Kids Out On The “Farm”
“You’re cows are out.”
It was a text that could chill the soul of any cattle owner–and not just because of the obvious error in word use. In my case, it was made several times worse by a simple glance at the clock.
The text was sent at 8:32…That meant that one of our ranch neighbors had noticed our cows getting out, and then the animals had been given a three-hour head start in the darkness–not good. Cows don’t care about property lines, so that meant that I had an area up to a couple miles in diameter I might need to search.
My next call was to one of our upperclassmen–a future Marine who is graduating a year early. He answered, but it was obvious I had caught him exactly where he was supposed to at that hour–in bed. I told him about our predicament, and he answered with characteristic frankness: “I’m down.”
Not only was he “down” for a midnight drive to the ranch in search of missing animals in the dark, the rest of the boys were too! When I pulled up to the house, they all piled in, and away we went! The fact that they were a bunch of “city” kids when they first came had no bearing on their enthusiasm and willingness to jump in and help. It’s possible they hadn’t thought it through well enough, but I wasn’t going to explain it to them!
A Midnight Search On A Moonless Night
We got out to the ranch after midnight, and immediately split into two groups. One would search for the herd in our own pasture–40 acres on a moonless night looking for cows that would be bedded down in the tall alfalfa, while the other would search a neighboring pasture in hopes that the herd hadn’t gone very far. In my haste, I had only grabbed two flashlights, so each group only had one light to see by.
It is strange to have two parts of a search party, both hoping for opposite things. The ones in our pasture hoped to find all of the cattle, while the other group (where I was) hoped to find no cattle at all! There was still a possibility that the cattle our neighbor saw weren’t ours, but the odds weren’t good. Our cattle are fairly distinctive, and hard to miss.
After a fair amount of walking in the dark–enough to convince me that shorts were an inappropriate choice of clothing for such an expedition–the boys in our own pasture found both the good news and the bad news. Most of the herd, including our most notorious fence busters, were bedded down quite peacefully exactly where they were supposed to be. There were four calves, from a year old down to a couple of months, that had slipped out of the fence, but were standing right on the other side. That meant that we had found them all, and they hadn’t gone far!
The Way Back
Of course, just because a cow gets through the fence once does not mean that they will go back the same way. We instead had to herd those four all the way up the side of the pasture, through a ditch overgrown with trees, to a gate, with the momma cows following along on their side of the fence.
After locking up the cows for the night, so we could assess our fences in the daylight, we headed back to the house. Those boys got to bed about 1:45 a.m.. The funniest part about it, though, wasn’t the massive cow-pie I stepped in, or that we had to be out that late. The funniest part was the stories we heard back from parents the next day after the story was told! Those “city” boys had a really good time!
The Value of The Ranch
There is no work like ranch work, because the animals don’t care about your mood, the weather, or how you’re feeling. Animals need to be fed, the cow needs to be milked, and the fences needs to be repaired. All of it has to be done when it needs to be done, and can’t wait. If a cow is bloated, it doesn’t matter what time of day or night it happens, you have to go help it or the animal dies.
Our students get the nearly unique opportunity to go back to farm. They get to wrestle with calves, herd cows, shovel ditches, muck through manure, troubleshoot problems, and learn what it feels like to work hard and dirty. They get to learn how good it feels to take a hot shower that you’ve really earned.
The Fun Stuff, But Not Just The Fun Stuff!
When our students first get here, they pet the horses, pet the puppies, etc. After a few days or weeks, they stop talking about how cute the animals are, and start talking about projects they want to work on, or problems they have fixed or would like to fix. They become workers.
The times when we have to wrestle a big cow into a trailer, or we need to toss a calf for some medical reason, become the highlights of their week. When they make that transition from couch potato to ranch worker, we know we’ve made some real progress.
Mud, Sweat, and Lessons
Our ranch isn’t about green fields and white fences, though we have some green fields. It’s about projects, hard work, and building kids into adults. That means that things don’t always run the most efficient way possible. We see troughs overflow because a 16-year-old from the city was supposed to be watching it, but they’ll do better next time. We see a fence that isn’t fixed perfectly, or a ditch that isn’t straight, but we’ll try it again and fix it.
It’s about hard work, and the process of trying, failing, and trying again. It’s the way everyone should grow up, but we can offer it to only a few.