Poles, chutes and things

2011-05-25 00:00

EVEN the most naive observer will realise that it is necessary to have some sort of handling facilities when one works with cattle. At the most basic level, this may merely involve a pole or a tree stump in the middle of a kraal to which the animal is tethered, its surface polished mahogany smooth by the caress of countless ropes. Its knots and scars harbour the memories of the sounds of the songs of the milkers and grunts and the bellows of the occupants in the dead of the night.

At the other end of the scale are the large farms and feedlots where vast numbers of livestock are processed through advanced mechanical structures involving holding pens, chutes, races, crushes, scales and neck clamps.

And in-between the two extremes are the farmyard facilities, each one tailored to the needs of the farmer, who uses his own creative flair and that of his labour, and dominated by the availability of material.

The late Paul Crausaz, for example, created a crush in a pristine grove of indigenous trees in the Umkomaas Valley out of warped and gnarled wattle branches. With the pressure of the packed cattle, it would moan and groan as if alive, startling the Loeries and Hornbills in the canopy above, and awakening the odd mamba. The job complete, I recall with fond memories leaning over the splintered poles, sharing a flask of tea and chewing the fat. I wonder if it is still there.

Then there is a rickety race in an equally lovely valley in the lee of the Ingomankulu, constructed from such diverse materials as a creosoted telephone pole, wooden railway sleepers, a miscellany of wire fencing material and a rusted sign advertising Joko tea.

One of my favourites is to be found on the farm Haslemere, a short distance from Wartburg. The material was acquired by the farmer from a neighbour years back who, with typical German precision, had drilled a series of holes in the round iron pipes and welded struts and joins, the engineering of which was never fully understood by the current owner and probably not utilised for its original intention. With creative ingenuity, however, he joined the pipes to create an effective race, a life-size Meccano set and novel in the extreme. It has, with time, become integrated into the farmyard ecosystem with its own life, soul and personality

Like Bart Simpsons’ haircut, mini gardens grow out of the open tops of the vertical pipes, growing there from seeds that have passed through the guts of birds using these vantage points as alfresco toilets. The holes in the pipes are a haven for a multitude of creatures that slither, creep or fly, and the occasional glint of a wrapper from a tobacco packet hidden in a nook or cranny will catch my eye.

The structure is wide enough to accommodate a queue of heifers in single file and my pregnancy checks and genital examination invariably involve me doing unmentionable procedures to the reverse end of the cow. Starting at the rear of the queue, I clamber up the sides of the race after each examination is complete. While the patient is reversed out, I drop in behind the next one to repeat the procedure. This is an exercise fraught with complications if we get our timing wrong, from leaving my gumboots stuck in the mud at the bottom of the race to having my sensitive body parts bumped and harassed at the top elevation.

And during my ministrations, my face will often be a couple of centimetres from a reptilian glare, a vanishing tail or a protruding hairy leg, and we will often have to dodge the attentions of angry wasps and ants, irritated by having their routine disturbed by the activity.

With time, then, these structures assume an individuality as distinctive as the stripes on a zebra or the wrinkles on the muzzle of a cow.

And when one goes, when one leaves this hallowed place, perhaps a piece or a mound will remain as a monument to the memories of the activities of the heart and soul of the farmyard.


• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.


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