cowboys returning at end of dayCOWBOYS!  What comes to your mind when you hear the term?  I’m sure there is a wide array of possible responses.  For many, I do believe, the term will illicit an appreciated glimpse into our own inner world.  Perhaps a reminder of, I could have been, might have been, wanna be, or simply a warm reminder of days gone by!  While others might think it all foolishness, of no consequence.

Having been there, I’m going to share a little different perspective.  My granddad was a cowboy.  My dad and his two brothers were cowboys.  The next generation would have been, except that dad wanted us all to go to college.  It feels a little strange today, to look back so many years later, and not have seen the huge challenges we would be faced with—going to college.  We started that pilgrimage, for him.

While I was still at home, the most I ever remember him making per month was two hundred and fifty dollars.  There were no savings, no college funds, and no rainy day options.  We all worked as we could growing up, making a little spending money, but it seemed to go rather quickly.

My oldest brother was valedictorian and thus received a small scholarship; but otherwise worked his way through TCU, earning a bachelor’s degree in business.  The next brother, worked eighty to ninety hour weeks in the oilfield, during the summer, so he could attend Texas Tech University; and left there with two degrees including a master’s in accounting.  When my turn came, I arrived at Texas A&M lacking fifty dollars to even be able to register.  Ultimately, the former student’s association loaned me the fifty dollars, enabling me to complete registration.  Six years later I left with two degrees including a doctor of veterinary medicine.  My younger brother went through much the same dilemma; but he roped much better than the rest of us; and found scholarship opportunities on college rodeo teams.  Ultimately, he was the only one to go back to the ranch, so to speak.

In his case, he went into the stocker cattle business, receiving as many a forty-thousand head of cattle a year, weighing four to five hundred pounds; all, from a sale barn in Jackson, Mississippi.  Upon their arrival the cattle would be processed (vaccinations, branding, de-worming, ear-tagged, and the bulls castrated), and kept close by in small grass traps (pastures), monitoring for any health issues that might arise.  Within three weeks they would be turned out into larger grass traps, pending the completion of receiving all the cattle.  This usually occurred during January, February, and March.  By early April, the grass was starting to turn green, and the cattle would be hauled to very large pastures up along the Canadian River.  The largest of these pastures was fifty sections (fifty square miles).  Late September would find them gathering the cattle for movement to the feedyards.  It would take bonafide cowboys to gather these cattle from the rough country along the Canadian River.

Which brings us to a point.  All cowboys are not alike.  It seems as though each is shaped by the environment to which he is located.  Sure, hats, boot styles, spurs, and chaps (or leggings) are present; but each, often, a little different, reflecting their own regional style.  So, when the term cowboy is used, it encompasses a lot of different people, doing a lot of different things.

Most of the pictures shared here were taken in Montana, Florida, and Texas, though a few other states are also involved.  But, pictures won’t show all the challenges that cowboys face.  Perhaps it is the winter weather associated with Montana or Wyoming; or the heat down south.  But, for my money, the Florida cowboy likely faces the toughest environment of all.  He must use dogs (very good and very well mannered dogs) to help gather the cattle out of the water and thickets.  Yes, they do loose some dogs to alligators.  I saw several dogs jump up behind the cowboy, on the horse’s rump, as they had to go through water crossings.  People might be surprised to learn that there is a lot of cows in Florida.  Based strictly on the number of cows, not acreage, the largest ranch is in Florida—more that 45,000 head of cows on one ranch.

Based on acreages, the largest ranches are found in the western states.  Some few of these might utilize half a million acres.  Several would be upwards of two hundred thousand acres; and many in the forty to fifty thousand acre category.  When visually evaluated, one might wonder how a cow makes a living on some of this country.  They can; it just takes a lot of acreage to support a single cow.  No matter how good or how challenging pasture lands might be, they all must be critically well managed.  For instance, and this would vary from location to location, usually, you just want the cattle to harvest forty to sixty percent of the grass before giving the acreage a rest period.  Harvesting at that level, stimulates it to come back.  Harvesting at a greater level, eating it down closer to the ground, limits its ability to come back and weakens, rather dramatically, the root system.

Rainfall is often very limited in these arid lands; drinking water for the cattle is often critically managed.  Some of the lands that have abundant water, also have very heavy snow fall.  Wind, rain (actually too much), snow, sleet and drought are just some of the issues that make ranching challenging at best.  Cowboys are essential in protecting the ranching investment, associated with the health and wellbeing of the cattle, from one season or activity to the next.  Cowboys are responsible for the cattle under their care; tending them good weather or bad, warm or cold, foul or fair—it’s their job.

Cowmen are usually older and either manage or own the operation.  They may or may not be cowboys.  Cowboys either grew up on ranches or spent a lot of years learning the art of being a cowboy.  It is not a job for the faint of heart.  It is a way of life that shouts grit and determination.  It is a way of life that demands much, and pays little.

I hardly know a cowboy that did not, at one time or another, seek a town job so that he could better care for his family—my dad included.  Cowboy wages, with rare exceptions, just lets you pay bills, and maybe update your cowboy gear before it completely wears out.  It’s a hell of a life.  One that many yearn for, yet few are ultimately even capable of paying for their own funeral expenses.

Cowboys don’t want to do anything else; but are sometimes forced to.  But when cowboying is in your blood, so to speak, you’re never happy doing anything else.  You always miss it; and, if away from it too long, simply can’t do what you once took great pride in doing—your skills have deteriorated.  I’ll tell you that there is no better way to clock our time on this earth.  But, you and your family will pay a price.  Being old and broke ain’t much fun.

Wanna be a cowboy?  Get yourself a bedroll, saddle, and rope.  But, for your fifteen minutes of fame (so to speak), you are going to pay a price.  It’ll make you strong; it’ll make you glad; it’ll make you proud; and it’ll keep you broke!