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Across the fence: Cowboy transitions and whiplash

Marci Whitehurst for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 April 2019

My cowboy and I talk about the nuts and bolts of life on a regular basis.

Well, maybe more like an irregular basis … I mean, planning is a part of any ranch: seasonal, yearly and multiyear plans are necessary. “Which heifers and how many should we retain?”

“What is our target herd size in five years?” “Are there any fences that need attention prior to using that pasture again?” Yet sometimes during conversations I can’t help but think cowboys may be immune to transitions.

One night at supper, one of the kids was talking about their history test. “It wasn’t too hard, but there was one question about … ”

“… Goats!”

We all turn to look. My husband has a lightbulb-moment look on his face.

(Just to clarify, the subject: history test. The reply: goats.)

He beams. “Yes, I think this is the year we should buy goats to graze the riverbanks to alleviate weeds. It’s been a wet winter, so we’ll need to make sure our weeds don’t go crazy once the warmer temperatures hit.”

This transition was comical, but oftentimes abrupt transitions strike during a project that is intense. I think maybe it’s a cowboy’s coping mechanism.

For instance, we once had a cow lay down in the chute when we were working cattle. (As much as a cow can lie down in a chute … you understand.) She wouldn’t budge. We don’t tend to have cattle like that (nor do we keep them), but odd things happen from time to time. After repeated attempts to prod her into moving and talking about getting her up, my hubby looked at me and started in about vehicles. “You think we oughta keep the old feed truck and do repairs or should we find another truck?”

I got whiplash. Conversation whiplash.

I suppose to be fair though, I have my own ranch-wife coping mechanisms. Should an intense situation arise, I jump the fence. I’ve done it in the branding pen, and I’ll do it in a conversation.

“Should we retain heifers or sell them with the feeders?”

My reply, “Both!”

“How many heifers are you thinking of holding on to?”

That’s how my cowboy handles my indecision because then it is usually a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look on my end. “Let me think about that,” is a common response.

Thinking about something is common for me because I am what I like to call a “processor.” I have moments when I make on-the-spot decisions – that really is a life skill – but if I can mull it over for a while, I’ll take that opportunity. Since I’m a ranch wife, and almost everything I do gets compared to cattle, my hubby calls it “chewing my cud.”

Chewing my cud has potential benefits: I evaluate situations before I enter them, whereas my cowboy enters situations and then evaluates them. I’m the brakes, and he is the gas. I’d never do anything if it weren’t for him, and he’d do everything if it weren’t for me. It really works out well.

Except sometimes it is difficult to understand one another. We’ve learned to really listen to each other, and when we feel strongly about something, we need to take heed – especially when it comes to ranch choices.

This winter, my hubby watched one of our cows. There was nothing overtly wrong with her, she looked fine, but he just really felt like she was supposed to be sold with our culls. It may not make sense on paper, but those gut instincts are usually worth listening to – even if they are your spouse’s gut instincts. Down the road she went, and we knew it was the right choice.

Listening to one another definitely makes transitions easier, even the small ones. Small transitions are ones we ranch families make on a daily basis that we no longer pay attention to: You spend the day working cattle. You are dirty, tired, and smell like cows and manure. You look at the clock and realize you only have 45 minutes to clean everyone up and get to the school for the spring concert.

I must say this dirty-to-clean transition is an impressive art form for ranch wives and daughters. You guys can shower and probably get away with not even combing your hair and no one would notice, but we girls have more prep work to do.

Ranch girls are able though. We will rush through that transition from manure to movie theater in record time and, as long as we don’t accidentally put on our work boots, no one will know the difference.

Ranch families are impeccable at activity transitions too:

  • Out in the swather but it isn’t ready to cut? Switch to building fence.

  • All set to work cattle, but there’s an unforecasted rain burst that’ll wash off any pour-ons? Switch to cleaning the shop.

  • Out on a date with your spouse and the cows get out? Switch to fixing fence.

A major transition though, one we are about to encounter for the first time, is a child leaving the nest. I think of all the moments of transition she’s had – the whiplash conversations, the abrupt switch in plans and the ability to move from grungy to glamour in record time – and I realize this whole ranch life has prepped her pretty well.

I suppose as her parents, we are prepped well too. Although, when I look back on these 18 years, it seems they’ve gone fast. I’m afraid I do feel a twinge of whiplash.  end mark