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Irons in the fire: Flying dogs and two-dollar calves

Progressive Cattleman Staff Paul Marchant Published on 01 April 2011

We use an old ’75 Ford F-250 pickup with a homemade flatbed to do most of the feeding in the winter.

It goes through gas like Liz Taylor goes through husbands, but if you mess with the carburetor every few days, it runs well enough to idle along downhill in granny gear so you can get a couple of six-string ton bales kicked off to the cows.

Not only is old Liz a serviceable feeding truck, she’s also been a pretty fair tool to teach the kids how to drive.

One night several years ago, while I was at a county fair board meeting, a couple of my well-intentioned kids tore the passenger side door off while trying to back up parallel to the corral fence and get close enough to chuck hay over the fence.

We actually found a door at the junkyard that came pretty close to matching the same manure/broccoli color as the rest of the truck.

When a bale is set on the edge of Liz’s bed, the top edge is about 3 inches higher than the top of the cab. Reb, the dog, deems this the perfect spot to ride on.

I guess it’s got a pretty good vantage point of all the goings-on, and it’s probably a touch more comfortable than the cold, steel bed of the pickup.

He seems to think he’s the king of the pride, like Simba perched on his rock overlooking his piece of the Serengeti. One Saturday, after we’d finished the feeding and loaded up for Sunday, my 12-year-old son was driving Liz down the 2-mile stretch of road from the feeding ground to the house.

He hadn’t done too badly and had even managed to shift down into second and make the turn onto the road leading to the house without running into the creek.

Despite his success up to that point, he still hadn’t really figured out the whole relationship between the brake, the clutch, the steering wheel and the shift lever. (“You mean I have to keep track of all of that at the same time?!”)

As we came roaring into the driveway in third gear, coming within half a whisker of crashing into the red corral gate, he jammed both feet on the brake pedal and we came to an abrupt stop as the engine died.

Although Liz and her inside occupants had ceased their forward motion, poor old Reb was being taught a tough lesson from Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of pre-teen drivers.

Thirty-five pounds of Heeler-Aussie cross shot over the cab of the old pickup and was sent, spread-eagled and wide-eyed, spinning across the hood and onto the top rail of the fence.

Other than his wounded alpha doggie pride, he was unhurt and went off to sulk and chew on the contraband calf bone he’d snuck through the fence from the neighbor’s place.

The dog experienced a pretty tough lesson that day, though I question how well, or how much, he learned from it. He’d become pretty accustomed to Grandpa’s driving.

Grandpa’s got somewhere around 65 years of driving experience and, for the most part, can keep the horses upright in the trailer, the kids in the back seat and the dog on top of the bale.

It’s quite easy, I guess, for a hound to become fairly complacent on his oat hay perch and assume he’s on solid footing, when in fact the wheels can come off in a hurry, with little or no discernible warning.

I had cause to ponder on the flying dog episode about a month ago when we sent 40 or so leppies and lightweights to the sale yard.

We ended up getting somewhere in the neighborhood of $165 per hundredweight for those four-weight calves. All over the country, cattle are bringing similar, and often better, prices.

In times like these, it’s pretty easy to start swinging a pretty big loop. When you can pay off the operating loan and borrow double what you did last year with the banker barely looking at your balance sheet or questioning your cash flow, the ground feels pretty solid. I can imagine myself cutting a wide swath, indeed!

While I believe that we aggies certainly deserve a little sugar in our rain for a change, we need to always be aware of who’s driving the truck. We surely deserve to ride this wave while we’ve got it.

We’d be foolish not to take advantage, to some degree, of the unprecedented prosperity in the middle of which we now find ourselves.

Uncle Sam may own the truck, and I like to think that a steady Grandpa is usually behind the wheel. However, sometimes, unbeknownst to us, Grandpa may have some dust in his eye or a pre-teen Congress is taking the truck for a joy ride.

Shoot, maybe a drunk Egyptian is coming around the corner. Our footing may be solid, but we’d do well to take a lesson from Reb and not ride too close to the edge!  end_mark

Paul Marchant is a rancher from Oakley, Idaho.