November 04, 2011

Daylight Savings and Crazy Cows

Spring forward, fall back.  We won't actually lose an hour when daylight savings time goes away this weekend but it's going to feel like it anyway.  I'm going to be ready for bed at 9 instead of 10, and ye Gods I'll probably wake up at 4:30 instead of 5:30.  Everybody (except farmers) knows that 4:30 isn't morning, it's the middle of the night!

I still haven't figured out exactly why we do this crazy time flip-flop.  Supposedly it was started to help the farmers, but I sure don't see how.  I'm not one of those who gets up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows (and even without daylight savings it isn't light at 4 a.m.).  And it's not like real farmers have other jobs to go to; most of the ones I know don't care what time it is unless it's time for lunch.  They get up at dawn, work 'til dark, eat supper, and go to bed - and get up and do it all again the next day.  Every day.  Except Sunday.

The farmers who have livestock don't get time off in the winter like those who just grow crops.  ("Just"??)  Even the crop farmers have lots to do in the winter - equipment to service and repair, planning the next year's plantings, etc. etc.  The ones who have livestock AND grow crops have it the worst:  they don't get any break at all.

I've been there.  Growing up my Dad had a small herd of Black Angus cattle and a large garden.  (OK, a large garden isn't "crops" but to a kid it sure felt like it!)  The cows were purebreds and, like most purebreds, dumber than a possum crossing a highway.

Every spring and fall, usually around the time change (hey - maybe that's why it was started? So we'd know when to do it?) we rounded up the herd and did our culling, tattoing, worming, castrating, etc.  Roundup was the only time I ever heard my Dad swear when I was a kid.  I even tattled on him once to Mom, when I was around 6 or so.  (I think he said "darn it!".  Now he swears like the sailor he used to be, but that's another story.)

Those cows knew what roundup was all about, and they didn't want to go through that narrow, splintery wood chute and have their necks squeezed in the head-catcher.  Which was the only way we had in those days to make them stand still.  Nowadays the vet comes out and spends a pleasant day with a blow gun, darting each cow with a tranquilizer so we don't have to get up close and personal with a thousand or so pounds of wide-awake deranged bovine. (I just made that up.  I'll bet the vets wish it worked that way!  Anyway, we didn't use a veterinarian - we did it all ourselves, me and my Dad.)

That head-catcher was ancient.  It was made of oh, I dunno, 3" diameter iron pipes.  When it was open the catching bars formed a V shape with little curves in them so they wouldn't actually choke the cows.  The cows saw it and thought they just had maybe a tight squeeze to freedom.  (But the ones who had been around a while weren't fooled, as I said.)  To close it my Dad had to a) yank really hard on a rope that ran through some pulleys and b) time that yank just right so it would close on a running cow's neck.  The V would shut on the cow's neck and Dad would latch the pulley to keep it closed.

At least, that's the way it was supposed to work.  In an ideal world.  If you didn't have a crazy cow who wanted to go over the rails of the chute, or over the head-catcher instead of through it.  If the rope didn't break.  If the pulleys actually slammed the bars shut like they were supposed to.  Like I said, it was a really old piece of equipment, hand-made goodness knows when by goodness knows who.

No, sometimes the rope would break when he yanked on it and Dad would fall on his ass while the cow jumped through the V and made a bid for freedom. I found it very entertaining when this happened but the harder I laughed the madder Dad got.  One time he got so mad he scooped up a handful of runny green cowshit and flung it at me!  Which, being a kid, only made me laugh harder because I grew up running barefoot through runny green cowshit.  (That's why I don't get sick - I've already developed immunity to just about every common microbe.)

Or the pulley wouldn't latch, the V would spring open and yet another cow would make a break for it.  Or Dad didn't get the pulley latched in time and the get the idea.

Being caught didn't hurt the cows but you'd have thought they were being tortured.  The noise was deafening and it was a scary sight:  eyes rolling, tongues hanging out, foaming at the mouth from all the bawling, bucking, kicking the poor cow behind them...

My job in all of this was to funnel a few cows into the chute, then slam the gate behind them.  All told there were about 30 or 40 of them, all penned up in various little interconnected corrals.  Moving them took skill, balls (mine, not theirs) and a sharp stick.  We didn't own a cattle prod, they were expensive and I wouldn't have used one anyway because I think they're cruel.

Picture this:  A grubby 8 or 9 year old red-headed girl with freckles and yes, I had pigtails.  Braids, actually, to keep the hair out of my face.  The cows outweighed me by about oh, 900 pounds.  (The pregnant ones had me by about a thousand.)  Dancing around, yelling, whistling, poking, jumping in among them to keep them going into the chute only one at a time (or as close to it as I could manage - cows truly do stampede).  Believe it or not, I never once got trampled.  Those cows knew who I was - I was the one who handfed them handsful of sweet feed during the winter when they came into the barn for their hay.

But every year we'd get at least one of what we called a "crazy cow".  (I can almost guarantee that cow in the middle there is a crazy one.)  Extra high-strung, they'd panic.  They'd trample anything and everything to NOT have to go into that chute, and I actually saw one climb over a 10' high wall made of 2 by 8s with only a couple of inches of gap between them.  Those were the dangerous ones, and I quickly learned to just let them go through or over whatever they wanted.  Dad would have to take care of those.

I once watched a crazy one go through an opening in the barn wall that she couldn't possibly have fit through - it was square, about 2' on a side.  But by God she did it.  She only got stuck for a few seconds and I almost peed myself laughing at the backend of that cow hanging in the barn, hooves waving in the air (she'd had to jump to reach the opening), udder squished flat against the wall, her tail whipping droplets of green runny well, you know.  But she made it through - right back into the corral.  Hee hee. Stupid cow.

Once I had the gate shut and Dad had the cow or steer immobilized (hah! they weren't immobilized, they could still fling their heads around), I'd climb the chute and run around to the front.  We'd go to work.  I set up the numbers in the tattoo pliers and recorded them in the book, Dad wiped the ear and punched, then I'd wipe on the ink.  They'd get their vaccinations.

It took two of us to put dust in their eyes to prevent pinkeye.  Dad would grab the cow by the nose and try to hold her head still, but most of them left with yellow faces and leaving Dad with snotty fingers.  (We went through a LOT of pinkeye powder and you don't even want to try to picture what Dad's coveralls looked like at the end of the day.)  Anybody who needed a shot of antibiotic got one, Dad gave them as good a look-over as he could with them in the chute, and we cut them loose.

Meanwhile, the calves (who had been separated into their own pen) were bawling for their mothers, their mothers were bawling right back, and the herd bull stood outside everything tossing his head, bawling, and looking mean because of the ruckus.  We did the bull last in case he tore the head-catcher loose.  Yep, a couple of them did over the years.

My favorite part was the calves.  I'd grab one by the ear, hop on and see how long I could stay.  (Usually no more than a couple of seconds, with nothing to hang on to.)  To make steers we'd "ring" the bull calves.  There wasn't any cutting involved but now that I think back on it, cutting would've been less cruel.  The ring was a stretchy thick band that took special pliers to open.  We'd slip it over the little testicles and let go.  It pinched the place where the testicles attached to the calf's body and eventually they fell off.  Man, that must've hurt...

At the end of the day, Dad and I were filthy dirty and completely exhausted.  I usually headed to the lake in the springtime, went in clothes and all.  And most of the cows, once they were reunited with their calves and let back into the pasture, didn't take more than a few steps before stopping to graze.  But the crazy ones, well, they'd hightail it for the woods.  I just looked at them and smiled, because I knew that soon a truck would come and take them away.  Not to slaughter, they were purebreds, but to some other poor farmer's herd where HE could deal with them.

And I don't remember a single cow ever wondering what time of day it was.

No comments:

Post a Comment