: It’s about tradition and family
The alarm was set for 4 a.m., and at 3:30 I cursorily rolled over and checked to make sure. I’m not exactly a kid anymore, but like one, I still get excited about working cows and can’t sleep very well the night before.
Shipping cattle is a big deal, because that’s when the payday comes for all the hard work you’ve done since the last time you shipped. And “shipped” means exactly that — shipping them to market — although in today’s high-tech world, cattle are often sold on futures, contracting for a price in June, betting you make out when it’s finally time to ship in November.
Any way you cut it, it’s better than the old days, sitting by a pen full of cattle at the Denver stockyards, waiting for a “market man” in a coat and tie to slither by and throw an offer your way, based on whatever the whims of the market are saying that day. There was always a reason he couldn’t pay more — take it or leave it — but we never took the first or second offer.
Doing business the newfangled way, the price has already been established, by the pound, so there are no surprises. And unlike the old days, we weigh them on the day we ship, on our own scales, so there’s no distrust about weight-shrinkage numbers, no stockyard manager withholding water or feed for one or two days to make your cattle weigh less for the buyers and no other problems that can come up when you don’t have control. But it’s still a gamble.
It’s speculation, too, picking a good day to ship. Fall is notoriously unpredictable, and working cows in a foot of corral mud is nasty business. We picked a good day this year, it seemed, without any precipitation falling, just the wetness from frost the preceding nights turning to mud about midmorning.
Catching a horse and saddling it in the dark is always a challenge; snaps and buckles never seem to operate the way they were intended; and sometimes the coming daylight shines a bit of embarrassment on the way you rigged your horse, or yourself, but we’re all in it together.
My horse Drifter and I stepped out of the truck and trailer onto solidly frozen ground, the temperature reading about 8 degrees. Dressed for the sun that I anticipated later in the day made it a bit cool for the first couple of hours, but in the end, I’d made the correct choice. Words of my dad echoed through the icy chill, telling me how the sun will be up soon and the cold in my hands and feet will go away. Like I said, I’m not a kid anymore, but some things are for a lifetime.
Through the pre-daylight haze of early morning they came, at least 750 black bovine beasts, lumbering toward the corrals, already bellowing for their calves, their big cloven hooves leaving an unmistakable trail as they shadowed into the corrals, slowly coming together into one large, captive herd as they reluctantly moved through the maze of alleyways and holding pens.
Ranching is about a lot of things, but mostly I reckon it’s about family and tradition. The work is hard, the rewards are immense, and the ethics instilled along the way come almost automatically. Brad Day and his wife, Niki, manned the gates and decided who stayed and who got sent to market. Their two daughters, Emma and Josie, not yet in high school, working alongside their grandfather John Burtard, brought the cattle up to an ever-narrowing, curved alleyway, where Drifter and I pushed them along to Brad. Throw in Melanie (an all-around caring cowgirl) and Giovanni (one smart hired hand), and you have the entire crew. We sorted the cattle into four different groups in the span of little less than two hours and were finishing up just as the huge aluminum stock trailers, three- and four-story behemoths designed for hauling livestock, pulled into view.
Another couple of hours of weighing and loading cattle, and the swaying trucks were headed back down the road. Cheeseburgers, hot dogs and chili cooked over an open bonfire awaited us as we hitched our horses to the rail and ambled over to the warmth of the fire.
As I said, it’s about family and tradition, and as we worked, I thought back to the days when my daughter and I used to push cattle through the big corral together, and I marveled at how that is just naturally a job for parents and their offspring. My grandson Cash is growing quickly, and I look forward to the day when Emma and Josie are giving him pointers and he and I will be pushing the cows through the big corral, side by side.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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