After an incredible weekend of bird watching and wildlife encounters, I was picked up at the bus station by the ranch manager and his son to head to La Union for the workweek. At the ranch I was greeted by the housekeeper, the only other woman at the ranch (and a kind and wonderful host), gave me the morning to look around and relax before I started following the gauchos around. Being at La Union was relaxing in a way. It had the calming effect of being at the ocean. That may have been because it felt like I had been dropped into an ocean of grass. I couldn’t help but think back to those first European settlers trying to make their livelihoods on that vast prairie. Cattle would have been essential for a multitude of reasons: meat and leather being the foremost, but even their bones were used in ingenious ways as these “chairs” made from a cow’s pelvic bones demonstrate. Horses would have been vitally essential for transportation and moving cattle (they are still used daily for the later), and sheep were necessary for their wool and also as meat animals. Life felt more peaceful at the estancia, but also more raw, stripped down to the bare essentials, which not even the comfort of the estancia house – with it’s antique furniture, comfortable beds, and Direct TV – could erase.
It was spring in Argentina, the time when calves were being born. With 4,000 cows on La Union’s 14,000 hectares, that’s a lot of work for the men who keep track of the livestock. Because the weather had been dryer than normal that year, they were working even harder than usual at the ranch. They had weaned the calves early – at five to six weeks (instead of the more normal five to six months), so that their mothers would be in condition to be re-bred without the added stress of a milking calf when the forage conditions were not optimal. The hundreds of calves that had all been weaned at the same time were in a corral in the middle of the stockyard. Their inconsolable bellowing was inescapable even from inside the estancia house, which stood a fair bit away from the stockyard. At the stockyard the gauchos were in the process of artificially impregnating 100 cows a day and vaccinating hundreds of other young cows, steers, and bulls. The constant crying of the calves made the drama of watching endless cows be herded into the shoot to be artificially inseminated even more stressful and reminded me of depictions of certain levels in hell in Dante’s Inferno.
In the stockyard, I was confronted with the realities that constitute the life of beef cattle which involve being poked, prodded, branded, castrated or impregnated at man’s will. But as soon as I witnessed the cattle back in the field, things were put back into perspective. The amount of time the cows were in the stockyard was small in comparison to their life spent grazing in an open grassland, and their time in the shoot, where the very efficient and expert ranch manager impregnated the cows with a “straw” of semen and his bare hand was even smaller – five minutes or less. Those hundreds of calves calling for their departed mothers had known their mothers for two to three months – two to three months longer than millions of dairy calves in Europe and America who are plucked away from their mother’s as soon as they are born. The cattle at La Union had it as good as any domestic anywhere. Being brought face to face with the worried bellowing of distressed cows – the whites of their eyes rolling in fear and their frantic scrambling when the curved wooden sides of the shoot clamped swiftly around their necks – made me feel compassion, not just for cows, but for every creature, including humans, because we all have to endure scary and stressful experiences.
Even though I am not much of a carnivore, I am not immune to the romance of the ranching lifestyle. Having grown up riding horses, it was great fun to ride horse back across the expansive grassland herding or observing cows. I followed two or the ranches top gauchos on their daily activities. An average spring day starts at sunrise, surveying the herds of Bhramen cattle on horseback to check on any new born calves. If a new calf is born, it is captured with the swing and tug of a leather lasso so it can be weighed and vaccinated. This required two gauchos because the mother cow was not happy to see her newborn calf apparently being mauled by two humans. Some cows were more aggressive than others and one man was occupied with keeping the angry mother at bay by snapping a bull whip while the other gaucho went about his business. I was impressed with the trust that these farm hands have in each other. Their lives often depend upon the skill and courage of their co-workers. While the mother cow was kept at a safe distance, each calf and its weight was recorded in a notebook. Each mother cow had a numbered tag on her ear, but I could tell that the gauchos were familiar with each animal as an individual not just a number. I often was frustrated by the language barrier. Most of my research on the ranch was limited only by what I could observe since no one that worked on the ranch spoke English and the little Spanish I knew wasn’t enough to converse about cattle behavior.
A good part of a gaucho’s day involves herding cows to and from the stockyard. With 4,000 cows on the ranch this is a big job. After spending at least 12 hours in the saddle that week, I didn’t even see half of the ranch. The Bhraman cattle were the easiest to herd. If they knew where they were going, they practically herded themselves. We were just there to open gates. The Herefords and pampa cows were a little more unpredictable and moving those herds required some skill – though the horses knew their jobs as well as anybody and most of the time I just sat on my horse and let it do its job.
- When not in the field, the gauchos were in the stockyard. All artificial insemination and vaccination was either conducted by or directed by the ranches manager, Luis Sanchez, a middle-aged wry man with graying sideburns that would make a rock star envious and an omnipresent cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. This man made any task involving cattle look almost effortless – and after watching one of the other gauchos artificially inseminate several cows – it is difficult to make that task look effortless. One of my favorite moments on the ranch, was watching him wield a vaccination “gun”. As a line of steers trotted through the chute he injected each one with perfect timing while nonchalantly taking a drag from his cigarette every so often. His son, Jacinto, who was equally skillful at handling cattle, was in charge of taking care of me for the week. They were both excellent hosts and guides and even though we couldn’t talk about much, I learned a great deal about working with cattle from them.
By the end of the week, I had a feeling for what the life of the average cow and cow hand is like at a traditional Argentine estancia. I could tell that the all-cattle-all-the-time lifestyle was beginning to affect me when I was awoken in the middle of the night by an increasingly loud noise. I was staying all alone in an estancia house that was nearly one hundred years old. Being awoken at 2 or three in the morning I was a little disoriented and what I heard sounded like a herd of cows trotting down the road in front of the house. As the noise increased in intensity, I realized that it must have been rain hitting the house’s metal roof. But alone in an estancia house at the witching hour, it didn’t seem to matter if it were rain or a herd of cows on the move.