Cow tales from a rancher
Essay | John R. Erickson draws lessons from bovine behavior
by John R. Erickson
Posted 1/16/21, 09:01 am
John R. Erickson, author of 70 Hank the Cowdog books and other ranch-based stories, knows his subject matter. He was a working cowboy and ranch manager in Texas and Oklahoma. Here, he tells three stories as part of our Saturday Series. —Marvin Olasky
In the summer of 1997 we had an outbreak of pinkeye in the West Pasture. One cow and a big Hereford-type steer calf went blind, so we had to rope them and load them into the stock trailer, haul them to the corrals in Picket Canyon, and keep them on feed and water.
If we hadn’t found them, they would have died. It’s a little hard to believe, that a large animal could die from an inflation of the eyes, but they sure can. Once both eyes become inflamed, two things happen. First, the beast loses his vision, and second, he gravitates to shady spots because the glare of the sun hurts his eyes.
While he’s parked under a tree or in a plum thicket, the other cattle drift away, and when it’s time to go to water, the blind animal can’t find the windmill. He stays in the shade, growing thinner and more dehydrated by the hour, until he finally dies of thirst. In the heat of summer, it only takes a few days.
We got these two delivered to the corrals before they had gotten too badly dehydrated. When we turned them into a pen, they were stone blind, couldn’t see anything. They spent the first hour staggering around and banging into the fences. In time, they followed their noses and found the water trough, and we kept them supplied with some good alfalfa hay.
Within a day or two they had adjusted to their new situation. They were still blind but they weren’t bouncing off of the fences any longer. I wondered how they had done that. Were they compensating for their blindness by using their ears? Had they learned to smell the fences? Whatever they were doing, it worked well enough so that a stranger on the ranch wouldn’t have known they were blind.
We kept them up for a couple of weeks and their eyes began to heal. The inflammation went away and I decided it would be safe to turn them out into the pasture. I knew they were still blind, or very nearly so, and probably would never regain much of their vision, but as long as they didn’t shade up and get separated from the other cattle, they would do all right.
I waited for a day when the cattle in the Mesa Pasture were grazing near the corrals, so that the blind animals could find the herd through sound and smell. I opened the gates and went into the pen to drive them out into the pasture.
This led to a situation I had never encountered before. I couldn’t drive them out of the pen. There were three gates out of this pen, and I opened all of them, but the cattle went past the gates every time. It appeared to me that these blind cattle had somehow memorized the size and shape of the pen, and knew how far they could go in any direction without hitting a fence. They couldn’t see that I had opened the gates.
We went around and around the pen, and it was interesting to note that the cattle weren’t hitting the fences now, even when I crowded them and caused them to run. Somehow they sensed the location of the fences.
The cow seemed more wary of the fences than the steer, and I’m not sure I could have ever gotten her out of there by herself, but at last the steer wandered through an open gate and into the alley. The cow followed. I pushed them down the alley, out the last gate, and into the pasture. By making noise, I eased them towards the herd. I was pretty confident that once the cow located the other cattle, she would stay with the herd, and the steer would stay with her. She wasn’t the steer’s mother, but circumstances had made them pretty close pals.
I checked on them over the next two weeks and saw them coming into water. They were together, and they were with some other cattle. The steer looked good and the cow had gained back most of the weight she had lost.
If you hadn’t known the story on them, you’d never have guessed they were walking around in darkness.
Bulls in the hay
It took me a while to make contact with Joe in the late summer of 1995. He was in the hay-hauling business and I needed his services. So did a lot of other ranchers in the neighborhood, it seemed, but I finally caught him on his cellular phone.
I told him that I needed a thousand bales of alfalfa and told him where to put the stack, in case I wasn’t around when he delivered them. “And Joe, be sure and put the stack far enough away from the fence so that the cows can’t get to it.”
Well, he delivered the hay, but instead of putting it out in the middle of the stack lot, he placed it so that the west side of the stack was only about 2 feet from the fence. That wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, and by the time we settled up, Joe realized it.
“I'm afraid I put that stack too close to the fence.”
I figured it would be all right. That was a pretty stout fence—pipe posts cemented into the ground, with V-mesh bull wire in between. Surely that would keep the cattle out.
It did, until about two days after we had our first heavy frost. Then the bulls moved in. There were four of them in that pasture, big Simmental bulls that weighed over two thousand pounds apiece. They attacked the fence at its weakest spot and started chewing on my new haystack.
I solved the problem by building a little fence around the breached area, using six new steel posts and a strand of barbed wire. I figured one strand would be enough. Two days later, the bulls had trashed my fence. The posts were bent over and the wire was on the ground, and the bulls had definitely made an impression on my haystack.
I straightened the bent posts, drove several more in the ground, and put up two strands of barbed wire. That should do it. I mean, these bulls were not starving. I was feeding them 32 percent protein cubes every day, for crying out loud.
The next day my barbed wire fence was hash, and four bulls were eating the west end out of my stack. This was starting to get on my nerves. I roared up to them in my pickup, honked the horn, gunned the motor, and chased them out into the pasture.
I was aware that you should never ram a $1,500 bull with a $30,000 pickup, but that dark red bull was a little slower than the others and I was mad and I rammed him. I didn’t care if it was a stupid thing to do. I enjoyed it, and was lucky I didn’t cripple the bull or damage the pickup.
I patched up the fence again. The bulls tore it down again. I hauled them off to another pasture. Three of them were back before sundown. I blasted them with birdshot, ran them off, screamed terrible oaths at them, and patched the fence.
The next morning they were back. Instead of cobbling on the fence, which they had already proved they could destroy, I hooked up a stock trailer to the old three-quarter-ton army truck and parked them beside the fence. It was a brilliant piece of cowboy engineering—no expense, no hacking postholes out of frozen ground, no sweat. And by George, it worked.
Those bulls were broken-hearted. They hung around the stack for weeks, like friends after a funeral, held by the memory of the good old days when they could eat the heart out of my haystack. I loved it. Every time I drove past them, I yelled, “You can’t out-fox a fox, boys. Cowboy engineering rules!”
Then we got that blowing snow the week before Christmas. I got my pickup stuck in a snowdrift and had to activate the army truck. When I unhooked the truck from the trailer and drove away, the bulls were nowhere in sight. Perfect. They would never know that I had left the stack exposed.
When I returned two hours later, the bulls had finished the job of destroying the main fence. They had laid it out flat on the ground, walked across it, and invaded the stack lot.
At that point I did a quick calculation of how much hamburger we could get out of three stupid Simmental bulls. My figures showed that it would take us about four and a half years to eat it all, so maybe that wasn’t a great idea.
As a last resort, I bought enough portable corral panels to span the broken fence, and that ended the problem. It was so simple, so easy, you probably wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. Because I was following the Four Laws of Cowboy Engineering, that’s why.
1. Never fix a fence if a patch will get you by.
2. If the first patch doesn’t work, patch it again.
3. Keep it up. Maybe they’ll get bored and go away.
4. When it becomes clear that you are behaving in an irrational manner, fix it right.
Rescue from Hodges Mesa
When we weaned our calves in October of 1998, I was worried that we might have trouble with sickness. Weaning is a stressful time for calves, as they are separated from their mothers and are adjusting to a diet of solid food instead of milk.
I had heard the experiences of other ranchers who were weaning that fall. They talked about calves that had to be doctored, calves in the sick pen, calves that were coughing in pens made dusty by the dry weather.
Dusty pens are hard on calves, but if you don’t keep them locked up for six or seven days, when you turn them out, they’re liable to run off in all directions to find their mommies. When they start running through fences and getting in with the neighbors’ cattle, it’s a mess.
Our calves had their share of runny noses and coughing. Mark and I had to doctor three or four head, but we didn’t have any calves that got down with pneumonia or serious gut problems. On day four, they were looking good.
Then came three days of cold rain, 5 inches in all. Obviously, dust was no longer a problem, but mud was. I cringed every time I drove past the weaning pen and saw the calves bogging around in the mud. I dreamed about them at night. As soon as possible, we opened the gates and let them out into the Mesa Pasture.
When you turn freshly weaned calves outside, you have to watch them closely for a week or two, just in case some of them develop sickness that didn’t show up in the weaning pen. You have to go out horseback, count them, and look them over.
But to do that, you have to find them. The Mesa pasture made that difficult. It wasn’t a huge pasture, only about 1,300 acres, but it was rough—canyons, ravines, and Hodges Mesa. If you could have flattened out the Mesa pasture, you’d have had something like 10,000 acres. In such terrain, it was hard to find freshly weaned calves.
The first couple of days, they stayed close to the pens and we got our count. Then they began drifting farther away and the counting became more difficult. Three days in a row, I came up eight head short. I looked and looked and couldn’t find them. I was about ready to start riding other pastures when I remembered … Hodges Mesa.
Hodges Mesa stretched about a mile from north to south on the west side of the pasture. There were only three trails leading up to the top, and cattle seldom went there. But sometimes young cattle wandered up on top, and then couldn’t remember how they got there—or how to get down. There was plenty of grass on the mesa, but no water.
If those calves went up on the mesa, we sure needed to find them and get them down to water. We checked the mesa, and sure enough, found them huddled on the edge of a caprock that rose some 300 feet above the valley floor. They looked pitiful, alone, lost, and helpless. And thirsty.
Sometimes, when you work horseback, getting cattle off such a place can be a nightmare. The height didn’t bother them when they were climbing up, but now, looking down, it was pretty scary. These calves were fairly sensible. They ran back and forth several times, but we held them in front of the point where the trail plunged off the caprock, and after five minutes, one of them started down, causing a small landslide of rocks.
The others spooked and tried to run away, but we met them with our horses and turned them around. The lead steer slid and stumbled through thickets of mountain mahogany, and kept going. The others followed, fell into a single line, and made their way down into the valley.
Ten minutes later, they were standing in a circle around the stock tank, gulping water. We had managed to save them from committing suicide.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.