My friend Aleshia invited me out Saturday to a friends ranch where they were shipping cows. This is one of the busiest times of the year on a ranch, were the calfs get shipped off to feedlots to fatten up before being slaughtered. This is the one paycheck a year that these ranches get, so everyone works really hard on this day.
We woke bright and early to drive over to the ranch. Now that it’s November, Montana seems to believe that it is the middle of winter. I walked out to a car covered in snow. It was pretty cold, and I had put on two layers of long underwear, two pairs of socks, two shirts and a fleece hooded sweatshirt to keep warm. Long story short, I way overdressed for the occasion.
On shipping day all of the cattle get rounded up and put into large pens. While a noisy process as moms and calfs call for each other constantly (some funny sounding calfs too. A few sounded like elk), this is usually pretty easy, as the cows shy away from people and horseback riders. Small groups of cows are herded through a series of corridors with gates. As each group comes upon the gates they will stop and try to go back they way they came towards the horseback riders. This creates quite the traffic jam. As the cows try to escape, one by one they will decide to escape towards the person holding the gate. The people manning the gates will than open or close their respective gates to separate mom, from calf. Later we use the same process to separate steer (male) from heifer (female). This process can get quite complicated when you have two cows you are trying to separate trying to go into the same pen, or when the cows stop before going into their pen. To help this process another person on foot will try separate mom and calf by stepping in front of the calfs, or by throwing a stick in between the two to try and startle one of them in a different direction. This job was very tiring (and warming) as it requires running around after cows, and yelling at them for hours on end. I soon regretted all the extra layers I had put on.
After being sorted the calfs are counted and weighed. They herd small groups of calfs onto a scale. Usually the cows go for 1.29-1.50 a lb. Since each calf can weigh between 200-500 lbs, there is quite a lot of money exchanged especially when you have a couple hundred calfs.
Once they cows are all bought and paid for they get loaded onto trucks. Each truck has several different compartments that can hold between 5-15 cows each. The buyer decides how may go in each compartment, and the horseback riders separate the correct amount of cows to heard up the ramp into the truck. The truck driver hides at the top of the truck counting the number of cows that pass into the truck, and after the correct number of cows arrives, herds them into their compartment. This compartment is shut, and he opens the next compartment for the next group. I also learned that despite popular belief cows can walk down stairs, and backwards up stairs (one poor cow got stuck going up the ramp backwards). While sounding easy, this park of the job is often difficult as cows get turned around and locked in the narrow corridors. Often times they don’t quite get that they are supposed to walk up the ramp, and require a little poking in the ribs (I was gentle, I promise) to get them all the way up. So I have a newfound appreciation for the farmers and ranchers who put food in our grocery stores. Shipping was hard work. I slept like a rock that night (I turned in just after 9!) and was sore for many days after in places where I had forgotten I had muscles. But now I think I can get a pair of cowboy boots and a hat without too much ridicule. Maybe.