dairlyland days

Hot-wired fences make for an electrifying cattle drive

March 1, 2017 

Frank Mello cattle ranched on the old Sutton/Bumguardner ranch to the west of my place. The Strathern Bros. (George and Doug) had a large spread to the east on Road 12 with Berenda Slough between us. Our farm was on Road 11. Strathern Bros. had a small feedlot on the southern end of their ranch.

Frank had about 100 head of steers he wanted to move from his place to the Strathern feed lot. It was only about 2 miles. Why load them on trailers and make an all-day job out of something that could be done in a couple of hours with a leisurely cattle drive?

This was a time when I had miles of electric fences around my place, both border and exterior fences as well as cross fences. There were even hot wires around much of Berenda Slough. The cattle kept the slough clean, too. Nowadays this is against the law. The cows might get manure in a federal waterway and cause a hazard to some fish in the dry slough.

And so it was, Frank got several cowboys and started his leisurely cattle drive down Avenue 18. The first mile or so went really smooth. The road was fenced on both sides with barbed wire. The first 20 or so steers crossed Road 11 when the leaders, the fastest and wildest of the bunch, got their first taste of the hot wires.

Unlike dairy cattle, who tend to back up when they get shocked, the steers attacked. When they felt the jolt they bounded forward and busted through the wire. They let out a loud bellow and stampeded across the field with 80 more in tow. They saw a bunch of cows ahead, pleasantly grazing, and looked to them for comfort. Between the spooked steers and the dairy cows were four more hot wires.

By the time they got to the mama cows, most of them had gotten a jolt and were extremely panicked. They busted the wires and ran past the herd of dairy cows on their way to Berenda Slough. At about this time the dairy cows noticed the six men on horseback running through their safe haven. They had never seen such a thing before. They stampeded and joined the steers in the run for their lives. When things finally calmed down there were 100 steers and 150 milk cows scattered along the banks of the slough and six befuddled cowboys wondering what to do next.

How were they going to separate the milk cows from the steers? Frank had been a dairyman and he knew driving the milk cows to Strathern corrals and back was too stressful on the milk cows. Trying to separate them in the open spaces was impossible.

Luckily my dad, Clifton Ray, was watching this fiasco from his porch. He drove over to the slough and asked Frank to let the cattle calm down while he got more help. The help he was referring to was the feed wagon and me. He knew that if we took the feed wagon down to the milk cows, they would follow the wagon home.

Sure enough as we drove by slowly with the wagon, the dairy cows recognized the sweet smell of corn silage in the wagon. They separated themselves from the steers and followed us to the barn. The steers, not being familiar with the feed wagon, chose to stay behind in the comfort of the slough. With the milk cows neatly separated into their corral, the original cattle drive and the cowboys were able to continue to the Strathern feed lot.

Frank was a great neighbor. He got several guys to help and we were able to get the fences back up and operational in a few hours. Frank commented as we finished, “Maybe it would have been faster to haul the steers in the trailers.”

Ronnie Ray is a third-generation dairyman and has lived in the Dairyland area for more than 60 years.

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