Easy does it

October 07, 2009 at 11:50 AM • Filed under Arizona cattle round-up 2009

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.