Cowboy Heroes

“Cuttin’ Bulls.” 

“YOWWEE! Holy cow, I think I just cut my finger off!” Said I, looking at the end of it, hanging by a partial fingernail…

Autumn, 1988: I was a young cowboy, hungry and looking for work. The opportunity presented itself when an opening came about at a feed yard owned by Oppliger Land and Cattle Co. This was a large operation along the Texas/New Mexico border, with holdings in Nebraska as well. As a matter of fact, it was once credited with being the largest privately owned farm/ranch/feedlot combo in the states of Nebraska and New Mexico. He owned a bunch of land in Texas also, but ask any Texan who is biggest there and they will all tell you they are the biggest operator in Texas. Anyway, it was my first experience with large-scale agriculture, and the first time I heard words like “economies of scale.”

Being the new guy, only eighteen, I had to prove myself. The cow boss and the rest of the crew didn’t want too cover for some “kid.” I figured I was up for the challenge

. . . it wasn’t my first go-round.

When you initially hire out with a large outfit like that, you are generally given jobs, which no one else wants. Once they found out I could cut bulls, I was nominated for the project.

Now at first glance, this sounds like a good job. I was pretty excited. I’d spent a lot of time branding cattle before and cutting bulls was one of the better jobs. Boy did I have a lot to learn.

First off, like I mentioned, efficiency was the motto here. Bulls were not cut during branding and the initial processing of cattle as they arrived at the feedlot. That would slow down the crew too much. If you are not cutting bulls, a good crew can run cattle through the hydraulic squeeze chute at the rate of several head per minute. Generally, there were five men processing the newbies arriving from the country.

Now cutting bulls on the other hand only took a two-man crew and the process was much slower; maybe a couple head per minute or so. When you pencil it out, if there are a lot of bulls to cut, you are better off to re-run the cattle through at a different time using only two men rather than slow down five. Using this model, three men could be doing something else for that extra couple of hours.

Being the fall of the year, my employer was buying cattle to turn out on wheat pastures for the winter month’s . . . lots of cattle. He must have found a good deal on bulls that year, because the feedlot seemed like it was full of them. Ears and tails stuck out of all fences it seemed.

The bulls I was to cut ranged from 250 to 500 pounds, but mostly in the 400-pound range.

Like I said, I thought I’d hit the jackpot when they told me I would be cutting bulls for the next 30 days or so. I soon found out why others thought this a less than desirable job.

A typical day went like this: Arrive for work about 5:30 a.m. so you could feed, saddle your horse and be ready for work, which started at 6:00 a.m. sharp. Usually, the guys would sit around drinking coffee in the cowboy shack for 10 or 15 minutes, after saddling, while their horses finished breakfast. This was a good time to go over the day’s plans. Even though it was fall, it still got a little warm in the afternoon; so all bull cutting needed doing during morning hours. At 6:00 a.m., you had better be in the saddle, or you were considered tardy, and given a rash of hooraying by your fellow cowboys.

For me, the day began by heading down to whatever pen of bulls was designated for cutting that day, along with my new partner, Pancho.

Pancho was from Chihuahua, Mexico, as I recall and he helped me tremendously with my Border Spanish, but that’s another story. He was assigned to the castrating crew with me because he was considered low on the totem pole, also.

Pancho and I would bring up the cattle, usually about 225 head in a pen, to the processing barn. Once penned in the crowding alley, Pancho kept the lead-up full of cattle while I ran the chute and changed the bull’s way of thinking, “from fighting, to feeding.”

After about an hour, I figured out why nobody else wanted this job. As a bull came into the chute, you were standing at the hydraulic controls. Once the victim was properly squeezed, you leaned over, opened the bottom kick panel on the chute and put a short rope around the nearside rear leg. You then pulled the leg towards the back of the chute and tied the rope off, thus allowing access to your work area and also it kept the critter from kicking your head off as you started surgery. Then you either squatted down or sat on a small stool to preform the operation.

Meanwhile, Pancho would give a preventative shot of penicillin to the animal, in the muscle, on the other side of the chute. Then he would go back to run more cattle up.

Once the bull was a steer, you pulled the slip knot on the rope, got it from around the back leg, put the kick panel back into place and freed the steer from the contraption, while opening the back gate at the same time. Pancho always had another victim waiting for its turn.

Pretty simple ‘eh? That’s what I thought until my legs felt like spaghetti and my back began to ache. Within an hour, I was very tired of standing, leaning over, squatting, standing, sitting, and then standing again . . . on each and every head that came through. As I mentioned before, we averaged about two head per minute.

One pen of cattle took around two hours, counting bringing them to and from their pen. We took a small break between pens. The cow boss expected us to do at least two pens each day before lunch, at 11:00 a.m. After lunch, the next couple of hours were spent riding through the new steers, looking for bleeders. Most of the time, a bull that has been changed into a steer will be in a little shock, going to lie down and rest once back home. This helps stop the bleeding. There are times, however, when certain animals just keep bleeding for various reasons. These cattle need to be doctored within a couple hours, or you risk death.

If we came across a bleeder, the procedure was to take him to the nearest hospital pen where there was a chute and give him a dose of Vitamin K in the jugular vein. This and a squirt of blood stop powder on the afflicted area would stop the bleeding every time. I am proud to say that in the over 10,000 head of bulls I cut that fall, only one was lost to bleeding. That has a lot to do with technique during surgery

. . . although some old timers claim, “it’s the signs.”

Now I am not saying I don’t believe in “the Zodiac signs.” For sure there were times of the month that cattle bled worse than others, but I do know when you have 10,000 plus head to do in under 30 days, you cant wait on the signs to be just right. You need to use good technique.

After bleeders were checked the next job was to go through the cattle, which had been cut day’s prior, to look for infections. As you can imagine, a feedlot is not the cleanest place in the world for a freshly steered animal to lie down. And in spite of giving a shot of penicillin during the operation, some became infected later. If we found any infected cattle, we took them to a hospital pen and doctored them. After that, any cattle in the hospital pen, which had been cured and looked good again, were returned to their respective pens.

Once said cowboying jobs were taken care of, if there was any time left in the day, we had to clean out drinkers. Now cleaning out drinkers is a nasty job. In a feedlot, about 200 to 250 head of snotty nosed, cud chewing cattle all use the same 15-foot by 2-foot cement water trough located on either side of the pens.

Being how Pancho and I were low men in seniority, we often cleaned out nasty water troughs with a wire brush in the last hour or so before going home.

So that was my schedule during the first month of employment at Oppliger’s feed yard: cut bulls all morning, ride for bleeders, then infections in the afternoon and, time permitting, clean water troughs before going home at night. That’s how we did it back then; it may have changed by now.

Not a very glamorous life, being a feedlot cowboy, but it provided a meager living. As a side benefit, my legs increased in size dramatically as I did about 1,000 squats per day at the chute!

Cowboys, being as they are, always had a lot of practical joking going on . . . just to liven things up a bit. Saddle pads were hidden at night, horse were moved to far-off pens during lunch, dried cow patties were put between slices of bread and then placed in lunch boxes, on and on. Being the new kid on the outfit, a lot of said pranking was pulled on yours truly, but I took it all in stride.

There was one feller, named Alan, who took particular joy in rattling my chain. Normally if I couldn’t find my lunch box at mid-day, my pickup after work, or my horse in the morning, he had something to do with it. Also, his pet name for me was “Wuss.” Never used my real name, not even sure he knew what it was. To make things worse, he always said “Wuss” in a way that made me mad. I figured that once I had proved a hand, though, the razzing would slow down; it didn’t . . . not from Alan anyway.

One day as he came through the processing barn, I was on the other side of the lead-up, trying to get a sulking bull to stand. I was using one of those big yellow hot shots . . . you know, the ones that look like a big cane and you charge them by plugging them into an electric socket at night. Yeah, the really big one’s that are frowned upon now-a-days!

It just so happened that it was a pretty warm day, and as he paraded through the barn, Alan had his shirt unbuttoned about half way down the front, exposing a chest, glistening with sweat beads. Well, ‘Ol Alan jumps up on the catwalk the other side of the lead-up and says to me, “Hey Jim” (it was the first time he had ever used my proper name), “you know what?” “What?” I replied, about half happy he had called me by name. “I heard you are nothing more than a little Wuss!” He laughed at his supposed cleverness. So, I retorted right back, “Hey Alan, you know what?” “What?” he sneered. I leaned in like I was going to tell him something important; he leaned in likewise. “I heard you are afraid of electricity!” And as I said it, with a slight flick of the wrist, I touched the end of that super snapper to the middle of his wet, exposed chest and laid down the buzzer!

Oh boy did he have a look of horror on his face! He tried to back away from the excruciating pain on his chest; and as he did, his feet tangled up. He fell backwards, off the catwalk, hitting his head on a bucket and almost bit his tongue off in the process! I thought I’d killed him!

He recovered fairly quickly however, and came up seeing red. I was thankful for two things right about then: 1) there was a lead-up full of cattle between him and I; and 2) I was much younger and faster than him. I took out of the barn like my hind-end was on fire and jumped upon an alley full of bulls, running across their backs like Jesus on water.

After clearing two more alleys, I looked back and saw that Alan was going to have trouble following me. He was too old and out of shape to have a chance. Also, just then, one of the other cowboys, who was laughing his butt off, roped Alan around the upper body, trying to talk some sense into him.

As it worked out, Alan finally calmed down and quit all talk about killing me. I was finally able to return to the processing barn. He had one heck of a welt on his chest, a swollen tongue and a big knot on the back of his head. That got him a lot of razzing from the other cowboys. And me, well, I was now one of the gang. I had proven my self-worth. No more disrespect from the guys, I could hold my own in their eyes.

Alan and I became good friends after that . . . well maybe a few days later . . . after all; it took a few days for the welt and swelling to go away!

Eventually I got off the bull crew, joining the others as hired men a-horseback. No more menial groundwork for me. The next time a pen of bulls came into the yard, another newbie was nominated for the position. I did, however, get the honor of showing the new guy how to perform his bull cutting duties. The cow boss said I was one of the best “castrators” he had ever seen.

While showing the new guy “up close and personal,” I figured he could just hold the leg rope as he watched. I should have known better. Let me tell you folks, when a 400-pound bull is protecting his manhood, always tie the leg rope to something solid. That bull went to kicking when he felt my razor sharp knife. My new protégé let go of the rope so it wouldn’t burn his hands, and THAT is how I almost cut the end of my finger off! It dangled precariously for a few days, but eventually it stuck and healed. To this day, however, when I am at a branding, I’d just a soon let someone else cut bulls.n