Story and photos by Larry Stalcup
It’s painful to watch him walk. His cohorts sometimes wonder how he manages. But with an aching back and knees, sore feet, arthritis from neck to toe and hands of leather, Shorty Hutson is still at work by 3 a.m. By daylight he’ll have lists made for others who follow his lead. And despite bitter cold or summer’s heat, the pen rider of 47 years will be in the saddle finding pulls before it’s too late.
Shorty is a relic in the “Beef Capital of the World,” Hereford, Texas. He’s head cowboy for Circle Three Feedyard. He’s been riding pens since the Panhandle’s pioneering days of commercial cattle feeding. His kids and grandkids sometimes mention the word retirement. They’ll get his standard answer, “I’ve done this all my life and can’t see stopping. But I may have to cut down some.”
Scott Hall, his wife Lori and Jim Perrin own Circle Three, a 25,000-capacity yard about seven miles southwest of Hereford. Scott and his dad, Elmo, and Perrin bought the yard from the Moorman company in 1985. Elmo passed away a few years ago. As general manager, Scott and his dedicated employees have enabled the feedyard to remain competitive with larger corporate yards. “Shorty has been part of the reason we’ve had success,” Scott says. “We still depend on him, the other cowboys and all of our employees to keep the feedyard going.”
Shorty, whose given name is Kenneth, was born in Clarendon, Texas in 1950. At five he developed asthma. The Panhandle’s wind and blowing dust didn’t do him any favors. He missed a lot of school. His mother feared for the worse. “She didn’t want me to do anything that might upset my asthma,” he remembers. By the time he turned twelve he was ready to get out of the house, so to speak. He moved in with a friend and stayed there through high school. The cowboy life was in his destiny.
“During and after high school I worked some at several ranches in the ‘60s,” he says. “I liked being around horses and cattle. But the ranches didn’t pay enough. I came to a Texan feedlot in Hereford and asked for a job. The guy said he needed experienced help and I had none. I asked him how I could get any experience without working for him. He told me to start the next morning. That was Nov. 13, 1970.”
He started out driving a feed truck and even ran the mill. After six months he started riding pens. When Bob Sims took over the yard in 1981, Shorty stayed a few more years before joining the then Moorman-owned yard. When Scott, Elmo and Perrin acquired the operation, along with the feedmill, trucks and pens came Shorty. “I had known Elmo a while when I worked at other feedlots,” he says. “I guess you’d say I liked the new ownership because I’ve been here ever since.”
Pull ‘em early
Shorty’s day starts three to four hours before dawn. He charts what needs to be done that day on notepads. He keeps them in his shirt pocket as a guide for the day. “I get here at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he explains. “I have five cowboys that work under me. One of them has been here 18 years, some for several years and one only a few months. I get the day set. I look at what type cattle we’ll be receiving, which pens need reimplanted, which pens we’re shipping and other chores. Each cowboy gets a list of his responsibilities.”
Along with normal assignments, pen riders must be able to spot at-risk cattle. Knowing what to look for is the key to a pen rider’s success. Finding, then pulling would-be sick animals is nearly an art.
“We ride every pen every day,” Shorty says. “We look for bloats, bullers, pneumonia, snots, calvers, anything that needs to be railed. Just because an animal has snot doesn’t mean it’s sick. Early morning humidity or a little rain can cause some respiratory discomfort. You need to look at their ankles for swelling, determine whether they’re eating and see if their nose is dry or their eyes are matted up. Those are strong symptoms of a sick calf, and you have to get him pulled and doctored the first day. If you don’t catch him until the second day you’re too late. If you miss it, he’s going to die.”
He points out that in the ‘70s, it was common to see 200 to 300 pulls a day. Many calves were loaded on trucks fresh off their mamas some 1,000 miles away in a hot, humid climate different from the dry High Plains. Shipping fever was rampant. Calves were hit with all kinds of stress. Today, many cattle are part of preconditioning programs that help prepare them for the feedyard.
“We may have to doctor only five to six head a day now,” Shorty says. “That number may go up a little in the fall. But we get the sick ones pulled and treated. Medicine is so much better now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Our ability to recognize, pull and doctor sick cattle early helps us keep our death losses to a minimum. It’s only about 0.25% for the whole yard.”
Not all would-be pen riders can cut it. “Some come to a feedlot and say they’re cowboys. But you can tell right off they don’t have knowledge of cattle or any common sense,” Shorty says. “They won’t last long because we have to make sure the cattle get taken care of.
“In my opinion – a cowboy is not made, a cowboy is born. And I’ve also had girls work as pen riders. If they know cattle, they do a good job. One problem that’s common among younger riders is playing with their cellphones. They’re checking Facebook or other crap and not paying attention to their job. I text, myself, but not while I’m riding pens.” (Editor’s Note: Bully observation, Mr. Hutson! Long overdue to be said. Take note, young ‘uns.)
Find a good mount
Shorty has been training horses longer than he’s been a feedyard hand. He’s more at home in the saddle than anywhere. “I sometimes broke horses while working on ranches. And I did some rodeoing in the ‘60s,” he says. “I rode barebacks and bulls. But rodeoing cost more than I was winning because I got bucked off too much. I later team roped from 1972 until about 1995. Most of that roping was done on horses I’ve trained. I’ve always raised my own horses and have probably had about 25 different ones.
“Right now I have Myrtle and Martha. Before them I had one I rode for nearly 18 years. I get along better with females. They don’t give up as fast as a gelding. I also had a mule I rode for 18 years. His name was Hart-to-Hart. He could do anything a good horse could.”
One horse got the best of him about 20 years ago. “I got bucked off in a pen, right up against where the manure had been piled up,” Shorty says. “It knocked the wind out of me. I lay there a while, caught my breath, got back on the horse and went back to work. The next morning I was bruised up and couldn’t get my pants on. I got a brace for my back and ribs and kept going. About a year later my back started hurting again. The doctor x-rayed me. I had three broken ribs and spine damage. I’d worked all that time and didn’t know how bad I was.”
He’d just as soon not have to count on wearing a slicker or heavy layers to fight off storms and cold. But as with occasional blowing dust, the Panhandle weather often doesn’t cooperate, especially in the winter. You can count on at least one bad spell a year. The Halloween Blizzard in the early ‘90s dropped two feet of snow on the area. Keeping pens dug out and cattle fed was incomprehensible. A Christmastime blizzard in 2015 was hard on feedyards and dairies. With high drifts and blinding snow, cattle walked over buried fences. Thousands were lost.
“That was a tough one. But there was a storm that was just as bad in ’71,” Shorty recalls. “The snow was deep and thousands of cattle got out of feedlots all over. Some feedlots lost 500 head. We worked nearly two days straight trying to keep cattle fed and round them up elsewhere. I got a little frostbite and a foot turned black. It took two weeks to dig out of that deal. We gathered cattle for six months.”
The wife of a cowboy is special. She puts up with odd hours, more-than-soiled clothes and having to compete with horses for affection. Lois Hutson was behind Shorty all the way in their 33 years of marriage. “We married in 1984,” Shorty says. “She was from Kansas City and her sister lived here. Her sister wanted her to meet me. Six month later we were married.”
Tragedy hit Shorty when Lois passed in February of this year. “She fought cancer three years,” he says. “With something like that, you think you’re prepared for the end, but you’re not. But she’s now in a better place than we are.”
Shorty and Lois were involved in a local cowboy church. He was treasurer and paid the church’s bills. “I was an elder for ten years,” he says. “The pastor was Randy Byrd. I helped him with baptisms and many other things. He left a few years ago, but came back to perform my wife’s funeral. Everyone needs a good pastor that can help you through the bad times.”
Shorty had two children from a previous marriage, a son Kenneth Jr. and a daughter Brandy. “Kenneth has a son, Kade, and a daughter, Cheyenne. Brandy has a daughter, Braylen,” he says. “Lois had three daughters, Debra Eaton, Rose Mendez and Royttia Combs. My daughter is pushing me to retire and the others would also like to see me take it easy. But like I said, I don’t see any stopping point.
“I couldn’t ask for a better place to work. I enjoyed working for Elmo, and Scott and Lori are good people. You want to work for people like that at least once in your lifetime and I’ve been here 30-plus years.”
So as long as Shorty Hutson can stay in the saddle, he’ll be riding pens and mentoring others. “This feedlot’s customers trust us to handle their cattle,” he stresses. “It’s our job to make sure we get any sick ones treated and that all others are eating and gaining. We try not to cost customers any extra money.”
His bones and back may ache and his energy may not be like it was 47 years ago. But his spirit for taking care of cattle and horses are as healthy as ever.