I learned about cows from that


I was talking with my buddy Frank the other day and he asked if I’d had any experience with feral cattle.

“Well,” I said, “not exactly, but kinda.”

To the best of my recollection this happened in the spring of 1995. I'd returned from a career upon and above the briny with the U.S. Navy, and at this point I was just helping out on the ranch. I had a job with the University of Nebraska doing crop research at the High Plains Agricultural Lab near Sidney, Nebraska.

On this particular May morning my dad and I were checking cows. We were trending toward the end of calving season. As we drove through native prairie, we saw a cow with a new baby alongside a four-strand drift fence. In this case the drift fence was a quarter mile of fence extending from the gates of a set of working corrals. It was well built and well maintained with close-spaced 6-inch cedar posts. The idea of such a fence is that when you're gathering cattle you kind of aim them toward the corrals, and when they reach the fence, they turn and follow it through the gate. It works quite well so long as you take it slow and easy.

My job on this beautiful spring morning was to tag, vaccinate, and if necessary, band the new calf.

The ear tag is for identification. The vaccination is to prevent disease. This kind of vaccine is the real deal, a properly tested and trialed attenuated vaccine.

Banding is a form of castration. For various reasons male calves grow better when castrated, and income is directly tied to the pounds of live calf you sell. The band is placed above the testicles around the base of the scrotum. It cuts off the blood supply below and in a few weeks’ time the testicles and excess scrotum wither and fall off. When done at or near birth it's nearly painless and non-stressful. Doing it the old school way -- castrating with a knife at branding time -- is very stressful and painful.

As we pulled up beside the pair I was pleased. The calf, a solid looking bull calf, was on this side of the drift fence while the cow was on the other side. The calf wasn't completely dry yet, so I guessed that he'd somehow wiggled himself under or through the fence after having his first drink of mama's milk.

"Watch out for that cow," my dad said, "she's one of the new ones and they've been kinda owly."

From my perspective I was quite comfortable with the situation. As a lad I'd dealt with owly mama cows before; been knocked down and chased out of corrals and into the backs of pickups. In this case there was a solid fence between me and the cow and if she decided to misbehave, she'd have to run a good quarter mile to get to me. I'd have plenty of time to do my job and skedaddle before we'd have a problem.

Except we already had a problem. I just didn't know it yet. The new group of cows my dad had bought had come off the range in Wyoming somewhere and were, for all intents and purposes, feral cattle.

As I approached the calf the cow glowered at me, lowering and shaking her head at me. It was a clear warning. A serious warning.

The calf was quiet until he felt the jab of the needle, then he bawled.

Several things happened at once. I heard my dad shout a warning. I glanced up and saw the cow coming. I did not like the look in her eyes. She tore through the fence as if it was wet tissue paper. I can still hear the four distinct pings of wire parting, as well as the two cracks of posts snapping.

I had exactly zero time to do anything to protect myself. The cow lowered her head and with a negligent and immensely powerful flick of neck muscles flung me beneath the pickup. She continued her charge through the pickup cab, entering via the passenger door I'd left open and exiting through the driver door, which my dad had fortunately been able to open and escape through. In addition to evicting my dad she broke off the steering wheel and column and mashed the gear shift flat to the floor. It was quite a performance.

The cow circled the pickup a couple of times, clearly warning my dad to stay put in the pickup bed. She snuffled at me beneath the pickup but decided I was no longer a threat. Then she collected her calf, and they moved off to the west and over a hill.

“You get the shot in?”

“Yep,” I replied.

“That’s good enough,” Dad pronounced.

We had to hoof it on home, a three-mile walk. There were no cell phones in those days. We were both fine and laughed at our reactions to the cow's antics. We also marveled at the power and speed of the cow. We each knew that cattle are bigger, faster, and stronger than people, and we'd both seen some wild cows in our time, but this cow was head and shoulders above the wildest either of us had ever seen.

The old '74 Ford 4x4 was a total loss. We drug it home with plans to fix it up, but we never did. It finally went for scrap after Dad died a couple of years ago.

The moral of the story? Pay attention to what cattle tell you. They don't lie. And don't be afraid to learn from your mistakes.

And equally importantly, don't forget to enjoy the ride. This life thing is awesome.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.

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