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Where's the Beef? A Counterfeit Cowboy Raising Cattle
What do you get when you have a counterfeit cowboy trying to raise cattle? TROUBLE! I got into raising cattle because it seemed to be a logical addition to my hay farming. As I've heard other people say regarding growing hay, "Sell the best, and feed the rest." In other words, you sell the best hay that you have for which you can get a good price. Then you take the not so nice hay and feed it up to your own cattle. There will always be some hay that doesn't turn out nicely, and it seemed to me that the best way to deal with it was to grow a herd of cattle that I could feed this sort of hay. It made economical sense to me, and I had the land to support the idea. So, I proceeded to start to grow a herd of cattle. I figured that once I grew my herd sufficiently, then I could start to sell the calves at a profit. That was the idea, at least.
The First Cattle to Come to Our Farm
Yes, that's a go kart with a hay bale on it. I used this small buggy around the farm for quite a while. Before I had the buggy, I started with a hotrodded lawn tractor that I had modified to go twice as fast and it had ATV tires to absorb some of the bumps better. Anyway, I told you that I was a fake farmer and a counterfeit cowboy! Since I truly didn't have any experience with livestock whatsoever, I decided it was best to start off slowly. In addition, I decided to not go with the popular Black Angus breed that is so common in this area. Instead, I had done a lot of research and settled on the Murray Grey cattle breed. Genetically, they had many superior traits, and they were also known to have naturally good dispositions. This is what I needed. I sure didn't need a breed that was notorious for being wild and crazy! The first Murray Grey cow we got was named Keanie (she is the brown cow in the picture above). She was the matriarch of our herd. We got her as a bred cow, and she gave birth to her calf here. Shortly after we got Keanie, we got Bloome (the light colored cow on the left). We affectionately referred to her as "Poopy Buns", because she had the uncanny knack of somehow always sitting in her own poop! It didn't help any that she was so light colored, because this highlighted the perpetual poop smeared on her rear end. Oh well, there are more important things in life than just looks. She was a great momma cow that took good care of her calves. At least, I wasn't planning to join 4H and enter her in the Fair!
Our Growing Herd of Cattle
There are too many cattle to continue on in so much detail with each one, but I will say that in the early years our herd grew mostly through purchasing. We bought some bred cows. We bought some young cows. We bought some old cows. I was slowly adding to our herd. Once a trucker came up here to deliver some freight to the farm. He saw our cattle and immediately recognized the breed. He told me that he also had some Murray Grey cattle, and that he was getting out of the cattle business. We ended up buying a few more cattle from him. We also added to our herd through calving. A neighbor would bring his bull over when it was done with his herd, and so we began to add calves to our herd. We would be able to use the same bull for a couple years, because the new calves would be kept away from the bull the next year. Then we would get a different bull (thankfully the neighbor had 2 bulls).
Kids Feeding Our Growing Herd
Finally, we were ready for our own bull, and so I found a young Murray Grey bull calf that would be the sire of our herd. At our peak, we got up to around 25 head of cattle. I figured that if I had around 2 dozen calves to sell each year, then that would be enough. But, we never got that far. Things were going to take a drastic turn and there were big changes coming in the future. At that point, I just didn't know about that, and so I proceeded ahead as planned.
BEFORE: Our Bull When We Bought Him at 7 Months
When our bull calf showed up, he was only about 7 months old. He was small and very tame. I used to regularly scratch him on the head when I was feeding him. I deliberately tried to build a friendly relationship with him from the start, because I knew full well that I was not a cowboy and that I could NOT handle a 2,000 lb bull that was wild and out of control. Things were going well. He was a nice bull calf, but given enough time, hay, and testosterone, a cute little bull calf grows up into a BIG powerful bull.
AFTER: Mr. Muscle - Our Bull Around 2 Years Later
In the picture above, our bull was not even full grown yet, but he was big enough for me! He was around 1,500 lbs at that point. He would have gotten up to around 2,000 lbs when he was full grown. In any case, he was still fairly friendly towards me, but he was getting so big and powerful that my trust level of him was quickly beginning to diminish. When I would go into the pasture with him, he would often come running. For all I knew, he was happy to see his old friend and was just happily running to greet me. Then again, perhaps he was coming to crush me to a pulp under his hooves! I wasn't waiting around to find out! I'd usually quickly scoot out of the pasture when I saw him running. I saw some of his strength and aggression as he roamed around the farm tearing things up. I didn't care to find out what it felt like being stomped on by bull, even if he was only 1,500 lbs. Don't get me wrong, he was a nice bull as far as bulls go. I've heard of much more aggressive and destructive bulls.
Seemingly unrelated to all this, I accidentally poisoned myself with a chemical on the farm. I won't go into all the exact details, but I was using an extremely toxic chemical without proper protection. I had used it many times before with no apparent problems, but this time it was going to be different. This was to be a pivotal moment that would later result in many changes around the farm and in my own priorities. I just didn't realize how significant it would be at the time. I was spraying this chemical as I had many times without a respirator. Quite frankly, I was too reckless. Perhaps it was the "stubborn, invincible male syndrome". Perhaps it was just downright stupidity. From a practical standpoint, when I would spray when it was 90-100F outside, it felt stifling to breathe through a respirator. I just got in the habit (a bad habit) of not wearing a respirator while spraying. The chemical I was using on this particular day was "skulls and crossbones" (restricted use only - not for purchase or use by the general public). In other words, it was not legal for the average person to buy it. I was properly trained, I had the appropriate license for purchasing and using it, and I should have known better. I was spraying on a hot, breezy day for around 6-7 hours. At one point during the day, I was spraying for around 45 minutes in one area where the breeze was blowing the mist back at me. I could feel the mist on my face at times. Did that stop me? NO! I continued to spray with the breeze blowing the mist in my face and breathing it for that extended time. I was so determined to finish what I had started, that I was going to finish no matter what.
Herein lies one of the many life lessons that I've learned farming. It's good to be determined. It's good not to be a quitter. It's good not to be lazy. It's good to finish what you started. These are all good things. BUT, I've learned that determination is one small step away from stubbornness! I had crossed that line. In fact, I had crossed that line many times in my life, and I was about to get a lesson that I needed to help me to learn the difference between determination and stubbornness.
Back to what happened on that memorable day... I can still remember feeling exhausted and literally burned out from working outside in the heat all day. That was typical. I wanted to stop. I felt terrible. But, I would not stop. As I often did when I felt like stopping a miserable task, in my mind I repeated the phrase, "I'm going to finish this even if it kills me!" Well, this time I was going to get a tiny taste of what I was asking for. In my life, I have been in many situations in which I really did not "want" to be doing what I was doing. Did I like frying outside in the heat doing manual labor for long hours? Was it enjoyable? Did it feel good? NO!!! BUT, there were things that needed to get done, and they would not get done if I always quit when the going got tough. I did need to be determined and push ahead at times, but I did NOT need to be stubborn. Spraying that day was an example of my stubbornness. I should not have been trying to finish it all in one day. I should have been spraying over the course of more than one day in the mornings, because then it would have been cooler and easier to wear a respirator. I should have never been using such a toxic chemical in the first place. I should have known what I was really using and the risks. Should have, should have, should have. What should have been and reality were two different things.
I got sick. Eventually, I went to the ER because I was having some trouble breathing. If you really know me, you know that I'm not one to run to the doctor. Meanwhile, some people that knew me seemed to think, "It's all in your head". Just the way they looked, the comments they made, the way they reacted. I wish it was all in my head! I guess they could not really relate or understand. After all, it was not like the flesh was rotting off my face. It was not like anything was visible from the outside. While I was feeling sick, I often thought that I wish it was like one of those unpleasant nightmares when you wake up and then realize that it was not for real. But, that was just wishful thinking. It was worse at night while lying down in bed. Some nights, I could not even lie there. I needed to sit up or stand to be able to breathe easier. When I realized that my chemical exposure was causing the symptoms, I began to read the label on the jug of the chemical. I began to research and read more about this chemical. Too little, too late. I discovered that this chemical is extremely toxic. It destroys lung tissue very quickly. Essentially, it can cause pulmonary fibrosis over the course of days if the exposure level is high enough. Instead of pulmonary fibrosis slowly killing a person over the course of years as is typical with this disease, this chemical can accelerate the process and essentially causes suffocation by pulmonary fibrosis in a matter of days. There is NOTHING that mainstream medicine knows to do. There is no antidote. If a person poisoned by this chemical is having trouble breathing, administering oxygen only accelerates the destruction and scarring over of the lung tissue. It's like putting extra oxygen in a blow torch.
I found out that this chemical had caused so many deaths over the years, that some countries had outright banned it entirely. In some cases, they weren't always accidental deaths. Apparently, some people who wanted to commit suicide would just swallow a teaspoon of it to kill themselves. It was a cheap and accessible way to commit suicide in these developing countries. What a miserable way to go! I must say that I was shocked when I discovered how nasty this chemical really was. I thought, "WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING USING THIS CHEMICAL! I DON'T WANT THIS NEAR MY FAMILY!" Again, the research I did was too little, too late. I should have known better what I was using before I ever started using it. In the end, I didn't get a high enough dose to do severe short term damage, but it was enough to really mess me up for a while. I did not feel "normal" for a long time. It took several months to start to feel somewhat normal again. Even over a year later, I kept getting recurring sinus infections. When I would get a cold or flu, my lungs would get hit hard and there were times that I wondered if I might be getting (or have) pneumonia. For a long time, I often had a strong burning sensation in my chest (lungs). After living my whole life without any trouble breathing or respiratory problems like this, it was a real life changing experience for me. Among many other great life lessons, I learned to not be so reckless (I have a wife and children that depend on me), to not be so stubborn, to have a greater respect for chemicals, and to not take things in life for granted quite so much.
A short side note related to pesticides. Over the years, I've encountered people that talk as if pesticides are harmless. True, some are definitely less harmful than others, but I think many people are unaware of their real potency or their effects. Once in a while, I hear a person talking about how they don't wear a mask while spraying various chemicals - sometimes ones that are known to be harmful. I try to encourage them to be careful, but I guess, like me they figure, "I've done it that way before and it didn't cause me any problems." As if just because you were lucky before means that the chemicals are harmless. Or it's almost like people think, "It didn't kill me, so it must be harmless." It might not kill you right then and there, and you might not connect your health problems with your exposure, but that doesn't mean that some of these chemicals can not cause serious harm. I hate to see people suffering unnecessarily, but I guess I'm not the only one that needs to learn things the hard way sometimes! My advice is to read the label on the chemical thoroughly and wear the necessary protective gear. I now even wear a respirator while spraying what are considered safer chemicals. You know how it goes... safe today, not so safe tomorrow. It's not all that uncommon for them to change their mind over a period of time after they discover things they didn't know before. My new approach is: "if in doubt, just wear the respirator," because it's really not that hard to do. I learned that the discomfort of wearing a respirator is small compared to the discomfort that I caused myself by not wearing it when I should have!
You may be wondering how all this relates to the cattle. Well, shortly after my poisoning incident, I was still feeling very badly when one of my cows became sick. She was progressively getting weaker. Soon should would not stand. Her breathing was labored. I didn't know what was going on with this cow. I called the vet and described her symptoms in detail. He said that it sounded like she had gotten pneumonia. He recommended administering antibiotics as soon as possible. I did. I fought for 2 weeks to try to save her, but it was all in vain. Then, towards the end of the battle to save that first sick cow, another one of my cows started having labored breathing. She had mucous pouring out of her nose and mouth and she sounded terrible. She was wheezing and it sounded like she was suffocating to death. With my recent exposure to the chemical that caused my respiratory troubles, I began to think that perhaps I inadvertently exposed the cattle to the chemical too. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that this was not the case because they were not anywhere near the same area. Puzzling! Then, I began to think that perhaps this could be a contagious respiratory virus that could wipe out many of the cattle in my herd. If you can imagine wholeheartedly investing your life into something for 5 years, and then being faced with the possibility that you could lose it all. It was a very difficult and unpleasant time for me.
Sick Cow # 1 - Keeping Her Out of the Hot Sun
I had tried to get the help of a vet to come out to the farm, but that did not work out. They were too busy to come out at the time. Fortunately, I have some nice neighbors that are real cowboys. On more than one occasion, these cowboys helped me out. As it turns out, the 2 sick cows were unrelated. The cowboy thought that the first cow most likely developed pneumonia as a secondary complication to an illness caused by a soil bound organism. The cowboy said that she was way too fat and healthy looking to have come down with pneumonia in the first place. Something else must have knocked down her immune system first. The 2nd cow developed what is known as "highland fever", pulmonary emphysema, or sometimes "cow asthma". In years past, it got to be known as highland fever because it would occur when cowboys would move their herds from the highlands to the valleys and mysteriously some of the cattle would suddenly die. Later, they discovered that it was because the cattle were eating dry forage in the the highlands, and then when they were moved to the lush green grass down in the valleys, they were dying of this mysterious respiratory disease. I thought, "WHAT?!?" I had been moving my cattle around and changing their feed from dry hay to irrigated pasture for 5 years. Nothing like this had ever happened before! Apparently, the digestive tract of cattle is not able to adjust fast enough to drastic feed changes. There is a certain amino acid in the lush green feed that is converted to a toxin by bacteria in the cow's gut. This toxin goes into the bloodstream and collects in the lung tissue and destroys it. If it's bad enough, then death is almost certain in a short number of days. It all reminded me of pulmonary fibrosis, and also the effects of that chemical that made me sick. With cow asthma, if it's a mild to moderate case, then the cow can survive, but there will be permanent lung damage. As a side note, the fist sick cow did not have cow asthma, because she became sick while eating dry hay, before I moved my herd back onto the green pasture.
Thankfully, one of the cowboys that helped me is also almost like a vet. Actually, he is probably better than the average vet in the specific area of cattle. He administered some anti-inflammatory drugs (dexamethasone, or "dex" for short) to try to reduce the lung damage. The cow did not have a severe case, and so she pulled through. All this happened within a very short period of time (my respiratory problems, then the 1st sick cow that died from pneumonia, and the 2nd cow with cow asthma). It really got my attention! It's not like I hadn't had troubles with cattle before. There were troubles with cows calving. Trouble with cattle tearing things up or causing me grief in other ways. Difficulties in catching and working on cattle at times. I had cows and calves die over the years. That is all a normal part of the whole process of raising cattle, but this triple whammy was really what I needed to get my attention. I began to examine my motives for raising cattle. I began to reflect over the years about all the losses that I had suffered with cattle. It had always been a losing proposition for me. There were calving problems. There were more expenses than I had expected. And being a counterfeit cowboy meant that it took up a lot of my time and energy. When I had gotten up into higher (at least, for me) numbers of cattle, then it became a big distraction to me. I quickly came to the very clear conclusion that raising cattle was not for me! Being a counterfeit cowboy and getting into cattle was a bad combination! So, that winter I sold off most of my herd at the local cattle auction. Once again, I lost money. Prices of cattle were lower at that time and I knew that, but I also knew what I needed to do. At least I had learned some lessons along the way (even if they were expensive and painful), and I was ready to move on in the right direction.
As I write about this, it brings up one particularly memorable situation that occurred earlier in my counterfeit cowboy career. I had a cow that was going to have her first time calf. She was an inexperienced momma cow, so I tried to keep a close eye on her. One day, I saw her straining and having what appeared to be contractions. It looked like she was definitely in labor. As they often instinctually do, she separated herself from the rest of the herd while she was in labor. I kept going out to check on her to see if she was doing alright. As I went out to check on her, I could see that she was still in labor. I kept expecting that the next time I checked on her, she might have a new calf. This expectation quickly turned to concern when she did not deliver the calf that day. I might not be a cowboy, but at that point I had seen enough cows give birth that I knew that something was wrong. I got the laboring cow in a corral area and called the vet. The vet arrived at the farm and we constrained the cow and the vet did an exam. The vet said that the cow was dialated and the calf was in the right position. As a cow having her first calf, I was advised by the vet that everything looked fine and that she probably just needed a little more time. Somehow, I knew that this didn't seem right. But, who am I, except a counterfeit cowboy?? The vet was the trained expert, right? So, I had a false sense of security (although very unsettled) that everything was OK. I kept checking on the cow, but she didn't act like she was in labor anymore. Maybe the cow was just having premature and false labor?? Not quite! The cow became very sick. My fears that something was seriously wrong were coming true. I called another vet. He asked me various questions and I explained to him in detail everything that had happened. He was a very experienced vet that could diagnose just by talking on the phone. He drilled down with a few more specific questions. "Does she smell," he asked? "Yes, she stinks," I replied. His response (which I was not prepared for) was, "The kindest thing you can do for her right now is to shoot her." WHAT!?!?! He explained that the calf had died days ago and was now decomposing inside of her. He said that the toxins from the dead calf were poisoning her. Even if he attempted an emergency C-section, he said that she would almost certainly die anyway. The toxins from the rotting calf were already in her system and poisoning her. The best thing I could do for her was to put her out of her misery. Now, if you knew me, then you would know that this was very difficult for me to hear. Shoot my own cow?!? I had spent years taking care of my cattle, and they were more like pets to me than livestock. The idea of shooting her was too much for me to handle. I called another vet and explained what was happening (as well as the other vet's advice). He said to bring her in and he would see what he could do. I agreed. That was a fateful decision which I would later regret deeply.
First of all, the cow was so sick by that point that she did not want to stand up, let alone be loaded up in a trailer. After unsuccessfully trying to load her into the trailer for over an hour, a neighbor stopped by that was more experienced with cattle. Using a rope around her neck, and trying to prod her from behind, we were finally able to get her to step up into the trailer after much persuasion. Then began the nearly 1 hour drive to the vet clinic. Once we got there, I was expecting the emergency situation to be dealt with promptly. That was not to be the case. The vet was swamped with dogs and cats in the clinic, and so we needed to wait... and wait... and wait. I watched as the sick cow stood in the hot sun becoming weaker and weaker. Time seemed to just drag on. After what seemed like an eternity, but was more like 2 painful hours, the vet finally was able to come out to look at our sick cow. He had her moved into a chute where she could not fall down. His concern was that if she went down, that she would never be able to get up again. At first, he tried to pull the dead calf. While she was constrained in the chute, he fought and fought for a long time. As he reached in and tried to get a hold of the calf, the reality of how long the calf had been dead became apparent. As he got the legs out so that he could pull the rest of the calf, the skin of the rotting calf was just pulling off. It was already decomposing that bad. Disgusting! No doubt, the calf has been dead days earlier when I first called the vet out to our farm to examine our cow. Everything was fine and she just needed a little more time??? My instincts (although inexperienced) had known better than that! In any case, that was days ago, and I could not go back and change the past. Now, all I could do was to focus on trying to do everything possible to help my sick cow. After many unsuccessful attempts to pull the calf, the vet said that he needed to do an emergency c-section. He said that if she went down during the surgery, then it would be all over. The cow was moved out of the chute and then tied to the wooden fencing in the corral area. I still don't quite understand why, but the vet said it was better for her to be standing against the fence during the surgery. The fur was shaved on her side, and some injections of local anesthetic were administered. Then he began the gruesome procedure of cutting. As he was slicing into her, she was moving around as if she could feel some of what was happening. What about the anesthetic? Why wasn't it working? It was very difficult for me to watch. Then, as he was cutting through the wall of her uterus, I watched in horror as she fell down on her cut open side. It was all over. Some of her insides were bulging out on the ground. As she laid on the ground in torment, I told the vet that I wanted her to be put out of her misery as quickly as possible. She had already suffered so much, and I did not want her to suffer one moment longer. The vet said that all he could do is inject large amounts of barbituates and try to put her to sleep that way. He said that because of her size, it would require a very large amount of the expensive drug to kill her. I told him to do it right away. I couldn't bear to watch her suffer any more! Then I watched in agony as the vet repeatedly tried to unsuccessfully locate the jugular. He took the huge needle and kept stabbing it into her neck unsuccessfully searching for her jugular. The nightmare just kept getting worse. Then a Hispanic man came that was a real cowboy. He saw what was happening and offered to help. After a quick check with his finger on her neck, he stuck the needle right into her jugular on the first attempt. He injected the drug that slowly put her to sleep. Even though a huge amount of the drug was injected, her heart was beating for a long time after that. My only hope was that she could not feel anything anymore. The whole experience was a terrible nightmare.
At the time, I did not care about financial aspects of the situation. I just wanted to try to help save my cow. She was like a pet to me. As it turns out, I had to pay for a rendering company to come pick up the dead cow at the vet clinic. That cost around $200. The vet felt bad about the whole situation, and so he discounted the c-section procedure by half. In the end, all my bills for trying to save the cow totaled around $800. As gross as what I wrote might be to read, that is half as bad as living through all the details first hand. I didn't even include every detail of the whole ordeal. I say that to give you a reality check of what it can be like raising cattle. If you are thinking about raising livestock and you are inexperienced like me, then just be aware that things can get ugly at times. As we left there that day, it was almost surreal. So many things had gone so wrong. It was disastrous. I then realized that the other vet was 100% right. The kindest thing that I could have done for her was shoot her in the head that morning. As hard as it was for me to accept that advice earlier in the day, after all the torture I allowed her to go through in trying to save her, I realized that it would have truly been kind to shoot her and put her out of her misery. As painful as that particular situation was to me, I accepted it as a fact of life in raising cattle. It was not the first trouble that I had with cattle, and I knew it would not be the last. I still continued on with my plans to raise livestock for a couple more years after that. I was not a quitter. I was determined to continue on. It was not until I myself became sick from the chemical poisoning, and then had those 2 cows come down seriously ill with respiratory problems, that I finally had my eyes opened to the fact that raising cattle as a business was NOT for me! That's just me. Maybe you were born with cowboy blood in your veins and you will be a natural at raising livestock. However, if you are inexperienced with livestock, then just be aware that sometimes things are not as easy as you might think.
We still have a small number cattle walking around here that we are raising for our own beef, but no more cattle business for me. After all, I got into the whole cattle idea with the hope that it would provide some support for my family. Not only did it not provide any financial benefit (it was a financial drain), but it was a huge distraction to me at times, and it took me away from more important things. I do enjoy having a few head of cattle around, and we also enjoy having our own beef. At the time I am writing this, it has been around 2 years since I sold most of my cattle herd. One of the best decisions that I have ever made. NO REGRETS!