My family and I raised cows for beef production on our farm in East Texas. Each year I would separately raise a special steer for my local 4-H and Future Farmers of America chapters. The idea being you’d raise an animal until it was time to take it to the livestock show and sale that happened once a year. At the sale the judge would look over your animal carefully and determine which type of ribbon, if any, you’d get.  For beef cattle, the judge awards a certain number of blue ribbons and one grand champion ribbon to the best in show. If you didn’t get a blue ribbon you couldn’t get into the sale and were then forced to sell offsite at a much lower price per pound.  There are many steps to winning the coveted blue ribbon. The most important one being how to show respect to the judge. It’s always important to keep your eye on the judge at all times and keep your animal’s posture and pose in check.  Taking your eye off the judge for even a second meant standing a chance of losing out on a ribbon and better yet, the grand champion ribbon.

Buck and I on our farm in Henderson Texas

Me riding Buck on our farm in Henderson Texas.

From the moment I saw Buck running around the pasture with his mother, I knew he was the one. Everything I’d been taught to look for in a steer, he had. His back was straight and his legs were muscular. His rear end square and pronounced. His coat a shiny chocolate brown color with white socks and face.  He was perfect. I paid 350 dollars for him.  The first 2 weeks were rough. Just getting a halter over his head took hours. The idea was to tame your animal so you could exercise it with long walks and then teach him how to present for the judge. Feeding and exercise are important to healthy animals, which in turn yields healthy meat. Dad came down one day and we roped off part of the corral I was keeping him in. Inside the roped off area, Buck and I played tug of war with the direction I wanted him to go in. Poor Buck. He just didn’t get it. Dad got an idea to fill up a bucket with feed and put it in front of Buck. It worked and Buck started to get the hang of it. Every so often Buck would pull away and end up dragging me into the ropes which burned my face and arms a few times. We finally graduated to walking around the whole corral, but at times Buck would pull away and end up dragging me around until I finally had to let go or be thrown into the boards of the corral. Eventually Buck learned to lead and when that day came I was relieved. I had cuts, burns and scrapes from head to toe.

We walked all over the ranch. Buck was like my best friend. His deep dark eyes staring into mine. Sometimes he’d try and lick my hair with his big tongue and lightly bump his head against me. He made me laugh. We walked everywhere; to the store, down the street, to friend’s houses and back pastures with gates that opened up to vast acreage of even more back pastures. Eventually I taught him to let me hop on his back so I could ride him like a horse. He hated it at first and he got really good at throwing me off which is partly why I named him Buck in the first place. The day he came out of the cattle trailer I walked around to his side and stuck my hand on his fluffy coat. He bucked, threw his leg out to the side and kicked me hard in the stomach so hard I damn near cried from the pain. Dad scolded me for even getting so close to his back legs. “Cows kick sideways son. Remember that!” he yelled. I said “his name is now Buck.” Dad laughed and said, “That sounds appropriate.”

I quickly learned how to mix his food up for better weight gain with one part oats, one part molasses, one part grain and on top of that, fresh cream from the dairy down the street. In 4-H you go to meetings and learn how to feed and care for the animals.  Everyday it seemed like he gained more weight and I would walk him constantly in order to turn the fat into muscle. We didn’t have a scale at the time, but the diary farm down the street did.


Raising a steer for 4-H in Henderson Texas

Buck and I on our farm in Henderson Texas


The day finally came to show Buck to the judge. I was extremely nervous and a little sad. I had trained for many months for the judging competition. I had to get a blue ribbon; there was no way around it. I wondered briefly what I would do if I didn’t get one, but I quickly squashed the thought and focused on winning one instead. The day of the judging is hectic. You have to “pretty up” your steer in order to make him look good. This meant washing him and scrubbing all of the dirt off of his body and feet. Then, you had to comb his hair and tease the tail into a puffy ball shape with hair spray. I was a little sad that day because I knew the time to let Buck go was near.  As I watched the judge make his way around the circle of steers and owners around him, I pondered what life would be like without Buck. With the judge getting closer, I suspended those thoughts and focused on the task at hand. Buck looked perfect. He was by far one of the prettiest steers and at the time he was a new breed of cow: A Simmental Angus cross breed.

The judge came around the back of the steer next to me and I had a razor sharp bead fixed on him. He looked at me, smiled and tipped his hat. I did the same and he began the examination. My heart was pounding. He ran his hands down Buck’s coat and then focused on his butt and back legs. Buck was calm and didn’t move a muscle. I had taught Buck not to kick; which if he had kicked the judge, I would have been disqualified right there on the spot. The judge commented on how remarkably thick and shiny Buck’s coat was. He then stood for a few minutes and looked Buck over. It felt like hours. The sweat was running down my face and into my eyes, but I didn’t flinch and kept my gaze fixed squarely on the judge. He nodded his head, said thank you and walked over to the next steer. After the judge finished, he made one more walk around to each steer and then after he completed the circle, grabbed the pile of ribbons on the table he had set up in the middle of the circle. He walked around slowly at first as if he were still undecided. Then he quickly handed out the blue ribbons. I am happy to say that out of the 25 steers presenting, I placed 7th out of the 15 who received blue ribbons. Then the judge gave one steer the grand champion which left nine steers that didn’t make the sale that year. I didn’t get the grand champion but placing 7th in the sale meant I stood to make at least $3,000.00 once it was all over and done with. Winning that blue ribbon was amazing.  People treat you differently after you win a ribbon. A sense of accomplishment washed over me as my peers shook my hand and patted me on the back.

That night the sale took place around 6pm. I washed Buck again and fluffed his tail and put clear coat acrylic nail polish on his hooves.  A pretty steer also brings in more bids during the auction. When it was all said and done I made close to 3,500.00. After the sale I went over and shook the man’s hand who purchased Buck. He said he thought Buck was the finest steer around and at that time there was a lot of excitement about this new breed of beef cattle.

When all the excitement died down, I took Buck back to his stall. I slowly gathered up my things. Dad pulled the truck around to the barn and helped me load up. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll be in the truck. Let me know when you’re ready.” Tears began to form in my eyes. My stomach was on fire as I walked over to Buck. He sensed something was up. His big brown eyes looked deeply into mine searching for an answer. I started petting his head and gave him a hug. He pressed his face into my chest and let out a short blast of air from his nostrils. He knew this was the end. I touched his face one last time and said goodbye. Wiping my tears away I walked back to the truck and we drove off.





Used to Be a Cowboy…



Saddle blanket,


Oh and a brush to quickly comb the horse’s back before placing the saddle. When I lived on the ranch I could do all of this in about 10 minutes. That includes catching the horse. You had to be quick on the ranch. Ready for things that randomly happen. If a fence is low a cow will jump over it. If a fence is weak a cow will plow right through it. The threshold for pain is amazing.  We spent many a summer in sweltering 100 degree Texas heat meticulously fixing every inch of 1500 acres of fence line. Riding our horses up and down the fences daily. Always on the lookout for compromise.

East Texas winters are harsh and always bring lots of rain, ice and even snow. Catching 1500 pound cows in freezing rain can be a deadly disaster. This happened to us one early evening right around dusk when dad saw some cows break through the fence surrounding one of our lakes. When the weather dipped below freezing we would often keep the herd away in favor of heated water troughs. It was 5 degrees below zero that evening and the frozen rain felt like daggers on our skin as we stepped away from the house and into the truck. Dad and I could barely hear each other talking because the ice was raining down so hard. We soon realized we had to do this on foot as it was going to be impossible to do it with a truck or a horse. We wrapped up with our cattleman’s coats and pulled a poncho over that and our old felt cowboy hats we each had for situations such as this. At first it was damn near impossible to not fall over from the weight of the frozen ice dropping on us and slipping on what was on the ground. We soon learned to maneuver by spreading our legs a little wider when we walked. Balancing our shoulders and arms in a triangular fashion to withstand the weight of the ice pouring down on us. Dad had a large heavy-duty spotlight that normally would shine 50 feet, but tonight it was less than 5. We could barley see from all the ice coming down. We made our way to the pasture gate and I had to pull my glove off to unhook the latch, which was frozen solid. Dad remembered to bring a hammer and I beat on the latch until it broke free. By this time I couldn’t feel my hand or the hammer in my hand and was barely able to get my glove back on. We found the cows under a small grove of trees and proceeded cautiously. They were scared so we turned off the light, which then caused the cows to spook and scatter. The smart ones left the pasture, but two cows darted for the lake. We tried to run after them but pretty soon we heard the sound of hooves on ice. One cow stopped, realizing the herd had gone the opposite direction, turned toward us and ran. We had to move out of the way to let her pass.  The other cow moved farther across the lake.  You could hear the ice creak and moan from the weight of each hoof beating down on it. The cow finally sensed something was wrong and stopped. The creaking sound reach a fever pitch before it snapped and water started rushing in. The animal fought, kicking the ice and clawing at it desperately trying to dig itself out of the hole it had created. Her breathing was heavy as she bellowed out for help in a crazed adrenaline fueled frenzy. Pretty soon the bellowing sounds began to lose intensity and her pitch changed to a muffled whine. Her breathing began to slow as hypothermia set in. Slower and slower her breathe became weaker and then one last burst of energy to fight with the ice before the breathing stopped abruptly. We hung our heads in defeat. Powerless. The rain had all but stopped now and the winter silence was all that was left. Normally we would have shot the animal to put it out of its misery, but I had forgotten my pistol in the rush to save the animals.

The next morning I got up early and picked up our ranch hand Manuel, before heading down to the lake. When we got there we could see that the water had frozen around her. Her eyes frozen a solid white making her appear ghost like. Her whiskers frozen with a light dusting of snow and ice covering her back. Frozen in a state of action, her front legs plowed into the punctured ice sheet around her. I felt bad for her and wished things had been different. Manuel slid across the ice and was able to fish a small cable around her front legs, which we then tied to her head for a makeshift harness. The harness was then attached to a larger chain from the winch on the front of the tractor. I grabbed my shotgun from the cab of the tractor and shot the ice around her. After 3 blasts the ice broke and she quickly slipped below the surface. Manuel tightened the winch and slowly pulled her across the ice, the winch groaning from the strain. We left her under a small grove of trees and headed back to the house for coffee.