When 'watch out' means 'get out of the way' when working cattle

We do so many things on farms and ranches that could end badly. And we do them as a matter of course, without thinking overly much about what could happen if things went wrong.

It's never a bad idea to take extra precautions around large livestock. Brook Heitman / Grand Vale Creative LLC

After finishing up my regular day-job duties, I went out to help process calves at our feedlot the other night. It's a busy time of year, with bawling calves that finally stopped bawling but need to get vaccinated and treated for ailments.

Because I tend to be kind of slow at giving shots or any of the other tasks that happen at the head catch, I almost always end up working in the back, bringing calves into the barn from outside. While it gets a little uncomfortable if we have cows around, given that my diminutive size means I can't see over them, I tend to like working with the recently weaned calves. Most groups this fall have been fairly placid and have marched in an orderly manner into the barn. Plus, I can see over their backs.

But the other night, my husband warned me that there was a calf with a sore foot and to watch out for him. I thought he meant that I needed to watch for the calf that was favoring a leg so we could identify and treat him. I thought that right up until we identified said calf and he came running full bore at me, sore foot and all. I stood frozen for a moment as Brandon told me again to watch out, then I hopped onto the fence, out of harms way.

The steer wasn't mean, just hyper. He didn't come after me, really, but just wanted to run, particularly away from the humans in the pen.

The calf made his way through the alley, got some extra medicine for his foot and went on his way.


After the calves had all gone through the chute, we moved them back to their pens. By this point, it was well past dark. And as always happens when I work cattle in the dark, I thought of the scene in the John Wayne movie, "The Cowboys," when a little boy gets trampled by spooked cattle in the dark.

We do so many things on farms and ranches that could end badly. And we do them as a matter of course, without thinking overly much about what could happen if things went wrong. That same night, it started raining fairly steadily, turning a few spots in one of the sorting pens into muck. After the fact I thought, what would have happened if that hyper calf had decided to run at me just as I was at the worst of the muck, with my boots stuck just a bit. I couldn't have moved fast enough to get out of his way.

Absolutely nothing bad happened to me that night working calves. But, in retrospect, something bad could have happened at many junctures, and I'm not sure I always am on alert the way I should be. I'm quick to look out for my kids, but I don't always take the same precautions for myself.

It's a busy time now for cattle producers, with feeding already well underway or soon to start, followed by calving for those in that game. We end up in close quarters with animals that outweigh us by hundreds or thousands of pounds. It's important to remember to respect the danger of the situations we put ourselves in, even if we've put ourselves there many times before.

And it never hurts to clarify what someone means by "watch out."

To read more of Jenny Schlecht's The Sorting Pen columns, click here.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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