Inside the Pirka
It was going to be another long afternoon at Gualfin. Against three hundred cows, a handful of bulls, and a hundred terneros, there would be a mere six gauchos, the encargado, and the dueño, Don Bill. All the cattle would be vacunado, The calves would be subjected to multiple indignities – señalado, decorticado, and castrado. Those calves judged old enough would be weaned with a destetador.
The yerra, or cattle round up, had gone on for two days. Yesterday, the cattle from campo afuera, the pastures out toward the road into the finca from the south, had been driven into the stone-walled corral. The afternoon’s work done, they were released to find their familiar grazing grounds. Today, it was the turn of the cattle from campo adentro, to the north of the sala– the main house and control center of the finca.
While the gauchos broke for lunch after the yerra, the cattle swirled around the big corral, lowing with uncertainty. Mothers and calves separated during the drive called anxiously, staring into the throng. The calmest members of the herd were the bulls. They were too tired even to lock foreheads and try to lean each other into submission.
Gualfin’s corral is surrounded by pirka, high walls of stone held together with adobe. Inside are various holding pens and a chute, all made of stone except for the one at the entrance to the chute. That has a wire fence. The Spanish word for chute is manga, which also means “sleeve.” The cattle enter the widest part of the manga and are funneled to the “wrist.” Pressed against each in the narrowest part of the manga, the cows not infrequently try to jump out. The day before, one actually had managed to scramble up on the back of a sister cow and hoist herself over the six-foot wall before bucking and kicking her way off into the alfalfa field.
Around the corral are thick chunks of tree trunks that have been driven into the ground. They are for dashing behind when chased by an angry bull. Today, Samuel limped a little. Our bulls are Braford stock, bred for placidity as well as muscle and brawn. They are slow to anger. But when something sets them off, they can charge with unexpected swiftness and dexterity. Yesterday, Samuel had barely managed to flip over the wire fence to avoid total collision with a thousand pounds of muscle and bone.
“It’s just a bruise,” he had said manfully, dusting himself off and climbing back into the pen with his lasso whistling in the air.
The afternoon’s work began by separating the calves and mothers from rest of the cows and the bulls, driving them into the wire-fenced pen within the main corral, and then through the stone walls of the chute. Inside the manga are hefty wooden gates that hold the cattle in manageable batches. Young Pablo danced up and down in the main holding pen, waggling his chaps like a bullfighter’s cape. The cows retreated from this fearsome spectacle, ushering their calves ahead of them into the mouth of the chute. Samuel worked alongside Pablo, encouraging the couples with cries and the end of his lasso. Natalio, older and more economical in his movements, waited atop the pirka, up where the chute narrows. He watched intently, expertly jabbing into the shuffling, backing, rebellious fray with a branch shaped like a long bayonet.
Meanwhile, Pedro alternately worked from atop the walls and, jumping down into the chute, from the ground. Pedro is not the most energetic or athletic of the gauchos. He never rides horses – he even tried to get a medical slip to relieve him of this task –or drives the tractor, and is usually detailed to irrigating the fields or pitchforking over the drying alfalfa. He also butchers animals and does adobe work. But today, he was a picture of activity. He wielded a stick topped with a frayed yellow feed sack, waving it at the cattle, yelling and poking at them, driving them forward and toward the wooden cepo, or sliding gate. On the other side, the vaccinators stood at the ready. If a calf turned around and tried to escape, Pedro forced it backwards remorselessly. And as soon as it was going in the right direction, he gave it a few smacks on the rump for good measure. Even being trampled by a hundred-pound calf is a dire thought.
Don Bill stood guard at the first cepo. Here, the stone walls channel the cattle into the narrowest part of chute for treatment. He held the gate open and then closed it deftly behind the last rump that could be squeezed into the narrow space. Sometimes a tail and part of
a leg trailed behind. He poked the forgetful creature onward with one hand and forced the gate closed with the other. The whole line surged forward as the laggard scrambled out of the way of the closing gate. Sergio, the encargado who acts as liaison between the day-to-day operations of the finca and the outside world of supplies and markets, controlled the exit cepo. Cepo means “stock” in English, and the exit cepo is not just a gate. If necessary, it can close around an animal’s neck and hold it still.
The vaccinators went to work on the immobilized cattle. José and Gustavo went up the line with their big thick needles. They had sticks at the ready, too, because some cows would jump up on two legs and try to climb over the sides. Sure enough, the black cow with the white spots around her eyes, the would-be escapee from the morning’s cattle drive, was one of them. A few whacks on her hard bony forehead, and she dropped back down into the chute. Insecticide was sprinkled on the wide thick necks and backs of the bulls. A small fly, the ura from Paraguay, has made its way to Gualfin in recent years. It burrows into hide to lay eggs, and the bulls spend precious energy scratching and itching in a vain attempt to get rid of them.
The big calves were weaned. José and Gustavo clipped a yellow plastic destetador, shaped like a fan, between their nostrils. But that was not the final insult. After slipping through the exit cepo at the end of the chute, the calves were driven away from their mothers into an appendix of the main corral. There they bunched together, staring mournfully through the gate of their corral, sniffing the air and calling plaintively. The very young calves, some still unsteady on their legs, were too stunned to do more than curl up in a corner. Meanwhile, in their holding pen on the other side of the cepo, the mothers milled around anxiously. They moved continuously, following each other around and around. Only the bulls stood still. Their paternal role, after all, is of short duration!
Meanwhile, Pablo and Samuel strode into the clumps of calves, singling them out one by one. The calf, provoked into running into the open with slaps to the rump, tried to elude them. Then the lassos would whistle through the air, dropping softly just before running feet. Snap! The loop would close and a sure hand would flick it up to tighten around the calf’s legs. The calf sometimes shook itself free in time, and skipped to safety. But not for long. Eventually, it was lying in the dust, all four feet trussed together, with a booted foot on its neck. Particularly feisty calves sometimes found themselves upside down with a gaucho sitting on each end.
It was great fun – at least for Pablo and Samuel. They laughed and joked, and looked around to see if the audience was appreciating their deft moves. It was a choreography that the little boys perched up on the stone walls watched with admiration. Later, Samuel and Pablo would let them practice lassoing in safety of the wire pen.
The work went on all afternoon. The calves were señalado, or marked with a triangular clip from the left ear. Those in need of it were dehorned with a big curved knife like a scimitar. The embras — literally, wombs — had an easier time of it; the machos were castrated. This was a delicate operation, performed meticulously and without sentiment – though sometimes with wry comments that provoked a guffaw. The poor little male lowed piteously, while its nether parts were emptied of testicles. Luckily, it did not seem to be a painful procedure. The calves leapt up and scampered back to their brethren as soon as it was over. The unneeded tissue – to use a scientific expression — was then tossed to the dogs outside the corral.
As the sun began to sink, the last cows went through the manga to the main holding pen inside the corral. José and Pablo remounted their horses. The gate of the corral was opened. Samuel and Gustavo, leaning against the trees in the driveway, counted the herd as it went through. They counted on their fingers, using a method of calculation that probably predates the Inca conquest. Calves and their mothers, single cows and bulls, all headed for the open range.
There was one little calf that we knew could not be sent to rejoin the herd. He had been born with a severely twisted leg. Watching him coming into the corral with the herd, hopping and panting, desperately trying to keep up, was a pitiful spectacle. Pedro remained behind with him.
The next day, we had veal milanesa for lunch. Marta cheerfully ground the breadcrumbs in the ancient mortero in the courtyard, rocking the long cylindrical grinding stone back and forth over the pieces of dry pan casero. The gauchos and their families enjoyed the same meal, we presume. Nothing goes to waste on a high altitude finca with a shortage of water. It wouldn’t be respectful.