~ Riceland Meadows ~

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 cute‹three­month­old 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 hungry‹at 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 wits.

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.

09 May 2007