How We Learned To Steer Clear of Cattle

I rode the motorcycle home after irrigating on the meadow and saw Laura closing the driveway gate. I stopped and shut off the motor. I said, "What are you doing?"

"Those cows got into the yard, so I chased them out, and I was about to close the gate, but I'll let you in."

"And that big bull behind you - are you going to keep him in the yard as a pet?"

She thought I was joking. She turned and saw the Hereford bull standing pensively, horns spread 6 feet, about 15 feet away, as if he wondered why he was being separated from his cows. They stood in the gravel county road, ruminating.

Laura squeaked and jumped. "Oh my! He must have been behind the house!"

"Swing the gate through this way and stand behind the rock jack. He'll come out." She did, posthaste, and he did, in a leisurely fashion. I started the motorcycle, ready to flee or to get between him and Laura if necessary. He peacefully joined the cows, and they walked away, looking for greener grass.

Through the 8-1/2 years we took care of the ranch in northeastern Oregon, we usually had Hereford bulls, probably the least aggressive of all bulls. But John, the ranch owner, said, "Yes, Herefords are almost always peaceful. Still, a bull is a bull. Don't forget that."

Cows can be as dangerous as bulls.

Rick and Gwen, who tended cows in National Forest rangeland, came to visit when our daughters, Amanda and Juniper, and their daughters, Angie and Ginnie, were small. The children played in the corral, and we adults conversed near the barn. Someone had left a mixed-breed, horned cow in a chute. When cows were left for more than a day, I'd let them out so they would have access to food and water.

I walked over and opened the gate, and the cow exited, angry, head down, at a full gallop toward the girls. Gwen, quick-minded from a lifetime of working with cattle, yelled, "Climb the fence!"

Four girls responded instantly and didn't stop until they sat on the top corral rail and watched a lean, red-hided cow gallop past and out the corral gate, still angry but thinking now of food and water. It hadn't occurred to me the cow would do anything but bow her "thank you" and walk gracefully out to grass and water. I was grateful for everyone's fast reaction, and I never again let a cow out without first making sure everyone around was clear.

That was the year John decided to bring in Brangus and Braford bulls, for bigger, faster-growing calves. He told me he regretted his change in policy and warned me that we had far more dangerous bulls on the meadow than usual. We all gave the bulls a wide berth - except the Australian shepherd/blue heeler, mixed-breed dog I had then. He considered it his duty to move any bovine he passed.

Jim and I crossed the meadow, headed toward the timber to cut firewood. Jim drove the tractor. I rode in the wagon behind it. Dog trotted alongside. We passed one of the bulls, the most massive bull I've ever seen. I thought such a huge animal could not move fast. The dog decided the same thing, slunk low, and nipped the bull's heels. We were both wrong.

The bull leaped straight up, spun in the air, agile as any cat, and came down at full attack. The dog escaped under the wagon and out the other side. The bull decided not to attack the wagon, though for a moment I thought he would, and I entertained images of the wagon flying and of me turning end over end through the air.

That dog never overcame his need to nip bovines.

John had replaced the Braford and Brangus bulls with Herefords when my family and I were feeding hay to the herd one fall after the first snow. The wagon's bed was three feet off the ground, and the 4-by-4-by-8 foot bale of hay sat on that. I stood behind the wagon, about to cut the twine securing the bale. The herd, 85 cows and 10 bulls, crowded the wagon, pulling hay from the bale impatiently.

Afterward, I could visualize what had happened. The dog, never one to let an opportunity pass, came from under the wagon and bit a bull on the flank or on the nose. He picked the biggest bull, with long, shiny, gracefully curved horns. The bull set out to destroy the dog.

ALL that, I knew afterward. When it happened, the dog galloped at top speed around the wagon, and the shiny-horned bull thundered close behind. Though the bull wasn't after me, nonetheless his right horn was aimed at my right hip, coming fast. Three-quarters of a second later, I sat on top of the big bale, seven feet off the ground, watching the chase end as the dog skittered under a corral rail.

Later, I tried to climb the wagon and a big bale of hay and couldn't do it. Nor could I remember how I'd done it.

We learned to be careful around cattle, to know they were large, potentially dangerous and unpredictable presences.

When people asked us, "Are there dangerous wild animals around here?" we replied, "No. There are bears and cougars, bobcats and coyotes, and once in a while a rattlesnake, but no dangerous wild animals. The only dangerous animals are those bovines out on the meadow, placidly chewing their cud, especially if they're riled up by that stub-tailed, moon-eyed dog you see sleeping peacefully there in the shade."

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