Count Their Legs and Divide by Four

Branding irons and barbed wire fences were frequently the frame for range wars in the 1800’s.  They were sometimes cause and sometimes consequence of bitter battles between competing ranchers; between those who owned cattle and those who owned sheep; and they are surely the stuff of some bloody memoirs.  But for me, they frame good memories, born too late as I was to remember the losses and deaths in the cattle herds of the 1930’s during the depression and the dry years.

Lessons like responsibility, caring for really big animals, paying attention to details, looking for the one that gets lost or hurt~~are part of what spills over the life of a child on a farm or ranch that has cattle as part of its operation.

In the best of times, our 700 pasture acres could graze 125+ cattle, and that happened maybe one lone time in the 18 years I lived there.  The other years, it supported 75-110 head.  The cattle drank at four scattered wells, a couple of which only provided water in spurts (literally and figuratively).  Two of those wells had electric pumps.  There were also two windmills and one had a hand pump.  So you might say there was water available–if the wind blew.  If the well was functioning.  If the wooden tanks down in the hills didn’t leak.  If it rained enough to replenish the northeastern Montana ground water, such as it was.

And then we had The Dam.  This was the water collected above a 25 foot high dirt barrier in a likely spot about 1/4 mile from our farmyard and over a hill or two.  Water would accumulate there when the snow melted each spring, up to three feet deep at the most, perhaps 35 feet across and 75 long, filthy as all get-out but a dependable water supply for the cattle in most years.


There was always a running conversation in our part of the country on the best way to count cattle.   Dad always maintained you should just count the legs and divide by four.  No matter how the count was done, though, the day always comes when the count is short.  Maybe three head.  Or four.  Or worse, just one.  It’s “the one” that raises an alarm.  Three or four?  Aw, never mind.  They probably just wandered behind a hill somewhere or maybe found a weak spot in the barbed wire fence and left for greener pastures, in which case we’ll find them.  Not a problem.  But one?  More likely sick.  Lost.  Injured.  And if any of those, did the coyotes get it?

“The one” is perfectly described in the old gospel song:

“There were ninety and nine that safely lay in the shelter of the fold;  But one was out on the hills away, far off from the gates of gold. Away on the mountains wild and bare; Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.”  (Public Domain)

Jesus knew His listeners would understand that story when He first told it because they knew sheep.  They all knew about that one “out on the hills away.”  We never had sheep, but I’ve been told by those who did that sheep are amazingly foolish, utterly dependent and, if you will forgive me, quite stupid.  Cattle not quite so bad….but still…..still….the inevitable happened.  Dad counted again.  And again.  Nope.  Keep coming up one short.

It’s toward evening with maybe an hour of light remaining.  He goes one way to the southeast pasture and sends my brother and me the other direction to check coulees and gullies as far as The Ridge That Had The Indian Rings on it.  We walk all the way to the ridge and see nothing.  The barbed wire gate there is closed, so we know the missing steer isn’t in the lower pasture.  Then as we’re walking back to the farmyard, from fifty yards north of the dam we see it.  The steer is laying on top  of The Dam, all four legs sticking up, silhouetted in the late evening light.  We go close enough to know for sure it isn’t just hurt or sick, but thoroughly dead and fearfully bloated.  We hurry back to the house to report what we found.  For Dad, it was a debit to be entered in the books.  It was personal loss because he cared for his cattle, and it was a considerable financial loss because the profit from a future sales day at the cattle ring was gone.


The livestock yard where he had most of his dealings was about 60 miles away.  he would buy young ones to hold for a year or so; or, if prices were good, might buy a little older herd in the fall to fatten up for resale in the spring.

His long friendship with the owner of that sales ring was based on trust and a shared sense of humor.  We didn’t have a phone, so the purchase request would be made either by mail or by taking a day to drive there and back.  Those orders and the resulting cattle deliveries, involving 2 or 3 fully loaded semi-trucks and occurring infrequently, were a big deal for us.  There were also considerable stretches of time when our pastures stood empty, although there was one time that a delivery was fast-tracked because these two men did know each other’s thinking.

Dad, Mom, my brother and I had been gone on a Saturday and were coming home in the late afternoon, between the fields along the up ‘n down of the 3/4 mile road from our mailbox to the yard.  Dad starts laughing as we pull around the last curve, “Well.  Looks like Livdahl’s been here.”  I would say he had been: a hundred head or so of beef are milling around in the fenced area near the barn.  He had taken the time to put the two milk cows in the barn before unloading the new ones, thus sparing those two the considerable bovine stress they might experience in the face of all this unexpected company.  This herd had not been ordered.  It was not expected, but Livdahl had definitely been there.  He just saw a good bunch of cattle and decided they fit our pasture.  And, apparently feeling his oats, he had also included a Brahma bull in the delivery just for fun.   Oh, I mean to tell you, we were proud!  Couldn’t wait for the school bus to come on Monday.  We didn’t say anything but Dad left the cattle there in the close-by pasture, knowing we would point the Brahma out to our neighboring farm kids on the bus.  Having that Brahma bull gave us bragging rights at school for some time.

“Lord, Thou hast here Thy ninety and nine…” (and a Brahma bull) “…are they not enough for Thee?”

It’s another day.  Another count.  The headcount is done more frequently since it’s a new batch and have our close attention.  But eventually they have quieted down.  They know where the best grazing is and where to find water, but now…one is missing.

After a 24 hour search, Dad finds the young steer about two miles away and has come back to the house.  He invites me to go along back out if I want.

This is what he had found: there are so pitifully few freestanding trees growing in the open on these hard hills, but bless his heart, that calf found two of them, not very thick in their trunks, not very tall but very close together where they come of the ground in a V-shape that spreads.  Close to the ground where he was obviously scratching himself up ‘n down, up ‘n down, they are just the right distance apart for him to get his head through…and get stuck.  He’s been standing there for at least a day.  He’s dehydrated.  He’s in big trouble.  He can’t just be “pulled up and out” without injury, so Dad had left him to come back home for the saw and a bucket of water.

We grab a bucket, fill it with water and run for the truck.  Bouncing along the tracks through the pasture sod, then leaving the tracks and heading out across raw prairie, we get to him as fast as possible.  The saw is on of the back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth variety so the job is going to take awhile and it’s important that the calf get a drink before Dad starts sawing.  If he is unwilling to drink (stuck, miserable and swollen as he is) we might not be able to save him.  But he drinks, and Dad saws.

Then “up from the rocky steep, there arose a glad cry to the gate of heaven,

‘Rejoice! I have found my *sheep!’….”

(*calf in this case, of course, but that doesn’t rhyme with steep)


Supper’s done.  The day ends well.

The swing is hanging perfectly still on 30 foot ropes.

The moon quietly walks out on Big Sky Stage.

The cattle are quiet for the night.

This entry was posted in Dad's Farm Records, Heritage, Larsen Family, Mailboxes and Old Barns Essays, The Farm. Bookmark the permalink.

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