The Neighbor's Bull
I finished the morning chores and saddled my horse. He absorbed my jangled nerves, expressing them in his fidgety pacing at the hitch rail and flighty jerks at every whisper in the wind or flutter of the saddle shed shutter.
It was branding day. Everything had to go right the first time. I hoped I remembered all of the supplies I needed and I hoped I could make it as easy as possible on the calves. The faster we worked, the easier it would be. Yet, with cattle, slow makes fast.
My friends Bob, Andy and Zane were ready to help. The day before, Bob helped move the cattle to the home pasture so gathering them into the corral today would be easier.
My horse relaxed, enjoying the fun of encouraging baby calves to join their mothers and turning the entire herd with subtle position changes.
I had to smile, too, watching the herd come together.
Until I spotted a black, double-stuffed bovine, twice the size of my cows, milling among the mamas.
His buffalo-shaped head and massive shoulders outed him even before he mounted one of the cows.
Of all of the aspects of branding I had worried about, a neighbor’s bull had not crossed my mind.
My bulls were pastured five miles away in an effort to prevent this exact scenario, an early breeding season.
This wandering bull negated that effort. My fences are no better than anyone else’s, but this bull had to wander from at least a couple of miles away.
The bull stayed in the corral with my cows all day. I didn’t have anywhere else to put him. I won’t know how many cows he bred until next February when an early calving season starts at the Graham Ranch.
We finished branding – good help made that job far better than my churning mind had imagined -- turned the cows out to their calves and threw some hay and water to the bull in the corral.
Then I started making phone calls.
First, I called the neighbors who border my ranch. Each checked on their bulls and called back to report that theirs were all still home.
The mystery, along with my geographic circle, widened as I called neighbors farther away. A bull from any of these ranches would have to crawl through at least four fences to visit my cows, but bulls are known to single-mindedly march through many obstacles.
The bull was still in the corral the next morning, but he found a weak spot when a cow in heat snuggled up to the other side of the corral fence. My plans for the day changed and my horse pinned his ears back with the joy of cutting the bull back in the pen.
I had run out of neighbors to call. The next morning, the livestock inspector came to help. He had an app on his phone to track down owners based on the bull’s brand, but the brand was hard to read.
“If I had a $5000 investment roaming on four legs, I’d want my home address to be readable,” he understated.
He tried to take a photo of the bull’s brand as the bull paced the corral. We backed off so the bull would settle down, but to no avail. The cow in heat showed up again. And so did another weak spot in my corral fence.
The inspector and I herded the newlyweds back into the corral. Then, before the bull decided to become a polygamist, we loaded him into my horse trailer, my last option for containment. If he managed to escape from there, I might as well go get my own bulls and plan for a whole-herd February calving season instead of a sprinkling of early calves.
The brand inspector boss showed up later that day to back his horse trailer up to mine. He would haul the bull to the Great Falls livestock auction and advertise him for 10 days. If nobody claimed the bull by then, he would cross the auction floor, become an Arby’s roast beef sandwich and the cash from his sale would wait for the rightful owner.
Meanwhile, I will be fixing fences.