When I was a kid, the days were long. I got up at three am to wrangle the horses up for the men who worked horseback. Then I milked the cows, ate breakfast, and started school at six. At noon, after school was over, I caught horses that were left in the corrals for me and my brother, and we trotted out to find the men in the pasture and spent the rest of the day with them till six, when I came home for supper. Then, straight to bed.
My dad was afraid I’d grow up and not know how to work, apparently.
But as I think back, I also remember how he looked at cattle in a similar way. They needed to work, not lay around waterings, chewing their cud, swishing flies. They needed to have a baby every year, grow it with no supplemental help from humans, and bring it in for weaning in the fall with another calf inside her. Anything that didn’t rise to this threshold was sold. You either worked or didn’t make it.
This was mostly because there was no income other than what was left over from cattle sales after expenses of running the ranch were taken out. So every animal had to pay it’s way.
We lived five hours from town with no motorized vehicles. We worked six and a half days a week. Families living in the outreaches of the ranch drove wagons pulled by mules into headquarters the last Saturday of every month to attend the dance and load up on dry goods on Sunday morning from the commissary for the upcoming month. Though it sounds cool and romantic, everyone worked long and hard, five am till five pm. It could be a harsh and sometimes lonely world. I remember how I would sit on my horse and look at the cows I was with and think, “Man, do I feel sorry for you… you never get to go to town.”
My favorite trip off the ranch was to buy bulls every year, with the whole family loading up on the plane, our version of the mini-van, and flying to Albany, Texas, to visit my parents’ closest friends, Watt and Dosia Casey, relatives of Tom and Mary Lasater, the family who founded the Beefmaster breed of cattle. Tio Palo, as I called Mr. Casey, had one of the most elite Beefmaster seed-stock herds in the country, raising bulls for commercial cattle producers like my dad.
They lived on their ranch just outside town, and had three boys and a girl, who were my friends, with whom I worked and played when visiting on our bull-buying trip. I remember the long discussions about fertility, the number one trait that influences the financial bottom line of a working herd of cattle like ours. My tio Palo placed special emphasis on fertility, having the shortest known breeding season of any herd in the United States: 30 days, which meant that if a cow didn’t conceive in one heat cycle, she was sold. One of the downsides of such a short breeding season is that a lot of cows were lost because of one criteria; really good cows that had other outstanding characteristics like a good disposition, hardiness, muscling, milking, and mothering ability were sacrificed. “What we really need,” Tio Palo would say, “are fertile cows that have a balance of traits.” I remember hearing them discussing how fertility could also be selected for by increasing the cow to bull ratio (the number of cows exposed to a bull), instead of putting pressure on them by using a short breeding season. One advantage of this tactic meant using less bulls, which means that the overall quality of the bull battery would be better, since there is always a big gap between the best and worst bull. And on and on they would talk into the night.
Why is fertility so important? Well, for starters, when a cow comes up empty (with no calf), her value sinks to less than half of what she is worth as a pregnant cow. I remember one night, they were sipping gin and tonics and got carried away to the extent of getting calculators out and running numbers of how much difference minor conception percentage differences made to the bottom line at the end of the year. These men were serious about their cattle.
Most of the time when they were deadlocked into these discussions, I was so tired that I could hardly keep my eyes open. But what I remember clearly was the passion with which they spoke. After all, the cattle and how they functioned in the wild were and still are the lifeblood of our work and livelihoods. These discussions, looking back, were on the cutting edge of genetic selection, all stemming from the work of the legendary Tom Lasater in Colorado. While the rest of the industry was selecting cattle based on appearance, color, and shape, these men were talking about an animal that was bred for its ability to go out into the pasture and breed, birth, and wean a healthy, strong, heavy calf, all while fending for herself with pests, predators, and adverse weather conditions, year after year, starting as a two-year-old.
More often than not, in everything we do as humans, we overlook the straightforward, fundamental things when looking for answers. Cattle breeders are equally as guilty of this as the predominant tool used in the cattle industry is based on manipulating numbers – using sophisticated algorithms that predict progeny traits based on equations and presumptions. In the end, Tom Lasater said it best: the hardest thing is keeping it simple, making the fewest decisions possible, letting Mother Nature make as many as possible.
Today, after many years of ranching and raising cattle, I am thankful for my father’s guidance and direction during my youth. I have come to see these cattle as a reflection and a starkly important anchor to working in the natural world that we live in and care deeply about as ranchers and cattle men and women.