ERROL CASTENS: Strong stomach, weak mind



A lot of distasteful work showed up on a cattle farm such as the one where I spent my childhood and youth.

There’s the hand-blistering work of digging two-foot-deep postholes by hand, dropping a six-and-a-half-foot chunk of bois d’arc in, tamping the loose dirt to a rock-like consistency and then flinging staples across the landscape like bullets when trying to hammer them into the hardest wood this side of Hell Creek.

There’s the never-ending love-hate relationship with hay: Mow, rake, bale and haul it in during the most grueling heat of summer. Haul it out to the herd through winter’s cold and rain.

Some distasteful tasks required a strong stomach: turning breech calves around in the birth canal; making steers of bull calves so they would spend their energy making steaks, not war; and administering oral medicines that need “a little push” to make it past each animal’s gag reflex.

One spring task was subjecting the brood-cow herd to a veterinary procedure called “pregnancy checking” to detect infertile cows that must be culled from the herd. No sample cup and centrifuge are involved – just a confinement chute, a left arm, a shoulder-length plastic glove and the cow’s lower digestive tract, through which her uterus is tactilely examined for signs of a developing calf. It’s a gross task, but unproductive cows are financial drains.

A farmer friend in an adjoining county made one such episode memorable. “Tim,” as we’ll call him, was known for meticulous herd management. He’d even gone to school to learn how to do artificial insemination to introduce superior bovine genetics and reduce his bullpen to a couple of cleanup hitters.

One day he had a crew helping round up cows and drive them into the confinement chute as he performed the procedure on each successive animal. Several hours into the work, his shoulder was aching and his brain was numb, but he took heart in that only a few head remained in the corral.

The crew began laughing – gut-busting, bent-over guffaws that might in cleaner surroundings have tempted them to roll on the ground. Since they’d all seen the procedure many times, Tim was befogged by the sudden onset of humor. Maybe one of the men had told a joke out of his earshot, he decided.

He tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but he’d seemingly lost his touch: Not only could Tim not feel a calf – he couldn’t even identify the uterus. After a minute or so he gave up and extracted his arm.

It was only as he was marking the animal as a cull to be sold that Tim realized the source of his crew’s mirth: He’d been pregnancy checking a bull.

Metaphors abound. Choose your own – carefully.

Errol Castens is a Daily Journal reporter. Contact him at or (662) 816-1282.

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