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kansasfarmer's blog

January 2010 - Posts

  • Droving, Part 2

     My last blog I got carried away, and drifted a little from what I intended to write about.  Remembering events from 26 years ago served as a catalyst to dredge up many other memories.

    My intention was to tell a little about cattle drives from my granddads day, and I will do it now, before drifting back forward in time.  As I have posted before, my ancestors came here mostly in the 1870s, and most by railroad.  The toughest of the pioneer days were over.  From the time they got here, up until the 1940s, the train was the most common method of getting livestock to market, and unbelievably the markets were a long way away, my great grandfather shipped cattle to Chicago, offhand I would guess that to be 500 miles from here, and then later to Kansas City(100 miles away), as did my grandfather.  I can just remember the Kansas City stockyards as a very young boy, being carried by my father.  The train stopped about 4 miles straight north of our farm at a place called Root station, where there was a stockyards.  Grandfather told me they use to drive the cattle on horseback to that station, and have my great grandmother follow in a car.  When the cattle were loaded, they tied the reins to the saddle horn and let the horses go, and they would come home on their own while the riders came home in the car.  He also told me of a time his father bought several head of cattle that had come from various farms, and all been driven on foot to the stockyards and then on foot down to our farm.  That night someone left the gate open, and the cattle all went back to their respective farms.  However the droving that has always impressed me as being the most out of touch with my life today was hog droving.

    In the days before the hammer mill, the corn(maize) was fed to the cattle on the cob.  A tremendous amount went through the cattle whole, and the custom was to buy feeder pigs and run with the cattle, to make use of the wasted corn.  Usually these pigs were also fed skim milk.  Granddad said his father usually had about 200 pigs with the cattle.  In the fall of the year, when the pigs were fat, they would drive them to the rail yard in town to load on the train.  This seems unbelievable to me, driving pigs along the river 2 and a half miles, as I have rarely been able to drive a pig over 50 feet with any success.  A rather successful local farmers wife tells how in the 1970s after hearing for years about the local pig drives of the 1920s, she and her husband decided they would drive their market hogs to town, and had a disaster on their hands.  Apparently, somewhere in the period between 1930 and 1970, pigs lost their "driveability".  

    Flashing back to where I left off in my last blog, the cold nasty winter of 1983.  I didn't fully comprehend at the time what was going on.  The 1970s had been fairly good to farming in the USA and in our area.  Fairly decent weather, good prices and good yields ended abruptly in 1980 with the worst drouth I have ever seen, and according to grandpa and the other old men the worst since 1936(one farmer said 1936 was so dry he was conceived in 1936, but wasn't born until 1939)..  Coupled with that was interest that eventually ended up at 20%, and diving commodity prices.  While the weather did recover in 1981, prices remained miserable, and by 1983 the stress was showing.  The reason my grandfather chose to send cattle to the commercial feedyard in 1983, and again in 1984, were predictions of higher prices for fed cattle 3 months in the future,and those better prices never did materialize.  One of our two local banks changed hands during that time, and the new owners had no agricultural background and began leaning hard on many of the farming customers.  Many of our neighbors were in much worse financial shape than we could have ever imagined, including our friends who helped us move the cattle on that cold December day.  In the spring of 1984, the son of the father/ son duo walked into my grandparents house and announced, "I have some news that is going to affect you, we are selling out".  I had never seen my grandfather so shaken by any news in his life.  This sale would be the first of many of our neighbors from 1984 to 1988, and our world was turned upside down more than once.  We saw land prices plummet, leading my father to comment that Butch had quit "in the nick of time".  

     Dad auctioned quite a few sales in those days, and along with an older auctioneer he cried the auction for our neighbors.  Grandpa bought the hay baler, and dad bought the horse named Gene, mentioned in the previous blog, although at the time Grandpa did not know that.  I was with grandpa as he was leaving, and the older auctioneer asked "what did you think of the sale Bill?".  Grandpa replied "the horse and the hay baler were the highest priced things here" bringing a big laugh from the auctioneer. 

    Gene's only real strength was he was fast.  He was dumb as a post, and prone to throwing fits, but he could run like nothing we had ever seen, prompting my brother and I to fight over who was going to ride him.  I started running cattle on my own in an 80 acre pasture my great great grandfather bought in 1895.  The fence had been built by him in the 1920s, and the wire was brittle, about once a summer I had a head or two escape.  Trying to retrieve one of these escapees one Sunday afternoon, a bee buzzed Gene just right, prompting him to go into a bucking fit, tossing me off.  My brother was riding Levi, as I was tired of trying to control Gene I agreed to trade horses.  My brother is 4 years younger, and had watched too many cowboy movies, he believed true cowboying was done at a dead run. My steer was in with a bunch of 130 steers, in a 520 acre pasture.  My brother took off full stroke after them, they scattered like dust in the wind, wrecking the entire operation, which meant one thing, we had to call Junior.

    "Junior" is the only first name I ever knew for the only true cowboy I have ever known.  He looked like a cowboy, tall, slender and weather worn, walked like a cowboy slightly bow legged from days on horseback, spurs jingling, he was a cowboy.  His name, "Junior" was spoken reverently far and wide in the cattle raising community, as in "we will have to get Junior" whenever there was a big cattle wreck that had to be sorted out.  This sure enough qualified as a wreck, so, I said, "I will have to get Junior".  

    I really can't remember how we communicated before cell phones, it certainly wasn't as instant as today, but arrangements were made, and later that same day Junior arrived on scene.  I have commented most people have horses half as good as they think they are, that did not apply in this case.  Junior's horses were the real deal, they were smart, fast, well trained, and worth a good pile of money, probably they were the most valuable things Junior owned.  I reckon Junior must have been about 60 when this happened, but his weather worn face and squinted eyes made him look ancient to me.  I told him how our earlier approach had worked.  He nodded, and said he would rope this steer.  We located the group of cattle, Junior rode toward them, they watched for a minute, and then took off, my brother immediately wanted to give chase, but I told him to wait for orders from Junior.  Junior simply turned his horse and walked slowly back to us.  He sat in his saddle and looked squarely at us, and said "the first thing you two need to learn is you can get alot more done at a walk than at a gallop.  There is a pretty good chance since I didn't chase those cattle, curiousity will get the better of them, and they will come back to see what we are doing".  I had my doubts, but sure enough, in about 5 minutes the entire group came at a dead run, then stopped suddenly, surrounding us.  

    Very quietly Junior asked if I saw my steer, I scanned the bunch for my brand.  It was hard to see as they were facing us, and Junior said simply to walk the horses slowly toward the cattle.  If the cattle started away, we turned away and stopped. It went on like this for about 10 minutes, until we spotted the steer.  Junior made a big loop, then started his horse at a slow walk toward the group the steer was in.  When the cattle realized what was happening they suddenly broke into a run, Junior spurred his horse and like an explosion the horse lunged for the steer as the loop shot from Juniors hand, and in a flash the steer was roped, the dally tied, and the horse was set.  Nothing like a rodeo or a movie, where the cowboy chases the steer for several hundred yards.   I think I was barely 18 at the time, but I realized I was in the presence of a master. 

    Junior is in his 80s now, I don't think he even owns a horse, and while still working on farms and ranches horses are giving way to portable corrals and 4 wheelers(quads in your language).  I suppose at some point the animal rights groups will get both roping cattle and using horses to rope them banned, along with spurs.  I will always be glad I at least caught a glimpse of the old ways, and I will always admire men like my grandfather and Junior, who made a living in a much simpler, yet much more demanding time.

  • Droving

    Owd Freds very excellent blog about droving(I always love his blogs, I can "see" the past in British farming) inspired me to write one of my own about what I know of droving.  Probably everyone knows about the old time cattle drives of the USA, many of the railheads were in Kansas, our state has quite a history of being a "happening place" from the pre-Civil war days of "bleeding Kansas" to the 1880s era of Dodge City and cattle drives.  You will have to read the history books for those accounts, what I know firsthand comes from the 1980s to present, and from stories of my grandfathers from the 1920s-1940s.

    A given on most cattle farms until recently was the cowhorse.  Usually quarter horses, these ranged from well-trained horses that were nearly as smart as a person and with a bond between horse and rider that was unbreakable, to what Granddad described as "convicts" horses that were barely worth owning.  Our family tradition from what I can gather tended much more toward the latter than the former, I cannot remember too many horses I could be proud of, and in the stories my dad tells about his dads and granddads various horses, the words "stupid", "slow", and "crazy" pop up with too much regularity for me to claim my family has a history of owning fine saddle horses. 

    But at least my family was honest in its assessment of our "horsepower".  It is much sadder to witness someone who believes their horse is top dollar, when in fact it is not.  As a young fellow of about 12 I was amazed when my father gave me a nice bay gelding I named "Thunder".  He was actually a pretty good horse, although he got fat as a toad in the summer, so fat I could barely ride him, and he had a terrible problem with gas.  Unless you galloped most of the time you would ride in a haze of foul smelling methane gas on windless days, luckily those are rare in Kansas.  Riding along on Thunder at the end of a string of about 150 of the neighbors cattle one day I was listening to someone who considered himself to be a true cowboy telling my grandfather how much his horse was worth, how he had been offered $4000 and turned it down(this in the days when $1000 would buy a heckuva horse).  Grandpa listened intently, looked at the dumpy little mare with the tall gangly elephant eared cowboy astride her and said rather bluntly "I believe that is where two fools met". Grandpa was a very hard man to impress.

    Thunder gave me my early personal exposure to "cowboying".  Being raised in the heart of cattle country in a family with a very long tradition of running a sizeable cattle herd(granddad, his father and two brothers ran between 1500 and 2000 head a year through the '30s and '40s before the brothers went their own way in life) one would believe we would be skilled cowboys, we were not.  First of all, none of us could rope, a prerequisite to being a cowboy.  Apparently my great grandfather could rope, and in a tradition our family has assumed since he was going to live forever nobody else needed to learn how.  Grandfather told of his father once roping a massive Holstein cow on the run, she was so big when she hit the end of the rope as the horse set its feet, the back saddle strap broke, launching my great grandfather skyward, landing 40 some feet ahead of the cow, knocking him unconscious.  This was in the 1940s, as far as I know, only twice since has any member of my family actually roped something from the back of a horse..once in the mid 1970s dad managed to rope a big heifer and she promptly broke the rope when the horse set, and I once roped a calf, but he was standing still.  

    For most of the time I can remember, granddad had a horse named "Levi".  I rode Levi only rarely, and always came away with the notion it would be easier to chase the cattle on foot. Generally, you had to spur Levi constantly to get him to move, but after about an hour or two of working cattle, Levi would get tired, bored or both and toss Grandpa off and go home.  Many a day you could see my grandpa hoofing it on foot down the road, with spurs on, and come to the gate of the horse pasture and find Levi saddled, waiting patiently at the gate to get in.  Most farmers would have sent Levi to the glue factory, but he actually stayed on the farm until he died at 33.  Dad preferred horses with a little more fire.  I can honestly say dad never owned a slow horse, it was a real thrill to take a gallop on the two I remember, Pepper and Gene, but it was a little hard to get them stopped.  Pepper was the smartest horse we ever had, Gene the most expensive with the most volatile temper.  Any little thing would set Gene off, he threw me twice, once I landed on one knee, spent over a year hobbling around after that, and the other time landed head first, it is a miracle I wasn't paralyzed. 

    Before dad bought Gene, he belonged to some neighbors who eventually sold out.  These neighbors were great friends of ours and our two families hayed, silaged, and moved cattle together.  Exactly 26 years ago in December of 1983 during a brutal cold snap, Grandpa decided to take about 200 head of steers to a feedlot, of course it couldn't wait until warmer weather.  We set out one morning in temperatures of about 4F to gather these cattle from 4 different pastures and drive them about 3 miles to a set of pens, where the trucks would pick them up.  Grandpa operated on the theory if you could get almost all the cattle, that was good enough but our neighbor "Butch" was a little harder to please, he felt a successful gathering ended up clearing all the cattle out of a pasture.  In the farthest west pasture 2 out of 70 were determined to give us the slip.  My uncle and Butch set off after one, Butch's hired man(on Gene) and I (on Thunder) took after the other.  The snow had blown all the gullies and draws level, you could barely tell where they were.  Gene, hard headed as ever, raced across the snowy landscape.  Raymond saw a dip ahead and pulled back hard on the reins bellowing "whoa" as loud as he could, Gene charged forward, in typical Gene fashion, hitting the draw and going into the deep snow head first, Raymond was launched as if from a catapult and tumbled 30 or 40 feet ahead of Gene.  As Gene clammered to get out of the deep drift an enraged Raymond got back on his feet, charged into the drift, rared back and punched Gene in the nose, exclaiming as he did "Dammit when I say whoa, I mean whoa".  He remounted and screamed to me not to just sit there watching, to get after the steer, as if I could ever catch it now.  The two of us tore down through some trees, where we found Butch and my uncle had roped the steer they were after, and thrown it and tied it down  (Butch and Raymond actually could rope),  Butch remounted and the three of us galloped up out of the draw after the remaining steer, to find grandpa standing on the hood of his pickup waving his arms back and forth and yelling "we've got enough, let those two go to hell".....

    to be continued.

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