Thursday, December 1, 2011

Close, but no disaster

I can reel off dozens of reasons I love being a fourth generation rancher.

I grew up in the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb., and from the earliest age I can remember, I got to explore the entirety of the ranch, both alone and with brothers and friends. Over the last 50 years I’ve become intimately familiar with the landscape in all seasons, in good years and bad years, on the most beautiful days imaginable and under the harshest conditions the High Plains can dish out.

That long-term relationship (which included twice-yearly working visits while I served in the navy) is among the top reasons I love what I do.

There are many others, but I don’t have time or space this week to do them justice, and I don’t want to produce some ridiculously inane top-ten list.

But at the top of the list – by a wide margin – is the fact that ranching drives humility deep into the core of my being. With a very big hammer. That’s simply the way it is.

I feel pretty good about the quality and quantity of my ranching knowledge. Not very many people can ask me a ranching question – no matter how detailed or arcane – which I cannot answer with relative ease.

Nevertheless, very few days go by when I don’t learn an unexpected lesson. A good, solid, valuable lesson.

I hauled bred heifers to winter pasture last Thursday. There were only 24, so three trips with the stock trailer did it.

And I did it the right way. I checked the pickup and trailer when I hooked up. Engine, fine, pickup and trailer brakes fine, lights working correctly. The tires on both pickup and trailer were inflated properly and had no obvious nicks, cuts, or wear. Good to go. Though my dogged attention to detail has been known to drive people to distraction, there’s a real upside to the navy training that taught me to take care of my equipment and pay attention to detail. After all, I’d be transporting $12,000 worth of cattle on each trip.

As those of you who’ve read my columns on low-stress handling can attest, it’s a method I believe in and use. So loading the rarely-stressed, calm cattle, eight at a time, was an easy one man job.

And all went well on the first trip.

When I came home to pick up the second load, I backed the trailer too quickly and bumped the rear door frame against the loading chute, bending it enough to make sliding the door closed a problem. Not an insurmountable problem though, and I managed to close the door.

The remainder of the second trip went well. After unloading the heifers, I decided to fix the bent door frame using the time-honored sledgehammer technique. I left the rear door closed, climbed inside through the side door, and soon had the frame straightened and the door sliding like new.

I flew back home, loaded the last eight heifers, rechecked the tires and connections, and headed back to the winter pasture. As I arrived and drove through the gate, a flash of movement in the right-side mirror caught my eye.

It was the trailer side door swinging open. The one I had forgotten to latch after fixing the bent door frame.

I was initially terrified. I could picture eight crumpled heifers in my mind, spread out along the road, battered, broken, and surely dying.

I quickly jumped out of the pickup and latched the door, relieved to find that there were still eight heifers aboard.

After dropping them off I could only scratch my head in wonder. How could it be that they hadn’t simply walked off the trailer as I loaded them? Why didn’t they jump or fall out during the jostling of the trip? How could I (and the heifers) have been so lucky? And perhaps most importantly, how could I have been so dumb?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. Coincidence, lucky break, smart cattle, divine intervention? Maybe all of the above.

Everything worked out in the end, which is important.

But pulling a boneheaded stunt like that was a very humbling experience.

Those experiences seem to happen when my hat starts to get too small. I know a lot, but there’s a big difference between what I know and what I think I know.

And that’s a darned fine lesson.

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