I was there for a few days over spring break, visiting friends in Manhattan, KS before heading back east to Kansas City for business. When I told my friend Jodi Oleen that I would be coming to Manhattan, she was thrilled. She excitedly offered to let me crash at her place while I was in town, which led to us making plans for very “Kansas-y” activities. While one of the big activities, trail riding, fell through due to high winds, I DID get to enjoy some “cow time.” I was a happy little hick chick, with boots caked in dirt, manure, feed dust, and milk replacer.
Brandon manages the Kansas State University stocker cattle unit. This small outfit is instrumental in the animal science program’s research. Brandon’s family owns a ranch in western Kansas, and this is his “day job.” On top of that, he also has a small but quickly-growing herd of cows and heifers that he manages, with help from Jodi.
We did a few different things during my time in Kansas. I met up with some fantastic folks, ate some amazing food, drank some pretty good beer, and just had an overall great time. The touristy side of me enjoyed seeing such “hot spots” in Manhattan as the K-State football stadium and some of the historic buildings on campus. It also enjoyed Little Apple Brewery, a must for anyone swinging through Manhattan. The not-so-typical-tourist side in me really wanted to see cattle.
Kansas has a lot of pride in its beef. I wanted to see that. I wanted to see beyond the delicious steaks I had (a total of two in one day). This is where Jodi and Brandon really brought their A-game.
As stated before, Brandon manages the stocker unit for K-State’s animal science research programs. He is the cowboy that heads up the day-to-day of feeding and care of the calves that go through this specific unit. He is also the guy that makes sorting go smoothly. He helps upkeep many, many acres of pasture land that is a vital part of the feeding rotation, which includes periods of time both out on grass and in the yard on feed. Recently, Jodi wrote a post a post about her “Marlboro Man,” in which she stated that Brandon always seems to have a million things to do but does each one carefully, patiently, and with the utmost care.
I witnessed this firsthand. There’s something in watching a cattle person with their animals. There’s an air about them. When we arrived at the stocker unit for Brandon to give a quick once-over, there was a heifer out of one of the feeding pens. With a fine-tuned combination of calm confidence and cat-life reflexes, Brandon managed to whip a massive pickup truck around the aisles and perimeter of the yard until that rogue calf was safely tucked into an open sorting area. He would later come back to figure out which of the pens she belonged in, but that wasn’t necessarily a priority at that time; the main goal was to make sure she was safely penned where she could be watched, protected, and fed.
Probably the biggest example of this careful persistence and attention to detail was from within Brandon’s personal herd. He’s been gradually accuring pairs and bred cows and heifers for his own personal collection. Of the new pairs, one young Charolais and her stilty-legged little heifer calf were in need of a little “help.” Baby was nursing, or trying to, and mama just wasn’t providing what she needed. Brandon did what he could to encourage the young, inexperienced mama to hit the feed a bit more aggressively, but the pecking order of the herd was still unsettled from the new additions and she seemed to be right at the bottom of the totem pole.
Long story short, Brandon had an inexperienced, meek mother with a hungry little calf, and a herd full of more confident females that were already vying for some semblance of dominance. Just a day in the life of a cowboy.
We set out down the path of bottle-feeding a half-wild calf. Brandon got the critters (and a few companion) sorted into a separate pen, and then the calf into another smaller pen next to it so that mama could see her baby but couldn’t hurt us small, vulnerable, squishy humans. Try as he might with gentle coaxing, squirting a bit of milk replacer into the calf’s mouth, and massaging the throat and jaw…the little munchkin just wouldn’t nurse.
Brandon resigned himself to the unfortunate truth: the calf would neef to be “tubed.” An esophageal feeder is essentially a bottle with a short tube and a rounded bulb on the end. The term often used for the act of feeding with an esophageal feeder is “tubing.” An experienced cattleman or cattlewoman can get a struggling calf the emergency nutrients it needs fast and reliably this way. Brandon released the calf into the herd and we ran some errands, one of which was to retrieve one of these feeders.
We returned. We wrangled the calf. And Brandon gave her potentially life-saving nutrients. The inexperienced mother stood a few yards away, bellowing in concern with a few of her herdmates standing nearby. Despite not wanting to nurse on the bottle, the calf showed some initiative to nurse when she was tubed, which is encouraging for the next time that Brandon will need to bottle feed her.
It was clear when I left Manhattan that the calf was not out of the woods and that her young Charolais mother had some learning to do in regards to holding her own in the herd and caring for her calf. Where things go from here, no one knows. There are many different options for a situation like this. The cow may be culled from the herd after her calf is weaned for poor mothering instincts or milk production. The calf could be tamed down and raised as a bottle-only calf. The mother may wise up and become a model mommy (with some help from improved nutrition under Brandon’s experienced and watchful eye). I haven’t heard any updates on the little rag-tag pair since leaving Manhattan, but I’m sure Jodi will have updates for me soon.
I love being around the animals. The dairies I visited in California gave me a much-needed taste of “cow time” but I’ve been overdue for a while. There’s something about being near these animals that takes me back to summers spent in the pasture with our bottle calves. There’s something cathartic in being around these animals that are so integral to our food system and so closely intertwined with humans. And while I’ve always been “around” it my whole life, from my childhood to my years in 4-H and FFA and my various ag-related internships, being out there with Brandon while in his element…it served as a reminder to me. As an agriculturalist, as a communicator, as a person.
Brandon’s story, his approach to cattle care, his firm dedication and gentle solidarity as a rancher, feeder, and caregiver, is what makes this gig so worthwhile. This role I play, as an agricultural communicator, it’s a blessing. An absolute gift. I feel like I have the coolest job in the best industry there is. And learning this lessons of gentle patience and undying devotion to the trade just solidified that to me.
Thank you, Jodi and Brandon, for hosting me and showing me a fantastic time in MHK. Thank you even more for reminding me why I love doing what I do.