The country is incredible. It rolls, dark and light green, until it pops up in all the shapes you learned about in geometry - trapezoidal plateaus, cylindrical groves of trees. At Estancia Panagea, which has been in Juan Manuel’s family for three generations, the cattle (1100) and the sheep (1800) roam in eight different pastures, rotated by grass growth, on a total of 2400 acres.
This was the baby step ranch, for me. It’s a fully working ranch and rural veterinarian station, but it also receives up to 20 guests at a time. There’s no electricity and the toilets flush with water you draw from the well, but the gaucho’s wife cooks for you. You saddle up and ride your horse with Juan and the gaucho, Bilinga, but the ranch would run fine if you weren’t there. I went to get my feet on the ground with this whole land management research thing, and to get a little more experience on a horse before I end up somewhere where they don’t teach you.
On the first morning, we ate eggs from the chickens and semiduro cheese from town and smoked ham from some antecedent of the pigs sniffing around in the back yard area. Juan brought us to one of the back paddocks where we learned to saddle up the horses with a sheepskin on top of blankets and saddle. Five of us rode out into a far pasture with Juan and Bilinga, who speaks a clipped mix of Spanish and Portuguese which is typical of the area around Tacuarembo. They’ve had a lot of rain in the summers for the past two years, Juan said, and the grass in the unused pastures was long and green. We chased back a bull who had accidentally not been castrated (“we can’t let him be around his sisters,” Juan said, “we will mess up all the stock”) and ran him into another herd of cattle, who needed to have their blood tested before being sold at auction on Friday. We brought them and their calves to a fenced in area behind the house, a caramel stream.
Siga vaca, vaca anda, vamos vacas, vamos chicas !! Juan and Bilinga did most of the moving, kept up a steady stream of words and whoops.
In the afternoon, we worked with Bilinga to separate out the cows who needed blood drawn. The vet arrived, a lanky guy wearing a red beret like Che’s and baggy jeans. He came with a wide-eyed kid, a neighbor’s grandson, who wore a squished, brown, broad-brimmed hat. We stood in the pen with bamboo sticks and first chased out the mothers and the calves who were too young to leave them. Then, half the rest into a pen, and then into a run, maybe 6 at a time. With James, an older Brit with one blue and one brown eye and a propensity for pointing out when the bull was mounting a heifer, I was in charge of marshaling them into the run. Vaca, Vaca, Anda! Wielding a stick made me feel oddly protected, even in the swirling, pooping pen.
There were calves who were recently castrated and needed a bright red antibiotic gel to heal up. Bilinga ran into the mass of cows to chase out each one and wrestle it down, lightfootedly, laughing like a kid playing tag. He and Joe, another American, would hold it down while he rubbed on the gel.
In the afternoon, we went out again to push the cows to a new pasture, but I think we messed up, 12 of us on horses, half taking photos, too scattered to move any herd of animals in one direction. Juan seemed to say eff it, and we all went for a long ride instead. The Dutch were loud and sunburned and making what sounded like off-color jokes. James’ horse kept farting. The evening turned golden and when we got back to the house we had more semiduro and big bottles of beer.
The next day, we rode out and spent the morning with sheep, herding them and treating their hooves for a parasite that grows when the ground has been wet for too long. In the treatment pen, we pushed them through gates by hand, their wool thick and springy like a memory foam mattress. We moved yesterday’s cattle back from their pasture to the pen behind the house by riding behind them strategically and everyone started to take on the phrases of Bilinga and Juan - vamos vacas, vamos ey ey ey, adding in cries and whistles with shy smiles until we allowed ourselves to pretend we weren’t just visiting.
In the afternoon, it rained. We had to bring in one more flock of sheep and fewer people decided to ride out. I kicked my horse when she stopped moving and then kicked myself for not being a more forceful presence on the horse to begin with. Or something. Working with animals seems to require both a faith in yourself and a patience with the other and its ability to hear you - a combination of force and sensitivity.
Juan chased down a lone sheep in the clearing rain. It was one with an especially bad foot infection, limping. He spent twenty minutes away, working to bring it back to the herd, and when it was back, trailing its compadres, he reminded us that we needed to go slowly, with patience, because if we moved the rest of the herd too far ahead, this one would lose hope. We slowed down, stopped the yelling. Juan was walking behind the sheep, talking softly but firmly - vamos oveja, vamos chiquito.