Working Cattle

When I was a high school FFAer, one handy way to make money every fall was to take a shift at the local feeder calf sale.

It wasn’t exactly easy money. It was hard work late into the night, but for those of us who knew what we were doing it was at least simple money. You just had to work some cattle for a few hours to sort them into their assigned pens. It was all pretty straightforward for the kids who knew what they were doing. For those who didn’t know what they were doing, instead of a straightforward evening of working cattle, it was an evening full of getting kicked, trampled, and yelled at by old men who were mad at you for letting calves get away.

A feeder calf, for those who didn’t grow up on a farm, is a weaned calf ready to be “fed” and grown to a size where it was ready to be turned into delicious beef. Feeder calves are still sold, but in today’s vertical beef market the kind of feeder calf sales I used to work aren’t so common anymore. Back in the day, there were dozens of farmers in my area (and most other areas), all with somewhere from a few to many feeder calves to be sold in the fall. For the sake of efficiency, a communal feeder calf sale would let all of those farmers pool their stock into one big auction. That made it easier for buyers to come in from out of town and resulted in higher prices for the farmers. Holding a big sale like that required a few hired hands to make everything run, which was handy for kids like me.

Cows and calves

Over the course of the night before the day of the sale, farmers would drop their calves off at the sale barn. Then those calves would be weighed and sorted into lots for sale. That’s where the kids would come in. After a calf was weighed, it would be assigned a pen number and released from the scale. The pen number would be announced over a loud speaker, and then it was our job to get the calf into the assigned pen without letting all of the other calves already in that pen escape out into the barn. We needed to work quick, because there were always plenty more calves coming. Sometimes a calf would come out of the scale hopping mad and ready for a fight. Sometimes a calf would come out calm and placid. Mostly, calves would just come out like a typical calf — an animal to be respected, but neither cooperative nor particularly resistant to being directed to its assigned pen.

If you had grown up around cattle, it was easy to tell what kind of calf you had on your hands and then deal with it appropriately. Some of us got to learn about cattle the gentlest way, by first watching from the safety of the truck on our mother’s lap, and then helping with a bottle calf as a small child, until finally we just knew what to do to cut one calf out of the herd. Those of us who fed cows every night at home had already learned to read the cock of a bovine head to tell the difference between interest and fury. We knew when and how to stand our ground to turn a calf barreling down on us into a pen. We knew how to open a gate at just the right moment to shunt a 600 pound calf off to a pen without getting anything more than dust on our boots. It was simple work for those of us who knew what you were doing. It was hell for those who didn’t know what they were doing.

Most years, at least one of my buddies from town would need a few bucks and think that working the feeder calf sale sounded easy enough. I would always try to coach up my friends from town on how to handle cattle while secretly looking forward to the spectacle they were about to provide. No instructions I could give would ever take fast enough. There’s not any theoretical way to teach someone how to work cattle, so my brief explainers weren’t of much help. Working cattle isn’t the sort of thing where you can read a book or watch a how-to video to learn it. You just have to know how to do it from having done it. If you didn’t already know how to work cattle, you were going to get beat up pretty good learning at the feeder calf sale. I confess that I often chuckled at my buddies’ bruises when we gathered up after our work was done.

Those kids from town didn’t have the advantage of learning the gentle way. They had to learn the job by getting kicked and trampled. They couldn’t tell the calves that would turn aside if you stood firm from the rarer calves that really would run you over, so they both let a lot of calves escape and got run over. Those were the kids who would let an entire pen lose by cowering behind an open gate instead of waiting until the perfect moment to swing it wide to admit the new addition to the pen. I feel a little bad now that I look back on how much entertainment the town kids provided me.

Most of the town kids who worked the feeder calf sale once never came back the next year. There are easier ways to earn minimum wage than to be trampled by the cattle you are trying to sort into a pen. For whatever reason, a few of those kids would come back for a second go. A town kid couldn’t become an expert just by working one feeder calf sale a year, but the second time around he would at least be proficient enough to not get kicked or trampled. If he picked up some regular work with a farmer in the intervening months, he could even become something close to an experienced hand by the time the second feeder calf sale rolled around. Then the feeder calf sale wouldn’t be easy money for him, but it would be simple work.

I think of working cattle often when I start a new endeavor or try to learn a new skill. I’m at an age now where there’s not much left for me to learn the gentle way. I used to be a haughty kid at the feeder calf sale, chuckling to myself as kids from town discovered that working cattle wasn’t so easy after all. Now I’m at the point where I’ve realized that if I’m going to learn something new, I’m going to have to accept a few kicks along the way to knowledge and wisdom.

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