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The Cowboy & the Small Town Girl

Pt. 3: Cattle Gender

I am not a cowgirl, but I married a cowboy. They say opposites attract, and I guess it was true in our case. I have no idea what attracted this cowboy to me. I was about as knowledgeable about cows and cowboying as I was about nuclear physics.


For years I thought the word cow represented every type of bovine animals in the pasture, just like the word people represented every gender of human beings. I eventually learned otherwise— probably when I referred to a pasture of steers as cows or called a bull a steer. For a while I wasn’t sure what constituted a steer, and if a steer and a bull were both male, how did my husband immediately know the difference between the two? Did it pertain to the size of the animals? Did having horns or no horns have something to do with it?


One day I went with Jack to work some calves on a nearby ranch. I even vaccinated some of them, using this nifty little gun that measures out the right dosage with each pull of the trigger. That is, until this wild-eyed, psycho calf chose my derriere as a target when I was bending over to do my duty. How did he know? How could that angry, emotionally disturbed animal know I was the only rookie out there in the pen? Maybe it was physics— the glassy-eyed demon could simply have been nearsighted and my bum was the biggest one around. Everyone seemed to be highly amused by the situation, though.


The process of working calves, if I remember correctly, included separating them from their mothers, catching them, branding them, and vaccinating them. And with little boy (bull) calves, the cowboys use a knife to cut a hidden something from a very private area of their bodies. I would’ve thought cowboys, being male, would be much more compassionate towards them about it, but after slicing and extracting, they would just throw these slimy things over to one side.


    “Why do you do that to the calves?” I asked.

    “It makes them grow bigger.”

    “But doesn’t it hurt?”


    “Well, what do you do with them?”

    “You ever heard of mountain oysters?”

    “No.” And they proceeded to explain the term to me.


I think my next words were, “Oh… my…. gosh!” And I was shocked to learn that civilized people actually eat those things. And they even like them.


I have yet to partake.


After a while I learned that a heifer is a young female cow that hasn’t had a calf yet. The first time I was pregnant, Jack told everyone I was springin’. His scientific explanation of my second pregnancy was, “Ever’ time a dad-gum drought hits, she gets a calf on ‘er.”


I guess I’m in the old dry cow stage at this time of my life. Looking back it’s been a colorful life we’ve led. 


But that’s another story.



Bovine: adj., n. 1. Something to do with cattle. 2. Cow-like. 3. Not a word I ordinarily hear cowboys use.


Cow: n. 1. The mature female of the bovine animal. 2. Slang: an obese and slovenly woman.


Cow: v. 1. To frighten with threats, violence; intimidate. 2. Especially after the husband refers to the wife in such a manner.


Drought: n. 1. A period of dryness, sometimes lengthy, causing extensive damage to crops or pasture land. 2. Usually accompanied by high feed prices and a poor cattle market. 3. When cowboys in some areas of the country have to burn the thorns off prickly pear cactus to feed cattle when there's no grass. 4. Severe drought usually means having to sell the cattle off of the place.


Dry Cow: 1. A rancher’s term for a cow with an empty womb. 2. Which means the old bull didn’t particularly impress her this time around. 3. Usually entitles such cow to a 1-way ticket to the auction. 4. What about a dry bull?


Heifer: n. 1. A young female cow that hasn’t had a calf yet, and is usually under three years of age. 2. How my husband used to refer to me before I had children.


Mountain oysters: n. 1. The testes of a calf used as food. 2. Considered a delicacy by some. 3. Gag. 


Springin’: 1. When a cow is beginning to show that she is pregnant. 2. Which doesn’t apply to lightness of step when a pregnant female waddles across the pasture or parking lot.


Testes: n. Pl. 1. The male’s two oval reproductive glands located in the scrotum; 2. What you see on a bull. 3. What you don’t see on a steer.




Author’s note 2020: Ranchers and farmers learn just about every subject imaginable on the agriculture spectrum, including animal husbandry, biology, economics, environmental science, farming, land improvement, livestock nutrition, plant science, ranching, soil science, wildlife management, and more. Out in the pasture, Jack could identify most every type of grass, brush, tree, and flower. In a pasture that looked all the same to me, he knew the difference between areas that had never been cleared and contained the original brush and flora versus which areas had once been cleared and cultivated, but had grown back to the sizes of the original brush. The newer plants in the pre-cultivated area were different somehow. 


On the wall of our living room in Cotulla is a giant steer head that the owner of the place the steer came off of wasn’t able to catch year after year to send to market. The steer was 11 or 12 years old, weighed 1,853 lbs., and was about 6-foot tall at the shoulder when they brought him to the auction barn. The following was our recent conversation about it.

    Me. “How were you able to catch that steer after all those years when others couldn’t?”

    Jack. “I roped him.”

    Me. “You roped him? He could’ve drug you all over that pasture.”

    Jack. “Well, he did.”

    Me. “Then how did you stop him?”

    Jack. “We were running pretty good, and I was hoping my horse would slow him down eventually, but we straddled a tree with the rope and came to a pretty abrupt stop.”

    Me, convinced anew that the Van Cleve brothers each had nine lives. “Tell me again why cutting a bull makes him grow so big.”

    Jack. “Well, the old saying is that it ‘changes his mind from ass to grass.’”

    Me. "I guess that’s a pretty good scientific explanation." 

Happy birthday month, Jack Van Cleve III.

Donna Van Cleve

October 2020

Family History, Humor


It's hard to gauge the size of this steer head from the picture, but it hangs on a 14' high wall and measures 42" from the top of the horns to the tip of  his nose, and at least 5' from the tip of the horns to the bottom of the mount. 

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