Little Miracle in Big Sky Country

One willful cow, and the whole herd's off in the wrong direction.

by
- Posted on Oct 19, 2010

An artist's rendering of a snow angel saving some cows

Ever since I'd first worked cows on my grandfather's ranch astride Patches, my little pinto, I loved bringing the cattle home in the fall from summer pasture, trotting alongside as they wove between the cactus and sagebrush, their heads bobbing in rhythm to the clickety-clack of their hooves.

Hard work, sure, but satisfying.

This year would be different. An early storm had dropped a foot of snow, and ranchers across eastern Montana were caught with cows still up in the hills.

My husband, Milton, and I waited two weeks, hoping the temperature would rise, while our cows lost weight looking for grass. Now, we had to get them home.

"We'll take the tractor and plow," Milton said. "I'll coax 'em with barley, you follow in the pickup."

Things had changed since the old days of trailing cows on horseback. Still, it's a challenge getting a herd of cattle–60 head, in our case–to go where you want them to go. One willful cow, and the whole herd's headed in the wrong direction.

To make matters worse, the snow was too deep to take the cows through the pastures. Instead of our usual route, we'd have to lead them due south down the county road.

That spelled trouble. Taking the road would add three miles to an already long eight, and, worst of all, it meant passing several gates.

When homesteaders first settled this prairie in the early 1900s, cattle freely roamed the open range. But when farmers began to plant crops, they built fences to keep the cows out. Some of the gates along the road were old and busted, with gaps the cows could slip through. All chances for mayhem.

Milton climbed into the tractor as I settled into the pickup's chilly cab, with Bud, our border collie, in the passenger seat beside me. The engine wheezed in the frigid air as I started her up. I looked up into the big sky above us. "You stay alert now, Bud, but we're gonna need God's help, too."

We headed for the hills, me following the path Milton plowed in the snow. I eyed the gates along the way, dreading coming back past every one.

There they were, our cows, huddled in groups in the hills. Milton stuck his arm out the tractor far as he could and shook the barley bucket.

"Come b-o-o-s-s-s," he cried. The cows turned their heads and slowly picked their way across the narrow strip of cleared ground behind the plow. "Look at that, Bud." Maybe this would work.

It did for a half mile, until the first coulee, where two hills sloped into a broad ditch. The cows stalled, as though an electric fence had been thrown up before them. Dear God, we haven't even made it to the road. "Get 'em, Bud!" I yelled, letting him out of the cab.

He took after their heels, but the snow dragged him down. The cows charged him. I jumped out and grabbed my stick to chase them off, and they retreated.

We needed a leader to get them moving again. Buffy! Our milk cow's calf, she'd been raised in the barn and loved barley more than anything. I trudged to the tractor, grabbed the bucket and told Milton to switch places. "Buffy!" I called, sifting the kernels through my hand. "C'mon. Let's go."

She took a careful step down the slope, then another, and led the others right to me. I gave her a handful of barley, then took the tractor and headed toward the road and our neighbor's place. We were on our way.

Or so it seemed. Soon, the cows scattered every which way. I gave Milton back the tractor and rammed the pickup through the snow, blaring the horn. The cows ignored me. I jumped out and brandished my stick, they ran the other way.

I chased back and forth, startling a calf, spooking a cow, before they finally lined out again, walking purposefully behind the tractor as if they did this every day, while I fell panting against the pickup.

No time to rest. I climbed back into the pickup. We were nearing the first gate. Popping over the hill to catch up, I spotted our old bull stomping back north. "Fergie!" I cried, hitting the brake. He swung his head and kept coming, 2,000 pounds of pure determination.

I watched in horror as he hit the front of the pickup and fell. A little bump wasn't going to keep him down! He rose ponderously to his feet, turned, and headed in the right direction.

Following him 'round the bend, I spied a string of cows breaking down the ditch that ran alongside the road. They knew the shortest way home, and this wasn't it.

I turned them just in time to spot another bunch breaking away. Milton stopped the tractor up ahead. These cows were gonna try to crash the gate. I could feel it.

Just then, I heard the toot-toot of a horn. "Wa-a-n-da! How're you doing?" It was Corky, our mail carrier.

"Oh, Corky, what timing! Could you stay behind until we get these cows back in line?"

Corky was raised on a ranch. She knew what was going on. "Sure," she said. "I'll keep them coming." She idled along in her brown Chevy while I zig-zagged back and forth in the pickup, chasing the bunch quitters back onto the road and away from the first gate. I waved Corky off when we were past trouble, though we'd probably see more up ahead.

We sputtered along for another mile or so until Milton switched and let me take the lead. As we came up on the next gate, a neighbor drove up behind him. I could tell the man was offering his help.

He stood by, but we were in pretty good shape at this juncture. Just meeting another helpful friend along the way boosted morale, and gave us strength to continue.

We'd need all the strength we could muster: The cows sensed where they were, and strode through the snow due east, along the trail we normally used. We'd have to coax them back on the road–and past two open gates right before the cattle guard.

Banging on the side of the pickup, I spooked them across the ditch. They poured up on the road behind Milton. "Bud and I'll take the first gate," I yelled, racing to get to it. Leaping out of the pickup, I thumped with my stick to stop the cows from going through, waving my arms back and forth.

I watched until the last calves streamed by, Bud at their heels. Then I saw a disaster: Some of the herd had pushed past the tractor and through the second gate. Milton chased them frantically. I hopped back into the pickup, roared down the road, leaped out again and took after the ones farthest away.

"Hyah! Hyah!" I snapped my scarf in front of them. "Get along!" They bucked and kicked in the snow, splitting to run around me. I saw a figure in the distance: Another neighbor, Mike, running them back through the gate.

Mike and his wife, Noreen, held the cows at their pickup parked in the middle of the road. Working together, we got them around the corner and past the cattle guard.

"We sure were glad to see you two!" I said, and thanked them.

Tired, footsore, forced to go where they didn't want to, the cows balked the next mile home. Every few yards I had to lumber out to get one going. Over and over I climbed in and out of the pickup. My feet were a little sore, too.

At last we turned the corner and came to our closest neighbor's place. Duane's.

The gate to his hay corral was securely closed. Duane's dog Molly came out to the gate to his house and watched for us to go safely by. Two pickups were coming up the road. They pulled off the side of the road. I glanced behind and saw three more pickups, all stopped, waiting for us to get the cows past.

I shut off the pickup and jumped out, waving at a calf stuck in the ditch. Duane's ever-dutiful Molly steadily trotted with Bud toward the cows. That dog was another good neighbor.

She went up behind them, snapped once as if to say, "Get along there!" and dropped back three feet. Molly kept guard until all the cows had cleared her yard, even the wayward calf.

Finally, every last cow was safely home. Milton and I went inside to warm up and have a bite to eat.

Our day was far from over, and sometimes I wondered just how we did it. Hard work, good neighbors and little miracles, I supposed. After all, God had put an angel at every gate.

 

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