Fractious Freight

When unloading cattle on the side of the road, it helps to have good cow horses and savvy cowboys.

Story and photography by Ross hecox

Carrying a load of yearling calves, a tractor-trailer is parked on the side of FM 193, next to the open gate of a large wheat pasture. With the sun peeking above the horizon, Tongue River Ranch cowboys roll a portable loading chute to the back of the truck, and then ride their horses into position.

FractiousFreightCoverTyler Weatherford (left) counts yearlings while Quentin Marburger holds his position on the road.Quentin Marburger sets his red dun gelding in the middle of the road and several feet behind the trailer and the chute, knowing the cattle will step out, see him, and likely turn away and and find the gate.  The first group sees Marburger but darts straight ahead, missing the gate and running down the road. In an instant, four cowboys surround them, turn them back and quietly filter them through the pasture gate. Fortunately, traffic on this quiet West Texas road is sparse.

“They saw me before they saw the gate, and they opted to go the wrong way,” says Marburger, who has worked for the Dumont, Texas, cattle operation for several years. “You just don’t ever know what cattle are going to do until you try. I moved [closer to the chute] so they’d see the gate right away, and we didn’t have any more trouble after that.”

Minor adjustments often make big differences when working cattle, especially with yearlings coming off a long trip.

“Cattle like that can be pretty touchy,” Marburger says. “When you unload them, the first thing fresh cattle want to do is travel. If you’re not positioned just right and working slow and quiet, it can turn into a wreck.”

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On many occasions, trucks deliver cattle to a set of pens, where cowboys might vaccinate, ear-tag and brand them, depending on the situation.  These cattle had already gone through the process, so unloading them directly into a pasture made the most sense. Marburger says backing the truck into the pasture wouldn’t have been possible.

“He couldn’t have without jackknifing his truck and blocking the highway,” he says. “And from the edge of the asphalt to the gate, it was too low to back up without dragging bottom.”

While Marburger kept his position on the road, another cowboy sat in the bar ditch, counting cattle. Two others stayed busy in the pasture, directing the cattle to a water tank and holding them there. Several times the calves tried running off into the pasture, but the cowboys spurred their horses into high gear to head them off. Marburger says receiving cattle, especially when unloading them directly into a pasture, would be tough without good cow horses.

“A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “It’s absolutely essential for us to be horse-back. This job would have been impossible without horses.

“Young cattle that have been on a truck awhile have a tendency to want to stretch their legs and can be hard to hold up. And they might run all the way around the outside of the pasture, sometimes more than once, before they ever settle, even if they’re thirsty. So it’s important to hold them up and show them water right away.”

After the first truck emptied its cargo, a second pulled up and did the same.

“We were in and out of there in about an hour,” Marburger says. “We were glad that it worked the way it did.”

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Tags: CowboysTongue River Ranch