A Socratic Rancher 6-29-09
June 29, 2009
My neighbor Ed had been a rancher all his life, and it showed, from boot tip to hat crown. He wore his multi-patched jeans inside his boots, which were always caked with manure. A fencing pliers hung off his belt in a nest of frayed stitches. His shirt was almost always snap-button, with several buttons no longer fitting. His rumpled hat had withstood numerous severe brainstorms, as well as an occasional foot stomping in disgust. His hands were rough enough to sand wood, his fingers reminiscent of tree roots. Ed had been born trail-toughened, and had been getting tougher ever since. He chewed haystems at 30 below in shirtsleeves.
There wasn’t a weak or sentimental bone in his hide.
I worked on his two tractors, Massey Ferguson TO-20s, an extravagance Ed allowed himself for making hay. One tractor remained permanently attached to the baler, the other rotated service on a John Deere No. 5 sickle mower and a New Holland ground-driven side-delivery rake.
The only time I saw Ed shed a tear was the time he told me about an aging cow in his herd named Old Mama. “She musta bin 18,” he said, when breaking in to the story. “But danged if she didn’t drop a nice, big heifer calf. Never saw it comin’. She never showed any spring to her sides or nuthin’.”
A few days after Old Mama dropped her calf, a sturdy 3-year old cow in Ed’s herd lost hers, and Ed decided the best move for the herd was to graft Old Mama’s calf to the young cow. “Old Mama was lookin’ at the short rows,” he said. “And I kinda wanted to get another really good heifer out of her.”
To keep Old Mama in comfortable retirement from calf-rearing, Ed moved her 12 miles south to his “other place,” gave her a nice pen with hay, water, and a little grain, thinking he’d fatten her up a bit before taking her to the sale barn. “I looked ‘er in the eye before I left that day,” he said, “and she seemed happy enough.” He then went back up to the main ranch and used his usual tricks to get the young cow to accept Old Mama’s calf, lacing the hide of the dead calf to the back of Old Mama’s heifer calf.
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Two day later, Ed got a surprise: Old Mama was out in the pasture with her calf, butting off the young cow who now thought she had a nice heifer calf to nurse for the summer.
“Do you know,” Ed told me, his eyes becoming slightly moist, “that ol’ cow jumped five fences, crossed a river and creek, not to mention a state highway and I don’t know how many county roads …”
This is when Ed let out an accidental tear. “That danged ol’ cow,” he said. “What could I do? After all that … back to her calf …”
I had to ask: “What did you do? – I mean, about the calf?”
Ed took off his hat and dusted it against his knee. “Aw heck, I let ‘er have it.”