My Grandfather raised beef cattle on his 250 acre farm, land that his family has owned for 172 years, while also working as a machinist at a lock manufacturer for 40 years. My earliest memories of this farm are of running through the pastures of waist-high grass among the Hereford cows, white faces as he called them, ruining my clean, white Chuck Taylor basketball shoes stepping in fresh cow shit.
Papa kept about 75 to 100 head of cattle, a mix of females, calves, steers (a castrated male) and one bull to service the entire herd. Hereford, his cow of choice, is a British breed of beef cattle, known for its girth, hardiness, disposition and fatty meat which was not an issue in the 1960’s but not as desirable in the health conscious 1970’s.
My Grandfather would rotate his bulls out of “service” about every two or three years to prevent inbreeding. Sometimes he would trade bulls with other farmers, or he would go to market and buy a new bull and turn the old one into very tough rump roast and flank steaks. But as the trend toward leaner meat engulfed the market he realized he to needed to change with the times if he expected to continue to make a profit so off to the Livestock Auction we went with his old Hereford bull, and a few steer to sale to buy a new bull, a leaner bull, and as we would soon learn a meaner more temperamental bull.
What the farm extension agent had talked my Grandfather into doing was buying a Black Angus bull and breeding the Hereford out of his herd. This would take a while, years even, but it was the cheaper path to get a better price for his cows at market.
I always enjoyed going to the Livestock Auction with my Grandfather. For a city kid, it was a different world of sights, people, activities and smells. We would unload the cattle he brought to sale and if he was a buyer like he was that evening, walk through the yard looking at the prospects to purchase. We always sat in the same place, with the other men from his community and I would get a coke and a bag of peanuts before “the show began” and truly it was a show, a Noah’s Ark of livestock.
Unbeknownst to me, Papa had zeroed in on one particular bull and when this animal made his grand entrance into the arena Papa set-up and told me to hush for a minute. What entered the ring, was the biggest, blackest, specimen of lean muscle mass I had ever seen. I also noticed the handlers didn’t enter the ring with this beast of an animal. Something I would remember later. As the auctioneer rattled off some gibberish nonsense at 100 miles per hour my Grandfather would stick his finger up in the air about every 30 seconds or so and then he slammed his gavel down and pointed it our way. Apparently we had a bull.
Papa’s cattle trailer was old and wooden. It looked nothing like the shiny, metal ones that filled the parking lot attached to so many new and shiny Ford pick-up trucks. We backed the trailer up to load the new king of the pasture and take him home, but for whatever reason, Mr. Bull, an animal who was going to live the life of luxury, a critter whose only responsibilities would be to eat, shit and screw didn’t want to go and no amount of poking him with a cane in his thick rump would move him.
After what seemed like an hour we finally got him in the trailer and headed for home, a 45 minute ride, in the dark and the longest 45 minute ride of my life. Mr. Bull, sensing this old wooden trailer was just that, an old wooden trailer, decided to ram the front wall with head, which shook the trailer and the truck, which was already straining to pull such a heavy load, all over the road. I asked my Papa if we should stop and talk to the bull to see if we could calm him down and he grinned at me and asked “What ya going to tell him?” The eight year old me hadn’t thought that far in advance.
We finally made it home, I jumped out and opened the gate and Papa pulled the truck into the pasture. I watched as he opened the trailer gate and ran back into his truck. This magnificent beast, truly the biggest animal I had ever stood 10 feet away from, stepped out of the trailer, looked at me and then hauled ass into the pitch black night. We never saw him again.
Over the next week stories circulated about this rouge bull, busting through fences, waging war with other bulls, and having sex with anything and everything in its way. It was easy to determine whose bull it was, word spreads fast in a small town. About two weeks later my Grandfather got a call from a farmer, three counties west of his farm, he figured about 150 miles away. “Heard you lost a bull, he is in my pasture, he is pretty beat-up and tired, come get him”. My Grandfather, a very quiet and calm man said these two words to the man on the other end of the phone, “Keep him” and hung-up.
It would be several more years before Papa made the jump from Hereford to Angus. In between there was a failed effort with a Charolais bull that ended up on the dinner table quicker than he should have. He loved Hereford’s, they fit his nature, his sense of calm but mostly that aligned with history, his history, his families history. They were what his Daddy and his Granddad raised. They were familiar faces, faces he was comfortable living with and among and a higher price at the Livestock Auction couldn’t change that.