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By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Austin Snedden
Austin Snedden

When most people hear about “pairing” they think of matching wine with food. I recently learned that someone that matches the wine selection to the food selection is called a sommelier. My hearing isn’t fantastic and my sophistication level is very low, so when my buddy casually mentioned a sommelier I pretended like I knew what he was talking about, but the whole time I was thinking about the sommelier pirates that took over an oil tanker off the coast of Africa several years back. Within several minutes I got my bearings. Turns out a wine expert sommelier is not the same as a Somalian. Even though the Somalian pirates were trying to pair a tanker of crude oil with a ransom, they didn’t know if the vintage of the crude was a good year or a bad year or whether it had any earthy notes to it. It also turns out that I am not very good at pairing French words and international current events. Pairing is not exclusive to the wine industry, pairing cattle is critical in any good operation.

The casual wine enthusiast may be able to taste the oak notes derived from the wine barrel, but the sommelier can taste the PH level of the soil the grapes were grown in (or so they claim). Your cowboy enthusiast can throw a leg over a horse and maybe swing a loop, but can they pair? Pairing mother cows with their calves is a critical job, and there are plenty of opportunities on the ranch to test your skill. Just like how the wine aficionado sloshes the wine around before drinking to… well I don’t know why they do that, but just like the wine guy’s process starts before the drink, the cattle pairing expert begins his analysis on the gather. The seasoned vet or the compulsive cattle observer doesn’t even realize they have started the pairing process, but they are picking up distinguishing characteristics of mother and baby. A long drive to the working facilities is a double-edged sword when it comes to pairing success. On the one hand, with a long drive you have plenty of time to study the characteristics of a good portion of the herd, and maybe mentally match quite a few calves to their mothers. On the other hand, after a long drive the calves may want to lay down when you reach the corrals, making pairing tough.

As a kid when we would be trailing cattle to the corral a mile or so to sort, I would always try to study the cattle and have four or five pairs memorized (when I wasn’t admiring my own shadow). Probably no one was very impressed, but I pretended they were as I sorted out a pair or two out of the big group with one hundred percent confidence. The key to pairing is a keen analysis of cattle vocalization, eye contact, repeated proximity, and markings. Markings are probably the single largest cause of false pairings. Apparently, the human eye likes to match markings far more than genetics do. That straight Hereford looking cow has been hanging around that solid red calf all day, but I keep wanting to put that calf with a solid red cow.

Some cows pair so easy it doesn’t take a cowboy sommelier to pick them out. That really good momma cow that is a helicopter mom, she is so intent on keeping track of her calf that half the time she is scaring the little guy by bellowing in its ear. Some are more challenging and require analysis of eye contact. Some really good mothers are somewhat devious, they are borderline intelligence agents. If they know their calf is in the proximity and safe, they will stand aside and never incriminate themselves. Eye contact is often your only hope on this pairing. The undercover cow, though not standing next to her calf, will often periodically do a visual inspection, glancing towards the same calf over and over again. The undercover agent cow is easily mistaken for the dead-beat momma cow, but they are very different. The undercover cow is watching her calf, but doesn’t want you to watch her calf, whereas the dead-beat cow is daydreaming and watching a cloud drift by on the horizon. A little trade secret that every cowboy sommelier has in the arsenal is a good artificial calf bawl. The ability to vocalize an approximation of a calf bawl can be critical. When the herd gets comfortable, or the undercover cow won’t tip her hand, a calf bawl can put the odds in your favor.

Us cattle people don’t have French names like sommelier to fancy up what we are doing, we just kinda say what the job is. Although I have doubts when a wine guru claims to taste the soil, what side of the hill the grapes were grown on, and the zodiac symbol of the vineyard owner, I have no doubt that there are developed skills I don’t quite understand. If I was looking at a herd of cattle with a sommelier, I am sure they would look at me questionably when I pointed out the helicopter mom, the undercover cow, and the dead-beat. And to make it look even more questionable, I do it all without even a swirl and a sniff.

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