Better to be Lucky than Smart
- April 20, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
We had taken on a cattle contract to care for about 4000 steers and 800 cow/calf pairs for the grazing season. It was my husband, three year old son and I who were going to be doing it. We had to get around the fences as soon as the snow and mud went off and be ready to receive cattle in May. Or so we thought.
The two places the cattle were going to run on were about 25,000 or more acres each and 20 miles apart. We started on the southernmost place, called the 22, first as it was closest to home and had dried up a little better so we could get around. We had the outside fences fixed and were working on the division fences when we got word that the steers were arriving on April 23. In western South Dakota, that’s a mighty poor time to put cattle of any sort out on summer pasture. Besides the grass barely being started, blizzards can sweep down and bury the country, so it’s always been thought that mid-May was early enough.
On top of the early arrival, just such a snow storm was predicted for the three days following the steers’ arrival. We begged the owners, who were in Nebraska where the sun was shining, to please hold off. Nope. The steers have got to get out of the feedlot. Then as the date loomed with the pending weather, we begged them to lay them over at an area feedlot until the storm passed. Also a no. I suppose they had the steers insured so didn’t care much whether they lived or died, but it was a terrible feeling for us to know what could happen with hot feedlot steers and a wet, deep snow, spring storm.
The day the steers came it was too muddy to unload in the pasture, so they had to be unloaded onto a county road a mile or so away and trailed across bottomless, gumbo CRP ground. It was hock deep to a horse and water was standing in the low spots. As the lineup of trucks arrived with the steers, we had to get a tally and sign off on it for our contract. Our boss and I were tallying each bunch through a gate into the 22.
The steers were literally steaming in the cool, drizzly air. They were shed off and slick from the feedlot and I was envisioning how many of them the pending storm would kill. Dan, the boss, Bill and I trailed the first load of steers across the CRP and then Dan and I counted them. It was distracting to try to count the steers as they trotted by, as so many of them were still bulls and their very developed bags were swinging up in their flanks. Oh boy. I mentioned that to Dan and he said we’d have to cut them out on the pasture. I returned that they’d had them in a feedlot all winter, why didn’t they do them there, but it was too late. They were on grass now.
The storm hit that night, as predicted, with plenty of wet snow and wind, and when it finally broke, we were dreading what we’d find when we rode to the steers. Unbelievably, there were only five or six dead ones that had drowned in a dam. But, those steers had been severely stressed, so it set them up for lots of doctoring for pneumonia.
Every day we rode on those steers, we castrated bulls. They would beller, of course, and the steers would gather up around us watching. One day we castrated bulls for over an hour with the ones arriving that were attracted by the activity. Our horses were getting tired of this deal, as were we, and it took up time that we should have been just checking steers and doctoring sicks and bad eyes. We finally had to just quit that day without getting them all.
In July I was fixing fence when the boss and the owner of the steers drove up. The owner was pretty upset that the bulls we’d cut in recent days were shrunk up, had swollen bags, and weren’t gaining. I leaned into his window and pointed out that they should have been cut in the feedlot the first time through the chute and, furthermore, I’d never seen a bovine gain weight while stretched out between two horses. I think he got a strong impression that my “give a dang” was busted. I was tired, my horses were tired, and summer was just half over. My boss tried to scold me later for not being more respectful to the owner and I told him just how much respect I had for an owner who would send cattle to grass in the teeth of a blizzard and how much I disliked cutting bulls out on pasture all summer. Dan never mentioned it again, as I’m sure he agreed.
Those steers were finally all steers by the middle of August, and the worst of the doctoring was over for that bunch. I was glad to see them go when we shipped them in September. I’d never received steers that had that high a percentage of bulls in them before or started on a “summer” grazing season in the face of an April blizzard. I’ve heard it said it’s better to be lucky than smart, so I guess I could say that owner was darned sure lucky.
About Jan Swan Wood
Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....