I stepped into a big corral and stumbled upon 200 pairs of eyes, staring at me almost without blinking. Vigilance, curiosity, a pinch of fear and a notch of something warm and friendly were mixed in those looks. I just stood still.
It lasted for a brief moment, and then the eyes lost interest in me and turned back to hay, spread on the ground. I melted away and continued going where I was going. Not that I forgot what it feels like to be around cattle, but every time we get to do something with the herd, I get that gut-tickling feeling spiked with adrenaline.
Many of you know that besides being a reporter I'm sometimes a bit of a farmer. Even after seven years, farming is a world of discoveries for me. I still lack knowledge, experience and what's even worse, I often lack speed. But despite feeling stupid way more often at the farm than I do while living the life of the reporter, I sincerely enjoy farm duties.
Last weekend had us putting family efforts together, weaning and sorting calves, and getting ready for the calving season which is already just around the corner again. Some sorted calves left the yard, while others will eventually join the herd.
If you've never been in the pen with a bunch of young bovine teens, I tell you, it's better than a roller-coaster. It's actually like a roller-coaster where the outcome of the ride depends on your actions. For the most part, it may feel just like a boring merry-go-round, where you walk around animals trying to direct them towards the gates. But all it takes is to make a wrong move or let your guard down for a second, and the next thing you know you are sitting on top of the snow fence, not even knowing how you made it up there, filled with adrenaline that apparently gives you wings.
And a cow that just looked like a monster that escaped from hell is already peacefully chewing its cud somewhere below.
At the time of weaning even calm calves are pretty wild. They returned from pastures not that long ago and are not used to people. Besides, after a few hours of going in and out of the pans, some get spooked and turn into 600-pound machines, non-stop trying to find their way out of the corral. And if you appear to be in their way, you run or jump. Or you are screwed.
Once feeders get settled in the yard and get used to being away from their mommas, you can actually build relationships with them. Cows are not very bright, but they know who feeds them and they know their daily drills. Some of them are more friendly than the others (just like us), and I even had a few heifer-friends, which would come visit once they saw me in the pan.
Sometimes their friendliness can give you wings too, though. A couple of years ago we were checking cows that were due to calf, and I was walking through the pen when with side vision I noticed a big body running towards me, kicking its back legs as if it was getting ready to throw me in the air and crash. I think I broke the world record in speed running in those split seconds, trying to get behind the quad. Once the chase was over and I was able to catch the breath, I heard my husband and brother-in-law laughing.
I threw up furious eyes at them, but they couldn't help it. Turned out that it was their pet, one of the friendliest heifers they ever had. When it saw people, it always came running and jumping (a cow! Jumping like a dog!) inviting you to play. It took me a while to be able to laugh at the situation.
Years around cattle taught me that like any other job, this operation takes a lot of time, patience, dedication and learning. You have to know your animals, understand their habits, be aware of what scares them and what comforts them, and find your ways to work them. I'm still learning, but unlike with many other jobs, most things you learn intuitively, by copying others or by watching the animals. Even though cows are not the smartest, you can build relations with them and find your way.
Sometimes I still feel paralyzed by fear when we have to get the newborn calf from momma to take them to a warm barn, or when we are separating a bunch of grown-up calves in a smaller pen and they all start running around, hitting the fence trying to get out; or when bulls brought back home from pastures start fighting, smashing down anything that happens to be in their way; or when I see a cow running towards me. Nevertheless, after two days of dealing with cattle, I felt very different, refreshed and ready to work again. I'm not sure if it was being outside more than usual and doing quite a bit of running, or doing something different from the main job, or working with animals. I guess a bit of everything but it did the trick.