Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recalling My Days As a Cattle Baron

 Bouncing around in a pickup with John Brite last week was a welcome diversion. It brought back a rush of memories of afternoons spent in East Texas honking a horn on the pickup to call up the cows. Usually I was hanging out with one of my buddies who had decided to see how much money he could lose in the cow business. A few times they were my cows. I have gotten the “disease,” as John Brite calls it with a grin, and bought cows on separate occasions each of the past three decades. I jave learned to never say never, but I do believe I have permanently retired from raising cattle. Few people are more inept at it than me.

My first foray was in San Augustine, where an ill-fated decision to plant rye grass over a few acres, in order to make it look pretty, inspired me to buy a few cows to eat the grass. I went to the sale barn with a buddy who actually knew what he was doing when it comes to cows.

We bought a half-dozen or so heifers and a couple of momma cows that were supposedly bred. Rather, my buddy did. The auctioneer ran cows, horses and donkeys through the ring so fast that I had no idea what we were bidding on. If it had been me actually raising the numbered placard, I likely would have gone home with a broken-down mare, a bull, couple of donkeys — and feeling like a jackass.

We loaded up the cows and took them to the holding pen on the land I leased next door to my six-acre tract. One of the momma cows immediately climbed up and over the corral, tore through the barbed wire fence beyond and hightailed it for the distant woods.

My friend was unfazed, having raised cows all his life and familiar with their unpredictability. “We’re gonna call that one 30-30,” he said. I asked why. “Because the only way you’re ever going to get her back is with a rifle and scope.”

I had adequate grass and water, but it’s always greener and all that. The third time Sheriff Nathan Tindall called in the middle of the night to say my cows were out on the farm-to-market road at the back side of the property, I hired a couple of cowboys with ropes and cow dogs to round them up and take them back to the sale barn. I was several hundred dollars poorer, since prices had dropped. Besides, we never did find 30-30.

My final foray was about eight years ago. Again, I enlisted a friend to help me pick out a modest herd, which came from a young man getting out of the business. All of the cows were bred, he assured us. I later concluded the previous owner was relying on immaculate conception, since only about half the mommas bore calves. The other half of my herd just kept looking pregnant, while they gobbled up sacks of range cubes and creep feed by the pickup-bed load. Turns out they were just fat cows.

Of course, I acquired another fence jumper in this herd. My buddy dubbed her Francis the Fence Jumping Wench. My neighbor complained because Francis kept courting his bull by clambering over the fence. Since she weighed somewhere north of 1,200 pounds, her ardor usually busted a few wire strands in the process. So again I hired a cowboy to take her to the sale barn. Through a minor miracle we managed to get her in the corral with the squeeze chute. That is when Francis performed a bovine Olympic stunt. She climbed up and out of the chute and made yet another break for freedom. The cowboy ended up roping her and dragging her to the trailer, with the help of a couple of curs nipping at her heels.

I decided again to retire and sold the herd. I almost broke even since cattle prices were up. That’s if you don’t count time, gasoline or buying a tractor. Man, I love driving tractors, cutting grass with a bushhog, pulling a box blade behind it to smooth a road. I may never get in the cow business again but hope someday to have an excuse to buy an ancient tractor. You can get a lot of good thinking done while driving a tractor.

 Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), February 24, 2011.

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