“One of the steers jumped the hay,” my sister said as she climbed into the passenger’s seat of her black Duramax littered with toddler snacks, diapers, and old gas station pizza boxes. JB was in his car seat in the back throwing one of his many Toy Story Woody dolls. (I guess they’re called dolls. He doesn’t leave the house without Woody and “Tata Head.”)
Rachel’s clothes were drenched in manure, and her boots were soaked in a thick cocktail of algae, mud, and other fluids that had been accumulating in the working pens all summer. It was a muggy, cloudy Labor Day—and consequently shipping day for us this year. She’d just loaded the last of the calves –the steers—onto one of two big cattle trucks.
“Are you relieved?” I asked.
“I’m tired,” she muttered.
As soon as the first calf hits the ground, you worry about shipping day. When an entire year of work and your bank loan relies on a single morning to go well, you lose sleep. You can’t avoid it. Traditionally, we left the calves on their mamas until the morning of shipping and then split them off, loaded them up, and sent them on their way. This year, Rachel tried something different—weaning.
After a security breach or three that included beefing up the pens with large amounts of lumber and round hay bales jammed up against the trap fence, she finally managed to get them to stop pacing and start eating the large volume of soy hull pellets and corn gluten she was loading into the feeders almost daily. Until this year, our biggest shipping day prayer request was asking for the pairs not to break and run during the daybreak roundup. Steers and heifers were then loaded together and headed to Montgomery (most years) to the order buyer. This year, the buyer required steers and heifers to be loaded separately, so the primary request was for the Lord to allow the sorting and splitting to take place without insult or injury. Which He granted.
My shipping day assignment was to keep watch over JB and meet and lead the trucks to the local logging scales for the initial weigh-in. I was pulling up with the trucks and a sleeping toddler (he had not moved except to swat flies from his face most of the morning) just as Rachel and the crew had finished sorting everyone. The drivers first determined that the turn from the front yard cattle guard to the barn was too ambitious for their rigs, so my brother-in-law, Brant, immediately began disassembling the barbed fence bordering the yard to create an entryway from the pasture.
The second revelation of the morning came when the trucks backed up to the barn. This was the first year we had planned to load calves using these trucks at this barn (stock trailers were used previously), and wouldn’t you know, the rigs were too tall. Using his skid steer, Brant shaved a solid six inches of earth from the barn alley to accommodate the height difference. By this time, JB was awaking from his slumber and demanding to see the action. We walked over to watch the first truck pull out with the heifers, which seemed to load in no time.
The steers, though, were less agreeable. I’m not sure which bull to blame but I have no doubt Rachel can tell you the sire of the aforementioned individual that jumped clear over the hay lining the pen causing general delay of game for everyone and probably convinced his cousins to cause additional mayhem. Still, by the grace of God, they eventually loaded.
“Well I guess that’s good there was only one,” I said quietly as we led the trucks back to the logging scales for the moment of truth.
I watched as Rachel nervously read the final weigh tickets and thanked the lady from the logging outfit for volunteering her time on a holiday.
“How’d they do?” I asked once we were back in the truck.
“The same as last year when we just pulled them off their mamas and I didn’t run up a huge feed bill,” she said exasperated.
“Hey, you tried,” I said, marveling at my manure-covered little sister who managed to raise another incredible calf crop, along with a three-year-old and one-year-old.
“I might borrow some of your boots to head into town” she laughed. “Then again, I’ll probably just keep these nasty ones on. Fits the mood.”
Bearden is a biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. She writes for Farm Press about the exploits on her family's ranch in Alabama.