January 2017
On the Edge of Common Sense

A Family Affair

If you live in a rural community, you can probably name many examples of multigenerational families who operate a ranch or farm. Their lives are built around the animals or crops they raise. Last August, I spent a couple of days gathering and branding calves for a local rancher.

It was obvious that Dad was in charge and every member of this tight-knit family knew their job. You would expect things to move along smoothly; in part, due to the up-to-date facilities and reasonably calm livestock. He said a prayer for the gather; then sent us out to bring in the 100 or so cows.

When we got the pairs to the corral, we sorted the 250-pound calves off into a separate pen. "We" is defined as the four hired help plus the Dad, the Son and the Daughter, all family members over 6 feet 2 inches tall … and tough!

I was assigned to fill the holes, sort of a quality-control position. Ropers rotated. We had at least three muggers on the crew who seemed to take pleasure doing the flanking. I got tired just watching them!

By noon, it was 96 degrees and the dust was thick as diesel fumes. Dad had a Nord Fork calf holder he wanted to try. It reduces labor by holding the front quarters while the roper holds the hind legs. The muggers ignored him. Every time he attempted to hook up his Nord Fork, the muggers stepped in front and dove at the calf!

We were down to the bigger calves. Roper drug a big’un by the hind legs into the sweat-soaked, dirty crew. I reached down to hold the rope tight so Roper could take up slack.

The rest of the story is still blurry in my memory: visions of Gettysburg, Moby Dick, "Star Trek," the Ziegfeld Follies and "Jurassic Park" clash, wherein Captain Ahab gets his harpoon line tangled around Spock’s ankle who is fishing for Jaws. Shrek is water skiing. Cat Woman is juggling the vaccine gun, a branding iron, an ear tagger, open pocket knife and a can of fly spray. This whole extravaganza is accompanied by Beethoven playing "Ship My Body Back to Texas if I Die Out on the Trail!"

The calf got one hind foot loose. Daughter dived on top of the calf. From my view looking up, Dad’s silhouette is trying to get his Nord Fork on the front end, but gets sucked into the vortex and crashes forward onto the growing pile. This is when Son jumps on top of Sister, alias Daughter. Mind you, Brother, alias Son, weighs as much as the calf, making Sister a 500-pound sandwich!

This is a moment when I stood up and took an imaginary photograph. I titled it "Killer Whales Attacking a Writhing Porpoise."


The calf rose to his feet – castrated, vaccinated, tagged and branded. He stared at the creatures around him. Although he had never seen a coal miner, he figured that’s what they would look like comin’ home from work. All they needed was a light helmet and lunch bucket.


Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television, and also through his books, cds, videos and website, www.baxterblack.com.