#2 Soapweed Ranch Ramblings, March 2, 2017
When I was a youngster, growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my dad ran all Hereford cattle. He raised both registered and commercial Herefords, and our cattle were all born with horns. I don’t think ear tags had even been invented yet in those days. Our registered Hereford cows all got to keep their horns. They were identified with tattoos in their ears, and were number branded on their horns. These branded numbers showed up quite well for the first few years, but as the cows and their horns got older, the numbers tended to blotch and become hard to read. Of course by then we pretty much knew each cow by her looks and personality, and the number was memorized even though it couldn’t be read.
The commercial cows were “muley-maked” (a paste acid to eliminate horn buds) as calves so didn’t have horns, and thus had no identification. That was fine with the cows and their calves, because none of them knew how to read. A cowboy had to have a certain amount of expertise though, because there weren’t corresponding numbered tags to use as cheat sheets. Dad had purchased some additional ranch land from Lester Leach in 1967, and had opportunity to take in some registered Angus for Ralph May of Valentine, Nebraska on a share deal. Angus are naturally polled, but Ralph’s cows were all identified with numbered brass tags which were on neck chains. Occasionally a cow would get her chain tangled up on a windmill or fence post, and it could be exciting dislodging the irate animal from her temporary captive status.
Dad was a very avid Hereford fancier, and he devoured the contents of each monthly magazine published by The American Hereford Association. An ad in one of these magazines captured his attention. Alas, someone had invented plastic ear tags. Dad sent off for the proper number of tags to put in his commercial cows. They were of a very poor design, because there were two parts of the neck of each tag. One part of the neck went up in the front of the ear, and one in the back, and a pin connected the two parts. As you can well imagine, this formed a perfect U shape which just begged to get caught on any and everything. The tags didn’t last long.
Soon better tags were developed. Dad numbered all of his cows, and these tags seemed to stay put. Other ranchers were also experimenting with the new-fangled ear tags, and it was customary for them to give each calf the same number as their mother wore. Dear old Dad thought it took too much time to write the number on the calf tag as they were being born, so he bought ready-made consecutive numbers for his calves. It seems he was running about four hundred cows in those days, so he bought 400 calf tags—numbered 1 through 400. As each calf was born, he put the next number in the calf’s ear. A book had to be kept, as a key to what calf went to what cow. My sister Sybil’s job was to be the book-keeper. When we’d be pairing up, we’d see a likely match-up and then call out the calf’s number to Sybil. She’d look up the number and say “yay” or “nay.” It was a full-fledged hassle. One spring it was a real hassle, because Dad lost his little pocket book, and it was never to be seen again.
Spike Van Cleve from Montana wrote some of his life experiences in two books, FORTY YEARS GATHERINGS and A DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT. He mentioned that there were always three ways of doing any given task—there was the easy way; there was the hard way; and there was his dad’s way, which made the hard way look plumb easy.