My Worst Day Ranching
(so far)

late-May 2001

"Some days are diamonds. Some days are coal".

My wife, 3-month old son, and 7-year-old daughter were away in Albuquerque to evaluate my son for double-hernia surgery and I was at home alone, expecting 6 semi-truck loads of cattle (96 head per truck) the next morning. That night, it rained, and rained, and rained. I love rain, but keep in mind that we live down 10 miles of dirt road and semi-trucks aren’t exactly four-wheel-drive pickups. I was up before dawn to eat a breakfast of bagel and coffee and await the incoming trucks, which can show up at any time. Our house is backed with a 300-acre "shipping trap", a small pasture where I can keep cattle just prior to shipping. This year, I had been off-loading incoming cattle into this pasture to keep them for a week or two to train them to the feed wagon. The better trained they are to the feed wagon, the tamer they get, and the better they ship in the fall. This year’s batch was not cooperating at all and ran from the feed-wagon, instead of running to the wagon. After I finished my bagel, I looked out at the slowly graying sky and noticed that about 300 head of cattle were piled into a corner of the trap right near the house. This is an ideal situation for training steers to feed because you can feed right in front of them and they have to cross the feed to get away. Some will smell and stop and eat, and that’s often all it takes to get the whole bunch to stop and feed. And I knew they’d be cold and hungry after a night of rain. So, I ran outside and jumped in "Old Blue"- a 1986 Ford F250 4WD- already hooked up to the feed trailer. It was still raining, but gently. As I approached the trapped cattle, they panicked and started to run east along the fence. In this situation, you can often drive the truck right in front of them and make them stop. That’s what I did. What I didn’t count on was the slick grass of the rain-soaked pasture, and when I hit the brakes, the truck, backed with about 2,000 lbs of feed in the trailer, slid about 30 yards across the pasture. Right into the barbed wire fence. Pow!!! Barbed wire is tough, but it’s no match for a pickup truck with feed trailer and I busted thru 3 of the 4 wires. The other wire wrapped around my front wheel. Okay, so here I am with a gaping hole in the fence and 300 ill-trained, panicky steers coming straight for me. I jumped out, got the steers turned and ended up just tying the broken wire to the pickup and leaving the truck in the hole. As I walked back to the house, it was raining harder, and the wind had picked up to about 25-30 mph.

Just as I reached the house, I saw 3 of the 5 expected trucks rolling up at the main intersection, about mile from the house. The trucks usually come from the east, but these were coming from the north. Still, they had to be mine. I ran into the house and looked frantically for a rain coat, tracking mud all over the house. No luck, and I KNOW I have a great rain slicker somewhere… Finally giving up, I hooked up the portable loading chute to my other pickup and drove to the intersection. It was still raining. The brand inspector was there (all incoming cattle are inspected) and after talking about it, we decided to just unload the trucks directly into the pasture instead of taking them to the small set of pens 3 miles down the road where we normally unload. This way the trucks wouldn’t have to turn around in the pasture, but could just continue down the hard-packed caliche road back to pavement. The first 3 trucks went fine, although it was still raining at times. Then the brand inspector’s cell phone rang. Bad news.  The other 2 trucks had slid off the dirt road on a steep banked curve, back in Grenville, 10 miles away. Uh-oh.

We decided that there was nothing to do but take the portable chute and unload the cattle there. Maybe we’d be able to drive 192 head of cattle into a neighbor’s nearby trap of about 7 acres until I could get some help. The brand inspector took off to check out the situation and I loaded up the chute. I wished I could also load up my ATV, but I didn’t have a loading ramp and couldn’t back up into the ditch like I normally do, because of the mud, or load it into a trailer because I was already towing the portable chute. "Well, I won’t need it", I stupidly reckoned. "And besides, it’s raining!" So, I headed north, driving about 20 miles/hour to keep the poorly designed loading chute from fishtailing back and forth as it was towed.

At the scene, things looked ugly. The first truck had slid off the banked turn into the muddy ditch and the second truck, rather than simply wait and be patient, decided to go around the first truck.  He slid into the first truck and scraped along until he cleared it and then slid into the ditch himself. This put his rear door (where the cattle come out) almost butt-up against the nose of the first truck. It was obvious that we were going to have to move one of the trucks to unload the other. And, you don’t just yank fully loaded cattle trucks out of a muddy ditch. By this time, there were two brand-inspectors present, a county road employee, and an interested neighbor on the scene.

I managed to back the loading chute up to the first truck w/out getting stuck in the ditch myself. Remember- the ditch isn’t level! It’s banked. I could just picture the cattle tipping that chute over as they exited the truck.  The problem here is that the butt of the truck was facing north and the cattle needed to go south.  We'd have to unload them in the ditch and then turn them around to drive them south.   I drove my pickup down the road to guard it so that the unloading cattle wouldn’t hit the highway about 2 miles away. The road was fenced in on both sides, making a great "alley".  The first 14 head exited the truck, running full-blast down the road toward me. I got 10 turned, no problem, but 4 broke past me (NOW I needed that ATV!!!) as I tried not to get stuck in the ditch. It was still raining. I got the pickup in front of them and stopped right in their path. Three of them turned and jumped the barbed wire fence into the adjacent pasture and the 4th charged right for me! I jumped into the bed of the pickup and felt his head brush my feet! Then, he went around the truck and headed for the highway! It would be bad if he hit the road- one of the most-traveled in the state of New Mexico. Meanwhile, cattle are pouring off the truck, but most have joined the first 10 I got turned and are now heading south, like good cattle, bless their bovine hearts! I tore off down the road, got around the steer again, and pulled up in front of him again. He simply jumped into the small gap between the truck and fence and took off to the north! Once again, I got in front of him and this time, pushed the truck right up against the fence. The steer stopped and butted my truck tire with his head. I rolled my window down to swat him and he just about came thru the window into the truck before dodging around the truck to the rear. We were now only about mile from the highway and I had to stop this steer. So, I got him lined up and hit him in the butt with the truck. He turned and charged the truck and I just let him have it, head to head! If my pickup had an airbag, it would’ve deployed, no question! He went down and I stopped the truck with him trapped under the bumper. The brand inspector drove up just then and I grabbed a rope, jumped on the steer and hog-tied his legs together, and just left him flopping around in the ditch.

While all this was happening, the first truck was unloaded and the county brought over a bulldozer that was fortuitously parked nearby. They pulled the first truck, now unloaded and some 45,000 lbs lighter, backwards out of the ditch. I hooked up and moved the loading chute up to the second truck, again managing not to get stuck in the ditch, and we started unloading it. To hook up the loading chute, you have to lift the two side supports, pin them in place, attach a tongue with hitch, and pin it in place. Since the supports are now gone, someone either has to hold the tongue up while someone else backs the truck up, or you have to lay the tongue down and back up as close as you can, then lift the tongue up, and pull the trailer into place. It’s easy with two people, but alone, it’s not easy on dry, hard ground and downright tough in a muddy, sloppy, non-level ditch. It was still raining and I was getting kind of wet. We got the second truck unloaded w/out incident, and all the cattle turned and heading south along the alley. After some discussion, I learned that another neighbor was sending two of his "south of the border" hired hands over to help out. Whew! But they wouldn’t be here for awhile, so I decided to take the loading chute back to the house, grab my ATV and try to control the nearly 200 head of cattle running down the alley until help arrived. I got the chute hooked up again and head for home. I passed the lead cattle a few miles later and saw an ugly situation developing.

As I mentioned earlier, the road was fenced in on both sides, but only for 7 of the 10 miles. You then hit a cattleguard and enter another pasture that is only fenced on 1 side for a mile, and is open on both sides for another mile, before hitting another alley. This pasture happened to be stocked with cows and calves and 2 bulls. So, not only did I need to drive my own steers thru this pasture, w/out the aid of a fence, but also I had to keep them separate from the cows and calves and bulls. The ugly situation was that the lead steers were still running full-tilt down the road and I knew that when they hit that cattleguard, they’d just jump it and keep right on going. I had approximately 30 minutes to get to the house, unhook the chute, load up my ATV in the trailer, and get myself back to the cattleguard to block the oncoming beeves. Grabbing a bite of lunch was out of the question.

As I crested a small hill leading down to the last couple of miles, the loading chute came unhooked from the trailer hitch. The support arms dug into the road and  in my rear view mirror I saw the chute rise almost straight up before- fortunately!!!- plunging back down to earth! My first though was "just leave it there!", but then I realized that the hill was "blind" and someone driving south was not going to see the chute until they hit it. So, back I went. The impact had bent the support arms of the trailer and I couldn’t get it hooked up to the pickup. Nor could I push it up the hill. I got my pickup out of the way (it was still raining, of course), lifted the tongue of the trailer up, and ran it downhill into the ditch and managed to drop it without getting run over myself. Back in the truck, I headed home to get my ATV and trailer. I wondered how many more times I was going to have to lift that accursed loading chute….

At the house, the first ATV wouldn’t start. Dead battery. I got the second ATV started and rode over to the old horse trailer to carry ATV’s. Now, I’ve just ridden the ATV over from the garage, so that means that pickup is over at the garage. I was starting to get a little tired and figured I’d just ride the ATV into the horse trailer and then go get the pickup. None of our horse trailer jacks are long enough and you have to stick something under the jack to get the hitch high enough to hook up to a tall 4WD pickup. And I didn’t have a real ATV ramp but was using some long boards as a ramp. When I hit the back of the trailer with the ATV, it put weight on the back of the trailer which caused the jack to lift off the wood I had under the jack and that let the trailer roll forward just a little which let it "get away" from the ATV. With the ATV’s weight off the back, the trailer immediately dove back down, burying the jack about 6" deep in the mud. At this point, I almost (almost!!!) cried. Oh, and it was still raining and the wind was still blowing.

There was nothing to do but drive the pickup over, get the high-lift jack out, jack up the trailer, get something underneath the trailer jack and start all over. Of course, when you jack up a trailer with a high-lift jack, it wants to twist the high-lift out from under it because you have to jack it from the side. So, I had to keep that jack from twisting out, while bent over, and push something underneath the trailer jack. Somehow I managed to do this. I tell ya, about this time, a helper would’ve been GREAT!!!! This time, I hooked the trailer up first (and this means you have guess where the hitch is, back up a little, jump out of the tall 4WD, check the hitch alignment, back up a little more, check again, too far….drive up, drive over, back up, check, drive back…..anyway, it took me 6 jump in/jump outs to get hooked up). Then I loaded up my ATV and headed back for the cattle.

As I crossed the cattle guard I saw a very, very welcome sight- the two Mexican helpers had arrived, one on an ATV and another on a horse and had gotten the cattle turned back from the cattleguard and bunched up with the stragglers. And the rain had stopped and the wind was dying down. I began to think that I might survive this day. I got past the Mexicans, after talking to one (who spoke English!!! My Spanish is awful), parked the truck and trailer, unloaded the ATV and went after them. Getting out of the truck onto the ATV also meant that Chance, The Wonder Dog, would be able to help. Now "all" we had to do was drive the cattle thru the open pasture, and providentially, the cows and calves and bulls had been driven by the wind and rain (and distant ATV’s) to the far side of the pasture.

The cattle were bunched up against the cattleguard, but the horse was able to gently work thru them so that the rider could open the gate and let them thru. We got ‘em strung out along the single fence, with the horse up front to keep the lead steers back and the cattle bunched up. About this time, another welcome face showed up- my mailman, having run his route and seeing the situation, brought his pickup and a horse trailer. Any lagging steer was quickly roped into the trailer and taken to my house and dropped off in the pens. This allowed us to keep the herd bunched tighter in preparation for the dash across the open pasture. If you let a string of cattle get too strung out, the herd will invariably split into two herds as the lead cattle get too far ahead and the stragglers straggle. Then you’ve got two herds to deal with instead of one. So, having the horse keep the lead runners back was invaluable. And Jimmy- God bless him!- had even managed to load the renegade steer that I’d hog-tied earlier that morning.

We hit the open pasture in good shape. The wind had slowed, the rain was almost done, with just intermittent sprinkles, and the cattle were lined out nicely, and they were moving down the road. We crossed the open pasture and the lead steer was just 200 yards from the next "alley". I almost breathed a sigh of relief. Then, over the crest of the hill came….a vehicle. Of all the rotten timing!!! He was in the road, the steers were in the road. And, instead of putting the cattle between himself and the fence, thus forcing them tight against the fence, this driver chose to drive between the single fence and the cattle. The steers peeled off the fence like backing off of sticky paper and turned out into the open pasture. When cattle "peel" like this, they don’t follow the steer in front of them, but rather the whole line turns and suddenly, instead of having a "snake" of cattle with a single head, you have 192 heads all looking east. I didn’t wave when the driver finally made his way past me, having just sent our entire herd of cattle heading east, but neither did I run my ATV into his shiny new white pickup, so I thought I did okay there. Now, not only did we now have to circle them all back up, but we also had to get them lined up with the road-wide alley entrance.

An hour later, we had the cattle excited, hot, tired, panicky, but headed into the alley. About 6-8 had been roped and dragged off to home. Of course, while the horse was doing this, we only had the 2 ATV’s to control the whole herd of cattle. Having just been spooked from the entrance to the alley by the truck, they were not keen about going back there, but we persevered.

Another hour after this, we were thru the second cattle guard and heading toward my gate. We only had 400 yards to go, but the cattle were exhausted, having gotten cold and wet, sustained 30 mph winds while cold and wet, and having just run 10 miles after being on a truck for 14 hours. Some of them just refused to walk any further, and a few actually dropped dead on their feet. They’d be walking along and just keel over sideways, dead. We lost 6 head (that's $700 each) in the last mile, but finally got the majority turned, thru the gate, and into the pasture. The big ugly job was done.

However, I still had to retrieve my loading chute since I had more cattle trucks coming in 2 days. And my truck and trailer were still 5 miles down the road (into a head-wind, of course). We started riding back toward the truck and trailer. The other ATV was well in front of me and I saw it pull off the road. "Out of gas", I figured. Right then, the horse and trailer drove up and the Mexicans discussed the ATV. I told them "I’ll just get my trailer and load both ATV’s up". So, I went on to my truck and loaded up my ATV. Drove back to the other ATV and the Mexicans were gone! Hey! I kind of wanted help loading the thing! Remember, I didn’t have an ATV ramp but was using boards to load the ATV in the horse trailer. I tried pushing the dead ATV into the trailer but couldn’t do it. So, I lined it up and tried pushing it with my ATV, but the front wheels would turn on the boards and it would fall off. Plus, I just couldn’t get traction on the muddy road. I tried towing it into the trailer, but again, couldn’t get traction, plus I couldn’t get the tow rope short enough- I could only get the other ATV into the trailer and then it would roll back out, if the front wheels didn’t turn and knock the loading boards out of place. I was tired and getting frustrated.

I didn’t want to leave the ATV on the side of the road and only had about 30 minutes of daylight left, so I decided the easiest thing to do would be to tow the dead ATV back to the house with the live ATV. I hooked up the tow rope to the dead ATV and started off. Everything was looking fine for the first 3 miles. Then I hit a big downhill dip (just past where the loading chute had come off!) and the towed ATV gathered speed and started passing the towing ATV. At one point, the two ATV’s were head to head, and right then, then tow rope wrapped around the front axle of the towed ATV. It’s a wonder I wasn’t killed right there, as both ATV’s slid to a wet, muddy, stop a few inches from the edge of a 6’ drop over the creek. I wearily got down, unwrapped the tow rope from the axle and wheels (easier said than done), and managed to get the dead ATV back home w/out further incident. Ordinarily, I’d have just driven my spare pickup back to get the truck and trailer, and left it there until the next day, but remember, my spare truck was still buried in the fence from that morning. Plus, I had to get the loading chute out of the road because I just knew someone would plow into it in the dark. There was nothing to do but get on the ATV and ride back to the truck/trailer. Back into the wind. I was really getting cold and tired by now.

The sun was sinking when I finally got back to the house with the truck, trailer, and ATV. I got it unhooked and drove back for the loading chute. It was dark-thirty when I backed up to the loading chute. Remember, you have to get the truck close to the chute, then pick up the tongue and pull the chute up to the hitch. And the chute was in the muddy ditch, at an angle. I got backed up and with just about the last bit of energy I had left, lifted the chute tongue, and got it hooked up. I had to sit on the tailgate for a few seconds to recharge before I could get a sledgehammer and pound the chute’s supports up enough so that they wouldn’t drag and I could drive the chute home. I drove home pretty slow and just left the chute connected in the driveway.

I still had one more problem to deal with and that was the 500 head of cattle in the shipping trap. The trap can really only sustain 30-40 head for a summer, and the 500 head had been in there for 2 weeks already. I had more cattle coming in 2 days and I really needed to get those 500 head out. But I needed help, and my wife wouldn’t be able to help because she’d be caring for our infant son (who was returning from the hospital the next day, don’t forget). As I sat in the hallway pulling off my wet, muddy boots, the phone rang. It was a brother from church: "I was just sitting here and wondered if you needed any help tomorrow". Thank you, Lord!!!! It didn’t take me long to say "Yes. Yes I do". And with a promise of help in the form of a pickup driver, an ATV rider, and a horse, first thing in the morning, I was finally able to get a hot meal (nothing but a bagel since morning, don’t forget!), a hot bath, and bed.

The next morning, the sun was shining, the wind was calm, help arrived at 8 am, my wife and family arrived at 9 am, the cattle were moved by noon, and all was (relatively) under control again.

 For awhile, anyway.