Normally I’m a law abiding citizen. But whenever a law enforcement officer comes around, I’m a rebel without a cause, just breaking the law out of nervous impulses. My wife normally calls me “old pokey” when I’m driving, but let me glimpse a patrol car in the rearview mirror and suddenly I’m Mad Max. When officers finally pull me over for erratic maneuvers, they never believe me when I tell them it’s their fault.
ME: “Officer, I was driving quite responsibly until you got behind me, then I got all nervous.”
OFFICER: “Sir, you were swerving all over the place, I’m going to need you to exit the car. When was the last time you had anything to drink?”
ME: “Eleven years, if you count that one drink of champagne. Thirty-five otherwise.”
OFFICER: “Sir, your pupils are dilated.”
ME: “I think that’s just from fear.”
OFFICER: “I’m going to administer a field sobriety test. Sir, will you count backwards…”
I may be the only teetotaler in history who has had to walk the line multiple times. Thankfully, I passed the tests, but I will say that walking in a straight line toe-to-toe is a lot harder than you’d think when your freedom depends on it. The problem is that even when I’m innocent, I act guilty.
The Trial, by Kafka, is my worst nightmare. In the novel, an innocent man is arrested for an unknown reason. Then he spends the next year trying to discover why and prove his innocence. But his neurotic behavior makes everyone assume he’s guilty. Then, in depressing Kafka fashion (spoiler alert), he’s executed.
Just the thought of that plot sends shivers to my epidermis. Once I thought it was actually coming true. It was the night when a sheriff’s deputy pounded on my front door. For a moment before I opened the door, I thought, “What in the world have I done to get arrested?”
Turns out, I had just left a gate open, and my cows were standing in the middle of the road. But I don’t think my heart has ever fully recovered.
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I hate this time of year. You can hardly get around because all the backroads get clogged up with news vans parked on the roadside. Yep, every summer the media around here goes bonkers. You can more or less set your calendar by it: Around July 4th, you’ll see the first helicopters circling over pastures, getting fresh footage of cows loafing for the nightly news. Sometimes they’ll film a whole herd grazing a hillside, which is sure to spike ratings for the lead story, “Farmer Gored by Killer Bull: Second Attack in Two Weeks.” Sometimes they’ll even get shots of cows stampeding toward the feed bunk, in a so-called “feeding frenzy.” And when they’re really desperate, they’ll get a closeup of a steaming cow patty, as evidence that cows have been recently grazing the area.
Of course, the only thing this media-hype does is put a damper on our tourist season. In fact, last year I didn’t see a single tourist swimming in any local farm ponds, likely for fear of cows grazing the shores nearby. To try to re-attract visitors, Ed Johnson built a hydraulic Loch Ness Monster for his farm pond that surfaces every three hours and snorts steam, but even that gimmick hasn’t been able to drive tourists back into his pond water.
And that’s a real shame. It’s as if people don’t realize that cows are mostly harmless bovines. On average, they only kill twenty people in the United States per year, which is merely eight times higher than the number of people who die each year from shark attacks worldwide–and when was the last time you saw a news story on shark attacks? It’s a double standard if you ask me.
The sale barn, where livestock is bought, sold, and sometimes bartered in the parking lot, is your local hub for agricultural activity. It’s a good place to connect with other farmers—just don’t yawn or scratch your head because you might accidentally buy a cow. Such faux pas are common among newcomers to a stockyard.
As a child, perhaps you longed to be a professional sale-barn bidder. Or perhaps not. But in rural culture, it’s nearly as common a dream job as a cowboy, county agent, or veterinarian. Even full-grown adults, while listening to an auctioneer jabber endlessly, have been known to daydream about life as a high-profile livestock trader. Unfortunately, daydreaming is a sure sign you’re an amateur buyer. Professional buyers sit stoic in the crowd, impervious to the hypnotizing effect of an auctioneer’s voice, bidding with nearly imperceptible winks, head nods, and twitches. Rumor has it, the best sale-barn buyers can blink Morse code with their eyes.
Professional buyers are rock stars of rurality. After thundering into the parking lot with a livestock trailer capable of hauling a small herd of elephants, a professional moseys over to inspect the bovines while awestruck onlookers ask for autographs on bidding cards and advice on buying. The professional obliges, scribbling a pithy line like, “Buy low. Sell high—High Bid Hal.” Hal then enters the arena fashionably late and sits proudly in his reserved seat in direct line of sight of the auctioneer. Moments later, a murmur ripples through the crowd when Hal buys his first of many cows.
Of course, we all can’t be as suave as High Bid Hal, but I’ve studied his behavior and gleaned some helpful tips on how to resemble a professional sale-barn bidder and strike fear in your bovine buying competition. Follow these tips, and you’ll resemble a competent procurer of livestock in no time.
Do your homework
Don’t arrive at the sale barn and start buying willy-nilly. Although professionals do this, buying willy-nilly is considered an advanced technique that takes many years to master. Instead, spend time at your stockyard studying the process. Also, learn the markings. Often cows will be marked with spray paint or a sticker. Different colors represent different things. For instance, a red dot might mean “steer” or a yellow dot might mean “confirmed pregnant.” Thus, a red and yellow dot together would mean a confirmed pregnant steer, in which case you should buy that miraculous animal.
Show No Emotion
Don’t smile at the sale barn. Don’t make eye contact with humans. Such behavior is considered a sign of weakness. It’s best not to attempt jokes either, unless you’re the auctioneer who will likely impersonate a stand-up comic before the sale starts. Whatever you do, don’t laugh at the auctioneer’s jokes. The auctioneer is merely trying to loosen up the crowd to encourage bidding. But if you’ve done your homework, you’ve heard these jokes before. Auctioneers rarely come up with new material.
Walk the Catwalk
Strolling the catwalk is an essential job function for supermodels and sale-barn bidders alike. At a stockyard, the catwalk is the elevated walkway that allows you to view animals in the pens below. If you’re a sale-barn novice, practice your walk at home, especially if you’re afraid of heights. Many professional sale barn bidders prefer a mosey, though you can try a saunter or amble. Advanced sale-barn stars will often have a trademark “hitch in their gitty-up” that sets their walk apart from amateurs (If you’re a British farmer, please visit the Ministry of Silly Walks to search for trademarked hitches. America has no such regulatory body, so trademarked walks here mean nothing. If you don’t like Monty Python, please disregard the previous joke).
Have your bidding card ready:
Nothing says amateur like fumbling to find your bidding card, which contains your all-important bidder identification number. Livestock sales are fast paced. For instance, a typical cattle sale might go as follows:
“A good steer, who’ll give me a dollar fifty—fifty cents, fifty cents, fifty cents? Alright, dollar forty, looking for forty, looking for forty, looking for forty to start. That’s a good steer now. Someone start it. thirty-five cents, thirty-five, thirty-five, thirty-five, looking for thirty-five cents. THIRTY-FIVE—top right corner! Now forty, looking for forty, huhmana huhmana forty, huhmana huhmana forty. FORTY over here! Now forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, forty-five, looking for forty-five, looking for forty-five, looking for forty-five. Now looking for forty-two. Down low, FORTY-TWO! Now forty three, a dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three, dollar forty-three. That’s a good steer, good steer, good steer. Forty-three, looking for forty-three, huhmana huhmana huhmana forty three. FORTY-THREE—top right! Now forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, forty-four, huhmana huhmana forty-four looking for forty-four. Going once, going twice, sold FORTY-THREE! Top right corner!”
Though seemingly impossible, all this verbiage is uttered and the steer is sold in five seconds total. And the process is repeated instantaneously with another cow—if, that is, the previous buyer had his or her bidding card ready. If not, the whole auction comes to a jarring halt and people glare. Whatever you do, don’t get flustered and flash your card upside down—you’ll be laughed out of the arena. Though speed is important, it’s better to draw slow and shoot for accuracy than fall victim to vicious sale barn humor.
Having read these tips, you’ll soon achieve stockyard stardom. If in doubt, just remember: buy low, sell high. It’s that simple.
If you walk far on our farm during winter, you’ll likely come up missing footwear, especially if you try to traverse the Bog of Despair, which is centered around the hay ring. It contains a few old-growth rubber boots that are as firmly rooted in the muck as swamp gums in the Bayou. The poor soles are a grim reminder of what happens when bipeds with loosely-fitting rubber boots on their trotters attempt such a superfluous task as removing twine from a hay roll.
A lot of farmers don’t bother cutting and removing the twine, but if anybody was going to lose a cow because twine got knotted up in the digestive tract, it would probably be me. I once lost a cow to a plastic feedsack. “Probably just a little case of pneumonia,” the vet said, having stopped by since the cow was off its feed and acting puny, “likely this shot will get her perked back up and feeling better by tomorrow.” By tomorrow, the cow was as perky as a three-toed sloth, and by the next day it was as perky as a dead three-toed sloth. Figures, most farmers get to tell stories of losing cows to cunning predators like coyotes or mountain lions or chupacabras, but I lose a cow to a plastic bag.
I know it was a plastic feed sack because after we dragged the carcass off and let nature take its course, my wife’s poppaw returned to examine the remains. In the ribs, he found a feedsack that had been balled up and compacted so tightly it could have been an effective projectile in a small cannon.
In my opinion, losing animals is the worst part of farming, especially when I easily could have prevented that loss by throwing the empty feedsack away instead of saving it for who knows why. After that, I was admittedly feeling pretty glum. In consolation, my wife’s poppaw told me there are two truths to raising livestock: “Animals are going to get out, and animals are going to die; a person who ain’t prepared to deal with those two facts don’t need to be raising livestock.”
He was right of course, but I’d also like to add a third truth: a farm is going to get muddy in winter, and a person who ain’t prepared to lose a boot, best walk barefoot.
My neighbor Nell is a real agricultural ignoramus, pardon my French. A thousand times, I’ve told her cows are herbivores, and as such, my cows eat her herbs, particularly her basil and oregano. It’s just simple biology. Hence, there was no need for Nell to buy a shotgun and take shooting lessons, all just to pepper my cows with bird shot. Really, all she had to do was stop planting culinary herbs and start planting inedible weeds. A garden of pigweed, curly doc, and buttercups would suffice. Cows hate those pasture weeds; in fact, mine walk right past them on the way to Nell’s garden.
Unfortunately, Nell always finds the hardest way possible to solve a simple problem. Concerning my cows crossing her property line, she now believes a good fence is the solution, which is exactly what someone who hasn’t studied agriculture would think. A good fence has never solved anything. For instance, the Chinese built an impediment fifty-foot high and 13,000 miles long, made of stone no less and with archers atop, and cows still got out. Cows will find a way.
The problem is Nell has no mind for agriculture, no mind for anything but sappy poems and iambic pentameter. A former English teacher, she is particularly fond of the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”—you know the one where the old farmer says, “good fences make good neighbors.” Like most English teachers, she ignores facts–and the fact is Frost was a pitiful farmer whose agricultural advice should be altogether disregarded. He was such a bad farmer he quit and made more money writing poetry—rhyming poetry!
Thus, I had to set Nell straight, lest she make a big mistake. I told her listening to Frost for farming advice was like listening to Emily Dickinson for travel recommendations. I told her a good fence is a lot of work, even for a small garden like hers, but she could borrow my post hole diggers if she’d like.
“My garden, lordy no,” she replied. “I meant your pasture. Your fence is falling to pieces. Isn’t it the farmer’s responsibility to maintain fences to keep good neighborly relations?”
She delivered this with a straight face, an attempt at deadpan humor, which she really sold by pointing the shotgun at me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for second-amendment rights, but I believe there should be restrictions on gun ownership for people who like poetry. You never know when they may have a “spontaneous overflow of emotion,” as Wordsworth put it, and blast somebody.
“Now, Nell,” I said. “That’s funny—though you really shouldn’t have taken the safety off. In fact, for a split second, I thought you were serious. But then I remembered everybody knows good fences make poor farmers.”
“How so?” she asked.
“First, if farmers had good fences, they wouldn’t gain experience chasing livestock, which is an essential animal husbandry skill. Second, if farmers spent money building good fences, they’d be so poor they couldn’t buy livestock to go in the fence. Third, farmers have a lot more important stuff to do than mending fences, like chasing livestock.”
Had I not ducked, I likely would have been sprayed by bird shot—but I noticed Nell starting to froth at the mouth as I talked and figured she was about ready to burst with one of those spontaneous overflows. To miss the second barrel, I timed my leap perfectly, springing upward right after she said, “Die, cow farmer!”