Ever since the mid-late 19th century, as soon as they took a gander at the wide open spaces of North America, a certain kind of feller (and gal—though mostly, truth be told, it was mainly the menfolk) fell in love with the lifestyle of cattle ranchin’ and cowboyin’.
The vaquero—a horse-riding livestock herder—of northern Mexico (by way of Spain) had a big influence on the first American cowboys, those rough and tough fellers who did everything from herding and caring for the cattle, training horses to help them with that task and other ranch-related work.
Yup, the cattle ranchers of yore knew that being a rancher wasn’t just about riding the range with a wheat stalk in your mouths, surveying the land, imagining oneself in a 20th century western-themed film starring a dreamy Clint Eastwood singing I Talk to the Trees. It was a tough job then and it’s a tough job now, even with the technological advances that have taken hold over the last 100 or so years.
The modern day cattle ranchers have a lot to think about and need a wide range of skills and experience to run a successful ranch. As well, there is a host of daily, weekly and monthly duties that need to be performed.
The cattle - Cows are magical: They take mouthfuls of grass and grain and turn them into burgers and brisket. (Pigs too: Give a pig an apple and he’ll make you bacon!) But in order for cows to perform this feat, you have to provide them with certain things. First, they need food; a LOT of food. An average adult cow eats up to five percent of its body weight every day. Cows also need a source for fresh water, and you need to supplement their diets with vitamins and minerals. They need vaccinations and they often need help calving—or birthing their young—and you have to keep a close eye on those calves to make sure they’re growing and thriving. And don’t forget they need branding, dehorning, vet care, reproduction help (artificial insemination) and, yes, castrating (see Tools). And let’s not forget, er… slaughtering. It is the point of raising beef cattle after all.
Farm equipment and maintenance - In order to deliver the food, vitamins and whatnot to your cows, you’ll need transportation, say, like a horse or a truck. Knowing how to change your truck’s oil, rotate its tires and just plain fix it when it breaks down will come in handy when the nearest mechanic is 40 miles away. Same with a horse—well shoes and feed saddles standing in for oil and tires. More like oats, hay, apples, water, medical care… In addition to basic transportation, you may have a combine harvester, a mower, a baler, a grain truck, etc. And let’s not forget the various sheds or other structures the cows and horses need for shelter and fencing supplies (yes, you’ll be doing the fencing).
Finances - For all the things the cows need and that you do for them? You must keep excellent records if you’re going to sell their magic meat. You need financial records for health, breeding, weaning, purchases and sales. And all the equipment, machinery, feed, repairs, fencing and other things you put money into also must have solid accounting histories.
Buying power - Speaking of accounting, you’ll be out there pretty regularly buying new cows for your herd, which is always in flux. You need to decide if you want to purchase the cows through a private sale or an auction. You’ll always pay more at auction since it will be mostly old, sick or slaughter-ready animals. You’re going to need to know what sort of cattle are the best for your particular ranch—Angus versus Belgian Blue versus Karan Swiss. You have to have some negotiation tactics and you’ll also have to be knowledgeable enough to be able to quickly gauge the health and future productivity of the cows you see at the market.
Deciding on your cattle-raising method - There are different methods to raising cattle, and which one is right for you depends on where your ranch is, its climate, soil condition, any sort of federal subsidies, and the climate and condition of the beef market in general.
Selling the magic - The final aspect of raising cattle is selling the meat. These bovine beauties have given their all for you and you’ve worked hard to ensure their health and their contentedness. You need to figure out how much to charge at market or at auction, and you’ll need to understand market climate and prices. Also, no one wants to eat a heavy-hearted hamburger or a stressed out shank. Some people believe that if a cow isn’t slaughtered correctly its fear and pain hormones get—and stay—in the beef you’re putting into your carnivorous belly. Whether that’s the case or not, it will do your conscience good to treat your animals well whether they’re headed to slaughter or alive and growing.
Temple Grandin is the guru when it comes to humane and innovative methods of - not to put a fine point on it - leading a cow to slaughter. She also knows all about stress and meat quality, as well as the ritual slaughter (Kosher and Halal) of cattle for specific consumers.
Finally let’s take a look at some folks involved in cattle ranching; you may recognize them:
Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired Supreme Court justice (and first woman to hold that post) grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, the Lazy B.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, invested, in 1883, in the Maltese Cross Ranch. In 1884, he started the Elkhorn Ranch. Both of these were in the Badlands of South Dakota.
The actor Russell Crowe owns a 1,400-acre cattle ranch with 500 head of cattle in Australia.
Cattle ranching can be a profitable as well as satisfying career. However, it’s an incredible amount of hard, physical work as well as a year round job. It’s also one that your entire family can take part in. Rising before dawn, shoveling cow patties and other miscellaneous chores? It’s a teen dream come true…