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Laird Foshay
January 12, 2022 | Laird Foshay

The Short Unsuccessful Life of Chance The Bull

Loving the Life
It was a big surprise to me when, at more than 40 years of age, I fell in love with cattle ranching and raising livestock. I bought my ranch in the year 2000 to grow wine grapes, raise my kids and satisfy a lifelong lust for land ownership. At first we rented our pastures to another cattleman. But once we had bred and raised a few cows, starting with 4H for the kids, we decided to go all in, run the whole ranch and sell grass-fed beef directly to our customers. One of my early memories of cattle ranching was riding horseback behind some cows while we moved them from one pasture to another. It was a mild spring day in Paso and the warm sun was shining on the black backs of our cattle. A sweet aroma rose in waves from the small herd as they jogged with easy athleticism. Smelled like beef. It made me appreciate the 10,000 year bond between our species, human and bovine. I was happy. Not just in the moment but also considering their lives in our beautiful fields and their destiny as nutritious food.  I like the whole experience and process, but it is not always easy.

One of the essential parts of running a cow-calf operation is the provision of a sound bull to breed the cows. You need to bring in a fresh sire every few years to maintain genetic diversity. It's not a great practice to have fathers breeding their daughters. Typically these new bulls are purchased at specialized auctions held annually: The Bull Sale.

Growing up in suburban Northern California, I had never been to an auction. After we moved to Paso Robles, we were literally swimming in a sea of auctions. Auctions for school fundraisers. Auctions for community projects. Auctions for farm equipment. Horse auctions. Auctions for the NRA. Once, at a Ducks Unlimited auction, with my daughter in tow and urging me on, I "won" a labrador. She was a beautiful little black pup we named Lucky. She proved notoriously unlucky. Nuther story... But for me, the granddaddy of auction experiences is the livestock auction. And the bull sale is the super version. It even has a catalog full of pictures, stories and technical data about each animal.

Bull Sale! 
At the bull sale in 2020, there was also free bbq and beer. So as the sale started, my ranch manager and I gulped down some tri tip, grabbed an extra Budweiser and went inside to see the action. I identified some likely targets in the catalog with high scores in calving ease and feed efficiency. We have smaller mother cows and I wanted a bull that would "throw" light calves that were easy on the mother. Well, an auction is a heady event, especially for a beer-addled rookie like me. The noise and the action come fast and furious. Dozens of buyers are stacked into the steep bleachers. A bull is trotted out with remarks on its splendid form, awesome genetics and likelihood of profit. There's a very loud, talented auctioneer who is trying to separate you from your wallet with relentless coaxing and yodeling: "hummuna, hummuna, sold!" There are enthusiastic spotters scouring the crowd for bids. The slightest twitch by an audience member can render a sale. Here's what it looks and sounds like. 

After a few minutes, Lot 12 came around, which was one of our targets and he looked great. As the auctioneer boasted, "The kind that would just stay in the herd and keep producing great calves." I was juggling my phone (taking pics and vids) and a beer and the catalog and a bidders paddle. I got a little confused about the bidding level and just missed buying no. 12. Lost him to a higher bidder. Another bull trotted out immediately, LUCKY NUMBER 13. He seemed a little jacked up...but so was I: bulls, beers, auctions...exciting! A too quick glance at the catalog showed he had great numbers too: 4 star calving ease, 5 star feed efficiency! Next thing I knew my paddle was up, again and again. "Ha!", said the spotter. "Sold!", said the auctioneer.

Disposition 2.8
Now that the deed was done, I began to study the catalog entry for Number 13. Hmmm, what's that "disposition" score of 2.8? More thorough reading of the catalog showed that all the bulls in the sale were of mild disposition, scoring 3, 4 or 5, whatever that means. But my LUCKY NUMBER 13 had a 2.8 disposition. Seems like he kinda barely didn't make the cut, but did. Anyway, I owned him, so it was time to load him up and haul him back to the ranch. So we backed the trailer up to the gate for loading and got out to watch. The boys in the sale yard were having a little trouble back there amongst the alleys and gates. Some dust was rising high and the curses higher,  then around the corner here comes LUCKY NUMBER 13 headed straight for the loading gate at high speed--which was still closed. He was head high and full of thunder. A real beauty. I'm expecting to see him come to a stylish stop and maybe snort at us a little due to the general excitement of the occasion. But he don't. He went nearly full speed into the steel gate with a crash and rebounds, nose bleeding. Right then I remembered that 2.8 score but I thought his current performance was more like a 1.75. He was like a cougar on a leash. Like a snarling raccoon with a face full of jam jumping out of the refrigerator at your face. Like seeing TJ Watt coming at you, unblocked,  when you've already been sacked 10 times today. Well, you get the idea.

We got him loaded on the third try and headed for home. It was a couple of hours drive back to the ranch, so plenty of time to think and chat. What were we going to name him? Name of Lucky came right to mind, but due to that to that "nuther story" experience with an auctioned dog we called Lucky, that name was out. Chance! We'll call him Chance. We'll flip the script on that LUCKY Number 13 and 2.8 curse. We'll give him a chance to reform his disposition in our picturesque world of hills, oaks, rich pastures and shiny, breedable cows.

Meet the Legend
Back at the ranch, Chance unloaded a lot quieter than he loaded. Low hurdle. The bleeding had stopped. He trotted off quietly to check out his new fenceline. We gave him a couple of weeks in a field by himself to get accustomed. Since we were able to walk him to new pastures without too much excitement, things were looking up for our feisty miscreant. Then we put him in with his mentor, the big easy, Legend. Why was our older bull named Legend? He had bred 50+ cows a year for a few years. That entails a lot of work and dedication to the craft. Plus, he was as quiet as a drugged elephant at the circus. Introducing new bulls into a herd can be dicey. Some bulls like to fight for dominance and this can lead to damage for both bulls and property. Fences and gates can buckle like licorice twists. But these two settled right in together. Maybe because Legend outweighed his 18 month old little buddy Chance by about 800 pounds, there wasn't much room for real conflict.

Chance Goes to Templeton
After a few weeks with "the boys" living together I noticed that Legend was standing alone in the field and I asked our ranch manager whether he had seen the youngster lately. The answer was no. A full search of the ranch yielded no results. With miles of 100 year old fenceline, some of which is deep in the woods or brushy canyons, our ranch is not a perfect enclosure. Maybe he had tried his luck challenging Legend one day and had gone off to sulk. Maybe the scent of some luscious cow wafted up the canyon and stimulated his hair-trigger hormones. Maybe he just got curious. Who can say? Soon a call came from the stock sales yard in Templeton. "We have your fancy young bull here." Turns out Chance had been found jogging a couple of miles west of our ranch near Vineyard Drive and another cattlemen had corralled him, then taken him to town for retrieval. I would have liked to have seen that rodeo.

Big Turn Out
Back on the ranch for the rest of the winter and into spring, Chance was growing and bulking up by hundreds of pounds. Most local ranches strive for fall calves that will be sold the following summer into "the system" which ends in a feedlot. We strive for spring calves so we can keep steers on the ranch for two-plus years. That allows them to grow "grass-fat" in the home pasture with their family. So we turn out the bull with the cows around May 1. Since cows gestate for about 9 months, like humans, that means we'll have most of our calves the following February, March and April, during the heart of California's relatively early springtime.

Now a young bull in springtime is ready to go and get with those cows. A common phrase in the cattle biz is to say that the bull is being "turned out" with the cows for breeding. This is not to be confused with "turned on." The bull is horny all the time, even if he has no horns. He'll stand there, bellowing in the breeze, his nose running with raw lust, hoping for his big chance. Merle Haggard is playing in his head "Turn me loose and set me free, somewhere in the middle of _a cowherd!_" If no cow presents itself, he'll turn and butt heads with the other bull(s) out of sheer frustration. It's more a question of access, hence "turned out." As far as the cows, the females, go, they are worse. When their baby is about 2 months old and their cycle comes around again, they are just crazy for the bull and any friendly abuse he has to offer. First the cows like to play-hump with each other. Sometimes it looks like a crazy conga line out there, with one cow riding another and ten more waiting. Even the young-uns get involved. I mean they are just animals. When the moment arrives and a cow is really ready to breed, sometimes called "standing heat," she just saunters--sometimes she literally runs--up to the bull, then presents her hind end and waits in a state of cow-eyed dreaminess. One good snuffle by the bull and the next thing you know the deed is done. Gawd, nature is beautiful.

Somepin' Ain't Right
Well, when the time came, we turned out the young stud with his cow fan club and everything seemed to go swimmingly. No pun intended. He must have looked like Brad Pitt to Thelma and Louise out there. Young Chance was bobbing up and down in that sea of cows just like a pumpjack in an oilfield. Everybody seemed happy and I was thinking my Chance was paying off. One day, however, I was checking a water trough when Chance mounted a cow as easy as a gymnast on a pommel horse. This caught my attention so I stopped to watch the performance, I mean, to see if the bull performed well. Did his job. You understand. Then, a shudder went through me. What was that? Did I just see a kink in his rocket? That looked wrong. Nah, probably just has a weird one. I seen shit like that on the internet. I let it slide.

Two weeks later I get a text from my Spanish speaking ranch manager, "The bull has his part very inflamed." Out of a sense of delicacy and discretion (rare for me, I know), I will not include the photo. I immediately flashed back on the kinky rocket incident. I knew my Chance had suffered the greatest of mishaps. An incomprehensible malady. Nevertheless, I was ready to throw good money after bad, anything to stave off the inevitable destiny of LUCKY NUMBER 13. I called in the veterinarian. He pulled no punches. The diagnosis was: hematoma of the penis. Oouf. Accompanied by a serious pizzle-kink. He had a busted dick. Surgery was possible but not recommended. Would be a bad investment. "It would likely just rupture again."  Oh trajedy! Aiyeehhhhhhhhhhhhh! As a fellow male and the investor of $6500 in his very virility, I wept bitter tears for Chance. For weeks I felt the need to constantly rearrange my crotchal region for what reassurance I could find there. I was going to miss that spastic stud.

So Chance met his destiny not as a champion in the field of fertility, but only as sustenance for the hungry. A noble but diminished outcome. We harvested him for hamburger. Some of you may feel I have exploited this animal's suffering merely to construct this tail, I mean tale, of woe and humor. All kidding aside, I loved that fiery little 1500 pound son of a cursed cow as much as any animal I have ever shared time with. I was very upset by his suffering and to have to put him down. I identified with him. His furiously lustful approach to life was very much like my own and my tribe. By tribe I mean my family and the human race. Sometimes we tend go at it with too much ardor and not enough careful consideration. Sometimes our disposition falls well below 3. We try too hard. We sometimes fail. We get hurt. Not necessarily right where it counts, but still. You get the point. Hence our informal motto, "More enthusiasm than skill." I still believe this is better than the alternative: "Too much caution and not enough action." Maybe there is a middle way...

It had all started so innocently, with a "can or two" of Budweiser. I was responsible right down to the last. I personally hauled Chance to meet his destiny. I was there when he drew his last with a great bovine heave. As I left, I turned to the harvest crew and rendered this rude wisdom: "Be careful boys. Don't breed with too much enthusiasm. It can be fatal."

Laird Foshay
Adelaida Springs Ranch


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