By Kent Hanawalt
A familiar sight on Montana’s highways in the fall is the “Pot” – a possum-bellied double deck semi-trailer hauling cattle. Also known as a “bull-rig,” there are thousands of them scattered around each of the Western States – and all of them are busy in the fall.
Most ranches in the inter-mountain West are termed cow/ calf operations: a herd of cows is maintained year-round; they calve in what is loosely called “spring”; the calves run all summer gaining weight on grass; and the calves are sold in the fall to the big feedlots in the Midwest, where they are fattened to supply the meat section of your grocery store.
A calf with a birthweight of 70 pounds spends all summer with his mother – both of them eating grass. The calf nurses at his pleasure, and gains as much as 3 pounds per day on this rich, natural and organic, environmentally correct, and sustainable diet. By fall he weighs over 600 pounds and is ready to leave the nest and move on to the next phase of his life – a feedlot where he fattens on a ration of hay, straw, silage, and some grain. This calf gained some 600 pounds in the first 6 months of his life, and will gain another 600 pounds in the feedlot – mostly on materials that are not digestible by humans.
Everyone is familiar with the “cattle drive” as depicted in such TV series as “Rawhide” and “Lonesome Dove.” In fact, trailing cattle was once the only way to move them to summer range or to a shipping point. But just as ATVs are rapidly replacing horses in gathering the cattle, semis and gooseneck stock trailers have mostly replaced the trailing of cattle.
In the fall, these bull-rigs can be seen everywhere. Cows are hauled home from summer range, and calves are hauled to market. Trailers of all sizes haul calves in from the ranch to a sorting-yard where they are weighed and sold, and another set of semis is waiting to haul them to the feedlots of the Midwest. The regional livestock auctions are swarming with trucks of all descriptions as cattle come in from the ranch, and move on into the food chain.
And thus another year in the cycle of ranching is completed.
For more stories from Kent Hanawalt, check out his book, Ain’t This Romantic!?!: Adventures of a Twentieth Century Cowboy, available on amazon.com.