Getting an accurate tally of cattle is a tough job, especially when you’re not a math whiz.

By Kelli Neubert

March 7, 2018

Photo by Ross HecoxPhoto by Ross Hecox

I’m not really much of a numbers person. I remember from a young age feeling my stress levels elevate as I worked through algebra problems, trying to make all of the numbers make sense in the way that words did. I figured that as an adult, between riding, writing and my general ability to outsource, I could mostly avoid those high-pressure numbers from surfacing and wreaking havoc on my stress levels. And honestly, with the help of a good accountant, a husband who loves numeric problems and good ol’ online banking, I’ve avoided them well.

Except for whenever we count cattle.

For some reason, it seems every time I’ve been around when shipping, moving or receiving cattle, I’m in the prime position to count them. (Don’t all of these people know I was a journalism major?!) It’s like I’m the kid in class without the answer who always gets called on.

Because let’s be honest—whether you’re a seasoned cattle baron or green as grass, if you’re the fellow in charge of counting cattle, the rest of the crew is counting on you not to mess it up. There’s a big difference between 137 head and 141, or 419 and 420. At times, a mistake can mean thousands of dollars still out in the pasture or an unnecessary, large chunk of time out of your day trying to correct or solve the void.

It’s important to be clear, timely and confident with your head count. When I started working around cattle for the first time, I was told to count everything I rode by. I attempted to train my brain to stop thinking so much about my next meal and start focusing on how to be more efficient and effective on knowing how many animals are in front of me.

There are several ways to approach the task depending on who you’ve learned from and what works best for the situation at hand. The behavior of cattle and the environment that they are in can really make a difference. Often cattlemen and ranchers find a method with some sort of rhythm. I usually count in “2s” (2, 4, 6, 8, 10. 2, 4, 6, 8, 20. 2, 4, 6, 8, 30) and then, if I have a pen and paper, I make a tally mark for every “10” that pass by. My father-in-law likes to count in 3s and 10s (3, 6, 9, 10. 3, 6, 9, 20. 3, 6, 9, 30), and when counting large groups, he would move a coil of his rope from one arm to the other for each 100 that passed by. One of my friends that runs cattle for a living just likes the good old “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” while his wife prefers to count in pairs.

When cattle are turned out, it’s really nice to have someone around to help you when you are gathering up numbers. I’ve learned that when I’m that person, I need to move slowly and bring cattle in little bunches, or try to trickle them between me and the counter. If the cattle feel too much pressure or push through in large quantities, gosh it can be hard to get a good, clean count on them. Often it means we just have to start again from the beginning.

I’m far from an expert by any means, but I personally feel the most confident in my count when cattle trickle in front of me or pass through a gate. I turn my phone to silent, block out any other thoughts (even if I’m really hungry!) and try to focus on the task at hand. It’s also helpful for me to be on a horse that will stand still and allow me to do my job without bouncing around or distracting me. And I’ve found, much like those dreaded math problems from my childhood—although it’s embarrassing when I’m wrong—I’m always relieved and feel a little bit of gratification when the numbers match up.

Truthfully, it may sound stressful, but I actually (secretly) like being the counter. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I appreciate the challenge and even feel a bit honored when someone asks me to do it. It’s a big job, and an important one, at that. And now that I’ve settled into a rhythm that works for me, I’ll continue to practice tallying heads and try to keep getting better at the job too.

Because hey, the more efficiently we correctly count the cattle, the quicker we get to have lunch! 


Tags: RanchingKelli NeubertCounting Cattle