She knows the feeling of being taken for granted. Her entire life is spent doing all the work for zero appreciation, and then, another year begins and she starts over. She’s raising her babies while battling all the forces stacked against her with pretty much no help…unless the ranch she lives on comes with good weather and a good cowboy.
If you have mingled at all in the ranch crowd, you know that they work hard. You’ve heard them talk about being up all night watching heifers, or feeding hay in the snow and busting ice, or getting up in the dark to spend all day sweating in the branding pen. But it’s interesting to ponder why they do this. Why they drag their kids along in a feed pickup and why they learned to rope, still ride a horse to work, hunt coyotes, watch the markets, or can use whatever is laying around on the ground to fix a water pipe or leaky trough. Ever thought about it? It’s all because of her.
Yes, her. The mama cow. She’s the reason for all this. Some may argue and try to convince you that ranchers do what they do for money. That green is the bottom line. Well, they’re right…green grass, that is. If I may be bold, I think I can say in general that ranching as a business is successful if that particular ranch is able to continue operating the following year. Nobody gets filthy rich doing it. (They might get filthy working, or rich selling the place, but that’s beside the point.) So why keep it up? Well, somebody has to help that ol’ mama cow.
Each spring, when the calves are vaccinated and branded, the mama’s usually receive some sort of topical treatment for parasites like ticks and flies, which can really affect her body condition if not held at bay somehow. And every fall, when her calf is weaned and shipped off, she is run through the squeeze chute and given an exam. There’s an unwritten checklist that gets ticked off for each cow. First, is she pregnant? Then, her age and body condition and any abscess or skin condition is looked after, sometimes in sandy country her feet get trimmed, and of course, she gets a round of shots as well. She may not enjoy this. (Ever met a mom who looked forward to her yearly doctor visit? Me neither.)
All the time in between, the cattle are out to pasture. They are always provided with abundant water, a salt block to lick, and a mineral supplement in some form. Seasons that the country is lacking in protein and forage don’t usually mean famine for her because of that feed pickup I mentioned earlier. The feed is made of grains and things like cottonseed hulls, but it’s the protein percentage that really matters. We call these processed cubes ‘cake’. Think Marie Antoinette. Yes, when the range is looking poorly, we simply “Let them eat cake!” If there is snow on the ground, and they can’t get to the dry grass that keeps them full, then in addition to the protein supplement, they get hay as well.
Put simply, the mama cow is the success or failure of the ranch. If she isn’t in good condition during breeding season, she won’t produce a calf. If she isn’t in good shape during calving, she will lose her baby or raise a scrawny one. If she gets to looking poor at any time during her pregnancy, it spells trouble. So taking good care of her year round is priority number one. Good cowboys and conscientious ranchers do their nutrition homework. They’ll go to the trouble of having their grass and soil lab tested to know how best to compensate for what it lacks, just for her.
But contrary to what most folks think, a cow isn’t just a cow. Her pedigree is important in a couple of ways to ensure that she bears a healthy calf and raises him good and big by shipping time. Ranchers select a beef breed that is best for their type of terrain and climate. A rancher has to weigh out all the different factors that effect the bottom line if he wants to raise cattle that are both marketable and suited to the climate they’ll have to live in. Everybody loves Angus beef, but is an Angus cow going to raise a good, heavy calf in the desert…or up at the timberline…or in the swamp? There are so many breeds of beef cattle, each one with a slight advantage over another in different conditions. But that’s only one way pedigree matters.
The really important thing about a mama cow is her wisdom. Consider what it is that she has to contend with on a given day: she has to find her own nourishment each day while also eating enough to produce milk and grow the calf she’s carrying; go to water once, perhaps twice a day; weather any and all storms; and avoid predators and pests. All this takes what we humans would call ‘survival skills’, an iron will to thrive despite difficulty, and a heap of good ol’ common sense.
Take the average range cow on the New Mexico high plains. This is pretty good grass country, if it rains. But the wind! More constant than the unblinking sun. She lives in an 8 section pasture, let’s say. It’s boundaries are defined by a fence, but it’s the lay of the land that she has memorized. Every day, sometimes twice, she makes a pilgrimage from grazing to water and back. In the windy spring, when her calf is small, she can’t take him all that way. So the herd elects a babysitter who skips getting water. This cow stays with all the babies while the others go to water. Later, once the calves are bigger, everybody can go.
That cow knows a hollow spot where she can lay down to shelter her baby from the West wind, but she’d need to take him plumb to the other side for a similar spot if the wind changed. She keeps a running tally on what’s green and growing in each region of her home pasture, and she teaches her calf, too. There are certain grasses that are especially nutritious that she chases all over, growing up tender in the wash-outs and gullies where the rain puddles sit a little longer, or on the slope of a particular hill where the sun doesn’t burn it to a crisp right away. Predators are really only a serious danger in bad weather or when her baby is small, and that’s where a good cowboy and his rifle come in mighty handy. She’s clever though. She won’t let any ol’ predator get a bite if she can help it.
She knows the wind. She can tell what’s coming before it gets close, whether it is a coyote or a summer thunderstorm. A mama cow finds water with her elephant-like memory and her hound-like nose, but she endures the elements like a saint. She’s tender with her newborn calf but mean as a snake to anything that gets close to it. I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone describe her as fierce, cunning, resourceful or courageous, but she really is. All of these qualities are essential to the success of a ranching operation, because they ensure that her calf thrives through the seasons. Banking on her wisdom, a ranch owner can throw the dice to start another year.
The role of the mama cow is to raise the next generation well and to just be herself. City folks snicker and think cows are ‘cute’ or funny, but her nature is somewhat unpredictable. Along with her qualities and her wisdom, she possesses certain other traits that aren’t so admirable. These traits are what earn her names like ‘Old Bat’, ‘Hussy’, ‘Wench’, and other unmentionables. You don’t defy the elements and successfully raise a calf every year by being sweet all the time.
Silly urban myths such as milking range cows (as if beef breeds and dairy breeds weren’t at opposite ends of the bovine spectrum), or believing that cows are being exploited as if they wouldn’t be living out on the range having calves anyway, are an insult to this creature. She’s no domestic at heart, so to speak. (History backs this up. The cattle left behind by Spanish explorers became just as wild as the horses that became the Mustang. But no one petitions the government to let them run wild on the range!) If left to herself that ol’ mama cow will inevitably turn wild. In such cases, a cowboy needs more than a feed truck to keep track of her. He needs a horse and a rope, and maybe a cow dog or two. Whether he calls himself a Cracker, a Puncher, a Cow Hunter, a Paniolo, a Gaucho, a Charro, or a Buckaroo, his job is to take care of her. The good ol’ mama cow. Without her, he is as relevant as a medieval knight and his skills merely a circus sideshow. Thank goodness for the humble range cow.
And lest we forget this lesson about taking her for granted, we can behold it all in black and white, because after all, the cowboy, cowhorse, and cowdog all need a reason.