There was shit everywhere. It smelled like fermented lawn, but I digress.
Barret and I were working on a farm in Marlborough after contacting the owners, Mike and Kate, through a help exchange program. Although they had other sources of revenue, cattle and sheep were the backbone of the farm and they dotted the hills like grains of rice. Their pastures were connected to the farmhouse by dirt roads, although road is a misnomer. They were actually bumpy tracks that traced the curves of the hills and ran along a deep gorge that bisected the property. Considering we drove around in their old Land Cruiser, it pretty much felt like a safari.
Our first few days were spent in the gardens cutting hedges and laying down hay. Aside from pollen allergies and skin rashes, we felt capable and perhaps a bit confident that we had what it takes to be a farmer. After five days into our stay, we were invited to help out with the cattle marking.
I had only a vague notion about what it meant to be a cowboy and most of what I imagined involved horses, five gallon hats, and days that usually ended with a hot iron searing the hindquarters of a cow, the smoke drifting up in curlicues against a crimson sunset.
Instead, there was shit everywhere. On the corral walls, on the ground, it streaked down the back of their legs like leaky pipes and collected on the unfortunate head of the animal behind. I always thought cows looked clean when I saw them grazing, but I never realized that as soon as they are in a confined space they shit mounds and pee waterfalls everywhere.
“COMEEEE ON,” Mike growled to keep them moving forward. “HAVE A LOOK.”
“HAVE A LOOK,” Tony chimed in, “COME ON. HAVE A LOOK.”
The cattle calls reminded me of the aggressive salespeople at cell phone kiosks, no wonder the cows weren’t cooperative.
There were several pens of varying sizes that eventually lead into a narrow corral about two and a half feet wide. A long ledge ran down either side of the tall wooden slats and it was from here that Mike and Tony, our guiding cowboys, interacted with the cattle.
Instead of rope and hot irons there were plastic tags, plastic bottles of spray, and needles attached to plastic IV bags. From the perch on the far side of the corral, Barret gave five squirts of a lice spray onto every backside. Mike told me to stand clear of the fumes, but even from a distance the scent was overpowering, like drowning in pungent grass clippings.
While Barret walked down the line, Tony worked in the opposite direction with purple syringes of Vitamin B and a pink vaccination shot. He adjusted the height of the needle’s chamber so that an identical dose would be given to each cow.
Just before the cattle were released, their ears were checked for identification tags. A lifetime of heart-shaped hole punches and piercings had turned their furry ears into a pastoral scrapbook. The tags were a necessary part of farm management and indicated when they cows were born and who they had bred with. The hole punches, which indentified gender, were a relic from their androgenous youth.
In the event a tag was missing, Mike pulled a lever right before the cow was run out of the corral. Two parallel bars swooped across to create a bovine headlock while Mike deftly moved in. Once the tag was attached he released the lever and the cow ran free.
“COME ONNNNN.” Tony yelled as he smacked the rumps of a group of calves. “HAVEALOOK, HURRY UP.”
Because the calves were smaller, Tony jumped into the back of the corral and pushed them forward like an aggressive bookend. With his head resting just above a shit-covered tail and his body moulded against the calf’s rear end, he reached round to assess its gender. It was at that point, when Tony clutched a pair of balls in his hand, that I lost all illusions. Being a cowboy is dirty and tough and I was completely out of my element.
How to organize a work exchange program: helpx.net