(Originally published in Off-Centre Magazine, November 2009)
My favourite part was when Abbie, my horse, bit the cow.
My hosts had sent Abbie and myself into the middle of the herd of Angus/Hereford cross cattle and told me to separate the yearlings from the rest so we could weigh the yearlings and the calves. An average weight for the calves, Mr. Shook suggested, should be between 400 and 650 pounds, an average for the yearlings anywhere from 650 to 1000. That’s a lot of steak still on the hoof. I may have hesitated briefly about the whole wading into the middle of the crowd thing.
“Just point her in there,” Mrs. Shook said to me, “She’ll know what to do.” And indeed, when the cow didn’t move directly out of her way, Abbie slanted her chestnut ears back and bit the heifer right on the rump.
“Is that normal?” I ask my hosts.
“Oh yeah, some of them do that.”
Later, when the yearlings had been separated and weighed, we ground tied the horses in front of the gap in the fence, and Abbie became a makeshift gate. When the calves stampeded her way, she snapped her neck up, flattened her ears, and barred her teeth. She didn’t so much as shift her weight from one foot to the other, though, and with the horses standing their ground, the calves swerved out of the way and into the paddock the Shook’s had opened up for them.
It was easy to forget, on the four hour drive from my home in Lake Country to the Shook’s cattle ranch in Vavenby, that the cattle drive I was about to participate in was about more than a good time, more than fun-in-the-sun on horseback. It was easy to forget, as I looked into the warm chocolate brown eyes of these baby cows, that the final destination for these creatures was some hungry meat lover’s plate. They were... cute. Especially the littlest ones. And the Shook’s knew all their stories.
“That one isn’t as bad as it might have been,” they say to one another as the smallest calf is weighed in at only three hundred-something pounds. “Her mother died last week,” Mrs. Shook turns to me and explains. “She was old and hadn’t been doing well. We managed to get the calf adopted by another cow, though.” Another calf which weighed in at under four hundred pounds had been born a twin, they tell me. When the first 900+ pound yearling refuses to cooperate, trying first to back off the scale and then refusing to go forward and exit once the gate is opened, they look at each other. “You know who this one is,” Mrs. Shook says to her husband, and he nods. He looks at me. “Her mother was exactly the same way.”
“How do you keep from getting attached?” I ask Mrs. Shook.
“Oh, it happens,” she replied, “but...” She shrugs off the rest of the thought. They are in the cattle business. Sentiment is not a financial asset.
The Shook family has been doing business since the late sixties; this ranch has been my host’s home as long as he can remember. His wife -- originally from England -- has been in the country twenty-nine years. Together they worked the ranch, raised a family. She points out the tiny original family home. Then she shows me her brother-in-law’s house, perched on top of a hill overlooking the spread of the ranch. Even from a distance, it is a massive, impressive looking structure. It’s rented now. The brother they have ranched with is gone, split over some family dispute Mrs. Shook doesn’t detail.
Mr. Shook’s brother is not the only family member to leave. The three Shook children, all grown, have also left. Their son is a Vancouver cop; one of their daughter’s has recently produced a first grandchild. “They all love the ranch,” Mrs. Shook tells me, “But there is no money in it. So they end up where they do. ” Cattle prices, after all, have not recovered since Mad Cow. According to Mrs. Shook, prices hit a high at around $1.10 a pound. Now they are a fraction of that. “You can’t really be in it for the money; you have to do it because you love the life. Most ranchers have a job outside the ranch.”
For the Shook’s, extra income comes from the trail rides and guest cattle drives they have now offered for more than a decade. They have catered to vacationers from Germany, Holland, even China. I ask about insurance premiums and the Shook’s seem surprised by my question. The dollar figure they quote me is entirely reasonable. Then I ask the question I am most curious about, the question I feel silliest asking.
“What about cattle rustlers?”
“Oh, yes,” they tell me, “There are.” Every cattle magazine they have ever read has at least one article about safeguarding the herd, indication, Mrs. Shook feels, that others have had this problem. In their instance, they lost six heifers from their herd on the annual trip to their daughter’s Four H competition. “These were big cows,” they tell me, “No way that was animals.”
Although still a working ranch, the herd of 150 they had when the Shook brothers co-farmed now sits between 30 and 40 head. Even as such, it takes the three of us four hours to drive the cattle from their aspen-sheltered pasture, across the road, past the house and to the cattle pens at the end of the drive, then separate and weigh this year’s group, then drive them back again. The Shook’s nod expressively when I remark that it must have taken a lot of time to perform these tasks with a herd of 150. “Exponentially longer. Every part of it is more complicated.” I can see that. And for myself, four hours in the saddle – while a wonderful way to spend an Autumn Monday -- is plenty.
I leave with waves and with apples. Also, I leave feeling bruises already forming on my thighs. I also leave with their business flyer folded in my back pocket. The Shook’s can be found online – just type in Vavenby Trail Rides.
Driving home, I realize that all that healthy fresh air has left me starving. Suddenly my mouth is watering. And for dinner, what else? I am thinking steak.