High Speed Steer Gather

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

The 1982 summer herd season had been a little different as to the cattle I rode on. I had the usual yearlings, both steers and heifers, some mother cows, a big bunch of butcher cows out on grass to fatten, and the last big steers I ever rode on. The steers were three years old and all frame when they came. They were straight Hereford, and wild as antelope. They’d come out of Montana, apparently a long way from human interaction.

The pasture where the Hereford steers were was big and rough with deep draws where the clover was thick.The grass was tall and lush and had a lot of seed heads. Checking for bad eyes on the cattle, which were the usual malady with all the scratchy vegetation, was tricky with these steers, as I had to catch up to them first. Fortunately, as three year olds, they’d already been through most of the yearling problems, so didn’t I have to doctor much.

The steers had gained a phenomenal amount of weight on that rich western wheatgrass. I can’t remember their average daily gain, but at shipping time it was remarked that they wouldn’t have done any better in a feedlot. The owner was well pleased with them and was going to retain ownership through finishing in a feedlot.

When I’d tallied the steers out at shipping, I’d been one short. I’d ridden through all of the cattle in pastures adjacent to the steers, then the next pastures out, and so on. No steer to be found. As cattle were shipped off, I’d hoped he’d show up with someone else’s bunch, but though I’d contacted everyone I could think of, no one had seen the big Hereford steer.

I’d repeatedly ridden the pasture they’d been in, thinking maybe he’d died and I’d missed him in the big clover, but with hot days and all, the aroma would have been pretty pungent, and again, no steer was found. The owner had even flown the pasture, rightly thinking that a carcass would be more visible from the air. Nothing. The owner wasn’t upset thankfully, but I sure was. I made it my policy to be able to account for every head I took care of.

Weeks had passed, and I was shipping cattle out steady. I still had the feeder cows to ship out, and had moved them to a fresher pasture. I rode through them once a week, as they were older cows and just never had any problems.

A rarely traveled county road ran through the pasture where the cows were and someone who knew I was looking for one big Hereford steer had been on that road and seen the steer in the pasture with the cows. I’d just ridden through there a few days before and there hadn’t been a steer, so apparently he’d wandered back from wherever he’d been, or had been brought back by whoever had found him. I never did know. But, I was sure glad to have him back where I could get him gathered and he could join his mates in the feedlot.

I had a nifty set of portable corrals set up by a master cattle handler, who owned the feeder cows and also a big bunch of the yearlings I’d ridden on. It was an unusual design, but to say it was slick for handling and loading out cattle would be an understatement. This was in the pasture right next to where the feeder cows were residing. I had it made! A wild steer and a set of good pens right next to each other.

The horse I chose for the steer gather was my top horse Kelly. He was fit and grain fed, and there wasn’t anything I could do horseback that I couldn’t do on him. When I unloaded at the pens, I backed my 16 foot open top trailer up to the load out alley, lowered the chute deck a foot or so to ease the steer’s loading, and set my gates so that he could go right in once I had him in the pens.

Kelly and I trotted out from the pens and went wide around the cows until we spotted the steer. He was with a little package of cows, maybe a dozen head, kind of off on their own, so I just brought the whole bunch along quietly. He was sure watching me, but he was pretty mothered up to those cows, so by going slow and staying back as far as I could, I eased them into the portable pens and shut the panels. I stepped back on Kelly and the steer was on full alert, realizing he was trapped in the pens. He left the quiet cows and made a beeline back toward the panels I’d just closed, but finding them shut, he turned left and loped down the alley that led around a curve to the chute. I shut the gate behind us and followed him quickly so that I could shut the end gate on him when he loaded into the trailer. This plan was working so slick, I just couldn’t believe it. He slowed to a trot as he got to the chute, but clattered up it and into the trailer as I slid to a stop and swung off to grab the drop in trailer gate. He trotted the length of the trailer, and like a trained stadium jumper, raised up, cleared the front of the trailer, landed lightly and headed west at a high lope. Kelly and I just watched in disbelief before the trance was broken.

I stepped on Kelly, turned the cows out on the way by and went in pursuit of the steer. I knew that there was no point in returning him to the pens, as his jumping prowess was incredible enough that they’d never hold him again. It was about seven miles as the crow flies to the headquarters of the owner, so I decided that the AAA steer could just go to headquarters since he liked to travel so well.

The many fence lines that crossed the miles were no problem for the steer as he could jump the fences without ever wiggling a wire. Kelly and I, of course, had to find a gate or let the wire down and put it back up again to keep him in sight. The steer maintained a lope most of the time, so Kelly and I did too. Pretty soon, the slobbers were running from the steer’s mouth and Kelly was sweated all over, but we were still headed in the right direction. I had been able to keep him headed right and away from the dams, which I was afraid he’d go into and sull up, thus thwarting his capture.

Having gathered cattle into the headquarters corrals at the owner’s I knew there was a little pond just southeast of the network of pens and alleys that I could let him go into so I could go set gates for his capture. My plan was to have it opened up so that the last pen he went into in the high fenced alley was a shed with high, inaccessible windows next to the scale house.


As we crossed that last stretch before the pond, Kelly and I were sure feeling the effects of the cross country race with the steer. I think the steer was losing his steam too, as he was actually trotting part of the time unless I got too close. At last, the little pond came into sight and the steer made a beeline for it. He waded out into the middle, which was only up to his sides, and stare balefully at me while I rode wide around and headed to get the gates set.

The owner of the steer had seen me coming and met me near the pens. He said he’d go set the gates the way I wanted them and then would help where he could. He was afoot, and I told him that the steer was pretty well on the fight, so for him to stay out of sight if he could. He promised he would.

I rode back around to the far side of the steer and let Kelly blow for a bit. He was glad for the break, as was I. I knew that this last phase might entail roping the steer so I needed Kelly to catch his breath as much as he could. I’d stepped off on the far side of him so the steer couldn’t see me well, and loosened the cinch and lifted the saddle up to cool his back a bit. I kept the steer in my sight, but was also watching for the owner, Don, to signal that he was ready on his end. I saw him wave that he was ready.

When Kelly had caught his breath, I cinched up tight, stepped on, got my rope down and built a loop, ready for whatever would happen next. As I rode to the edge of the pond, the steer made a false charge at me, then left the pond going away from me when I hollered at him. Away we went, the steer at a high lope. He acted like he was going to go straight north, which was not what I wanted, so I rode hard to turn him west as was needed. Just then, Don stepped out of the machine shed and the steer spotted him and turned west. He built to Don, intending to take his ire out on him apparently.

Don ducked back into the shed and shut the door and the steer shot past and onto the road by the pens, exactly where I wanted him to go. He ducked down a main alley and then apparently smelled some other cattle that were on the far end of the lots, as he loped right down the alley toward them. I’d slammed the first gate into the pens and was following the steer through the alleys as we approached the shed which was my goal. Until I had him in that shed with the doors latched, I wasn’t being too optimistic about keeping him in the pens.

The cattle in the pen next to that shed were excited by the activity and were bawling, bucking and playing around the pen as the steer got next to them. Bless them, they ran across the pen toward that shed, which was on the end of the alley the steer was in. He ran alongside and right into that shed! Before he could turn around, Kelly and I had the sliding door slammed shut and latched, top and bottom.

Stepping off, I had loosened my cinches and Kelly and I were catching our breath and, personally, I was counting my blessings, as the steer was captured at last.

Don walked up just then, grinning from ear to ear and very happy to have the steer not only found but captured. I led Kelly around until he’d cooled off and was breathing normally, then offered him a little water. I’d unsaddled him in a pen, and Don had put some hay in for him.

Feeling that Kelly would be fine after his big run, I headed in with Don for some lunch. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when I walked into their kitchen. I’d been at this steer gather since  about 7 a.m. I figure that Kelly had covered at least 16 miles, what with dodging to find gates and directing the steer’s direction, mostly at a lope that day. Maybe it was more, but it sure wasn’t less.

After some lunch, I saddled Kelly up while Don hitched up the trailer. He gave us a ride back to my trailer, and Kelly and I headed for home. It had been a long day, but it was sure satisfying having my tally right and that big steer on his way to join his brethren in a feedlot a couple hundred miles away. If he jumped out of there, he was no longer my problem!

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

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....

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