When I was a youngster growing up on the EJE Ranch my siblings (four brothers and one sister) and I had a year-round set of chores to do. The chores varied with the season and included daily and weekly tasks and participation in the various ranch-wide jobs that everyone helped with – branding, weaning, loading cattle, moving cattle, etc.
The chores were a responsibility and were not in any way optional. I think I would have been badly confused if someone had told me I could opt out, or only do my chores when I felt like it. We learned early that each of us shared in the responsibility of husbanding the ranch livestock and in various aspects of maintenance and upkeep.
Don’t get the idea that we, my siblings and I, were perfect little automatons though. We did a lot of whining and complaining; mostly in low-key grumbling but occasionally, when we felt we were being particularly badly used, in loud and vocal complaints. We knew very well that town kids didn’t have to do chores or to negotiate for “time off” for sports or other extracurricular activities. One of my brothers even hinted darkly that he was “…gonna call the humane society.” following a particularly strenuous day of hauling and stacking alfalfa hay.
When we compared our ranch responsibilities against the life of leisure led by our town-kid peers, we easily saw a couple of interesting and non-disputable facts. Yes, we worked hard, but we were also a vital part of a real ranching operation. We were proud of this distinction regardless of how much we grumbled at times. We also knew that none of us worked as hard as our dad did when he was growing up, and that he, in turn, had had it relatively easy when compared to the work that his dad, our grandfather, had been responsible for in his youth.
This last weekend (Mar. 10-11) was the beginning of a week-long spring break for seven of my nieces and nephews, and they and their parents descended on the ranch for a visit and some “farm time.” At one point during the visit my brother and I were reminiscing about morning chores and a couple of the kids started asking questions. Two of the boys, aged 13 and 11, opined that the work we described didn’t seem that hard. So I threw down the gauntlet.
“Do you two want to find out? You can help me in the morning and I’ll let you do the chores we did when I was your age.”
Surprisingly, they agreed. Somewhat more surprisingly, they didn’t back out the next morning.
“Up, up, up!,” I hollered as I snapped on the lights in Riley and Tyler’s room. “Chore time, chore time, up and at ‘em!”
“Already?” asked Riley.
“It’s still dark out!” complained Tyler.
“Sun’s just coming up, time to get to work,” I answered. It was 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, and because of the change to daylight saving time, we’d turned the clocks ahead in the night, effectively shortening it by one hour.
Grumbling and mumbling, I rushed the pair through their morning ablutions. Being city kids, they didn’t know how to dress, so I made sure they wore their jeans and boots and a coat and gave each a pair of work cloves.
“It’s cold out,” said Riley as he shivered in the pre-dawn coolness. The air was still and without a hint of breeze, and the temperature was 35.
“This is warm compared to yesterday,” I said, “and a lot warmer than most winter mornings when I was your age.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Tyler. Change isn’t always better.
“Gotta feed the calves first,” I told them. We always fed there in the far corral, so you guys each take two full buckets of corn, carry them over there, then bring them back here and pour ‘em in the feed bunks inside this near corral.”
“Hey!”, said Tyler, “this stuff weighs a ton! How are we supposed to carry it clear over there and back?”
“It doesn’t weigh a ton,” I said, “only 35 pounds per bucket. Just pick it up and carry it one step at a time. And don’t trip and spill it!”
After much moaning and groaning and only a tiny bit of spillage they managed to get the corn fed.
Huffing and puffing, they set their buckets down and turned toward me, thinking they were done.
“Put the buckets back where you got ‘em,” I said, then come back here so you can feed some hay.”
With a dark look they muttered off toward the barn, empty buckets swinging, then returned.
Neither was thrilled about feeding hay, and neither had ever used a pitchfork. After some time they got the hang of it and finished distributing hay along the feed rack. Now they were surely done, right?
Both boys just looked at me, gape-mouthed and incredulous, when I described their next task, checking water and breaking ice. There was no ice in the corral stock tank, so I let them each take 25 sledge-hammer swings against an old tractor tire.
The physical work had shaken loose the sleepy cobwebs, the boys were now wide awake and sweating just a bit.
“Okay,” I said, now walk through that pen you just fed and come tell me which one is sick. I know,” I said, raising my hand, “you don’t know what to look for, just take a close look at each one and tell me which one you think is sick.”
After 10 minutes and an extended whispered conversation, they reported back.
“They all look the same to me,” said Tyler.
“How are you supposed to tell?” asked Riley.
As it turned out, there hadn’t been a sick animal in the pen. I pointed out the signs of good health to the boys, then described what a sick animal might look like, how it might behave. “The point is, you have to assess the health of the animals every time you look at them. It’s a habit you have to develop in this business. But you guys did a good job looking. In fact, you did a good job with the chores. You ready to start doing this every day?”