Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Did I Short Shorty?

I know a few things.

Many who know me will say "a very few things", I concur. But let me get serious about something very dear to me...

I've worked, unwittingly, in most parts of the "farm/ranch-to-table" movement. Problem is it wasn't called "that" then.

I grew up riding a tractor, farming mostly wheat, raising cattle and breaking horses. I've spent several seasons on a harvest crew; several years working in a feedlot; implanted cattle with steroids and shot'em full of antibiotics; spent a year butchering in a meat market (still doing hanging beef then, thank you very much); a year of agro-science studies; worked closely with the acclaimed meat judging team from OSU; culinary school; and cooked along side two of Dallas' "celebrity" chefs.

I know what farm-to-table is, more so than most.

Regrets, I have many, but on the anticipatory eve of viewing the film "Food, Inc.", one is now standing proud. His name is Shorty.

Shorty was a hip-locked calf I delivered early one Sunday morning when I was eighteen-years-old. His mother died during the delivery and I, for the bargain-basement sum of fifteen dollars, was able to purchase Shorty. He was sickly, not expected to spend much time on this earth and I considered it a bargain from the twenty to thirty dollar going rate. After all I at least attempted to save him from being taken (alive) to the "dead pile". Fifteen Washingtons from a guy making $2.80/hr...pfffft.

I loaded him (encrusted in placenta) in the front seat of my 1970 Ford F-150 (mustard and white with cloth seats for those wanting to know) and took him home, stopping along the way at the feed supply to pickup formula and nursing bottles.

I taught the runty brown and white spotted calf to nurse by smearing my fingers with sugar and forcing them in his mouth. Shorty was a trooper. He learned quickly, he fed and grew...but always wanted to suckle my fingers.

When the time came I sold Shorty back to the feedlot for a princely sum of a few hundred dollars. The cash in my pocket eased the loss of my "pet".

For a short while...

The following weekend at the feedlot, when I was "walking pens" and looking for sick cattle or other things needing attention, I spotted Shorty and he spotted me. It turned to a nightmare that still occasionally haunts me.

Shorty charged, I froze. Just before the point of impact he skidded to a stop and opened his mouth, extended his neck and tongue wanting to suckle my fingers. He recognized me, he missed me. I obliged his wants, right there in pen #78.

Two days later was a day to "work" the cattle and included worming, hormones, antibiotics, earmarking, vaccination and castration. Pen #78 was on the short list.

My job for the day was running the squeeze chute, worming and castration.

I'll be honest, working cattle is not a pretty sight. There's blood and other bodily fluids, excrement, moaning, struggle and stench. And that's from the cowboys.

The cattle have it worse. Needles re-used, Bic lighters sized pill forced down their throat with an eighteen-inch stainless steel plunger, holes punched in their ears, red-hot branding irons, subcutaneous ear steroids, horn tips clipped to the point of spewing blood, and most cruelly, castrated with dull and unsanitary instruments.

I wept when Shorty came through the chute. Even the most hardened cowboys were moved, knowing that I had raised Shorty.

After that day everyone respected that any chore needed in pen #78 wasn't to be put on my to-do list.

Until...

*{The backstory - "Asphault Cowboys" (aka truck drivers that haul cattle) are a special group. They drive long hours and aren't able to "take a four or more hour break" because they have a "live load". They drive, they have a schedule, they're appreciated and accommodated.}

The call came in late one night that a driver was waiting on his load. I was told the cattle were sorted and waiting in a holding pen near the loading chute. All I needed to do was unlock the gates and load the cattle, in numbered groups, as the truck driver requested. Easy money. I thought.

In the largest group to be loaded on the bottom of the double-decker truck was an eight-hundred-something pound brown and white spotted steer from pen #78 still wanting to suckle my fingers. I had to prod him with a Hot Shot to get him to turn and move towards the ramp to the trailer and repeatedly prod him up the ramp as he continued to look back with a "whatssup" look in his eyes.

Want to know what happened next? Watch for my "Food, Inc." movie review tomorrow.

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