Cattle Today

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THE OLD WAY

Jay Nixon

It's fun to look at old black and white photos of cowboys of bygone days manhandling cattle, roping and snubbing up to doctor, and roping and dragging to brand, old photos, old timers, old methods. Today, such photos have the look of antiques.

In those old pictures, you see no crowding chutes, no swinging block gates, no hydraulic equipment. There's only men, horses and sweat from hard work.

You don't, however, have to be very old -- I don't consider myself as such -- to remember back to when they actually did things that way. You don't have to be ancient to remember being a part of working cattle in the old way.

My grandfather was a traditional South Texas Rancher. He ran an operation on big country because it took 10 or 12 acres to provide bare subsistence for a cow. The country was brushy, choked with mesquite, granjeno, black brush, cat claw and a hundred other varieties of woody vegetation, each with its own kind of treacherous and poisonous thorns.

Cattle were wild, almost like deer. They saw a man only infrequently and on every occasion he spooked them, chased them, roped them and hurt them. His pens were rudimentary at best. There was a trap and a large holding pen with a loading chute in one corner, and his only cattle handling equipment consisted of a snubbing post in the middle of this for tying up cattle you had to doctor more than once.

The cattle learned to fear man early in life. It was a time of the screw worm, the deadly larvae of the screw worm fly that attacked the navels of most young calves before the cord was detached. These had to be chased down, roped, thrown and doctored while someone hazed off the mother cow as she tried to kill the cowboy doing the doctoring.

Of course, the screw worm had to be doctored on every animal that suffered any kind of flesh wound, so the lesson was repeated over and over throughout an animal's life. These cattle were at home in the dense brush and developed the facility to hide in the denser thickets and let the riders pass them by.

For this reason, my granddad employed the services of three big pit bulldogs, hundred pounders that were singularly skillful at going into the thickets and hazing the cattle out. Cattle severely chastised by one of these pits learned very early to move when ordered to do so. The pits were also a part of the team that held the gathered cattle in one of the reinforced pasture corners while calves were worked. They were not gentle teachers and were particularly hard on younger calves.

With all this in mind, it was no wonder that the cattle in that region in that day and time were wild as hell and dangerous to man and horse. Dehorning was an even dirtier and more inhumane job than it is, today. Cattle had to be thrown and their heads secured by several men and either a big, gear-driven dehorner or a wire saw were used for the job. By the time it was over, blood was everywhere, on men on equipment, on the cattle and the ground, and the dehorned animal had lost so much of it that it was weeks recovering if screw worms didn't get into the wounds.

Consequently, only bad cows, those that had gored horses or men or dogs were ever dehorned. So most grown cows had long pointed horns that were potentially deadly at close quarters. This made working them even more interesting.

Doctoring such animals in the brush was at least a two-man job. Big cows had to be roped, usually while moving at full speed through the dense brush, and once a wild cow was roped at close quarters with dense brush packed all around, the man with the rope on her became fair game until another rope was gotten on her. Brush cowboys didn't throw the big arena-type loops. There was just no way to do this in thick brush. A brush loop is only large enough to clear the horns and is usually thrown underhand as the animal reaches an opening between thickets.

Also, most brush cowboys tie their ropes hard and fast to the saddle horn. Big cattle are hard to hold in a dally, and the cowboy often has to use his arms and hands to ward off the thorny branches clawing at his head, face and chest. It is also the matter of several minutes before a second cowboy can get his rope on the same animal, hopefully around the back feet but most often around the horns or neck.

It is during this interim that a cowboy often had to spend his time dodging the animal tied hard and fast to his saddle. The hunter often became the hunted as the cow tried to put her needle-sharp horns to work on her tormentor.

Once roped by a second cowboy, the choice was either to snub the animal tight to a tree trunk or to simply choke her down and doctor her before she recovered. Then came the trick of getting the ropes off without getting killed. It was a fun way to earn a living.

I started going to the ranch with my grandfather when I was six years old. We had just returned to South Texas from El Paso. It was during the war, and all the good young cowboys were gone to the service. The work was done by older men, more experienced to be sure, but often too old to finish a hard day working cattle.

I started out on the kid jobs. My grandfather grew red top cane for winter forage. This was cut and bundled by a rowbinder and then shocked. Cattle were then allowed to graze the cut-over cane, but somebody had to keep the cattle out of the shocks. This was a job for the little kids. I rode a horse that must have gone up the trail in the 1870's he was so old, but he was safe for kids and wouldn't get out of a walk unless whipped soundly. It was dull work riding around all day, keeping the cattle out of the shocks.

A few years later I got to ride with the men hunting screw worms and even learned to rope some of the smaller calves, but I was there for the whole show and saw it done. Finally, I, too got to do real cowboy work, so I know first hand how hard and dangerous it was. And that wasn't that long ago, or doesn't seem so.

Working cattle, today, with all our modern equipment is still hard work, and I often see good, color pictures of the process, cattle going through the hydraulic chute or calves being handled on the calf table. But if you really want to recall hard back-breaking work, look at the old pictures, the black and whites. They depict how cattle were worked -- the old way.

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