For families raising cattle in the Highlands of Virginia, spring awakens the senses and brings an abundance of new life to the farm.
“The Wilson Place,” a nice flat pasture along the Jackson River on U.S. 220 South, served many years as the winter pasture for the Stephenson family’s herd. Hundreds (if not thousands) of calves were born there.
All winter long, the Mamas grew hefty in their pregnancy, eating hay and enduring low temps and snowstorms.
The new lives birthed by the Mama cows at The Wilson Place were usually met with an Arctic blast and frozen ground. After they had their calves, they were tasked with keeping the little fellas alive. Ugh.
And, you think you’re ready for spring after harsh winter weather?
The older cows knew, in the spring, they would go on a trek to fresh pastures and tender grass.
So, on any given Saturday, when members of the Stephenson family began arriving at The Wilson Place gate with horses and trucks, the cows were ready.
You see, this annual cattle drive started long before the advent of modern stock trailers. In the beginning, there was one large cattle truck owned by the family. It was likely built in the 1930s. There was no way that truck would accommodate all those cows AND their calves. So instead of making multiple trips, the easiest and fastest way to get those animals moved some 10 miles up the road was to simply open the gate and let them go.
And, many times, the old gals were crowding that gate, which eventually swung open allowing the entire herd to spill out onto U.S. 220, one of Highland County’s main thoroughfares. Literally, they were heading for greener pastures.
The bawling cows bottlenecked at the gate and fought each other to get through.
The calves had no idea what was going on. They just tailed the herd with quizzical expressions.
It took a small army of horses and riders to keep the cattle moving. Someone had to lead. Others were stationed at driveways and lawns to keep the cattle from getting off the road and going astray. A few riders had to move among the cattle and keep one lane of the road open for passing traffic. And, a few more had to be at the back to push the herd along.
In addition, some folks had to run the calf truck. These lucky people got to catch the exhausted calves and put them on the back of a pickup truck for easier transportation. Of course, those poor little calves became even more confused!
Working the calf truck can be fun but also dangerous. Fun because, well, calves are cute and have long eyelashes and are good for snuggling. Everybody loves baby animals… especially their Mamas. And, that’s where the danger lied … particularly when the Mama Cow remembered she forgot her precious baby. At that moment, panic ensued and the cow was moved to action.
The Mama would turn away from the direction of the herd and backtrack to find her calf. She worked her way back through the herd and eventually found the calf truck. If you happen to be the one that just picked up her calf, you become the target. The Mamas will charge people. They will charge the horses. I mean, they will even head butt and fight with the truck.
Needless to say, if you worked on the calf truck, the job required you to be alert and stealthy.
Nonetheless, the trip was usually accomplished without any injury to man or beast, and when the cows stuck their heads through the gate of The Big Pasture – where they would spend their summers – all the worry of the morning was forgotten as they dug into that new, spring grass.