Sorting it all out

October 08, 2009 at 5:00 PM • Filed under Arizona cattle round-up 2009

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.