I know the sounds and the smells so well; without thinking I can instantly be there. All the feelings that come: anxiety- nerves, even-mixed with elation, excitement, and mystery. Since I can remember, that day begins hours before the sun takes the reins for the day. Friends and family gathered around, each one busy and all feeling the same things with me. We work all morning and find ourselves laughing with relief in the afternoon. We wait expectantly and prepare all year for this day and when it comes, we still aren’t ready for it. We are counting down the days, waking up with questions, anticipating that special morning when everything stands still for traditions to unfurl.
No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about shipping.
Maybe you’ve never heard the term. It’s no holiday, not by a long shot; it is a long-awaited harvest day. It’s the day we present our finest product and see the fruit of a year’s worth of hard work, worry, sleepless nights and weekends on the job. Ranching as I know it climaxes on shipping day, when the calves are gathered, weighed, and loaded on the truck to be sent to whatever feedlot they now belong to, and ultimately, to your plate. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The countdown begins in late winter or early spring when the first of the calves is born. The cows live out in a pasture bigger than some small cities. Every cow teaches her calf how to make a living out there; where to find water and the good grass; and where to hide from the wind. And most importantly, she shows him where to wait for the feed truck until the rains come and they don’t need it anymore.
The calves are branded and vaccinated a few months later, and this gives them the best possible start to the summer. Now all they have to do is grow. The cowboy is busy making sure there’s always enough water, no cockle burrs in the tanks, fences are standing up, and that there’s enough salt and mineral out to balance their nutritional needs. Of course if it all goes according to plan, it rains on time and the grass grows high and every calf gets big and soggy. Summer ends, and in the fall, the day arrives.
The last couple of years, I have brought the kids to the corrals to watch them ‘load out’. This year, I was on the crew. I got up at 4 a.m. with my husband. He left before I did and saddled the horses, I waited for the babysitter, who arrived at 5:45. (Not to brag, but this is one special babysitter. We all love her, probably more than she realizes. Who can expect your babysitter to show up at that hour?) Whispering “I love you,” to my babies in the dark, I walked off the porch with my coffee in my hand and my hat on my head. Not many folks are lucky enough to know that feeling.
We met at Trans-Western, it’s just a road off the highway that leads to nothing much. All of us enjoyed a breakfast burrito and coffee and waited in the early dawn cold. There were clouds in the east, so the sun seemed to take it’s time. You can’t gather anything in the dark, anyway.
When we headed for the corral, I watched the tail-lights ahead of me but I could still see the morning star. It was quite chilly. We wear plenty of layers in this country. Out of habit I glanced in the rear-view mirror, looking for little faces where there were now only empty car seats. I laugh to myself about just how much has changed since they came along.
With horses unloaded, cinches snug, the crew gets horseback to gather the trap (small pasture) of weanlings (calves weaned from their mothers) whose curiosity had already drawn them up close to the corral. I don’t take a second of it for granted. I’m happy just to be on a horse. I look across at my husband and feel a kinship many don’t understand. When you can work with your spouse, both doing what you love, you share a rare and priceless bond. Just one more blessing to count, I think.
Of course, my mind drifts back to the little ones, too. All morning I think of them waking up with crazy hair and eating scrambled eggs. One day, they’ll be with us, too. I can’t wait.
And the day goes pretty smooth. For once, the flighty calves don’t break loose. Everything is done quiet and slow, no rush. We pen them and watch them mill around, all guessing weights in our heads and proud of the work we have done. There’s a little joking around, and some dust in the air.
We are done weighing by the time the trucks arrive a little after 8 a.m. Cattle trucks- semis pulling double-decker aluminum trailers with compartments like a beehive. As we load the cattle on, we load them by the numbers the driver needs. The horseback crew brings calves up the alley by three, by thirteen, by seven…and they go up the ramp and into their compartment, gates shut behind them.
Five trucks are loaded and rattle off in a dust cloud. I watch them go and think of all that little scene means to us. It means relief, satisfaction of a year-long job well done, and a change of season on the range. It’s payday. Ranching is considered an industry, but for time out of mind, it’s been a way of life. Cowboys are hired on salary and they live where they work. The manager is the cowboy responsible for running the ranch and making most decisions, but the ranch owner only sees payday once a year. Alot can happen to affect the budget in a year’s time. Rainfall that grows the grass directly affects the weights of those calves, which are purchased by the pound. So no wonder ranch folks get so excited about thunderheads and so depressed by sunny summer days.
And me? I feel that relief, too. As I leave the corral for the house to relieve the babysitter, I can’t stop thinking about the great privilege it is to be a part of ranching in my generation. I thank God for it.
Tomorrow, the year starts over, and the countdown begins again. I’m just a cowboy’s wife, I’ve got no stake in this. But in a way, it’s everything to me. It’s another year passed in our happily ever after, and here we are handed a new beginning. We look forward again knowing there is no guarantee, no promise that the coming year will be the same. Fires in the Texas panhandle this spring, floods and hurricanes in the south, drought in the west, fires in the Northwest ranch country that took their winter grazing…all this affects a ranching year in major ways. Recovery will be a long, long process and they’ll hang by a thread for a while.
Payday is a good day, but not really because of the check. It’s a good day because we got to do this one more year, together. I hope next year is just as good, but for now, I’ll savor the feeling of gratitude.
I walk in to the living room still wearing my hat and the little ones come hug me. We all smile. Thanks, God…