Farm Progress

My life as Dr. Doolittle

Jeff Ryan 3

August 22, 2006

10 Min Read

I’ve worked with cattle ever since I was old enough to walk. Some would say I was working with them even before then.

One day when I was just a toddler, I was walking through the feedlot near the bunks when a steer suddenly backed out from the bunk and kicked me solidly in the chest. He knocked me to the ground and knocked the wind out of me. I don’t remember much about it besides the impact, but my older sister still tells the story of me getting plastered by this brute and how badly I was hurt. All I know is that I had a bruise the size of a dinner plate right in the middle of my chest for a long time after that. When Mom or Dad would tell somebody about my injury, I would lift up my shirt and, with great pride, display a hoofprint that more or less covered my chest. “SEE?! He got me right HERE!” Yeah, like they’d miss it.

From that day forward, I swore that I would get even with those bovines if it were the last thing I ever did.

Today, I have a pasture about four miles away from my place that I rent from an older gentleman named Ralph. The pasture is about 60 acres, and the land is as close to flat as you will get in northeast Iowa. There are no trees and no buildings on this pasture. It’s just grass.

Since there are no buildings, there are also no facilities to load cattle from this pasture. So at the end of the grazing season each year, we have a good-ol’-fashioned cattle drive. We get about 10 people together to guard the various field and farmyard gates, and we drive the cattle right down the middle of the road to Ralph’s other farm about a mile and a half away. We’ve been doing this since 1992 when I first rented the pasture.

After my cows have been artificially inseminated at the end of May and the first few days of June, I take some of them from my home farm over to Ralph’s pasture. I put a cleanup bull in with them for about 50 days, and then the bull is removed and brought back home. This gives me a short, controlled calving season.

In 1992, I realized that I would have to get my crew of 10 people together for a one-critter cattle drive if I intended to bring the bull home at the designated time. This seemed like a huge waste of manpower. I knew there had to be a better way and I was feeling cocky enough to try something bold.

I hooked up my livestock trailer to the pickup one evening and told my dad that I was going to go over to Ralph's and bring that bull home...alone. Dad just laughed at me and said, “Yeah, right. I want to see him when you get back.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down.

My pasture is divided into several smaller paddocks that I use for rotational grazing. When I pulled into the pasture, I unloaded my four-wheeler and went to the paddock where the cattle were. I opened the gate to that paddock and proceeded to sort the bull from the rest of the herd. He came along peaceably. We went through another paddock before we got to the one near the gate where the truck and trailer were parked. I shut the gates and had the bull in a paddock of approximately 15 acres with the driveway in the far corner. The trailer was parked in the driveway with the gate leaned up against it.

The bull headed for the trailer. I had left the back door open for him. He stopped just a few feet from the back door and looked at the trailer and sniffed the air. I told him to quit wasting my time and just get in — I had stuff to do yet that night.

As if commanded by some supernatural power, HE GOT IN! I ran up behind him and locked the door. I then proceeded to shut the inside gate of the trailer, which locked him in the front half of the trailer. My four-wheeler then fit in the back half. I headed for home...laughing all the way. I had only been gone for 30 minutes. My head was beginning to swell.

I dropped the bull off at another farm before I got home. Dad was sitting in the living room when I got home. He asked why I gave up so soon on the bull. I told him I hadn’t given up. I had said I was going to get the bull and I DID. I had the bull in a pen at the other farm already and my day was done.

Dad just smirked and said, “Yeah, right. SURE you did.” He wasn’t buying my story.

The next morning I patiently waited for Dad to return from the other place. When we were at breakfast, I looked over and said, “So, see any BULLS up at the other place?” I knew from the look on his face that he had. He was turning red with laughter. “How’d you DO that?”

“Oh, I'm GOOD! Don’t EVER mess with the best,” I told him.

In 1993, I did the same thing with a different bull.

In 1994, I was gaining a reputation in the area and my brother decided he’d better come along to help me. He does NOT possess the livestock skills that I do. We got the bull loaded anyway. This was the third of three different bulls in three years.

In 1995, I began using a cleanup bull named Jack. Jack would walk right up to you whenever you got anywhere near him. When I pulled into the pasture at the end of the breeding season in 1995, Jack came running toward me from halfway across the pasture. I had just gotten to the back of the trailer and opened the door when he came up to me. I looked at him and told him to get in. He DID without breaking his pace. I shut the door and was home within 10 minutes of when I left.

Jack was the one who got me my reputation. My cousin Jerry found out about my loading abilities and started telling people about it. When Jack loaded in less than a minute, I knew I had a great story to tell. The next time I saw Jerry, he asked if I had gotten my bull loaded yet. I told him what had happened and he was in stitches. A couple months later, he told me that he was feeling cocky when he and a neighbor were trying to load the neighbor’s bull in a pasture. He said he opened the door of his trailer and told the bull to get in, but the bull didn't seem to care that he was even in the same county. Jerry looked at his neighbor and said, “Well, THAT’S how Cousin Jeff does it!”

Jack and I worked on a whole ’nother level. In 1996, I went over to load him and I was able to pull him out of the group of cows just by telling him to come to me in plain English. After that, I told him to get in the trailer and he did. No muss. No fuss. No questions asked.

With the exception of 1994, I’ve always worked solo on these things. It works better alone and I don't allow spectators, either. It’s just one guy, one trailer and one bull.

As if this wasn’t enough, I have yet another story involving Jack. One of my cows had a new calf out in the middle of the field some distance from the buildings. Since it was still cold, I wanted to move her and her newborn into the buildings for shelter. I hooked my trusty livestock trailer onto the tractor and went out to retrieve the calf. When I got out of the tractor and attempted to grab the calf, I discovered that the new mother was EXTREMELY possessive of her calf and was not going to let me get anywhere near it. She kept putting her head down and charging at me whenever I got within 20 feet of the calf. The challenge I faced was how to get that calf into the trailer without getting myself squished in the process.

Not wanting to be outsmarted by a cow, I thought I would use deception. My trailer has the usual back door and it also has a small access door on the side in the front corner. I thought I could slip in the side door and then quietly sneak to the back door and grab the calf without the cow objecting. The cow not only didn't agree with me, she decided she would jump in the trailer and come after me IN THERE. I was getting
nowhere fast with this...female.

Suddenly, my testosterone kicked in and the solution was obvious. Sitting on a hillside about 75 yards away was none other than my self-loading bull by the name of Jack. I jumped in my tractor and positioned my trailer in such a way that the rear door was right next to the calf lying on the ground. All I had to do was open the door and lift him into the trailer without having the cow kill me in the process. If she were out of the way, though, things would be much easier.

I slipped in the side door and went to the back of the trailer. I slowly opened the door just enough to see the fire in the eyes of the cow. I then called out to Jack. “Jack, let’s go! It’s trailer time, buddy!”

Unbelievably, Jack arose from his resting position and lumbered over to the trailer. He growled like a grizzly bear just as he got to the back door. The growling scared the mother cow away for a second, at which time I threw open the rear door and seized the calf from the ground and placed it in the trailer. The mother then realized what had happened and she came after me in the trailer. I had pulled the calf to the front of the trailer by that time. I slipped out the side door and locked it as I went out. I then ran around to the back door and slammed it shut with a huge sigh of relief. Jack was waiting by the back door. Things had happened so fast that he didn’t know what hit him. He didn’t even get a chance to get in the trailer. I smiled at him and laughed as we exchanged “a mental high five.” I then began to taunt the cow in the trailer with an endless stream of “Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, nyaah!”

My tales of self-loading cattle are becoming legend in this area. Jerry enjoys telling people how I load this one bull all by myself from this huge open pasture. After this last incident with Jack, I knew I had to tell Jerry about it. We were sitting at the bar in Ridgeway one day eating dinner. I went into great detail explaining my adventures to Jerry, and by the time I was done, he nearly fell off his barstool he was laughing so hard. “You called him over BY NAME? He was just sittin’ there and HE GOT UP WHEN YOU CALLED?!”

Yes, it’s true. I walk with the animals. I talk with the animals. But, most importantly, the animals obey me as the god that I am.

Dr. Doolittle

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