Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Time for a real horse, part 2

My lovely wife, Claudia, at the ranch. On her first roundup years ago, she got to go on foot! Why ever did she stick around?

So the first horse I tried out turned out to be a lemon. There was nothing for it but to keep on trying. The right horse just had to be out there.

The next horse that arrived at the ranch was a friendly-looking mare. The initial stages of saddling and mounting all went well enough. I was feeling pretty positive.

As luck would have it, once again I was going to be riding down the creek. I don’t remember the details, but I imagine we’d missed some cattle and we were just checking the pasture again. The difference was that this time Scott would be riding with me. Continue reading “Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Time for a real horse, part 2”

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Roundups – 3

Another major part of corral work was separating, or “cutting” the cattle. Yearlings and cows that were not producing were cut out to be shipped off and sold. Sometimes there were cows that were slated to be moved to a different pasture.

Some cutting was done in the corrals from horseback, but cutting cattle on horseback necessitates something that was in pretty short supply on Date Creek Ranch: good horses. For sure none of the nags I got to ride when I was younger were any good at it. You need a horse that’s got a soft mouth (easy to turn) and that moves quickly when you need it to (see Lady).

That meant most of the cutting was done in the alley and no, I’m not talking about a narrow, garbage-riddled street behind the local dive bar. In corral parlance an alley is a long, narrow pen separating a number of regular pens. The gates for all the regular pens open outward onto the alley and they’re designed to be just long enough that when halfway open they reach across the alley, sealing it off.

We’d put a half dozen or so animals in the alley and push them all down to one end. We kids would each take one of the gates opening onto the alley. Dad would walk down toward the cows and as he got close they’d get nervous and bunch up. Even closer and eventually a couple of the more desperate ones would bolt by him. When it worked right he’d only let cows meant for the same pen get by him. Then he’d yell out who needed to get their gate open, the cows ran in, and everybody was happy.

Note that I said, when it worked right. In the real-life application, it hardly ever went that way. For one thing, the aforementioned gates were terrible, rickety things made of broken, splintery boards that had been poorly repaired with baling wire. In other words, you couldn’t swing them. You had to lift them and carry them. They were heavy and splinters were just a done deal.

For another, Dad always planned way too much to do and not near enough time to do it in. That meant lots of hurrying, and also working into the night time. And these modern ideas about treating the cattle gently and calmly, well, Dad had no truck with them. Dad was old school. Animals, like children, were expected to behave exactly as he wanted them to, when he wanted them to. Any animal that didn’t do that triggered the inevitable yelling and cussing. That led to cows—and people—that were generally pretty stressed out and cows tend to do a lot of charging around when they’re stressed out.

All of which means that the corrals were generally a chaotic, somewhat terrifying place, filled with large, panicky animals and massive clouds of choking dust.

What often happened was that a mixed group, destined for different pens, would all panic and run by him at once. At which point the logical thing to do would be to let them all run to the far end of the alley, then push them back with the others and start over. But that took too much time and we had an impossible schedule to keep. What actually happened was more like this:

Three cows are running at me. I’m only supposed to let the first one into my pen. I open my gate about two feet. The cows, seeing an escape from the dreaded alley, all bolt for the opening. The trick is to wait until the first one’s halfway through the gate, then slam it and slam it hard on her hindquarters. (They’re in a pack, so if I want until she’s all the way in to close the gate, I’m getting all of them.) If I’m lucky and quick enough, I’ll end up with her in the pen and shut out the two who are following.

Oh, and as soon as I slam the gate I have to jump quick and get my ass up the side of it, because those two other cows have a full head of steam and they’re just going to run over me if I don’t get out of the way.

Unfortunately, sometimes I was too slow with the gate, or the cows wouldn’t be denied their shot at freedom. Maybe the second one in line got her head in there and the gate rebounded on me.


Cue Dad shouting and cussing.

Cutting the cows was really one of the more exciting activities on the ranch. Honestly I don’t know how we didn’t all end up in the hospital on a regular basis.

One time we had two bulls in the alley and they started fighting. Now, most of the time the bulls were pretty mellow. They regarded us human beings as little more than annoying insects, so they didn’t waste energy even threatening us. But when they started fighting, that was a different matter. (Our bulls were Brahma crosses. Brahmas are the breed with the large, rounded lump of muscle on top of their shoulders. They are big animals.)

When bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to get them separated as soon as possible. I mean, these were large, heavily muscled titans and against them a wooden corral is just so many toothpicks waiting to snap and fall on the ground. Heck, our corrals were so dilapidated that some of our fence poles would fall down if you just looked at them wrong.

The upshot was that once bulls started fighting in the corrals, we had to separate them or they were going to tear the place down. Even more problematic was what happened once one of them started to lose. When that happened, all that bull wanted was to bug out, go stand under a nice thick mesquite tree, and nurse his wounded ego. No mere corral was going to stop him.

I once saw one submarine the main entrance gate and just basically force his whole body under it, ripping most of it away in the process. Another time I saw one try to jump over the fence. It was pretty impressive. He jumped about six feet in the air, high enough to get his front quarters clear up and over the fence.

High enough, but not enough distance. He landed on top of the fence, just crushing it.

So I was working a gate and these two bulls started fighting in the alley. The fight started to spill my way so naturally I scooted inside the pen and got behind the gate. Then Dad starts yelling at me to open my gate. I picked up the end of the gate and swung it open as fast as I could, at the same time moving around the end of the gate so I can keep it between me and the bulls.

Right as I got the gate halfway open, where the end of the gate just touches the opposite side of the alley, I was sliding around the end of the gate. At just that point, the bulls slammed into the gate. The gate mashed into my chest, pinning me between it and the side of the alley.

I remember hearing this loud woof! sound, which only later did I realize was me, having the wind knocked out.

Then, thankfully, the bulls carried their fight into the pen and let me go. I didn’t have much time to nurse my wounds since right away Dad was hollering at me to close the damn gate already before some animal went where it wasn’t supposed to. I had some pretty good bruises afterwards, but no broken bones.

(See part 1 and part 2)

Tales from Date Creek Ranch – Roundups – 2

Once we got the cattle into the corrals, then the real fun began. And by fun I mean a couple days of hysterical bellowing. Oh, and I imagine the cattle were frightened too.

The first thing we needed to do was separate, or “cut” the cows away from the calves. You had to do this before you could brand the calves, unless you wanted a pissed-off mama cow goring you.

2009 Oct DCR, Flag 124

a view from the main corrals, looking at the barn

Once we had all the unbranded calves alone in a pen, we could start the branding process. To heat the branding irons, we used a metal box with the front cut out and an opening cut into the side. The front opening was where we set the branding irons to heat up. Our heat source was a propane bottle attached to a sort of metal nozzle that turned into quite the blow torch when you lit it up.

As I mentioned earlier, none of us had roping horses or knew crap about roping from horse back so we mostly did the branding on foot unless we had hired some real cowboys to help us. Some of the little calves you could just grab, but most of the time we had to get a rope on them. The best way to do this was to “heel” them, which means getting the rope around their hind legs. Once you do that it’s pretty easy to drag them away from the others for branding.

The problem with heeling was, once again, that we mostly all sucked at roping and heeling is kind of hard. You don’t just throw the loop of your rope on the ground and hope something comes along and steps in it. You’ve gotta throw the loop down in such a way that it rests partway on the ground and partway up against the calf’s legs. Then, when the calf moves, he can’t help but step into your loop. When that happens, you jerk the rope up and tug on it at the same time and voila! you’ve caught your prey by the legs.

Unless the calf moves away from the loop instead of stepping into it. Or you mistime your tug on the rope. Or, most commonly, you just can’t get that stupid rope to go where you want it to.

Often we just had to settle for trying to rope the calf around the neck and even there we were pretty pathetic.

Once you had the calf on the rope and dragged over to where you wanted it, you had to “flank” the calf. Flank just means throw the calf on the ground. Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? After all, most of the calves were less than a month old.

Yeah, except that after just a few days those calves are surprisingly strong and they can kick the snot out of you. There’s a real technique to flanking a calf. One of our favorite forms of entertainment on Date Creek Ranch was watching a novice flank a calf. (We fairly often had visiting friends who wanted to be part of the glamor of roundup.) Half the time they’d end up clinging to the calf for dear life while it dragged them around the corral and we laughed. Good times.

Basically, flanking involves bending over the calf, grabbing it with one hand by the flap of skin just in front of the hindquarters, and with the other hand either the front leg or just behind the leg. Then, you give the animal a quick jerk upwards while simultaneously pushing forward with your knees. This gets the animal off the ground and flips them on their side.

As the calf hits the ground you have to quickly put one knee on its neck, while grabbing its front leg, bending it up and pulling it toward you. Do this part wrong and the animal throws you off or kicks the crap out of you with its hind legs. Do it right and the calf can’t get up or kick you.

To fully immobilize the calf, someone else has to jump down and grab the hind legs. The trick there is to grab the top leg with both hands and lean back, while at the same time hooking the heel of your boot onto the back of the bottom leg, just above the joint in the middle of the leg. An experienced team can flank and immobilize a calf in just a few seconds.

Inevitably, there were a few calves that had been born late enough that we missed them on the previous roundup, which meant they could be as much as six months old. A calf that age is big and a heckuva lot stronger than a person. That’s when technique is absolutely vital. I remember flanking calves that came up to my chest, so big I could just barely reach over them and get a hold. But if I could get that hold, the calf was going down. It was something all of us kids could do and do well. We didn’t really have much choice as Dad had no tolerance for excuses when it came time to get the work done. That calf is three times your size? Quit complaining and get in there and put it on the ground. And hurry up!

Then it’s time for the branding. The irons have to be just right. Too cool and the brand won’t take. Too hot and you can burn through the skin. While we had them down we also gave them a vaccination and an earmark. The brand is legal proof the animal is yours. The earmark is notches cut into the animal’s ears for quick identification out on the range. If an animal is in a herd with others or the side with the brand is turned away from you, the earmark is a handy secondary form of identification.

Finally, if they were bull calves we castrated them. This was the dogs’ favorite part. They skulked around the corrals waiting, knowing Dad would toss them those tasty morsels once he cut them off. We ate them ourselves a few times—cooked, of course—they call them Rocky Mountain oysters. They weren’t bad, but a little chewy.

We castrated them so they would put on more fat and less muscle. Also, without all that nasty testosterone flooding their systems they were much more docile.

(Author’s note: If all this sounds cruel to you, I agree. My father was old school, which meant that considerations about the animals’ feelings did not factor in. There was a job to be done and it would be done, by whatever means necessary. But there were also times when a cow had clearly outlived her usefulness but for whatever reason he’d developed an attachment to her and so she didn’t get sent to the auction to be butchered for dog food. Also, I believe that the worst part of the branding process for the calves was the fear. Their skins are much thicker and tougher than ours. What would be a really traumatic experience for a person wasn’t for them. Within a couple minutes of letting them up, they seemed back to normal. I never saw any indication that they were favoring the brand. And, finally, we had no real choice. Without those brands anyone could snatch them up and claim them for their own.)

(For part 1 click here.)

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