When we return to the corrals, we set up our stations: Phil and his helper (whoever is going to be back there with him) set up their gates and pens; I make sure my supplies are ready for tying the legs and balls; Sheila and Kit prep the branding, cutting, tagging, and vaccinating tools.
The calves are of course the longest part of the day. The herds we process are about 75 pairs, which means 75 calves. As with all animals, it’s roughly 50% male and 50% female. They get processed on the calf table: a squeeze shoot with a head hole at one end, connected to one solid wall. The other wall is a door that swings open to allow the table (the solid wall) to flip horizontally so we can do everything we need to do to the calf at roughly waist-height.
The assembly line starts with the least experienced person (the WWOOFer or an old garden hand) pushing groups of six calves from the front alley to a small pen. Then Phil, the cowboy, takes them one or two at a time into his little alleyway. I open the small gate for him, and we pass the calf through using the animal’s tail as a rotor/ rudder/ steering wheel. We, meaning Kate, Sheila, and I, bring the calf all the way into the squeeze shoot so its head goes through a trap. Kate ratchets the shoulder bar, I open the side door, and the cowgirls flip the table, with the calf pinned to it, horizontally. Kate (or Marvin, an incredibly patient and experienced Navajo cowboy who used to work here and came for a day of fun) calms the calf down and holds out the calf’s hind legs for me to tie. I use a bowline knot, as Ron, another old cowboy, taught me. The rope is strung through the door at the end of the table, and I ratchet the rope through to stretch the calf’s body tight across the table. It’s important to stretch the body as tight as possible for two reasons: first so the calf doesn’t (or can’t) wriggle or struggle too much, and second so the brand is where it is supposed to be. If the body is scrunched up in any way, the brand will potentially burn a fold of skin and turn out poorly or altogether wrong.
Kit vaccinates the calf and Sheila cuts the appropriate ear (Phil calls the sex out as he pushed the calf forwards, and I reiterate when the calf gets flipped). If it’s a bull, I tie off his testicles using a rubber band; sometimes it’s difficult if the balls haven’t dropped yet or if the balls are too big. I’m of course getting better at it, but maybe twice per day I have to ask for help from someone more experienced. If I miss a ball, the bull will develop poorly and Kit says that’s a 50% drop in cost: from $1000 to $500 when she sells the ‘steer’ because the meat will be different than from a regularly cut steer.
In about a month the tied sack will just drop off, and presumably the coyotes will have a tasty snack of raw Rocky Mountain . . . raisins.
When all that’s done, Kit brands. We use a firebrand, which is fairly traditional. The brand has to be in roughly the same place on each cow, for identification and legal reasons. Kit and Marvin (and probably Ron, too) can just slap the brand on without really looking, because they’ve been doing this for so long, but Sheila has to be really careful to hit the right spot on the calf’s right ribs (especially because these aren’t her cows).
If the wind is coming westwards, Kate and I each get a lungful of nasty-smelling smoke.
After that’s all done, we flip the table back down, I untie the knot (slip-knot bowline) and the calves goes off to a pen. Then it starts again, almost immediately, with Phil passing a calf through the open door to me.
At the end of the herd, while some of us clean up (turn off the flame, lock the gates, pack up the tool boxes), others herd the calves into the pen with their mothers, as Kit counts them again.
And that’s it!
I have pretty wild blisters on my hands, and greatly appreciate the day or two of rest between each herd to let my hands rest and my blisters to callus up. It’s good work, though. Kit and I were talking the other night and she said that she looks forward all year to Spring and Fall Works – it’s the busiest, and like me, she gets cabin fever (a.k.a. boredom) quickly. She also likes working with the cattle the most. Her age and physique, and position as boss of the ranch, restricts her from interacting with the cattle on too much of a regular basis throughout the year, so these two months let her really enjoy her work.
I can understand, too, and even though I forfeit time in the gardens during Spring Works, I use my time with the vegetables much more wisely when I only have two hours to do two hours’ worth of work, instead of ten hours to do the same chores. Of course, I’m not writing as much because of that time crunch, but that’s perfectly okay for me!
I’m tempted to get a real cowboy hat after Spring Works ends next week.
I’ll hold off on the chew tobacco, though . . .
Cow: female cow who has given birth at least once
Bull: intact male cow (has his testicles)
Heifer: female cow who has not given birth at all
Steer: castrated male cow (nutless)