First of All …

It’s ladies only at this ranch roundup

Updated: 2013-10-20T01:32:22Z

By CINDY HOEDEL

The Kansas City Star

It was a warm Friday night in October, and four men and four women were sitting on my neighbor’s new deck. Soon the conversation split into two along gender lines, as often happens.

The men traded travel stories, and the women recounted experiences from a long day working cattle on the open range outside Matfield Green, Kan.

My girlfriends and I were part of an eight-woman roundup crew that moved a herd of 70 cattle across a hilly pasture into a weathered red corral and separated out the calves so they could be immunized, branded and, in the case of the bull calves, castrated.

I was the only first-timer, but not the only city slicker, who had signed up to work in exchange for two squares and wine at the female ranch owner’s home. Several of the women had come from Kansas City and one from Iowa.

They left families and jobs behind for a day or the whole weekend to chase cattle around in maze-like pens and get very personal with them in the squeeze chute. Two of the women were old hands — they’d been coming for 17 and 19 years.

As I approached the corral and took in the equipment — leather gloves, plastic rattle paddles, branding irons, large stainless steel syringes and a slingshot-shaped contraption threaded with plastic tubing — I had a rare moment of second-guessing myself. Maybe cowgirl-for-a-day was going to be more than I bargained for.

But then I heard my Swedish grandfather’s voice in my head, saying, “Don’t just stand there. Be useful.” So I asked what I could do.

The forewoman asked what I wanted to do. I said, “The thing that would be hardest to screw up.”

She handed me a five-gallon bucket and told me to stand on the opposite side of the corral from the gate the herders were angling the cattle into and coax the cattle to my side with “candy” (pelleted feed) to keep them from bunching in front of the gate.

Once all the cattle were in, things got more interesting, as we needed to get the bull calves into a different pen without letting any cows or heifer calves (female calves) through the gate. This was accomplished by a combination of geometry and gentle prodding.

The rancher explained that cattle have a flight zone that, if the head is at 12 o’clock, extends from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock. The best place to stand if you are trying to move them is 8 o’clock.

Sounds simple, but inside the pen I was wide-eyed and spinning trying to figure out which cow I should be at 8 o’clock to when I was surrounded by them. The experienced hands were patient and waited until a cow or calf made a move toward the open gate, then used paddles to encourage or dissuade the move.

By the time we moved to the chute area, I was feeling a little more confident, thanks to lots of “Good job!” shouts from crew mates. I had two jobs there: pulling down an overhead lever to tighten the sides of the squeeze chute once a calf was inside, and shaving a 6-inch square area on the animal’s haunch for the brand.

The roundups I had seen as a kid were old-school, where hot brands and scalpels were used. My rancher friend does cold branding instead of hot and “banding,” a bloodless technique where a rubber band is placed in such a way that it cuts off blood flow to the testes, causing them to fall off by themselves in about three weeks.

The woman operating the head gate, which closes around the animal’s head when it comes through the chute, also stroked each calf’s forehead and cheeks as it was attended to. None of the calves bawled during the branding, banding or inoculations, which made my day much more pleasant, and presumably the calves’ as well.

The most fun part was after the calves were worked. They were released back into a large pen with their mothers, and our job was to match the mothers to the offspring by following the mothers around — and these are big animals, taller than some of the crew — until their calf found them and began nursing. Then we would call out the ear tag numbers of mother and baby: “264 and 5!”

It was sweet, watching the calves wander around all the furry legs and udders until they found the right one, like a real-life version of the children’s storybook “Are You My Mother?”

Even better were the connections made with my new friends on the crew. One woman from Overland Park is making a daring midlife career change from IT to cattle ranching, pulling up stakes in suburbia for a new life in the Flint Hills.

Others have ties that bind them more closely to the city, but they come year after year because there is a side of them that deeply loves working with animals. One woman admits she isn’t that interested in the animals at all but enjoys being surrounded by nature, listening to the meadowlarks and taking in the wide views.

And my neighbor loved the role-reversal of us women telling the men how the roundup went over cold beers back in town.

To reach Cindy Hoedel, call 816-234-4304 or send email to choedel@kcstar.com. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and The Star’s Chow Town blog.

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