|Hightails & Hamburgers|
by Ralph Rice
The little calf runs at
top speed, his tail held high over his back. At one time I thought that
was cutethreemonthold steers running, playing, and
chasing each other. I admired their speed and agility, their ability
to turn or stop instantly. The little speed demons can run from one
end of the pasture to the other in seconds. The mother cows lay in the
field chewing their cuds. They watch their calves and dream about days
gone by when they, too, could run and chase like the youngsters. The
calves stop their marathon training only to nurse. Mother's milk quenches
their thirst and soothes them. Once their bellies are full, the little
racers converge on a high spot in the field and soon fall fast asleep.
Today I watch this lone runner clear each fence and ditch in a single
bound. He and I are playing a game. We both have strategies and goals.
My goal is to get the calf into the feedlot with the other young calves,
to be weaned as soon as they are separated from their mothers. My strategy
is to confine the little gangster's friends and relatives in the feedlot
corral until he runs in to be with them. Then all I have to do is close
the gate on the unsuspecting calf. I hope this strategy will achieve
my goal without too much loss of blood, sweat, or patience.
The calf's goal is to remain free. His strategy is to run flat out when
necessary and turn and stop instantly. He lets me get just close enough
to think that I can catch him or herd him into the corral. He is an
awesome opponent. I have herded and chased animals for more than 30
years. I draw from all that experience as I plot to contain him. His
entire experience consists of three hours of suckering in a slightly
overweight farmer, but we're evenly matched.
I can just hear him laugh as he sprints toward the far end of the field
while I follow, red faced, sweating, and a bit out of breath. I replan
my strategy as I amble toward the whitefaced sprinter. I understand
the theory of cattle herding. I have read many books on the subject
of animal husbandry. I have the confidence that comes from handson
experience. The problem I encounter today is, the calf doesn't know
I'm an expert. He treats me like a novice, and so far has outsmarted
me several times.
Until today this little calf didn't have a name. Three hours into our
herding game he has several. I walk slowly. I speak softly and sweetly.
A man who's been herding and chasing livestock for 30 years learns you
can call them all kinds of things, as long as you don't yell.
His ears stick straight out. Every muscle in his body is poised for
flight. I stand nearby, talking softly about the delightful flavor of
veal served in tomato sauce. He watches with wild eyes as I tell him
just how well done I like my steaks. I explain that even little ones,
made tough from running, are delicious when ground into hamburger.
He listens to my voice. It soothes him. He is not threatened. He looks
toward his friends and relatives in the pen at the end of the field.
He trots, then walks in the direction of the corral. I follow behind,
talking about pot roasts and prime rib. All that talk of food must have
made him hungryat the corral gate he nicely walks in and nuzzles
his mother. I close the gate while he watches through confident eyes
and gives me a satisfied smirk. I, too, am satisfied. Unknown to my
little hamburgeronthehoof, I have won our battle of
My little racer and his companions will soon be weaned. As they move
toward their dinnerplate destiny on this farm or someone else's,
I will feed and care for them. They will be treated with compassion
and kindness until their last day, and even the transition from steer
to meat will be quick and humane.
Meanwhile the little scoundrels will continue trying my patience. I
may stand at the gate eating a hamburger and telling them what I'm thinking
while they, in turn, strive to refine their ability to kick at just
the right time or knock over a pitchfork so only the handle falls in
the wet manure. Could it be that this timehonored dance between
farmer and animal is the reason most farmers are carnivores?
Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in
Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Summer 2005 issue.