Below are five posts about my participation in a 2009 cattle round-up on my aunt's ranch. The journal -- which I wrote on the fly and have not edited since -- begins with the post titled "A million bellies." Read up for the chronological experience.
Should you eat a conventionally-raised steak or burger in the near future, think of the Willcox Livestock Auction. Your heifer or steer (for isn’t everything we take into our bodies “ours”?) may have passed through this place. Your cow would have gotten there in the back of a trailer, but humans get to it by driving down Business 191 through downtown Willcox, birthplace of “The Singing Cowboy,” Rex Allen, and passing such places as Trusty Rusty’s Auto Sales, the offices of Arizona Range News, and a handful of chiropractic businesses. (The number or chiropractors in Cochise County is alarmingly disproportionate to the number of residents.)
My aunt and I had some time to spare before the auction, so we stopped at the Rex Allen museum, located along Willcox’s one-block historic district. Like Johnny Appleseed for Leominster, Mass. and Frank Sinatra for Hoboken, N.J., Rex – whose height of popularity was in the 1940s and 50s – seems to be the town’s only claim to fame. Until I heard Rex yodel, I would have chuckled at this, too, but that guy could sing – and apparently from on top of a rearing horse, if the postcards are to be believed.
At quarter to 11 we drove over to the auction – a brick ranch building surrounded by numerous corrals and a parking lot. There were lots of trailers in the parking lot and a few men with thick necks chewing tobbaco and unloading cattle into the corrals. It seemed empty, though, and my aunt confirmed that things are bad now in the beef industry. (Could it be because things are bad in the dairy industry and dairy farmers who are being forced to cull some of their herds are flooding the market with beef? Could things get even more intertwined in our modern food economy than they are today?) Since we weren’t allowed in the auction’s corrals we were unable to see my aunt’s cattle, but the cattle we did see didn’t look nearly as big and strong as hers.
Inside the building there was a front office and small café, where folks were laughing and catching up. There was a lot of frying going on in the café. We made our way to the auction area – a high-ceilinged, tan-paneled room with bleachers on one side, a small corral on the other, and a country radio station piped in on speakers. When the young woman who plopped down next to us began lavishing attention on her dog, I thought of the bad luck of cows. If humans had developed an appetite for dogs, and dogs were auctioned off here instead, would the young woman be sitting here with her pet heifer?
When the auction began, it was a blur. One, two, three cattle, sometimes more, would get jostled from the outside corrals into the small indoor pen, and everyone sitting on the bleachers would look at them. A handful of dour and serious men, who were clearly the buyers from feedlots and other ranches, nodded subtly to the auctioneer as he rattled off numbers. The cattle were feisty and disoriented, happy to be outta there after each final bid. I felt a bit disoriented, too, not only because of the auctioneer’s babble but because I was in place where animals were looked at less as living creatures to be revered but as potential profit. The cows seemed to lose their individuality in such an atmosphere. There was no one there to tell their stories.
Suffice it to say that the bids were low, according to my aunt. We left after half-an-hour and headed back to the ranch. My aunt’s cattle would be auctioned off later that afternoon. She will receive a check next week.
Does a round-up end after all the cows are in pens? Does it end when they’re sold at auction? Does it end with our next meal? Does it end when the questions we ask about the meat we eat are answered? I pulled out one of the CD’s we’d bought at the Rex Allen museum, and as we hurtled down the highway we listened to Rex sing a most fitting verse:
All my life I’ve been a-ridin’ in the round-up
Punchin’ cattle’s been my life ‘til today
But the round-up is over
And from now on I’m on my way…
The alluring part of an early fall round-up – riding on an open range, hurling shouts from on top of a horse, taking a swig of water from a canteen while you’ve got hoards of cattle trotting along your right flank – inevitably gives way, the next day, to the monotony of the corrals.
Ah, the corrals… they were spoken of with such affection by the cowboys who were clanking around in them on Tuesday. “Aren’t they beautiful?” said my aunt. “Yeah, these are pretty special – the best corrals I’ve ever worked in,” said Danny, the cowboy who helps my aunt run her cattle operation. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a swelling in my heart for a maze of metal bars and gates, but by lunchtime I was as impressed with the designers of those corrals as I might be with the inventor of the Rubik's Cube. When you’ve got hundreds of cattle to sort into steers, bulls, heifers, and mama cows, you see how good corrals can make a cowboy’s life easier.
That morning there were eight of us helping out, but the biggest task fell to Danny. Each time we moved a couple dozen cattle from the big herd in the main corral to a smaller holding pen, it was up to Danny to “judge the equipment” and tell if a calf belonged in the pen for bulls (uncastrated males), steers (castrated males), or heifers (females who have not had a calf yet). My job was to open the gate to the heifer pen whenever a sweet little girl would come bouncing down the open-air corridor and Danny would shout out “Heifer!” Another person opened the steer pen when steers were sent down, and another person opened the bull pen whenever a baseball player – er, a bull – was coming.
We did this for three hours. The cows kicked dust into our eyes as they rumbled past us and sometimes bucked when Tuffy, my aunt’s Australian shepherd, nipped at their toes. One cow positioned itself in such a way that it managed to spray Danny in the face, sending cow piss into his eye and mouth.
“You won’t be telling the missus about that, will you Danny?” someone ribbed.
“No, ma’am,” Danny replied with a grin.
The hardest part of the three hours, though, was hearing the cattle bleat and cry. It was a fierce mixture of sounds: some were like trumpets, some like foghorns, some like those party horns your blow on New Year’s Eve, some like the horns that go off at football games. It was relentless. The distress could have been due to calf-cow separation, hunger (the separated young ones couldn’t suck on their mamas) or physical discomfort (the mamas’ full udders were not being emptied by their young). Whatever the cause, I was reminded of the cows at the dairy farm I worked on this summer who bleated for their babies while passing the calf stalls. For me, calf-cow separation is the most heartbreaking part of animal agriculture. I have heard that there are ways to ease the effects on both cow and calf and I am determined to learn more.
Eventually all the cattle were sorted and it was time to load the bulls, steers, and most of the heifers onto trailers. They were going to be driven to the Willcox cattle auction (my aunt and I will attend the auction on Thursday). In the meantime, all the mama cows, a few bulls, and some replacement heifers would be let back onto the flats to start the annual cycle of birth and grazing once more. The mothers, some of whom are pregnant now, will give birth mostly in late winter and early spring. But before that, in November, they will be rounded-up and pushed into the Dragoon Mountains, where they’ll spend the winter months. In May they’ll be rounded-up for a third time and the new calves will be branded, castrated, and vaccinated. Then they’ll all be sent back onto the flats for summer grazing until the October round-up.
As the day at the corrals began winding down, a few of the men pushed the steers and heifers down a narrow open-air chute and onto one of the trailers. This was the first of many trailer rides and unfamiliar pens and intimidating chutes they would experience in their brief lives. Then one of the cowboys shut the back of the trailer, climbed into the cab, and began driving the calves up the hill. As he did, I chose to watch. The trailer soon topped the hill and was gone.
I will always choose to watch. I am beginning to grasp that when something makes us uncomfortable, it is often a signal that we should defy our instincts and instead observe it, listen to it, open our heart to it at the risk of painful fissures. We shouldn’t turn away, because the lack of attention from others means it needs ours. And when we look deeply at it, we are able to take action in the way that is most right for us. What's more, choosing to watch and understand is choosing to honor. As some farmers who raise animals in Vermont have said to me, when you stop caring, that’s when you should start worrying.
It can be 15 minutes, half-an-hour, or even an hour into a round-up before someone on horseback will yell out the first shout: “HUP! HUP! HUP! HUP! Hiya, HUP! Hiya, HUP!” And when you hear it, you better quit lazin’ around on your horse and perk up, ‘cause there are cattle to be moved!
On Tuesday morning, 14 of us set out to “gather” at the foot of the Dragoons – me, my aunt, a few of her experienced wranglers, and some of the folks staying at her guest ranch. (The guest ranch is called Grapevine Canyon Ranch, and the cattle operation, also owned by my aunt, is right next door.) After riding onto the 7-sq. mile open range where the cattle had been grazing and calving since May, we split into three groups and loped off to different sections of the range to look for cattle. Then about half-an-hour after that, I heard my aunt emit that guttural HUP HUP HUP, meant to rouse loose cows and get them moving. I was impressed. My aunt’s bold and fearless shouting sounded authentic and powerful. And well it should have -- we were engaging in an authentic Western experience and exercising significant power over another species.
I trotted over to my aunt and began helping her move that first batch of mamas and calves. They rose without much fussing and began to walk. Then my aunt began shouting “Andele! Andele!” (in a perfect Spanish accent) and I knew that that would be my call. “Andele! Andele! Andele!” I would it shout for the next six hours whenever I needed a cow to move. Don’t it just fit?
The cattle were hard to spot as they loitered in the mesquite groves that dotted the grassy flats. Now and then someone would yell out, “I think I see one!” but the apparition would turn out to be a rotting cactus or a black water tank. Adding to the challenge was the wind, which had picked up significantly the previous night. Anytime one of the wranglers shouted instructions, no one could hear them over the gusts. Between all the shoutin' and the dust, by the end of the day my throat felt fastened together with Velcro.
The sun was hot. The terrain was rocky. Gopher holes were everywhere. I was on a sweet Appaloosa named Sassy whose only fault was her appetite – she had it in her mind that it was always time for breakfast. My saddle creaked. I squinted a lot. But the more we rode, the more cattle we found. The goal was to move all the small groups of cows to one central place where they'd form a big herd. And we would push that herd to the ranch gate.
I’d quickly learned (by watching the wranglers) that the key to moving cattle is to give them room. Keep a wide distance between them and your horse, but not too wide that they take off in another direction. “Imagine they have eyes on the back of their head,” my aunt told me. Always stay by their side and never get in front of them, which only causes them to turn around and run back at you. In other words, watch the cow's movements and use your instincts. And take it slow. Easy does it. A stampede might have been exciting but it would have meant more long hours in the saddle. It would have been fun to see some lassooing of calves but never once was it necessary. We all took it nice and easy, and at times it felt like the cows and the horses and us were all taking a leisurely Sunday stroll in the park.
And the cows were beauties – black Brangus, a breed that does well in hot weather and desert conditions. I knew full well that they would soon go from this grassland heaven to vast industrial feedlots that treat animals like machines rather than living creatures. Yet I had come to round-up to get a first-hand look at a time-worn process that can be an alternative to factory farms. The way my aunt raises beef cows – on grass and in open spaces – is the way all beef cows should be raised, and the way American consumers should demand that their beef be raised. When that day comes -- when the grass really will be greener on the other side of American meat production -- the cowboy ways of the past will no doubt become the norm again.
After a couple of hours and dozens of cell phone calls between the wranglers, the various groups met up to form one vast herd. The 14 of us encircled the herd, not getting too close, and we let them saunter in the direction of the ranch. "Git 'er done!" one of the wranglers called out. And we did, once all the cattle were in the main corral at the ranch and we shut the iron gate. After lunch, some of us went back out to the flats and did a sweep, locating a dozen cows we had missed before. Save for a lone brown cow who had a mind of her own and kept leading me through thickets of mesquite (my jeans ripped and I got deep scratches etched into my arms), everything went just as smoothly as in the morning.
Annie, one of the wranglers, had started the day by saying that she’d treat herself to a rare glass of whiskey later on. In the late morning she said she’d have two. By the early afternoon, as the sun pummeled us hard and the winds picked up, she swore it would be three. At the end of the day, covered in dust, she’d hitched it on up to four. I’m not sure if she made good on her promise. But I had mine on the rocks.
The following day I told my aunt, while she was in her office, that I might write about her ‘cattle calls.’ All of sudden she started doing them again at her computer. “Oh, you mean, ‘HEE yuu! HEE yuu! HEE yuu!’” We had a good laugh -- and then had a helluva time figuring out how I would spell that.
Today, Cochise County, Arizona, still looks more like it did in 1888 (or even 1588) than Tucson or St. Louis or Philadelphia or nearly anyplace. But it’s easy to get a bit worried. This dry grassland plateau – flanked on all four sides by stunning purple mountain majesties and covered with a bowl of bright blue nearly every day – still resembles the place where the Chiricahua Apache were photographed towards the end of their existence, and where fearless – some would say reckless – white settlers brought cattle and the Pony Express soon after the Civil War. Indeed, when you’re at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains and you stop in your tracks to listen to the rustle of manzanitas, the clank of a metal gate closing in the distance, or the barking of a dog, the sounds are so evocative that the Apache seem to have left just a few days ago, and a ranch wife is about to come out of her adobe cottage and greet you with a piece of pie.
Yet today there is also an interstate highway running through this tan-colored county, and every year more and more cheaply-built ranch houses with satellite dishes seem to sprout up with the summer rains. Fewer cattle are apparent during drives down the county’s needle-straight highways, and the multiplying fast food outlets serve beef that’s come from Brazil or Nebraska, not from here. You hear about people living in Cochise County who commute to Tucson for desk jobs, you hear about an expansion of the 12,000-cow dairy which will deplete the county of even more water, and you wonder if one day the past will just pack its bags and hitch it on outta here.
Which is why it’s a relief to attend a rodeo on the outskirts of Willcox, the largest town in the county. Not that rodeos aren’t subject to the same commercialism as most everything that happens these days. Not that a rodeo is really anything but entertainment. But when you watch men and women rope calves, subdue feisty bulls, saddle bucking horses and gallop on horseback as fast as the wind, it reminds you that the old Western ways haven’t died but are still present in a handful of people – as if they were an endangered breed of livestock and the rodeos were giving them a place to live and flourish.
I went to the Willcox rodeo with my aunt and three English women who were staying at my aunt’s guest ranch. As we stood outside the open-air arena to get tickets, I turned to the British ladies and said, “You can’t git more ‘marekin than this!” The rodeo announcer quickly obliged by then instructing us to sing the national anthem, and then he encouraged us to give a warm welcome to Missy, the Sonoita Rodeo Queen, a young woman on horseback who was festooned in a glittery sequined shirt that was probably visible from the peaks of the Chiricahuas. We were told that her favorite phrases went something like this: “Everyone’s got a little crazy in them” and “God created horses for women as an apology for men.”
From the bleachers we watched strong and good-looking men in ubiquitous black cowboy hats emerge from paddocks to basically confront and subdue some seriously feisty animals. Could you blame them? (The animals I mean.) How would you like to be sat on or roped or covered with a bulky leather seat? But the bulls and steers and broncos – special “bucking stock” raised by outfits that provide animals to rodeos – all looked in good health and seemed well taken care of. As the announcer said, they only work two-and-a-half minutes a year. (“Where can I get an application for that job?”)
As I watched all the activities from the bleachers, I was imagining the day when a local food economy would stretch from sea to shining sea – meaning that what Americans ate would come primarily from where they lived, supplementing their diet with imports of whatever couldn’t grow there – and meaning that all the cattle ranching skills I was observing would return as more than just entertainment but as skills practiced by ranchers and farmers feeding people locally. I imagined that the burgers being served at the rodeo concession stand would contain meat raised on grass and slaughtered just down the road. The kids eating the burgers might work as skilled local butchers, proud of their work. And we visitors to the Cochise County would eat whatever grew best on the grasslands, and maybe we would consume the bounty of people foraging responsibly in the mountains.
In other words, what would go into people’s bellies would be pretty much what went into those bellies in 1888 or 1588. And the rodeo guys and gals would help make it so.