Herd Community: Modern-Day Ranching
By Isabelle Lee
Attending college in Vermont meant that, for years, I missed springtime on my family’s California cattle ranch. Now, with summer upon us, I feel doubly lucky to be part of what feels like a resurgence, a rebirth in the world of ranching and Western life. Lockdowns and distancing measures are being eased and that means rodeos, cattle drives and powwows are bouncing back. Livestock and trailers are on the move once again. But some things haven’t changed at all: The specter of drought and wildfires in the Western U.S. and overseas looms larger than ever. In today’s Daily Dose, we dive into the good, the bad and the modern as the West reawakens.
traditions, and change
What’s in a Name?
The original meaning of the word “rancho” in Spanish is “a group of people who eat together,” and that’s exactly how ranches first came about in Western North America during the Spanish colonization of the 1600s. The land was “open range,” meaning that cattle owners let their cows loose on the prairie. The land was forcibly taken, then redistributed by the government and eventually privately owned. While there is still some open range land today, agricultural land is now largely privatized. Ranchers in the 21st century find themselves contending with wildlife reintroduction programs, tourist traffic and sky-high property costs and taxes. Is all that prompting ranchers to go back to their communal roots? Some believe that’s exactly what should happen. Guido Frosini, owner of True Grass Farms in Tomales Bay, California, tells OZY the “future of ranching is creating spaces where food production and community overlap.” He also feels that the job of a rancher is to be a steward of the land, not just someone who manages cattle.
In Italy, moving herds from one location to another, also known as transhumance, happens in early summer and fall. Cattle are taken up into mountain meadows for the summer and back down to the rolling hills and valleys for winter. The migration, an ancient tradition, is celebrated to this day with music, feasts and bells. Transhumance is a timeworn and yet still relevant practice across Europe and the Mediterranean that sees sheep, goats and cattle herded many miles, linking ecological areas and sometimes making really phenomenal cheese on the way. A 21st-century twist? Tourists can now tag along on horseback. And while in the past vehicles and cows have battled for the right of way on roads, after transhumance was designated a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage tradition in 2019, motorists now know to stay off the roads on the days when cows are coming through.
What Is the Future of Ranching?
Although the world of technology hasn’t permeated Forsini’s pastures just yet, he might find himself increasingly in the minority, with ranchers turning to drones to keep watch over their herds and using biometric-sensing ear tags to monitor the health of their cows. Some technologists are examining the potential of virtual fences that would see tracking collars placed on cattle, which could then be allowed to roam widely. Others are going back to basics, deploying guardian dogs to protect their livestock and scare off predators. Are these hands-off approaches the future?
Cows on the Blockchain
Keeping track of your cows can be a seriously challenging pursuit. From branding to ID tagging, as the herd grows, so does the workload. Several ranches in Wyoming are now using blockchain to record their livestocks’ experiences as they eat fresh grass and roam the plains at will in the hope that it will increase the animals’ eventual market value by up to 30%. Campstool Ranch owner Ogden Driskill explains that the digital ledger also includes details such as pedigree, which in turn helps make his livestock more competitive with other ranchers’ products. Digitally guaranteeing the pedigree of beef is important for ranchers who are competing with lower quality, mass-produced beef. Happy cows really do turn a higher profit.
water’s run out
The severe drought raging across much of the Western U.S. is already starting to have a major impact on communities of all stripes. There have been early wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico. Ranchers in North Dakota are selling off stock due to a shortage of feed. California is bracing for another severe fire season with reservoirs in the Golden State currently at half their usual capacity. If the ongoing drought leads to more fires breaking out so early in the year, evacuations and burns may affect farmers even more than in recent years.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced its intent to restore protections on bodies of water that were previously rolled back by the Trump administration. The initial cuts were a bid by former President Donald Trump to win over ranchers and farmers who thought Obama-era clean water restrictions had gone too far. With the nation’s farmers overwhelmingly backing Trump in the past two presidential elections and conservative political candidates at the local level, protecting waterways is not a cut-and-dried issue.
In Arizona’s Willcox Basin, big dairy is at war with residents over water. Water was already a scarce resource before Riverview, a major dairy corporation, moved its operations to the area in 2015, buying out private owners and nearby dairy farms before draining the aquifer beneath the basin. The state has not placed any restrictions on how much water can be drawn from the aquifer, making it an easy target for the Minnesota-based Riverview.
South American Crisis
Further afield, Brazil is facing its worst drought in nearly a century. Farming and agribusiness account for 30% of the country’s GDP, and without water readily available for irrigation, the industry and its farmers are set to take a massive hit. Brazil is also heavily reliant on hydroelectric power, and lower levels in the country’s reservoirs, lakes and rivers will hinder electricity generation. That means blackouts are likely to accompany the severe drought.
yellowstone it ain’t
The Real Cowboys
While it’s likely that an image of a hunk comes to mind when you think “cowboy,” the reality is that life on ranches and farms is a lot less glamorous. Life on the range was and still is dangerous, not just because of a prevailing honor-based, gunslinging tendency among cattle hands but also due to disease, wild animals, and harsh weather conditions like floods and freezing temperatures. Cattle are also temperamental and can cause cowgirls and cowboys to suffer nasty injuries. Back in the rough old days of the late 1800s, many lasted just seven years in the job before hanging up their battered hats for good.
Not Just White Men
In an industry often perceived to be the realm of white male ranchers, millennials from minority backgrounds are increasingly taking back the reins of the rodeo. In 2018, Keyshawn Whitehorse became the first Native American to claim the Professional Bull Riders’ Rookie of the Year title. A host of other Native American bull riders are winning big. “Young Native Americans see other Native Americans succeed and this inspires them to work, train and take their chance,” Wiley Petersen of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes told OZY. Ezekiel Mitchell, the top African American bull rider in the U.S. at just 24, is also lighting up the sport while driving change.
Community Is Key
Speaking from personal experience, I never felt more connected to a community than when I was living on my family’s ranch, even though the closest people physically were at least a mile and a half away. When wildfire season hit last August, it solidified our community chain as I had never seen before. My dad and our ranch manager were forced to move cows away from the pasture closest to the fire as plumes of ash drew near. A neighboring rancher permitted us to cut the property fence and move our stock onto his land as the fire approached. Livestock owners who were closer to the fire then brought their animals out to our ranch so they would be safe. Text chains about weather evolved into a network to share advice and updates. As I drove away from our ranch that day, too nervous to wait for the formal evacuation order to come, I found myself in a line of cars doing the very same, belongings strapped to their roofs.
An Epic Drive
Cattle drives originated after the Civil War, when cattle-rich Texans figured they could hawk their wares to East Coasters desperate for beef. Texan ranchers would drive their cattle north or west to be processed and sold in markets where prices were higher. The settlements along these routes became cattle towns. Another reason for the drives was to move cows between summer and winter pastures to manage grass supplies. But that was before barbed wire and cattle quarantines. Nowadays, cattle drives are merely a way to round up herds across large ranches, and they rarely cover distances of more than 30 miles. They have become somewhat of a trendy vacation idea for city slickers eager to try on the Western lifestyle.
Shindigs Are Back
With most events and festivals canceled last year due to COVID-19, the coming year is shaping up to be an eventful one in the American West. Next week, join a cattle drive in Loveland, Colorado, and spend a night under the stars. If you’re a die-hard John Wayne fan, you can attend a festival celebrating his birthday in Winterset, Iowa, in 2022. If you want to learn more about Native American culture, a powwow is a great place to start. The nation’s largest such event, the Gathering of Nations Powwow will be held in person in New Mexico in April.
What’s the perfect tonic after a divorce? A blue jeans-wearing, cowboy hat-sporting hottie picking you up from the train and taking you to a divorce ranch, of course. Yes, you heard that right. Reno, Nevada, was famous for its ranches filled with recent divorcées as far back as the 1930s. You could get a divorce after spending just six weeks in Nevada (California, by contrast, mandates a six-month “cooling-off” period), which led to an influx of people looking to break their marital bonds. Could divorce ranches become a destination once more?
When you think of Patagonia, the first thing that might come to mind is its wild, untouched landscape. But what you might not have heard about are the Chilean cowboys, baqueanos. They boast unparalleled knowledge of how to wrangle the difficult terrain into ranch-ready land, relying only on radios to communicate. It wasn’t until the 1870s that cowboys started making the foray into the Patagonian wilderness. While they now mostly lead tours through the rugged landscape, their expertise as pathfinders is still an extremely valuable skill.
Fields of Vaccines
California is bringing COVID-19 vaccines out to the fields, where more than 800,000 workers spend long, hot days in the sun farming much of America’s produce. The vaccination rate for California farmworkers is lower than the national average because of language barriers, a lack of transportation and difficulty taking time off work to get jabbed. That prompted the state to start a mobile clinic program where farmers can apply to have a vaccination site set up on their property. Hopefully, the program is a success and will spread to other rural areas of the U.S.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee