Here we are at that most welcome and dreaded time of the year: calf sale day. Welcome because the little buggers are eating us out of house and home, and dreaded because they're our friends. But, we're in the beef cattle business, and there's no income unless we sell our young, so today's the day.
Cows and ranching play a role in the Cass Elliot Crime Novels (sometimes an important one - in a future book, a cow patty helps catch a bad guy). Seems a natural thing, because both are such a big part of life in East Texas. Whether the old man has Hitch repairing fence, sorting heifers for the sale barn, or directing a work crew to brand and castrate calves, readers get an accurate peek at farm life.
Have you ever seen cowboys working a herd of cows? There's something magical about it. We raise our calves to be gentle, and we love the Milfords because they're so easy with our calves. But almost every year, we'll end up with one calf (usually a bull) who won't cooperate.
(Except food. They always cooperate when it comes to food.)
We help our calves get comfortable with the loading pen by putting their feed trough inside it and leaving one end open. They come and go as they please, and follow the feed bucket into this 20' by 16' space. They'll even spend part of the day in the pen, laying around while chewing their cud (they do love that feed trough).
Most years, loading is pretty easy. The Milfords back up to the pen and we help them crowd the calves closer and closer to the open trailer gate until one calf jumps in. They're like lemmings at this point. Once one is inside, the rest follow.
Some years, things aren't as easy and the Milfords use their dogs to round the calves up - literally.
Mr. Milford controls them through a series of whistles and commands. These dogs know their jobs and have no fear about working around creatures so big in comparison to themselves.
They don't bark at the calves and they rarely nip, simply because they don't have to. They run in ever tightening circles around the calves until they're bunched together (rounded up), then ease the bunch towards the pen and the trailer.
On the rare occasion the cranky calf I mentioned above decides not to cooperate, he'll make a break for it and it'll take horses to catch him. Again, these animals are amazing. So are the cowboys who ride them, and it takes talent from man and horse to cowboy well.
Only once have we had a calf break through an electric fence, then through a barbed wire fence (I hate those things), and disappear into the woods. We have 160 acres, which is a lot of ground to cover when you're chasing one calf. The good news - or bad news depending on how you look at it - is that the adults in the herd join in the chase. That many cows running in one direction makes it easier to figure out where the calf has gone!
Once they're loaded, it's off to the sale barn and we cross our fingers for high prices. Some years are good for us and bad for steak lovers; other years are bad for us and good for steak lovers.
There you have it. The emotion, the drama of calf sale day. The funny part? Almost as soon as we load up the last batch of calves, a new batch starts dropping and the cycle begins again. It'll be time to call Mr. Milford before we know it.