Halter Breaking season….

Be calm. Be quick. Be conniving. Be quiet. Push. Pull. Go close so when you get kicked it won’t hurt as badly. Watch out for “leaping lizards”. Be ready for rope-burn blisters and possibly an aching back or worse, from pulling. Be ready to get your toes stepped on; or pounced on. And be ready to get shit-covered. All in a day’s work!

Across Canada, a lot of purebred breeders, like us, are halter-breaking calves for the show ring and the sale ring.  We separate them from their mothers for a couple hours, then for half a day and then for most of the day, as they get older and as the summer moves along.

We bring them in out of the heat of mid-day and turn them out again mid-afternoon to join their mothers and “frolic” on pastures in the cool of the evening and night in British Columbia’s southern interior. Inside the barn, during the day, they are under fans to keep them cool and are in spaceous pens with clean wood mulch under foot.  We start washing them and drying them and clipping them and teaching them etiquette on the other side of the rope – how to be kind and responsive to their handlers – ideally – and how to not embarrass us in public! While in the barn, they get a bit of grain ration at chore time….. once they’re broke……

The practice of halter breaking is an exercise of instinct and patience.  Every cattle person has their own way of handling the situation. But it’s about showing calves (read “prey animal”) that you really aren’t there to kill them.  The exercise is one of earning trust and depending on any given calf’s temperament, it can get really interesting. Temper tantrums aren’t advised (from handlers), unless you want to fail in the trust earning exercise. But tantrums are expected from the calves, as we launch into this clashing of worlds (human & animal). We always wonder why we didn’t start sooner – when the calves were smaller. But there was the calving season to wrap up, followed by breeding season, vaccinations, branding, castrating, barn clean-out and getting cows out to grass. And then all the embryo transplant work and cattle moves on grass. And the water legislation and the breed association business, and the farm safety program administration and  the every day ranch administration and the event planning that we’ve gotten ourselves into. And my writing gigs……

There are no two calves alike, in body conformation or in attitude. There are the sulkers, the learning-impaired ones, the mean ones, the kickers, the very resourceful ones (i.e. too smart for their own good!), the bellowers, the brave ones and the scared-to-death ones. After day three, the lot of them begin to settle into routines and be slightly more cooperative. They stop pulling as they stand, tied up. Some eventually lie down (relaxed) and some chew their cuds (relaxed). And we start to scratch them and groom them with combs and brushes, to further gain their trust. If we’re lucky, and most of the time we are, they actually enjoy the routine.  And then they are taught to follow our lead. It’s that time of year again.  The deadline for entries for our first show is this week and show season will be soon upon us. It’s one of our many seasons on the ranch. (…as our main guys are stressing over hay season which is also upon us.)

After our third day of exercises of tying calves up, we lie in bed talking to one another with our aching 50ish-year-old bodies saying we really should get more help for this exercise. (Our daughter was already helping us in a big way!) But then, who would we trust to do it “right”???  The next question is “how long will be able to do this?”  There is no answer.

No question as to which creature is the most stubborn.



My world of cows….

This blog is dedicated to all the cattle beasts I have known and the thousands more that I’ll meet in my lifetime.
I was raised in their beastly shadows and am privileged to have been their observer; their admirer; their follower; their caretaker.
Like people, some of them let me into their lives willingly with trust. This is a trust that must be earned. That’s how it works in the animal world. It ‘s purely an instinct thing.
Like people, most cattle have been good-natured, curious and obliging. A rare one turned on me, distrusted me or just never warmed up to me. Some were unstable from the get-go and some were just plain nervous. Some are what I’d call “smart” while others just never seemed to learn. Some are quite the characters. Some just want to be left alone. Others can never seem to get enough attention.
Being allowed into their space and working side by side with these remarkable beasts has been a privilege.

Cows have taught me most of my life lessons………
Life is beautiful.
Life is tough.
When life gets complicated, it’s usually because we made it so. (We run from potential disaster, though it’s never usually as bad as we think it will be.)
Change is scary.
Life isn’t always fair.
Life is competitive.
Life is awe-inspiring.
Life starts with a painful birth that is sometimes seamless and sometimes a fight for survival.
Life is full of sacrifice.
Life is abundant.
What you resist persists.
Simple jobs can turn into very complicated ones.
We are all part of a food chain. (Responsibility and an attitude of gratitude is what’s required when you’re at the top of that chain.)
Life is habitual. It is largely comprised of routines.
Allegiances are sometimes important.
There is strength in numbers.
It is important to breathe; to live in the now; to just be; …….to ruminate. We need down time. (About one third of a cow’s life is spent sleeping. Another is spent ruminating.)
Life is looking after our “family” and loved ones – our “herd”.
Life is an endless series of surprises. No two days are ever the same.
Life is an endless search for sustenance.
We are all food-motivated, to some degree or another.
Exercise is essential.
So is fresh air.
Don’t mess with a mother cow. She is a fierce defender of her offspring.
In the animal world, it really IS survival of the physically fittest!
Herd mentality can be non-productive…..dangerous. But sometimes is isn’t.
Mother Nature is without sentimentality. It can be ruthless.
Some beasts are not cut out to be parents. But most step up to the job and take responsibility once they ARE parents.
Victimhood is a human condition.
Sometimes we just need to dance (or kick up our heels, so-to-speak).
Some lead; some follow. Some respect fences while some push beyond them.
Our actions (and energy) speak louder than words.
We think too much………

Life with my husband started as a friendship centred on our love for cattle, as it remains today and is now shared with our beautiful daughter. When I first met my husband, I told him that even if it meant I had to live in a shack, I visualized my future life with cows in it. that is when we knew we shared a common bond.
Since then, it has been a life commitment to breeding, raising and managing cows together. For better or worse, this commitment has involved peace, joy and fulfillment paired with financial stress, physical exhaustion, very long days and many wakeful nights; not to mention a virtually non-existent social life outside of cattle circles. It has been a commitment that few family and friends could be expected to understand. No doubt, it seems illogical. But animals don’t take holidays and since we care for them, rarely, if ever, do we.
I also write for a living, as a hobby and for cathartic reasons. And since I’ve felt a great disconnect from the ones I love and from city folks who are further and further removed from their natural existence, I will write, in this medium, in the hopes of making much needed connections.
Ranching and livestock agriculture will be central to my discourses. So will sharing my beautiful life with cows in it.