COLUMN: A rancher’s best of times, worst of times


It is the best of times.

Calving at its finest. The calling of those chosen to tend God’s creatures. To take part in simple miracles. To alter the balance of life on earth by one small addition.

It is the worst of times.

Calving in the midst of a winter when one needs a depth finder to see the top of the market. When it is less worrisome to lose oneself in the task of daily responsibilities easing the burden of birth, than thinking about the price of next fall’s over-crowded weaner crop.

A dilemma, some would say.

But does knowing the decreased value of beef make a cowman think less of that heifer in trouble or that new calf layin’ in the straw? Does her dollar price somehow affect her value as a creation? As a work of art planned, worked on and created by a cowman, a cow and God?

Does the price of a first calf heifer affect a cowman’s responsibility to her well-being? 

Does his effort, concentration and skill decrease when she’s calving as the market price decreases?

Does he try harder to get a live calf if she’s worth more at the sale?

These questions are best answered, not philosophically or hypothetically, but in reality. At 3 a.m. when you hook the chains to newborn feet and start to pull, does cost cross your mind? When you rub the calf down and push him under her flank do you see dollar signs?

When you gaze over the turnout field and cows grazing contentedly while calves chase each other around ‘em, do you get a good feeling? Smile maybe and relax for a moment, thankful all is well? Or are you too occupied with their price to appreciate what you’re seeing?

The dilemma I’m presenting really isn’t much of a problem for most cow people I know. The calving barn is a long way in time and miles and thought from the auction ring.

After all, we tend to our flocks in bad weather, hard times, illness, chapped hands, aching backs, mad patients and yes, bad markets.

I think when we lay down in the straw or mud behind a heifer needin’ help, the price per pound is the farthest thing from our mind. So, in spite of all the well-meaning (and correct) consultants who keep reminding us that what we do is a business, it is also, beyond any doubt, a way of life.

Baxter Black’s “On the Edge of Common Sense” is a regular feature in the Malheur Enterprise.