Nowadays when I drive the country roads of central Iowa, I see a changing landscape. Confinement buildings, monster tractors, and giant wind turbines have replaced hay barns, corn cribs, and squeaky windmills. Very few grazing pastures form islands among the oceans of corn and soybeans.
So when my sister mentioned that a small herd of their cows and calves slipped through storm-damaged fence and had—as she said—“become truly free range,” I had a nostalgic twinge. We spent plenty of hours in my youth herding cattle back into pastures and feedlots.
Of course, Dad has a much deeper appreciation for the real Midwest cattle feeding days. “With plentiful hay, pastures, and ear corn, our area was a natural location,” says Dad. “But that doesn’t mean it was easy.”
Like me, Dad might be a bit nostalgic for “the good old days,” but he remembers the hard work that came with them. As he reports:
1. We picked ear corn, stored it in cribs, and eventually shoveled it into Bushman’s custom grinder. We moved baskets of ground corn and numerous bales of hay daily for hungry cattle.
2. During the '20s and '30s, your grandpa fed corn silage, stored in wooden stave silos. They’d haul shocks of corn on racks to a cutter that chopped and blew the whole plant into the silo. Men would pack and level the silage, and some farmers used mules to walk and stomp as it piled up. When the silo was full, the critter was lowered from the top of the silo with ropes.
3. During threshing time, we’d blow the oat straw into a shed. Stacking that was a miserable job, usually done by hired men who could chew and spit enough tobacco to combat the dust and chaff. Pay back then was about $2 a day.
4. You can still see part of the 10- by 18-foot cement tank in the feedlot east of our house. It provided plenty of drinking water for 100 cattle or more—and an occasional bath for hot, chaff-covered workers. The water came from a bored well and windmill. A wood-burning tank heater kept it ice free during winters.
5. In the 1920s, before trucking firms, they’d herd cattle the four miles to town where they could sell them and load ‘em on trains. The process took strength, patience, and planning—things your grandpa and I didn’t always have enough of.
6. We bought most of our feedlot cattle at local sales, but some farmers eventually made trips west—to Nebraska, Dakota, and Montana. They wanted “real western stock,” and they could mix business and pleasure—sightseeing, drinking, card playing. One neighbor used to take his saddle along so he could join the cowboy locals when they rounded up calves.
Dad has a wealth of information about veterinarians, butchers, auctioneers, and the many who made the cattle industry strong. “They were a diverse and colorful bunch,” he says. “Risk-takers, hard workers, story-tellers, and jokesters.”
The cattle also had plenty of personality—some still do. Just ask my sister and her husband about the fun that comes with apprehending 20 head of bovine who have gone on the lam.
by dan gogerty (top pic from ars/usda; bottom background from agrariannation.blogspot)