Bullracks and Memories
- September 23, 2017
- Jan Swan Wood
There are things that can take one back in time in an instant. Whether it’s a sight, smell, or sound, our memories take us right back to those moments in time that are deeply ingrained in our very being.
One of those things for me is bull racks. Not just the random one going down the highway, but those long convoys of trucks traveling together to the same destination. Whether it’s spring or fall, it gets me where I breath. I started riding on summer herd cattle when I was 12 years old. I was already “working” for my folks on the ranch every day and doing the riding along with my siblings, but that summer was my first time drawing wages for the care of a bunch of cattle. It was the start of many years of that job.
In the spring, when the trucks are hauling cattle to summer grass, it takes me back to frenzied spring days spent fixing fence damaged by winter snow drifts and deer. Getting those pastures ready for inquisitive yearlings was a much bigger task than if those cattle were to be mama cows and their calves. Yearlings were the majority of the cattle I rode on, but some years I’d have some cows, which when compared to yearlings, were a vacation.
Saddling in the dark, either hauling or long trotting to where I was to receive the cattle, I couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of what the season would bring. My horses were fresh, some a little snorty, and all sporting a new set of shoes. The early May mornings were crisp and the birds would start singing as soon as the sun kissed the eastern horizon.
The sound of the trucks would come first. Gears shifting and jake breaks slowing them down would come from the distance. When they came into sight it made a tingle go down my spine. The anticipation of what those cattle would be like had me eagerly watching as the first one would back up to the chute and set the air breaks.
I remember one year when it had rained for a week before the cattle were to arrive on a big piece of gumbo pasture. There was no way to get in to the corrals to unload, even though it was just off the highway, as those trucks would have been buried to the bellies in the bottomless mud. The only things we could do was to set up a portable chute on the shoulder of the highway with a couple of panels to wing them off into the road ditch and hopefully the gate. Even the shoulder of the road was soft and those heavy trailers made ruts backing in. As the first truck was pulling his gate up, I counted the trucks waiting to unload. There were 23 total. They had to all unload at once as those steers had to be trailed quite a few miles back in to the pasture they belonged in. We didn’t want to do that more than once in that horse killing gumbo, so we told them to all be there at the same time. Bless them, they were. I’m sure people driving down the highway had never seen anything quite like that, especially due to the fact that the truck unloading was on the shoulder of the oncoming lane of the road. I wish I could have had a picture of those trucks lined up that morning. I’ve never seen the likes again.
Receiving the cattle, signing off on the number unloaded and getting those cattle to where they belonged and taken to water would usually be an all day deal. It would usually be dark as I rode home on a horse that was tired from the first day of the season.
As late spring turned to summer, the problems in each bunch became evident. Some would have footrot go through them, some pinkeye. If it was a hot, dry summer, I might doctor some pneumonia cattle too. The occasional diphtheria added to the mix. With yearlings, there was also their penchant for exploration, especially if the neighboring pasture had cow/calf pairs. That made for lots of fence fixing. The disposition or personaly of the bunches also came through clearly, whether they were gentle and curious or high headed and wild.
As summer drew on, my horses became jaded, as did I. I could rotate them and give them several days off between circles or when they got hurt, but I didn’t have that luxury. I’d often feed my horses at 2:30 a.m., eat breakfast while they ate, gather up my medicine for the day, and be miles from home by the time it was getting light in the east. As the summer wore on, my body became tired, hands sore from rope burns and wire cuts, and it seemed like fall would never come.
The rotation of horses as one got hurt or just needed turned out was an ongoing thing. I couldn’t ride outside colts for people as the miles were too long, so I took older horses that were spoiled or just needed lots of wet saddle blankets. I could sure offer them that. Some of them straightened out and became good citizens but some never did. If a summer spent riding on 2500-4000 cattle didn’t make a saddle horse out of one, nothing ever would. I was never paid enough for riding some of those jugheads, but they at least gave my good horses a break.
By the time shipping time finally started in late August, the steers were big and heavy, my horses and I were tired, and I was darned sure ready to say good-bye to some of my wards. Once again, the excitement at the sound of those bullracks coming to get the cattle would make my spine tingle. As fall proceeded and the last bunches went out, sometimes with snow on the ground in late October, my horses were ready for some turnout time.
I would pull the shoes off of them and put them out on pasture. Hair was short on their loins from the miles, sweat had faded their hair to a dull, dead flat color. They were ready for a long vacation.
It’s fall on the northern plains. Now as I watch the strings of bullracks go by as I wait to pull onto the highway, I wonder what the summer’s story is on the cattle within. It takes me back to the long days when I was young enough to put in the hours and take the abuse. It makes a long string of good and bad horses trot through my memory. I also wonder if anyone even rode on those cattle or if they were just insured against losses. Is someone going to be pulling worn shoes off of sweat bleached horses as I did?
Yes. Memories. The sound of those big engines, the clatter of hooves inside aluminum pots, the sound of air brakes being set or let off. It brings it all back to when I was cowboying for a living. Young, strong, able bodied and after a few days to rest up, anticipating the arrival of the new cattle in the spring.
About Jan Swan Wood
Born and raised on a ranch near Newell, South Dakota, I have spent my lifetime in the cattle and horse business. I've cowboyed in Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota before settling down in my home country, where my husband and I bought a...