Ranching is not a job for the faint of heart. Beneath the romance of riding across the wild plains in high-heeled boots and a broad-brimmed hat lies the plain reality of sweat and dirt and unremitting hard work. The life of a rancher is not easy, but for those who consider it their calling, living off the land is worth every ounce of the difficulty it entails.
The Stereotypical Ranch Lifestyle
The modern ranching business is, in some ways, surprisingly like the images conjured up by old westerns. The yearly cycle of breeding and calving and branding and haying that takes place on modern ranches is the same cycle that took place on Bonanza season after season.
The duties of the modern ranch hand still include rounding up cattle, riding fence, and chopping firewood. But success on the modern ranching scene requires an increasing amount of adaptability and business acumen, and today’s Ponderosas utilize technology of which Ben Cartwright and his sons could only have dreamed.
State of Modern Farming
Entrepreneurs looking to make a livelihood in the ranching business understand from the start that they are taking a step of faith. In an article on the state of modern farming, Iowan farmer Steve Anderegg explains that living off the land leaves you susceptible to the vicissitudes of the weather. “Your livelihood is in the hands of Mother Nature,” he says.
For ranchers, the ever-looming danger of hostile weather is joined by a host of difficulties particular to the era: government regulations and policies, rising land prices, competition with industrial beef and grain producers, increasingly costly energy, and constant technological developments. Keeping abreast of the competition is as much a part of the ranching life now as it was during the days of range wars. However, more options are available to aspiring ranchers than ever before.
An Insight into Modern Farming Tech:
The Sustainable Ranching Movement
A growing trend in the ranching world over the last several years has been the sustainable ranching movement. More and more ranchers, from multi-billionaire Ted Turner to fifth generation Montana cattleman Zachary Jones, are abandoning the old method of letting cows loose to roam at will across vast swathes of pastureland to crop the ground bare.
At one time this was the only reasonable method, but gone are the days of barbed wire fencing that took several ranch hands days to string. Portable electric fencing allows ranchers to contain cows easily in a smaller space, moving them frequently to protect the land from overgrazing. This new system marries efficient cattle production with responsible stewardship of the land and ultimately cuts down on the cost of pesticides, antibiotics, and hay.
New techniques like the continuous grazing rotation keep the ranching business from stagnating. For ranchers who live in constant competition with huge industrial beef factories, that is important. They are not only trying to secure their own financial survival, but preserve a historic way of life.
“Of course, modern ranching is a business,” admits Joe Guild, a lifelong rancher and former president of the Nevada Cattleman’s Association, “but like so many things in human history which have lasted, there is also a culture.”
Guild feels keenly the need to be an ambassador for the traditional ranching life, which he considers an inheritance of many centuries, tracing it back to the farmers and horse-tamers of Arabia, North Africa, and ancient Mesopotamia. “There aren’t many of us,” he lamented in an address at the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive in 2005. But his enthusiasm for his fellow ranchers is unmistakable.
Everyone from cooks to cowboys has the same attitude here, he claims. “They have a sense of humor…there is an honesty and a straightforwardness about them you can almost feel. They want to be on this land.”
Plain Hard Work
But for all the excitement of doing battle with a continually developing market and for all the pride of carrying on a time-honored way of life, the everyday reality of ranching is plain hard work. A typical year in the life of a ranch hand requires experience in countless areas.
No other job demands one person to be an expert in pasture management, seeding, irrigation, fence-building, riding, calving, weaning, medicating, herding, branding, haying, mowing, snowplowing, woodcutting, pipe maintenance, machinery operation, and engine repair, as well as physically fit enough to do manual labor from sunup to sundown. For the boss of the operation, add a few more qualifications like computer literacy, business savvy, and legal fluency. Balancing account books, feeding livestock, and fixing broken tractors may not be romantic, but they are the fabric of which the ranching life is made.
The ranching life is undoubtedly a good life. The satisfaction of working the land and providing food for countless people is no small reward. But make no mistake: its demands, both physically and mentally, are as intense as they have ever been.