Lynn Takayama

The maternity ward on a farm can sometimes be a handful.

Our second herd of cattle is about to start calving. The whole process is likely to be spread over a month or two. The Cowboy, the boss drover I’m the apprentice ringer estimates the first cow to give birth is only a few days from that arduous, female ordeal. Since there’s a weather alert today for torrential rain and potential flooding we must move the cattle across the river in case the forecast is correct and our bridge goes under. If that happens, our mob would be stranded, with no way for us to get to them.

Experience has taught me that before commencing a mustering job I should talk it through with the Cowboy so that we can anticipate problems, such as cattle escaping along the riverbank. This time, we’ll just ride over to the paddock, a few kilometres from the homestead, get the cattle together, count them and, if they’re all there, muster them across the river into the maternity paddocks. We’ll discuss details as we go.

I go ahead and at one of the gateposts spy something moving. Whoa, a large, slithering snake! Fascinated, though heart-poundingly afraid, I watch it glide around the gatepost and into the tall grass. It’s got a black head and a greyish, mottled body colour. It’s probably one of the many variations of eastern brown just that name sends fear ripples up my spine. There’s 400mm of tail still showing and it looks as if it hasn’t yet decided whether the thrum of the quad engine poses any risk. The Cowboy comes along and gets off his quad to shut the gate and takes due care once I tell him there’s a snake at the post.

But I am not allowed to let myself be distracted from the main game, which is mustering our 44 magnificent young matrons across the river to the maternity paddocks.

There should be no trouble getting the cattle from their current paddock, through the adjoining paddock and down to the river road. After that, there are traps that need to be avoided. We have to direct the herd across the bridge, up the hill on the other side and down the road to the gate into the paddocks. With no mishaps we get the cattle onto the river road. The Cowboy sends me ahead to cross the bridge and close off the paths on either side of the river so that the cattle will simply head up the hill and through the gate. His job is to direct them along the river road and over the bridge.

I stand in position, worrying that the cows will get away from the Cowboy and go down either side of the river. I’m afraid to do anything other than wait. To prevent the cows from going down the riverbank, I’ve left my quad with its engine still running on one side of the road, while I stand on the other side.

Good, here come the cattle, the lead few gingerly making their way across the bridge. Noooo, they’re starting to head off to the left down the river. I hurry towards them to head them off, and disaster occurs. My hurrying spooks them and they all race along the river. There I go again, not thinking like a cow. The Cowboy commands me to stand still and I daren’t move. He charges off on his quad up the hill and disappears. He’s going as fast as he can to get to a spot where he can head off the cattle and move them back towards me.

I’m afraid to move after the blunder I’ve made and the command I’ve been given. I wait stock-still for what seems like an hour, but not much longer than five to 10 minutes later, I hear the Cowboy hoying up the cattle, which are starting to move towards me. Holding my breath, I stand still with my arms wide to prevent the cattle coming down the river this way. “Push them up the hill!” Cowboy shouts. Oh, OK… “Move up, hoy, hoy, hoy,” I shout at the cattle.

The Cowboy, walking behind the cattle, jumps on my quad and rides after them. I’m left to walk behind, up the steep hill. I think of it as my punishment for causing the disaster. But, disaster is now averted and the cattle go through the gate. As the Cowboy closes the gate, I jump on my quad and offer to give him a ride to where he’s left his quad. There’s no verbal response. The Cowboy simply jumps on and I release the throttle and we take off.

Both on our own quads now, I steer the eight head that have ended up in Rocky Paddock and the Cowboy directs the rest of the herd into the maternity paddocks. The final job is to count them again, to confirm that we’ve got all 44. To do this most effectively, the Cowboy decides we’ll put them through the race and into the crush, which means that they come out one at a time at the other end. My job is to count them as they come out. OK, one, two… Now I’m up to 24, 24, 24… I keep repeating it in my head I can’t risk allowing any other numbers into my mind until the next lot go through the crush. If I get mixed up and lose count, it’ll mean rounding the cattle up again and starting all over. I couldn’t stand causing that to occur, not after already blundering once.

They are all counted now 44 present and accounted for. Job done, objective achieved. Phew! Sometimes it’s not easy being an apprentice ringer. Now, back to the homestead for a congratulatory caffeine hit.