The Day a Cattle Farmer Asked Me to Do the Unthinkable
I was sitting in church minding my own business when my friend Dave leaned over and asked me the oddest question:
“We’re going to castrate a few bulls today. Wanna help?”
How could I say no? I mean, if you have even a smidgeon of curiosity or sense of adventure you just can’t pass up an opportunity like that.
Our good friends Dave and Deb Matthews are farmers. Mostly crops but some cattle too.
They have six sons: Josh, Jake, Jordan, Jonah, Jeremiah, and Jesse. Josh, the oldest, is 30 and Jesse is 14. Farming is hard work. But having six built-in farm hands makes things a lot easier.I showed up at the farm that afternoon in clean jeans and new boots. My first mistake. By the end of the day, clumps of cow dung clung to my clothes and my new Red Wings.
“Here comes the slicker,” Josh yelled as I walked up. “Just when we’re about to finish.”
“Well, I wanted to give you guys time to practice before the master arrived.”
The Matthews boys like to call me “city-slicker.” I’ve spent decades hunting and fishing and I live on 3 acres outside of town. But those acres are in a subdivision. So, the label fits, I suppose.
“I’ve got a job for you,” David said. He handed me a rod with a sponge on the end. “When we lock the bull down in the squeeze chute, dip the sponge into that bucket there and swab the back of it’s neck.”
“What’s in the bucket?”
I’m not sure exactly what the medicine was for, but I was glad my job was working on the top side of the bull.
“Just curious…why do you castrate steers in the first place?” I asked.
“They’re bulls now. They’re not steers until we snip ’em.”
Josh laughed. My slip was showing.
“So, why do you snip the bulls?” I asked.
“Lot’s of reasons,” Dave said. “But the main reason is that we’re raising them for meat. And if a steer can’t have sex then he spends all of his time eating instead. Fattens ’em up.”
“Ahh. Sounds a lot like humans,” I said.
A couple of the younger Matthews’ boys were out in the pasture driving the bulls toward a cattle sweep. A sweep is a large, circular carousel that operates like a revolving door. The cattle enter the sweep and then one of the guys pushes the revolving gate which moves the bull around the circle until it empties into an alleyway. The bulls move down the alleyway to the squeeze chute. It is a fascinating and sophisticated system of gates and doors and alleys. (If you’re interested, this video will give you a good idea of how a cattle sweep works.).
The purpose of the squeeze chute is to hold the bull securely so that it doesn’t hurt itself during the procedure. What looks like a steel pipe fence on either side squeezes the bull in place.
Once the bull was secure, I swabbed the back of its neck with the medicine. My part was done.
And that’s when things got interesting. (Note: If you are at all squeamish, you may want to skim right on down to the next section).
This is what the guy did who was working on the business end of the bull.
First, he took some calipers that had blades on either side and sliced open the bull’s scrotum. Then he reached inside the scrotum above the testicles and wrapped his fingers around the cord (vas deferens) that attaches the testicles to whatever else is up there (I did not squat down to look).
Then he just pulled the testicles off.
At this point, the newly minted steer started to dance.
The guy tossed the bull’s testicles into a bucket (remind me not to eat any mysterious fried foods at the Matthews house) while another guy released the squeeze chute and opened the gate.
The steer’s erratic cha-cha lasted just a minute or two. Seriously, just a couple of minutes. Then the bull started grazing, because, you know, you might as well eat, right?
I gotta say, this city-slicker was amazed by the whole process.
New Life on the Farm
Earlier this week, Deb announced on Facebook that one of their cows was about to calf. She invited all who were interested to come view the event.
Man, I wish I could’ve made it out to the farm.
Thankfully, Deb is an outstanding photographer who runs a business called Studio 156. She shoots family portraits, senior pictures, baby bump photos, and the like.
So, she chronicled the entire event in pictures. With her permission, I’ve created a gallery of the birth.
These photos are of a live birth, which means things get a little messy. So, like before, if you are squeamish just keep scrolling.
A Final Thought about Farmers
It occurs to me that the Matthews — and other farmers — see more of the arc of life than the rest of us. Or at least they see it more often.
The events of our lives are marked in decades. Childhood, adolescence, marriage, kids, career, retirement, death.
But the work life of a farmer is measured in months. Cultivate, fertilize, plant, harvest. Birth a calf, nurture it, help it grow, sell it as food.
They see the whole span of life in the space of one year. Every year.
The American farmer experiences joy and triumph, to be sure, but sometimes loss is his steady companion.
Needed rain doesn’t fall and crops wither. A herd is devastated by an infectious respiratory disorder. Calves die unexpectedly. And even when they reap a bumper crop, profits are sometimes gutted when commodity prices move against them.
At times it must feel like a lottery.
So, why do they do it? Why do they spend small fortunes on equipment and seed and medicine and feed when the end result is speculative?
They do it for the pure love of the work.
Dave will tell you that farming is in his blood, his DNA. The joy that comes with the harvest and the cattle auction is somehow worth the long hours and backaches, the callouses and the weathered skin.
He works 18 hour days during the harvest so that you and I have steak and sweet corn for our summer cookouts.
How can we repay the small farmer for his sacrifice? Here are a few ideas:
- Seek out a local farmer and reward him with your business.
- Go in with a friend and buy a side of beef from the local cattle rancher. Dedee and I have done it many times.
- Drive past the grocery store and buy your green beans and sweet corn at that roadside stand next to the farm.
- Head to the farmer’s market or join a local food co-op.
I can tell you from personal experience, the people who grow our food are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth folks. They’re worthy of our respect.
And our business.
Questions: How do you support local farmers? Do you use a food co-op? Shop locally? Leave a comment below.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Why I Respect the Guy Who Smells of Rotten Produce.