Cattle Drive – A Greenhorn Earns His Spurs

Mike – the quintessential ranch hand – showed me the controls for the Rhino, an all-terrain farm vehicle that is ALL “all-terrain”. I climbed in and shifted in reverse, tapped down on the gas peddle and jerked my way out of the parking area. It was the day I – the quintessential greenhorn – would help drive the cattle from the low pasture on the west side of the ranch, over a ridge, and down to fresh pasture on the other side.

Generally, my job at the Ranch – in support of the Leftcoast Grassfed product – is divided between sitting comfortably in front of a computer, and meeting/greeting customers at the various farmers’ markets. But on this day, thanks to the temporary absence of Jeremiah, the other essential and experienced ranch hand, I was given the chance to earn my metaphorical spurs. I shifted the Rhino into drive and, Yeehaw!, I was off.

The day was cool, gray, blustery and included the occasional squall blowing in off of the ocean. We headed up to a hay barn on the north end of the ranch and loaded a bail of hay into the back of the Rhino. From there we took off down to the west and skirted around various gullies and wooded areas in search of the 97 head we were set to drive.

Being the greenhorn I am, I expected to simply drive over the hill and see them all waiting patiently like a group of tourists mulling about the lobby of a casino eager for the buffet to open. What I learned was that 97 cows can do an amazing job of dispersing and ‘hiding’ in every little nook and cranny on the rugged terrain of a ranch, even if fences had been installed to limit their movement.

Within minutes though, we spotted about ten head, Mike pulled up on his ATV, stopped and started shouting between cupped hands “Hey Cows!” in a deep, guttural fashion. I had my doubt cows would respond like trained pets, but sure enough, already alert to our presence, they started to walk towards us. A few at first, then others started appearing from places unseen. Before long there was a full-on herd walking hurriedly, even trotting at times, in our direction (For a second I thought, “Stampede!” But no, “Calm down”, I assured myself, and eased back into the seat of the Rhino).

As I steadied my nerves, Mike explained to me that I was to wait until they got to within twenty feet or so then start driving forwards, slowly, up the hill. My responsibility from that point on would be to shout “Hey cows!” in that same deep, guttural voice (mimicking a cow’s moo I supposed) to keep their attention and keep them moving. “Watch for the gullies” he added, “They’ll swallow you up if you’re not careful.” And thus I began my career as an ATV cowboy.

Part of me was still lacking cowboy confidence though. These very large animals seemed docile enough from a distance, but when they’re huffing their way towards you like bovine versions of Black Friday shoppers determined to get the latest holiday toy gimmick before anyone else, it’s a bit, shall I say, intimidating. None the less, I steeled myself and was determined to “man-up” to the task. Waiting till they were just about upon me, I bellowed my first “Hey cows!” and off we went.

After about thirty ‘hard-ridin’ minutes, my neck was beginning to ache from twisting my head from front to back to front again (weary of the gullies), my throat was getting sore from shouting “Hey cows”, and the cattle, distracted by any little patch of grass they found, were losing interest. Fortunately, Mike (who was trailing the herd rounding up any stragglers) had tipped me off about the herd mentality of cows. Like any herd, there are usually leaders that the others follow. Figure out which ones are the leaders, get them moving and the others will follow. And sure enough, as I watched their migration, I noticed at least one big cow consistently leading the way.

The challenge then became a matter of holding her attention and encouraging her away from the occasional patch of grass she would stop and nibble on thus halting the herd’s progress. This required me turning around every so often and driving by and taunting her with the sweet smelling bail of hay and shouting “Hey cow!” to get her attention once again. After a couple of passes and adjustment to the tone of my “Hey cow” (seriously, think of a cow going mooooo and you’ll get the idea) she would indeed come trotting towards me and the whole herd would be on the move again.

Earlier, along the way up the hill, Mike pointed out a pasture that had been rehabilitated during last year’s grazing. Clover and rich perennial grasses were knee deep in places and we
were driving the cattle there now in an effort to take advantage of this new forage. This was the payoff from the rotational grazing practices Mike and Jeremiah had been implementing through the year.

Standing out from this dense carpet of green were taller clumps of grass. Mike said that’s where cow pies had lain – their rich nutrients and microbes having about doubled the growth rate of the grass. The manure had been broken down by birds, dung beetles and worms over weeks and months to form mini mounds of nutrient rich compost that then selectively augmented the grass under it. Eventually, with years of rotational grazing patterns being adhered to, the TomKat Ranch hopes to see entire pastures restored to vibrant, lush, manure-enriched (carbon sequestering? Some say the jury’s still out) grasslands once again.

Now, after climbing uphill for about a mile and a half, around ravines and through fence gates, we were entering the first greener pastures of that intensive cattle management effort. As I rode down into this sea of green, it dawned on me that the age-old idiom,  “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, in this case, aptly described the circumstance.

Once there it didn’t take long for the cattle to scatter and start to graze. They seemed to know instinctively – and had been conditioned to know – they were where we wanted them to be. Cattle having settled in, I now sat in the quiet ATV and I relished the serenity of the scene. A minute later Mike pulled up along side me and shut off his engine. “You hear that”, he asked. I turned my attention to the hillside and heard a faint yip, yip, yip. But before I could ask what it was, Mike was on up the hill trudging through a patch of poison oak and bramble. It wasn’t long before he called me on the radio and said he found them. Them I thought? “Two coyote pups hiding in the brush” he said matter-of-factly. “Mom must be off hunting”, he added.

A few minutes later he was back down showing me the pictures he took with his cell phone. Ah, I thought, life on a ranch. From soil to plant, prey to predator, if managed correctly, range land is a collection of interrelated mini-environments, enjoined in never-ending cycles of life. Modern humans are the interlopers. Yet, here we are. That’s why on the TomKat Ranch, the idea that nature if nurtured, and not abused, can benefit human and environment alike. At least, as I’m learning, that’s the plan.

Bill Milliot is the Leftcoast Grassfed website administrator and farmers’ market sales representative – and accidental ATV cowpoke.

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