We planned ahead for practical purposes, had our dates ready in July and coordinated things with our vet, our calf rep, the brand inspector and our friend so we could be economical with our plans too. Our schedule was set and we were ready to roll, but when the day came and we rode out to gather, I realized that I really wasn't "ready."
It's the most anticipated set of days on our calendar, other than when the calves are born; we had decided to ship the steer and heifer calves and then preg check the cows all on the same day. We would know two things by the end of it...1. Did the calves make the promised weight and 2. Are the cows bred up and ready to calve come spring.
We sell our calves off of the cow, so after we had them gathered we sorted the cows off and had a pen of calves that then had to be sorted by sex. I always think of the poem my mom wrote when I was young that starts out "Sweet rolls, beans, coffee and pie, cows down the alley go 'in' or 'by....' when we take our positions at different corral gates.
Husbeast sent the calves and hollered their destination while a couple of us manned the gates; steers to the first, heifers down to the second. This year, for some reason, I noticed things differently. I've always appreciated each calf for what they mean for us and those they ultimately affect in the remainder of their lives, whether they go on to be mothers themselves or to be a source of multiple things that we all need or use. But this year, there were several who had a story I remembered or a mother who is a favorite of mine and my appreciation for how far they have come, was deeper than before.
They weighed up just about where we needed them to, which meant that our second promise was kept. The semi trucks that would haul them to their next destination, sat in the yard and the rattle of the beds and gates in the trailers being set, mingled with the mooing of cows and calves. Some of each set were pulled out and reweighed and the loads were ready to go. The truck driver gave his preferred load order and I watched heifers march down the alley and climb on the truck, one by one, two by two and on and on, until each of them was safe inside and the back door of the trailer dropped. The steers loaded up the same way and both trucks headed down the road.
Our best, once again, a promise made, a promise kept...the end for this year.
And still there was more to learn.
In years past we've pregged at different times, depending on how things worked for all the necessary helpers. This year, they would march through the chute as soon as the remaining calves were out of the way in another pen. One at a time, each cow came through the chute to hear her fate, "open" or "bred." We always hope to earn an "A" and have over 90% of the cows bred. This year was no different, but fate or Mother Nature had other plans. Several young cows did not breed back on their 3rd calf. They were all from the same age group and each time "open" was called, Husbeast and I couldn't help but mutter "damn it" under our breath or out loud or with a question mark at the end. Because clearly, something hadn't gone right for that bunch of cows.
Our intention that day was to make production culls and sell those cows that hadn't raised a calf this year. A new plan had formed with each young cow that wasn't bred and when those others we had cussed so much for not raising a calf came up bred, they earned a second chance.
There are a handful of cows with nicknames that we easily recognize and each time one of them came through I held my breath. I struggled with the practicality of the business side of ranching and sentimentality of the "but she's my favorite cow" side of ranching. When Frankie came through, I told myself that I knew she was an old cow and her calf was pretty small this past year. I scratched on her head when she stood in the chute and I ducked my own as the vet reached into his pocket for the orange chalk that marked her fate...she was open. I swung the gate to let her into the other side of the corral and I made my mark on my notebook. I blamed the dust for the water in my eyes and I swallowed hard to clear the pain in my throat. The good cows are always hard to let go of and she was one of those. My whole life, there has been a cow or two or three that sticks out in my mind as a unique character and Husbeast is the same way. They are no different than a favorite dog or horse to us and they each tell part of our success story.
It's never easy to send a cow down the road, but it also makes us even more proud of the 88% that kept their promise to us. They hold our future in their, well, hooves, I suppose, and we are grateful to them for that.
The most anticipated days of our year, stacked up and our end and our beginning met. We came full circle.
As the final cow came through the chute and we closed the chapter on the future, I gave a nod of thanks to the cows who wouldn't continue on with us.
Husbeast pointed out "it makes me even more proud of those who came up bred." and I shifted my thoughts in that direction. As we come full circle once again, they are our beginning and our future and we are awful damn proud of them.