Checking cattle

Feedlot stories: A pen checker’s reward

Riding feedyard pens isn’t an easy job. But the end result can be deeply satisfying.

By Bruce Derksen

Sometimes, as old Sonny and I are trudging through the muck and slush of the feedlot looking for snotty noses, labored breathing, foot rot, pinkeye or any of another dozen symptoms, I find myself wondering why I became a pen checker in the first place. Certainly it wasn’t for the money, as there would be a thousand other more lucrative career choices. 

It’s obviously not to stay warm, dry and clean, as that is very seldom the case riding through snow or rain storms, braving the aforementioned muck. It’s definitely not for the fame or notoriety, as it’s usually a thankless existence where no one pays much attention to you, unless of course you screw something up.

As I complete the check of a pen of finishing cattle, I see a shiny black baldy steer that will soon be going to market. The two of us have a bit of history together and my mind goes back to the day he came off the truck. 

He’d been kind of a dirty, wild, worked up calf in such a hurry to escape the truck that he had attempted to climb over top of his buddies that were too slow for his liking, and had taken a hard fall down part of the steep chute. He ended up on his side with his back legs through the planks, getting walked over by a few of his so-called buddies. 

I had been there to grab a fence post and help maneuver his flailing legs back under him without getting kicked, and soon he was marching along to his designated pen. He had kind of stuck in my mind. 

Along with his 200 newly weaned friends, he walked the perimeter of his pen contributing to the bawling orchestra. Then after processing, he eventually sported a somewhat defeated, “given up” look when he accepted the fact that his mama was gone for good. 

Soon after, he had come down with a mild case of pneumonia and I had to pull him for treatment. Again, nothing out of the ordinary, but I remembered that morning, as there had been a cold sleet of rain blowing in and the footing had been treacherous for old Sonny. 

Our black baldy friend eluded us a couple of times before we managed to get him pulled and the wet air had been filled with a few colorful phrases. Through the winter, he stayed quite healthy until the frozen pens started to melt in the spring, and a run of foot rot spread through parts of the feedlot. 

Of course, he came down with it and again old Sonny and I had our hands full slipping around the half frozen, half slush pen. In a few days, though, he was as good as new.  

Soon after, he ended up in a high grain ration group. After another round of processing for a final implant and shots, he disappeared off my radar. Sometimes I’d notice him playfully butting heads with a friend or romping around. 

If there was a hole developing in a fence or a loose plank somewhere, he would be in there like a dirty shirt trying to make the hole bigger. He was definitely a character. Lately he’d stayed healthy, and I remember thinking how good he looked and how much muscle and weight he was gaining.

Next morning, as I climbed aboard Sonny and began my pen checking routine, I rode past the pen of newly-sorted finished steers. I had a quick look over the group of shiny, muscled animals and there he was—the black baldy. 

As usual, he was being his ornery self, testing his strength and stirring up the dust. I stopped and tipped my hat to him.

Maybe this was why I became a pen checker. The process of bringing in a young calf, helping him through all the lows of sickness, foot rots and whatever else they face and being a part of getting him to this place on this morning. Fat and shiny and a representation of what the feedlot can offer to our way of life. Yeah, I think maybe I’m on to something here.

Derksen is a freelance writer and long-time feedyard pen rider from Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.

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