Working Cows in a Hurricane

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

It was October and fall day work was going steady. We’d shipped all of the steers we’d ridden on all summer by September, but there hadn’t been a letup in the riding. We’d been called to gather the D cows out of the oak thickets and gumbo breaks and knew it would be a tough gather, as those cows were brushy old rips. It would take one hard, long day to get them into the trap by the empty feedlot where we’d preg check and mouth the cows the following day.

So, rather than have my just turned four years old son dragged off of his horse in the thickets, I had arranged for a babysitter, much to his utter disgust, and left him behind. He was not happy about it, as he never wanted to miss a single day riding, even though he’d gone with me nearly every day, sometimes seven days a week, for 16-18 hours a day, all summer.

The cows had gathered pretty well, for them, and we had them in the trap by late afternoon. It had been a cool, perfect, sunny fall day. We were told what time to be there the next  morning, and we headed for home. On the way home, the radio weather man was warning of a cold front that was moving in that night, predicting heavy rain, plus high wind. Well, it was fall on the northern plains, so we weren’t surprised in the least.

Sure enough, the front hit in the night and it was raining steady with a keen wind by the time we pulled out with our horses in the trailer. I’d called around to find a babysitter for Colin, but to no avail. So, his old horse was on the trailer too. We loaded the pickup with coats, slickers, and everything we might need to change into dry outerwear, plus a lunch, and were on our way.

When we got to the feedlot, it didn’t take long to gather the cows as they were out in a flat trap with no wind protection, so they thought getting in behind some windbreak fences was a swell idea and gathered themselves. I was sure glad as I hadn’t even had to unload Colin and I’s horses and my little boy was still dry for the moment. The pickup and trailer was snugged up against the building to break the wind, so the horses inside had it pretty good.

Bill and his big mare Holly were bringing the cows up the long alley and into the processing barn where we were mouthing, pregging, vaccinating and whatnot with the D cows. Mouthing those elephants was quite a challenge, but the owner wanted any broken mouths marked so they could be sorted off and sold with the opens.

The D cows were as tall as horses, weighed about 1700 lbs and their heads would not stay in the head catch as their necks were wider than their heads. They didn’t have abnormally large necks either, but were the narrowest headed cows I’ve ever seen. If narrow heads equals less capacity for brains, it made sense, because these cows weren’t the brightest. They had plenty of attitude though, so would throw their heads and sling whoever was mouthing them around like a ragdoll, before peeling his arm off with the headcatch. Thankfully I was vaccinating and giving the injectible wormer, so didn’t have the fun of mouthing. Dan and the other guy had that fun. The poor vet just had to stand on his tiptoes to preg them.

By the time we’d worked the first dozen or so cows, the northwest wind had attained hurricane force. It was shaking the processing barn and I kept wondering if it was going to fly away. Whoever had decided to face it into the north with the “in” door to the tub on the northwest corner, and the “out” door from the chute on the north wall, was clearly an idiot who had never lived on the northern plains. It was also set up so that all of the acres of cement alleys and holding pens were uphill from it, therefore the inches of rain that was sluicing down all ran right through the processing barn, around the chute, under the alley and out the south door. So, we were soaked to the hide like we’d been dunked in the dipping vat. The water ran through ankle deep and our feet were ice cold, though if your overshoes didn’t leak, fairly dry.


Bill and Holly would face into that hurricane and go for more cows, then get back inside and against the north wall to get out of some of the wind and rain between tub loads. Holly was shaking like a leaf from the cold and Bill’s slicker was not adequate for the challenge at hand, and he was wet too. I didn’t envy him his horseback job.

I had given all of my extra clothes and slicker to Colin, and had him bundled up and he was watching from the catwalk along the alley to the dipping vat and was the most out of the wind of any of us. He looked like a pile of coats with a pair of bright eyes peering out. He had a front row seat to watch and undoubtedly learned a few new words courtesy of those fighting cows.

The day that seemed to last a year kept right on with the wind increasing all day. The rain never let up and the temperature was just above freezing as we could see our breath. The cows got more miserable the colder they were too, so we were all worn to a frazzle by the time the last old rip went through the chute. Bill and Holly were absolutely hypothermic, so the boss, Dan, told him to go load his horse up and get in the pickup and warm up. He was glad to. Colin went with him, knowing that there were probably cookies and hot cocoa in the pickup.

Dan and I moved the cows to the loadout area where they could stand below the windbreak. The loadout pens were like stairsteps down from the top, with four chutes.The trucks were coming and fighting that wind and the muddy road. Honestly, I don’t know how they stayed upright.

Dan and I stood in the pen next to the lowest pen of cows, using them for a windbreak. The heat radiating off of those cows felt like a furnace compared to the wind. As we were standing there, peering through the rain hoping to see the first truck, I mentioned that I sure needed to drain off some coffee, but didn’t want to have to bare anything to do it. Grinning, Dan said “Just let ‘er rip. Everyone is so wet no one will ever know the difference.” He wasn’t wrong, but I opted to wait until I got back to the trailer.

The cows heard the trucks before we did and started bawling. They were darned sure ready to get hauled home for the winter after the day they’d been through. They were so ready, in fact, that the drivers had a terrible time trying to shut them off for their cuts. We fought them back at the gates but it was a battle royal against those big old cows. They didn’t get loaded exactly like they wanted, but only had about 20 miles to go, so being bottom heavy wasn’t a big problem. I can only imagine how good it felt to those cows to get in the truck where the wind was less and their body heat could warm them.

Finally, they were on the road and we all headed home. On the way home, the radio guy said that there had been wind gusts clocked at over 80 mph and sustained wind of 62 mph through the day, and the temperature had dropped to 33 by afternoon. We didn’t doubt him a bit.

The horses were sure glad to get in the barn that night and they got fed heavy and put on water. Holly was rubbed dry and finally quit shaking after a while. We didn’t have a blanket for her or would have used it. Bill and I were just whipped from the wind and the cold. Colin had put in the best day of all of us, had even had a nap, but was still worn out from the cold and wind.

When we got inside, we stripped down and were wet clear to the hide, which, incidentally, were wrinkled like raisins. Dry clothes sure felt good. Bill was still so cold that he got in the shower to warm up while I got supper on.

It had been a terrible, wicked, mean, awful, dreadful, nasty day. I’ve never worked cattle in worse conditions. The kicker of the whole thing though came later. The owner of the D cows decided to not sell any, so the whole pregging and mouthing thing was for nothing. Oh well. His check was good, so I guess we got paid for our time, but surely not enough for the misery.

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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