The early end of the beef industry involves a lot of labor at identifying and altering young bovines from their original, mint-condition wholeness to something more in line with human designs, as they make their first transition from free beasties to hamburger-on-the-hoof. The work can be done in sheer industrial efficiency, with metal chutes and shock prods and unconcerned hourly workers, or it can be done by working cowboys, in tune with a romantic but very real vision of the American West.
On this day, with this herd of calves, I’m one of those cowboys. And though I don’t know it quite yet, I myself am undergoing a transition: I’m on the threshold of a new and grander phase of my life. My hand is on the doorknob and here and now is the moment in which I begin to turn it.
As I start the day, I feel deep western pride on the one hand, the heartfelt assertion that the people around me – the men and women in cowboy hats and spurs and chaps, working shoulder to shoulder with me and joking with each other in the solid, friendly voices of the west – are my people, and the things we do are a part of my native culture, a culture of Texas and points west.
The men and women I work with are close friends, and we’re teamed up in a difficult, dirty and physically demanding job. We work side by side in blood and the smell of burning hair, and every hour of such work under the beating western sun is a rite of passage, a bringing-together as profound as any formal ceremony of brotherhood. This is a job, yes, but it is also a way to become one with each other.
Along with that pride, though, is another feeling, something darker. I have yet to identify it, but it ebbs and flows within me throughout the day, the beginning of a quiet guilt, a murky disturbance at doing what I’m doing.
The cattle, by contrast with the many-become-one social consolidation we humans experience on this day, journey in the opposite direction – from oneness to separation. Forcibly parted from the safety and comfort of their herd, a couple of hundred calves are trapped at one end of a large wire holding pen. With their four-legged moms just outside the corral making continuous loud protests, they mill around in confusion.
A cowboy on a horse cuts small groups of them out, to drive a dozen or so at a time into the main corral. Separated now at two removes from the main herd, this small group huddles together even more closely.
Two ropers on horseback work the branding corral. They take turns tossing ropes at calf heels, hopefully snagging both back feet of one specific calf, then instantly dallying up and spurring away to trip the calf onto its side and drag it through the soft arena dirt to the branding fire. There one cowboy jumps on top to hold it down, while several others come forward with syringes, knives and branding iron to inject, inoculate, earmark, de-horn, castrate and brand the little beast.
Every pen of calves has a different pair of ropers working it. Horses and cowboys tire and have to rotate out, to have their places taken by a new team.
It’s not the epitome of efficiency, operating this way. Not every cowpoke on horseback is at the peak of western form. For most of them, this is practice as much as it is work. They only get to do it a couple of times a year, some of them, and it takes a while to work through each pen of calves. The ground helpers spend a certain amount of their time just standing around, waiting patiently as the ropers miss repeatedly. Still, there’s a quiet recognition that everybody has to learn sometime, and a certain amount of friendly joshing helps to pass the time.
Here are the various jobs that must be done and the qualifications it takes to be accepted to do them:
Roping is the most demanding. You’re usually expected to have at least some experience in the sport. Since the object of all this is to get the calves processed with the least stress on them and the least strain on the crew, the quicker the better is the plan. The ideal is a quick toss just in front of a moving calf’s hind legs, so the little critter more or less steps into the open loop himself, then a snapping tug that snugs the rope around both ankles, with a simultaneous dally around the saddlehorn so the roper can spur his horse away with a captured calf dragging at the end of the rope.
Wrasslin’ and pokin’
Wrestling calves is the least demanding of skill, the most demanding of muscle, and kids and neighbors and wanna-bes all get their turn at this. It’s a kind of unspoken testing ground for the newcomers. This is where I got my own start, “throwing” roping calves in practice pens with cowboy buddies back in Texas.
If a dragged calf comes right to you already on its side, all you really have to do is put one knee on its neck, grab the uppermost foreleg and pull it back and up, and hope that the heel rope holds so that flailing back hooves don’t come slashing up at you. A bit of weight helps here, but if you have the technique down, a lightweight like me can do just fine.
If the calf is still on its feet – maybe the rope only caught one back leg – there’s a little cowboy judo thing you can do: snatch the near foreleg below the knee as the calf passes by, whirl the leg back backward and outward, and the calf falls almost magically onto its far side, allowing you to step over its body with the leg still in hand and proceed to the same knee-on-neck posture. Otherwise, there’s a more difficult reach you have to do, more or less enveloping the calf with your arms and body from the top, then picking it up and rotating it in the air so it falls onto its side.
Once you get it on the ground and secured, inoculations come next. A spritz of biological armor goes into both the calf’s nostrils, a human-engineered defense against various respiratory ailments. The spritzer has to have a fresh plastic nozzle for every calf, to keep from inadvertently spreading bugs from one animal to another, so if two efficient ropers are working the pen, the guy doing it can be kept hopping. Still, it’s not very tough work. Getting the plastic nozzle into a struggling calf’s nose is the only tricky part, and an agile young’un can do it.
A complex of bio-active goop – several different kinds of protective and growth-enhancing antibiotics – goes into another shot, this one into muscle on the calf’s shoulder or rump. Yet another shot will contain vitamins, or trace elements missing in the range on which the calf will spend most of his growing time, to be injected under loose skin such as that between the elbow and chest.
Shots take a bit more skill, as the person wielding the needle-gun has to be careful to poke it into the calf at the correct angle and the right place, making sure the full measured dose of medicine goes in, and at the same time missing the rumps and elbows of the four or five other people busily working the calf over. The syringes also have to be kept full of the appropriate stuff. A solid cowpoke or dependable ranch wife usually takes charge of the needlework.
Burnin’ and cuttin’
Branding is another task only allowed to experts. The iron, heated either electrically or in a propane furnace, has to be the right temperature – hot enough to scorch down to the skin, not so hot it burns holes in it, exposing the flesh underneath. It has to be applied at the right angle, to get the whole brand image onto the calf, and held for the right length of time to do the job right. The brander wears heavy leather gloves, and takes care to warn everybody “Hot iron!” before stepping up to the calf. The sharp, thick odor of burning hair coats everything and everybody by the end of the day, but the first choking stench of it disappears into the background after only a short while.
Dehorning takes a tubular tool that fits down over the horn buds one at a time, providing a circular cutting edge for scooping the buds right off the calf’s skull, leaving a little pit that will heal in time into a hornless scar. Dehorning can take up to three people working together to get it done quickly and right. The cowboy on the neck of the prone calf leans out of the way while the top horn bud is popped out, then grabs under the calf’s nose and bends its head back so the dehorner can get to the bottom one. The third person is usually standing by with a spray can of disinfectant for the dehorning wounds.
The last chore, knifework, also falls only to trusted hands. There are a variety of cuts that can be made on a calf’s front end, but the ones most often used on ranches where I worked were either ear-marking, which requires a large triangular slice to be taken out of a calf’s ear, or ear-tagging, which is basically ear-piercing scaled up to cattle-size: a bright plastic tag is slotted onto an instrument that cuts a slit in the ear and inserts it, the big tag on one surface of the ear, a round plug on the other.
As for cuts on the back end, heifer calves (females) will grow up to be breeding or milking stock and need no trimming of any kind. In one of the many ouchy realities of both beef and dairy cattle commerce, however, only a tiny percentage of purebred males are saved for breeding. Since most bull calves will grow up to be meat, they do not need the essential tackle of reproduction.
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