Most folks who work receive their paycheck weekly. Ranchers get paid only once or twice a year. Most workers can quote their hourly wage, perhaps negotiate or strike for more if they’re unsatisfied. The rancher’s income is set by the buyers of his product on a particular day; the rate may rise or fall the next day. This nerve-wracking experience is the rancher’s most important connection with the economy that affects us all.
In the days before the sale, we select our best yearlings, bring them close to the ranch corrals and loading chute. On sale day, we get up early and stand around getting more anxious while we wait for the truck and driver.
After the cattle are loaded, we may take a hasty shower or just wash our faces and change clothes before driving eighty miles too fast. At the sale ring, we walk along alleys filled with bawling beef until we find ours, and check to be sure they have feed and water.
Then we go inside, march up the bare concrete steps to hard benches, and begin waiting. Usually, we arrive at the sale ring before noon; if the sale is a large one, with dozens of ranchers independently choosing to sell, our cattle may not enter the ring until nearly midnight. Once bidding begins, we can either refuse the price and take our cattle home, or keep quiet. Often within five minutes the cattle are sold, and we head home with a check that may, or may not, represent a profit.
During the long hours of waiting, we can hear sale ring employees in the alleys shouting, snapping whips, cursing, slamming gates as they move thousands of cattle by small bunches toward the sale ring, and then out to waiting trucks. Bunch by bunch, cattle run into the central ring, often terrified, eyes rolling wildly, bellowing in fear. Dust and noise pour into our ears, noses, mouths. Such treatment can damage our product before it is sold; a running yearling is losing weight with every step.
An alert rancher who spots an injury a calf didn’t have when it left home may collect an insurance payment from the sale ring. But if cattle stand for nine hours without feed or water while waiting for the sale, shrinkage can amount to hundreds of pounds, weight for which the rancher is not paid. All sale rings provide feed in waiting pens–and deduct its cost from the rancher’s check–but frightened cattle often do not eat.
The sale ring floor is a scale; the number and total weight of each bunch of cattle flashes automatically above the heads of the auctioneers, along with the average weight. Two ring men, one often on horseback and one on foot, snap their long whips, making the cattle move around the ring so the buyers can look them over, and cull out any that are sick, or below the average weight; culls will be sold separately, usually for less. A tricky buyer can delay a sale by demanding calves be cut off, ultimately costing the seller considerable cash.
The auctioneers chant, enticing the buyers in the front two rows to bid.
Behind the buyers in their neat three-piece suits sit rows of wrinkled, sun-browned ranchers, sometimes with their wives and children. Some smoke, some visit with friends; others simply settle in one spot, clenching and unclenching their scarred hands for hours, waiting to see how their cattle will look and sell. Owners need not be present, but most of them are; it’s a ritual more demanding than religion.
A few newborn calves always interrupt the flow of well-fed yearlings and elderly cows. Perhaps their mother has died, or borne her calf in winter, and the rancher wants all his cows to calve at the same time, producing a uniform bunch of calves later in the year.
Whatever the reason, watching the ring men handle the babies is always intriguing. No one complains when they whip adult cattle, though if they’re too eager, they may drive a nervous cow into a dangerous frenzy, or injury.
Once, I saw a cocky ring man hooked by a cow’s horn and tossed into the lap of a portly buyer. Another time, a cow leaped the five-foot barricade, scattering buyers like pheasants at hunting season. Bawling, the cow shook her head and flung snot over half the crowd, then charged up the steps. Women shrieked and dived, clutching their children. Men cleared each other’s cowboy hats in the delirium of escape. Any notions of chivalry in the ranching fraternity disappeared as the cow dashed around emptying the bleachers, finally slammed through a door, and crashed down the steps into the corrals outside.
Such situations only seem to encourage the whip wielders, but a baby calf baffles them. At one sale I watched a man get behind a two-day-old Hereford heifer to boost her to the center of the ring; she decorated his clean jeans with a creamy yellow flow and then stood still, bawling plaintively. Bidding was slow– most professional buyers want cattle old enough to eat without help– but within five minutes a man in the upper rows had bought the calf for his young son. The boy would feed her on a milk bottle, perhaps raise her for show or as the start of his own herd, learning responsibility.
Then the ring men tried to evict the calf. None of them wanted to get behind her, so they grabbed her ears and tail to drag her. The calf set her feet, hunkered down and resisted. We could hear the men muttering.
“Watch your language, boys; that little lady shouldn’t learn those words yet,” warned the auctioneer.
One man who’d just gotten his hand too close to the calf’s posterior, wiped the gooey results on his pants, and said, “If you don’t think we’re doing it right, come on down here and show us how.”
The other jabbed the calf’s flank with the butt of his whip, then flicked the popper against the calf’s hind legs; the calf planted a hoof on his kneecap so hard we heard the report in the top row, and the man collapsed, clutching his knee and trying not to whimper loudly enough for the crowd to hear.
A few people chuckled. The auctioneer said, “Come on, boys; calf can’t weigh more than fifty pounds. We’ve got a thousand cattle to sell!”
Then a door on the far side of the arena opened, and a girl about twelve years old entered. The crowd stilled as she walked without hurry toward the calf. I thought of explanations: her father had sold her calf against her objections, and she was about to protest, or attack the ring men.
She patted the calf’s nose in a friendly way, then held out her hand. The heifer wrapped its tongue around the girl’s fingers and began to slurp loudly, its skinny tail swinging in rhythm. One backward step at a time, she quietly led the hungry calf from the ring.
For a long moment after the door shut behind her, the ring man with the injured knee stopped brushing dirt off his pants; the crowd didn’t breathe. My father nodded, and looked me in the eye to be sure I understood, and remembered his frequent saying, “It helps to be smarter than the cow.”
Then the auctioneer said, “OK, boys, we’re here to sell cattle.”
* * *
My father always handles cattle gently; he doesn’t like to ride a horse, and calm cattle are safer for a man sorting them from the ground. In addition, cattle that are handled as kindly as possible from their day of birth will be less frightened of humans, and less likely to go crazy and hurt us. We always carry whips into the corral to sort cattle, but rarely hit them. To get a cow through a gate, my father gently touches her nose or flank with the whip, and steps away from the gate, out of her way. He trained me to use a combination of slow movement, and placement of my body in relation to each cow to move them through the corrals. Occasionally, one of us will tap a cow lightly with the whip; more often we use the whip as a pointer in the direction we want the cow to go. I don’t entirely understand why they usually go the way we point.
To watch my father sort cattle was like watching a slow and dusty ballet, or a conductor leading an orchestra playing a stately promenade. His whip would float gently through the air, touching a nose to make a cow back up, brushing a shoulder to make one go ahead. Sometimes he’d stretch his arm ahead of him with the whip held like a cavalry officer’s sword, and five or ten cows would trot obediently, one behind the other like school children going to the library, out the gate. Only if a cow was about to knock him down would he strike her hard. He used the whip like a deadly weapon: ready, loaded, but never fired.
My father only once used his whip in a way that frightened me. I’d sneaked out to the corral to watch a stallion breed one of our mares. My father was sitting on his tall Tennessee Walker, Zarro, watching. When I made a sound, he wheeled the horse and charged at me, whip arm up, yelling at me to get out of the corral. I was almost too paralyzed with fear, shock, and surprise to jump the fence. I think now he was more concerned that frenzied stallion might hurt me than with the quantum leap in my sex education; he never tried to keep me from watching the bulls mount the cows.
* * *
I was more than forty years old the day my father said, “I’d like you to count and sort the cattle onto the truck today.” That was his job; he’d never allowed anyone else to do it. Automatically, I followed as he walked to the garage, trying to figure out if he was suggesting it was time I take more responsibility– at last– or if he was having another of the series of strokes I suspected. His face was pale, bluish, and his breathing uneven.
He reached up into the rafters of the garage and took down a black whip with the price tag still on it, a more expensive model than the cheap ones we kept in the pickups. He turned, held it out, and said smiling, “I think you’ve learned how to use it.” I felt more elation at that moment than when I got my MA degree in the mail. And the whip represented more work, untainted by politics.
* * *
Most folks who use whips, feel compelled to wield them with enthusiasm, snapping and slashing until the cattle are hurt, angry, frightened, and dangerous. Perhaps the same impulse affects powerful or well-armed attackers in the presence of those who are weaker, or unarmed. I know a similar condition afflicts drivers; put a mild-mannered man in a pickup truck or a four-wheel drive, and he may turn into a swearing, gesturing road hog, careening around the landscape as if he was driving a tank. Back in his Honda on Monday morning, he’ll be a model of deportment.
Once when neighbors helped us bring cattle in to brand, all of us familiar with my father’s methods grew increasingly upset with one neighbor woman. Traditional wisdom dictates the pusher get close behind the calves and shove them up the chute; keeping one or both thighs flat against the calf’s buttocks prevents it from getting enough leverage to kick your kneecap off. Novices who try to stay back far enough to avoid streams of excrement usually get kicked hard enough so the alternative begins to seem pleasant.
This neighbor was using her whip, staying a long way behind each calf, whacking each one with the whip repeatedly. Not only did it take her longer to get each calf to the branders, by the time it got there it was mad with fear, and kicked the rest of us harder than usual. Several times I said mildly, “Our calves aren’t used to the whip; you’re making them wilder.” George was mumbling something unintelligible every time a calf kicked his hand as he tried to castrate it.
Then she leaned her whip against the corral fence and turned away to get a drink. George grabbed the whip before I could breathe, and threw it overhand. Several of us watched it arc up over the eight-foot fence of the corral we were in, and turn gracefully as it dropped butt first into some high weeds in the next paddock. Then he calmly removed the lid from his Skoal can, took a fresh dip, and smiled sweetly. She looked for her whip several times during the afternoon, while scraping calf shit off her jeans, but she never found it. In fact, George and I hunted for it the next day, thrashing weeds for an hour before we gave up; we’d planned to tell her we found it later, so we wouldn’t be guilty of the theft of a good whip. We never found it either.
“I was pretty sick of her waving it around,” George said, “maybe I put a little too much power behind it.”
* * *
A man I’ll call Aaron, a trucker who regularly drove for us, carried both a battery-operated prod pole designed to jolt a cow into movement, and a whip. We asked him several times, politely, not to use either on our cattle before they were in the chute leading to the truck. Sometimes a properly-timed electric jolt could inspire a cow to take the last step into the truck instead of running back down the ramp.
One day, when we were hauling heavy cows to winter pasture, we noticed a spooky black heifer, pregnant with her first calf. She kept looking over her shoulder at us, and pushed to the front as we moved twenty cows into the corral and toward the open back of the trailer. Moving slowly, and murmuring reassurances, I separated ten cows and eased them toward the trailer; gates would confine them in the front and another ten in the back, so they couldn’t rush from one end to the other and unbalance the trailer.
As we moved up into the narrow lane behind the trailer, the black heifer paused, letting the other cows pass her. As the first cow stepped into the trailer, Aaron and I moved closer to the rear cows. Once a cow or two steps in, the rest must follow quickly, before the leaders discover they are in a trap, and turn back. But too much noise will frighten them all enough to turn and run over us in their haste to escape. Aaron tapped the cows’ backs with his prod pole, but his finger stayed away from the shock button. I spoke loudly, and smacked the butt of my whip against a cow’s flank.
The black heifer took a step back, then another, until her rear end was against Aaron’s chest. He shouted and began to hit her back rhythmically with the prod pole. “Easy, cows! Easy!” I said, trying diplomatically to remind Aaron to speak quietly, make no sudden moves. The other cows were moving steadily ahead; in another moment, she probably would have followed them. Instead, she stepped on his foot, and he screamed, jammed the prod pole against her bag. I clearly heard its electric buzz. Before I could grab the fence, the heifer bellowed in pain and pivoted like a ballet dancer, knocking Aaron sideways. Her opposite shoulder grazed me, and she was gone. Aaron had stumbled, leaving a gap; as he straightened, the next cow, alarmed by the heifer’s beller, lowered her head to my chest level and slammed into me. With one hand on the fence, I didn’t fall, but the pain was intense enough to make me gasp for air. The other cows galloped down the lane and past us.
The black heifer wasn’t finished. When she reached the end of the corral, she put one hoof on the second rail of the fence, and began to climb. Deftly, she tiptoed up nine feet of thick boards as if she were going up a ladder. When her upper body tipped over the top, one back leg slipped between two rails, and I expected to it snap. But she jerked it free, stumbled to the ground, and ran across the neighboring corral.
I turned, finally, and looked at my father. His lips were drawn tight in what some folks mistook for a smile. As Aaron ran toward the gate, father said quietly, “Let’s load the rest and let her quiet down a little. Aaron, put the prod pole in the truck.”
We loaded ten cows without incident, then strolled into the next corral. The black heifer, head up, watched us alertly, but walked through the open gate and joined the nine cows left. As Aaron shut the gate, she rolled her eyes, and trotted toward the fence she’d climbed.
“Easy,” my father called. “Don’t use your whip Aaron; in fact, come back here, behind me.” Father and I pushed the cows gently toward the chute, but as they entered the narrow lane, Aaron must have felt left out. He stepped up beside me. The black heifer was last again, right in front of me, but moving quietly, nudging the other cows, showing every indication she’d follow them up the chute. I put my arm out as if to hold Aaron back, but his arm came down and his whip struck the heifer’s back, hard, punishment for his injury.
She whirled, head lowered, butted him against the barn, and climbed the same fence again, faster this time. Cursing, Aaron started to climb after her.
Father snapped, “We’ve got cows to load. Let her go.” We pushed the other cows into the trailer, and shut the gate, then turned to look into the adjoining corral. The black heifer was circling it in a graceful run, head up, measuring the distance to the top of the plank fence, clearly thinking of a career.
“We’ll never be able to haul that cow anywhere,” I said with sudden conviction.
In fact, in the four years since Aaron trained the cow to climb the fence, we’ve brought her to the corral once or twice each spring. Each time one of us approaches too close, she climbs a fence and gallops off.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Afterword to “Educating Cows”:
This piece was written as part of a book intended to explain what the cattle business is all about, as a response to some of the anti-cattle rhetoric environmentalists were churning out in the 1990’s. Slogans aimed at getting cattle off public lands included “No Moo in ‘92” and “Cattle Free by ‘93.” According to my notes, I started the essay March 10, 1993, expanded it to 2,047 words the next day, and in July of that year expanded it yet again. In my journals I’d recorded the various incidents of how people handle cattle, and my notes refer to the specific dates where I located those journal entries while writing this piece.
At that time I was involved in many meetings as I attempted to bring the rancher’s point of view to environmental groups with which I had connections. Since many of those with whom I met were hostile to ranchers, these meetings were often acrimonious. Environmental literature against cattle and ranchers was full of half-truths, illogic and false information presented as fact. In 1998, in one Wyoming county, while ranchers waited out three days of rain to finish branding their calves, trespassers who called themselves “Islamic Jihad Terrorists” cut barbed wire fences in hundreds of locations on both public and private land, allowing the unbranded cattle of seven neighbors to mix. Notes left under rocks called the ranchers “welfare cowboys.” Besides doing $100,000 in damage to fences, the thugs made rational discussion between environmentalists and rural folks much harder to arrange.
Notes on one essay about ranching economics note that I wrote it “after a F.R.E.E. conference.” I no longer remember what those initials stood for, and an Internet search brings up useless and irrelevant information, suggesting that the organization is defunct.
At some point, I made a decision to stop going to meetings and spend more time on my writing. Through a successful book I was likely to reach many more minds than through dozens of meetings. I also stopped calling myself an “environmentalist” because the term had come to denote possible criminal behavior as well as abysmal ignorance to my ranching neighbors.
Still, I carefully moved the COW book folder, containing fourteen essays, from one computer to another, so I may complete the book at some future time. I haven’t submitted the essays for periodical publication since they are interdependent.
Meanwhile, though, other people have been writing useful books about cattle and ranching. My COW folder also contains a file of quotations from Laurie Winn Carlson’s excellent Cattle: An Informal Social History published in 2001 by Ivan R. Dee. More recently, I’ve found considerable quotable material in Cows Save The Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz, published by Chelsea Green. I find the book particularly relevant because Schwartz is aware of the unwillingness of many readers to credit cows with any benefits to the planet.
While both books address our relationships with cattle through the ages, neither is written by a working rancher who has lived and worked with cattle her entire life. Most ranchers are too busy to write. So my COW book would undoubtedly still be relevant.
For more information on eco-terrorism against cattle in 1998:
Writing: Where I’ve Been
The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.
Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.
Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.
I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.
No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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