Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Suburban Cowboys

Once upon a time, cowboys fresh off the cattle drive or hitting the town after a few weeks hard labor out on the ranch would challenge each other to competitions. Who could ride the rankest bucking bronc?* Rope a calf or throw a steer the fastest? These competitions came to be called rodeos, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So is ranch life for an increasing percentage of the cowboys and cowgirls these days.

There are four kids in my family. We grew up on a ranch just big enough to support one household. We're squeezing out one and half with the help of my town job. Which means seventy-five percent of my parents’ children are no longer ranchers. Extrapolate those numbers across the country and you can see why a fair number of modern rodeo cowboys have never had a home on the range. 

Even the largest ranches can struggle to support a multi-generational family. One cowboy from Oregon told us his share of the ranch settled by his grandparents was 1/64…which was why he lived in Washington and owned a convenience store.

The average rodeo fan imagines all those cowboys and cowgirls heading home to do some brandin' and gatherin' on the home place. Truth is, if you were to wander around taking a poll, you’d find that even if they did grow up on a ranch, the majority of the contestants don’t live there anymore. If they have a spread it’s a small acreage on the edge of town, with a handful of horses and some roping cattle. And a fair number are moseying home to an apartment or neighborhood just like yours.

Maybe one in ten makes a living from the land. The rest will be accountants and school teachers, insurance agents and bankers, electricians and carpenters, physical therapists and even doctors. Pretty much any career that gives you enough time off to get in some practice and hit some rodeos and ropings on the weekends, with a strong trend toward jobs where you get the summer off. Believe me, I didn't choose athletic training for the money. Just ask my husband. 

Of course, you’ll also find a fair number of horse shoers and saddle makers and other forms of self employment that allow you to have four and five day weekends in the summer. And one tradition remains true. For those hitting the pro circuit full time, the most important career is the one your wife has back home.

Welcome to the age of the suburban cowboy.

*That is not a typo. We call them broncs. Not broncos. Those are football players from Denver, or something you were wishing you hadn't bought from Ford Motor Company the first time you hit an icy patch. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Doubling Up

Last night we had the smallest calf I have ever seen alive. He weighed less than twenty pounds, barely reached my knee. We were amazed that he managed to stand up and suck down a pint of milk. And sad, if not surprised, when he didn't make it through the first day. To cheer myself up, I took pictures of our twins. Well, tried to take pictures. Between them tearing around and their mother snorting and pawing dirt, I had a little trouble getting both of them in one frame.

As you can see, they're not identical. The one with the black spots on his face is a bull. That's called brockle-faced, and indicates a mixture of Angus blood and a white-faced breed like Herefords, which is called bald-faced, or baldy, which is not considered an insult to a cow, but I wouldn't recommend tossing it around in a biker bar.

The other is a heifer. She isn't quite a baldy because she has one black eye. When there is one twin of each sex, the heifer will usually be sterile. As a person who took over forty credits of college biology I should be able to give you a very detailed explanation of this phenomenon, but I'm drawing a blank and too lazy to go look it up. Plus, I'm sure one of my incredibly intelligent readers will explain it for you down in the comments.

There. I don't know about you, but I feel better about life in general.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Worries

She settled into a chair on the deck, cradled her coffee cup between her hands, and savored the feel of bright spring sunshine on her warmth-starved skin. Across the road, the last grubby vestiges of a once-formidable snowdrift oozed water. If she tilted her head right, the lawn looked almost green. Another good day or two and the eager new spears would drown out last year’s dilapidated brown. The extended forecast called for above average temperatures. By then, all but a few stragglers in the herd would have calved safely.

The kitchen door opened and her husband ambled out to sink into a chair beside her. “Beautiful morning,” he said.

“Perfect. I’m so glad that storm went south of us.”

“Yep. Another week of this weather, we’ll be able to start seeding some barley over east. Be nice to get it in early for a change.”

She closed her eyes, enjoying the rare moment of peace. Calving had gone well, with fewer than normal casualties. They’d had plenty of snow early in the winter to replenish reservoirs and springs and get the alfalfa fields off to a strong start. Then the weather had turned mild, with only one significant snowfall since they’d started calving.

A rancher couldn’t ask for much more from Mother Nature.  

They sipped their coffee in silence, watching horses graze, listening to the distinct melody of a meadowlark, putting off the moment when the day’s chores would begin.

“Hate to see the moisture start going around us,” her husband said. “Remember in ninety-eight, when we had all that snow, then hardly a drop of rain all summer? Had to haul water to the cows out on the lease the whole month of August. ‘Course, if history holds true, with all that fog we had in February it’ll probably be so wet in May we’ll be lucky to get the oats in at all...”

She stifled a sigh and glanced at her watch. Eleven worry free minutes. She was pretty sure that was a new record.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Was I Thinking?

Today it is seventy degrees and sunny where I used to live in Hermiston, Oregon. And here it is...not.

The good news is it's supposed to be sixty degrees by Friday. Which means I'll be wading around in water and mud up to my knees and all that stuff I'm standing in will be trying to run in my front door instead. Sigh. Ain't spring lovely?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

It's Official

Spring has sprung. Doesn't matter whether we get a foot of snow next week, winter is officially over the day I see the first crocus of the year.

Enjoy the view. I will be heading south for a seminar for most of the week. I fully expect to see hundreds of these purple beauties sprinkled across the pastures by the time I get back.