"Strength and Hardiness of Cattle" by Nathan Lee, Barber County, Kansas Barber County, Kansas.  

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The Strength and Hardiness of Cattle

by Nathan Lee

I am constantly amazed by how strong and hardy cattle really are. We ranchers take this for granted because most of the time cattle are very quiet and seem pretty dull. I have always gotten a little too close to cattle when crowding them to load or sort. Mom is fond of saying "watch out, they're bigger than you are." I am aware of this but I know that most of the time they will not intentionally hurt me. Most accidents are not caused by aggressive cattle.

"Nathan, he/she's 5 times bigger than you are!!", she says. They are actually much stronger than that. Pound for pound, a man doesn't stand a chance in a contest of brute strength. A 250 lb man can do virtually nothing to a 250 lb calf. I have tried many, many times to overpower a calf to treat it or whatever. Many bad accidents result from being slammed into a rigid corral fence. A calf at a dead run can knock you into a wall so hard you'd think you got hit by a professional football player. The difference though is that the calf will bounce off you AND the wall and scamper off unscathed. Getting trampled is always a risk. Most of the time the animal will NOT step on you -- just run over you. I believe this is because they are prey animals and are naturally conscious of their footing. They really only want to get away and would not want to trip up on you. I have been knocked to the ground many times by animals just trying to get away. I have never been stepped on. Even when I am intentionally forced away by a cow protecting her calf she never steps on me. You can watch this attention to footing in any rodeo. The saddlebronc and the bucking bull usually don't step on the rider even when he's "hung up" in the rope.

A high school wrestler can effectively disable another competitor with a dozen moves and holds. A calf, however, is at a distinct advantage here also. There is only ONE move I can execute to disable a calf with my bare hands. And I have to get close enough to its head to do that. "Mugging" or steer wrestling is where a cowboy twists the calf's head back around to its own neck. A man could easily kill another man doing this, but it very difficult to kill a steer this way. Of course I can use a rope to choke it or tie its legs up but this is "cheating". If I try to hold a leg or squeeze the calf around the middle (bear hug) I will not be able to last 10 seconds. I've caught hundreds of calves this way (it is easier than catching their head) trying to tag or treat them and I assure you it is not an effective means of control. They can kick and thrash so violently that it is no contest (with a 250 lb calf). A frail woman can disable a man 3 times her size with a kick to the crotch. This technique does nothing to a bull, believe me.

Ranchers spend a lot of time repairing fences. The damage I have seen to fences is another indicator of the strength and hardiness of cattle. Our corral fences (at the Windmill) used to be made of wood. There were four 2 x 6 boards on the face of the fence nailed to 6-inch thick posts. Plus, there was another 2 x 6 nailed flat to the top of the posts (a top cap). I remember being amazed at how strong they seemed to me. I saw 2 bulls shove another bull right through the entire fence. Not only did he break every board, he broke one of the posts off at ground level. Of course he was completely unhurt. (About 1980 ??)

We had a bull named Mr. Clean. He was not fond of staying in anywhere we wanted him. I remember sorting him off from the cows at the gate going into the "sick" pen (southwest corner of the hog barn). This gate used to be one of those "FarmMaster" gates, make of riveted sheetmetal rails. I have seen stronger gates, but this is a pretty decent gate. Mr. Clean did not take this separation well and he put his head under the gate and bent it into a triangle. (He bent a rectangular gate diagonally). It's important to note that he was NOT in a rage. He wasn't running and hitting it. He WALKED calmly through it like it was not even there. These sights are etched in my mind to this day because it is unbelievable that something can be that strong.

In 1990 we rebuilt the entire west corral (Windmill) and the home corrals. We chose to use 3-inch pipe buried in concrete as our posts. We put these on 7-foot centers with 5 rows of sucker rods for rails (3/4 inch round bars that look about as big as a broomstick). On top of the line posts we put another 3-inch pipe. It is the top cap "saddle-jointed" into the line posts. We were so proud of this system that we thought it would be foolproof. After 13 years of use I'm not so sure. In each of the last 2 years I've seen a bull ("Fred" and "39") walk through the same hole through this indestructible fence. Both bulls just put their heads through it, bent the rods like shoestrings, and stepped through them. These are bars WELDED to pipes like you'd find in a maximum security prison. "Back to the drawing board." I've often said that if we had a 6 foot brick wall, they'd find a way through it.

It doesn't really even take a bull to break this system. MANY times a large group of calves has "spooked" and bent all 5 sucker rods like a pretzel. How do they do this?? I've taken the same material (a 3 foot length of rod) and used it as a "cheater" bar (lever) to lift objects weighing hundreds of pounds. I have a hard enough time bending this stuff by heating it with a cutting torch. At weaning time we leave, say 150 calves, penned up overnight in these corrals. In the morning we find the pens "pretzeled" and a few calves are out. Obviously, they got shoved through the fence in a tremendous stampede. (Feed bunks with 200 lbs of feed in them are tossed around like coffee cans.) I do not understand how, on many occasions, not ONE calf is even hurt.

Barbed-wire fence is a complete joke. It is only used because it is a bluff 99 % of the time and therefore pretty effective. Most of our fence damage is done by deer jumping over fences. They frequently trip over the top wire and break it. 2 bulls, on opposite sides of a fence, are a fence-builder's dream. In a second they can give you an hour's work. I remember going to Ted Alexander's to look at one of his fence-wrecking stampedes. About 1/2 mile east of his house 400 yearlings had spooked (lightning?). They had torn out at least 50 yards of 5-wire fence. Every T-post was bent over or broken and every wire was broken and tangled. The ground was churned up and brush and trees were scraped up. I told Ted that I didn't think a person could do more damage with a bulldozer. No cattle were even scratched.

I remember hearing of a local boy who ran into a barbed-wire fence with an ATV. Although he had winter clothes on he still had over 200 stitches in his legs. I can't fix fence for very many hours without getting several nicks and cuts on my hands/arms. I understand that cattle have thick skin. The things I have seen really make me wonder though. I have given shots (vaccinations) to cattle my entire life. I know that a calf has MUCH thinner skin than a tough old cow. A shot goes in with very little effort. I want someone to explain to me how a day-old baby calf can run right through a fence and not have a single scratch. And I mean they can run THROUGH it as fast as I can run in an open field. They do it all the time. I cannot count the number of times I have seen cattle plow over, under, or through barbed-wire. Every rancher has. The MOST damage I have ever seen is a scraped nose that I would hardly bother to put a Band-Aid on if it were my child's. The mystery deepens...

More evidence of the hardiness of cattle -----

Several years ago ABS (semen company) had advertised a bull they called "Stubby the Survivor." Maybe they thought they could sell more semen if ranchers could make their cattle tougher with Survivor genetics. Supposedly, Stubby was born in the worst blizzard in Montana history (minus 60 wind chill and FEET of snow... I don't remember the details). Of course Stubby had no ears or tail. We lose those rather easily even here in mild Kansas. What was peculiar is that Stubby only weighed about 55 pounds --- what we call a "calving-ease" bull. Most Angus calves weigh 70 to 80 lbs and would have a distinct advantage in the cold.

Sometimes we go out in the morning after a "big blow" (blizzard) and find calves that have not gone with the cows to find protection. There they sit on top of a barren hill with only packed snow or ice under them. Many actually seem quite content. Cows can have calves in 2 feet of snow in unspeakable wind-chill. As long as they get those calves dried off (licked off) quickly, and nursed with colostrum, many will do pretty well. By the way, how does a wobbly calf stand to nurse when it's blowing 60 mph?? Of course we lose many calves to exposure. It is not a bed of roses. BUT, it is incredible that ANY of them survive at all. Mike Chinn told me he once saw a load of heavy-springer heifers come into the Pratt salebarn. One of them had calved on the truck, down in about 8 inches of slurry manure. The cow and calf both claimed each other despite being covered in manure (smell interference). The calf was unharmed.

In about 97 or 98 we had a blizzard. The mature bulls were locked up in the WindMill corral on top of the hill at the time. It was about as bad as it ever gets here. Terrible wind, low temps, 8 inches of snow. Dad and I decided that we should drive out (?) and get those bulls off the hill. (You begin to feel really fortunate that you are inside and worry alot about the cattle outside) It was a virtual "whiteout". We crept out there (2 miles) and I tied the gate open and hurried back to the pickup to avoid the wind. (Your nose and ears would really hurt after about 10 seconds). About half of the bulls found the open gate and headed south to the hills. The other bulls (5 or 6 head) were right there watching those bulls leave. This means they KNEW it was open. 2 of the bulls (Scotchy and LeePierre) despised each other and had to fight rather than go through the gate together. Those bulls fought like there was no tomorrow. The remaining bulls, who were younger, thought this was quite amusing. They were bellowing and bucking and playing, watching these big bulls fight. It looked like a tornado of bull flesh whipping up snow. Still convinced they were "suffering" I yelled and chased them around to get them to leave. They just continued to fight, ignoring the weather. I know these bulls did not like the foul conditions. But they chose to play and fight rather than get out of the wind. The weather was obviously more serious to me than it was to them.

A mature animal can survive almost any cold. When the big blizzards hit the big feedlots in Western Kansas (where the cattle can't get out of the wind) the cattle losses are due to drifting snow and suffocating, not exposure. A big yard with no protection (and unyielding fences) might lose about 10 to 15 % of the stock in an extreme blizzard. I've heard that once they are able to climb out (because of snow depth) they can get out of the wind and drifting snow that suffocates them. In the Blizzard of 1971 on this ranch we didn't lose more than 2 % of our cows. That was a once-every-100 years storm. Those cows stood in one place for 3 days with no feed or water. No one could get to them. The calves that survived did so because they stayed under and between the big cows like a tent. I remember that you could literally walk up on top of the house using the snow drifts.


Seven drowned heifers in a pond on the Lee Ranch, Barber County, Kansas.

Photo by Nathan Lee.
Seven drowned heifers in a pond on the Lee Ranch, Barber County, Kansas.
Photo courtesy of Nathan Lee.

"Last week we noticed 2 heifers had fallen thru the ice in a pond. The next day another one surfaced so we moved the pasture elsewhere. Then 3 more came up. I don't think we've ever lost a mature animal to pond ice, but many new calves over the years. The only thing different is that we dredged this pond out with a backhoe a couple years ago, but didn't lose any last year in here.....hmmmm.....Still can't figure out why all of them appeared in different places in the pond. Does NOT surprise me that these are bred heifers and not cows. Cows are a little smarter. (This picture was taken after they drifted to the shoreline)." -- E-mail from Nathan Lee to Jerry Ferrin, 08 January 2008.


Thanks to Nathan Lee contributing the above essay and photograph to this web site! "Strength and Hardiness of Cattle" was first published here on Nate's own web site, Solardollars.com.

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