by Julie Carter
In ranch country where the cow-calf operations are winding up this year’s branding of the new calf crop, there is an age-old skill that goes totally unheralded in the world except the cowboy crowd.
“Mammying up” baby calves is the necessary chore of helping them find their mother, or vice-versa, after being separated for any given reason such as branding. The job takes time and patience on the cowboy’s part, as well as a sharp sense of reading a cow and calf’s actions, intentions and natural communication.
While this event takes place, the entire herd is held in place by the crew assembled for the day’s work. This can involve men, women and children of various sizes, ages and ability and usually some combination of all those.
Holding herd for a cattle-sort of any kind is often considered menial labor. I suppose if you take into account you sit for hours using not much brain power, enduring the dust, wind, heat, and laborious long hours, it can be classified as such.
What the untrained eye misses is the keen sense of “cow sense” that is exhibited by the cowman that quietly rides through the herd looking for each pair, mom and baby, as they acknowledge each other in a secret, natural language.
I happened to be a kid lucky enough to watch and learn from some of the best at that particular job. Quiet men who taught by doing, not by saying. I never really knew I was learning anything until the time came that I needed to be in the right place at the right time. Instinct kicked in and it happened just like I knew what I was doing.
Not every momma cow cares about searching for her young and not every calf is in the mood to find his momma, especially when it has just been branded, vaccinated and maybe even castrated. It would really rather just lay in the shade and rest up. So the “mammying” takes time that means nothing to the cattle.
The hours tend to drag when you are holding herd. You’ll see the pocket knives come out as herd holders begin to carve on the calluses on their hands or clean their finger nails like there will be a hygiene inspection later.
The tobacco can lids flash in the sun as chews are freshened and spitting tobacco in every direction including between your horse’s ears becomes an Olympic event.
Every now and then a cowboy, not one to remain anti-social for long, will ease over to another puncher and strike up a conversation. All the while, he’ll be keeping one eyeball on the herd so as not to be slack in his duty.
As a kid, holding herd was a job expected of me, not verbalized. I just knew. Endless hours of sitting, twisting around in my saddle, braiding my horse’s mane, looking around, daydreaming and just generally being a kid.
Today, I know the experience to be fertile ground for learning so many things. Quiet patience came a little slower, but the ability to read what a cow is thinking before she does it soaked in like the summer sun.
Lessons learned that come into play throughout life in general.