Updated: Jul 31, 2020
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Finally, the rain came. It all fell last night like a great sigh of relief, pitter-pattering gently on the roof and beginning the end of the drought. The seasons work backwards here; the winters are dry and yellow, the summers, wet and green. This year, I won’t get to see the High Plains in their summer dress, but, I’ll be back. For now, it’s time for me to move on again. The people of Kiowa County are good. Saying goodbye doesn’t get any easier with practice.
The friendships made over the coat of a bleating calf are one of a kind. Neither one of you can hold the calf down on your own, and, even when you can’t see each other through all the dust, and blood, and smoke, and shit, you’re struggling together. That’s what being a cowboy is about. The cows have little regard for the barbed wire that divides the ranches, and the cowboys don’t care much for it either. They fix each other’s tractors and waterlines, and, even though the drought that’s paralysing the grass is hurting the hay too, the ranchers share their spare rolls instead of stocking them up like loo paper.
Helping people becomes a way of life; a market in which ‘thank you’ is never demanded but the supply runs high and rich. Articulation is overrated. Cowboys have a way of looking you in the eye when they shake your hand. Their blue gaze holds still for the briefest moment of sincerity, just long enough for a curt nod, and then the quips begin again, hopping around between friends, faster than a flea.
“If they don’t tease you, they don’t like you.”
It makes for a warm, strange secrecy, in which you only talk about people behind their back to say something nice.
“You know, his horse is ugly as shit, but I’ll be damned, he can sure as hell rope.” And, “Did you see her today? Man, that girl is a damn good hand.”
Gary and Donna were always far out of a bat’s earshot before their friends would quietly half-smile and tell me I was working with the best ranchers and the gentlest souls in Colorado.
They care about their cows. All the ranchers do. I haven’t met a single person who sees these animals as stupid, hairy bags of money. Their attitude is professional, but it’s not cold. Watching the calves scamper and buck, I smile because Gary and Donna are smiling. The calves like the chilly air.
“Look at them go. Feelin’ good this morning aren’t they. Feelin’ fresh.”
Gary points out a little red calf, skipping airily. “Yeah that’s the one we doctored. Man look at him all shiny now. Now that there’s a healthy calf.”
Of course, healthy calves grow profitable meat, but that’s not where the care ends. I went to visit a feedlot, where the calves go at eight months old, and stay for up to a year. The manager explained that growth steroids are common, but that there’s one powerful steroid which is legal and on the market, but that almost no cattle-feeders use.
“Because it makes the cattle uncomfortable. They get too big too fast and they’re in pain. And it would be more profitable to feed it but we, as an industry, we don’t like it. We want healthy, happy cows that live well and grow fat and die with dignity.”
This feedlot holds 60,000 head (45,000 in light of the virus). Every day, six pen riders circulate the pens on horseback and check each animal individually. These days, most of the pen riders are Mexican, scouted out by the beef company before they’ve left university. You just can’t find enough Americans who ride anymore.
“Why riders?” I ask.
“What, you’re gonna take a four-wheeler into those pens?” he laughs. Four-wheelers (quad bikes) are loud and clumsy; they can’t do the sharp, agile turns of a horse. “Even if you checked the cows on a four-wheeler, you’d need a horse to move’em and drive’em. Naw, you’ll never take horses out of the feed lot.”
I hope he’s right, but I’ve never heard of horses on an English feedlot.
Many of the cows lie napping in the afternoon sun. The pen riders will ask them to get up and move around a little, to watch that they’re walking right. They don’t carry ropes. Too many people have lost thumbs to roping accidents. If an animal is sick or injured, it’ll be driven out of the pen and doctored in safe, controlled conditions. The last thing you want is a needle breaking off under the skin, putting both the animal and the eventual consumer at risk. When I asked about that ugly, pervasive, yellow M – the golden arches – the manager was fair. Bad quality meat is just as safe as good quality meat. It just isn’t as tasty.
“And,” he said, “Here in the States, there are so many regulations that – those horror stories you mentioned – well, they just aren’t true. If it’s US beef you’re talking about. You know, we have inspectors come to check the pressure of our hydraulic chutes, to check we don’t hold our cows any tighter than we need to [for injections]. We only have one hot-shot [electric shock stick] on the whole place, and we only use it if they’re not wanting to load. The rest of the time we just use flags and rattle paddles. Hell, we even have an inspector come to check how many cows are bawling when we move’em, to check they aren’t distressed, you know. ”
He had honesty in his face, honesty which darkened and deepened when he talked about the misunderstanding of his industry, and the closure of the meat packing plants due to the virus. He paused on meat packing plants and met my gaze and said, “It’s not glamorous from here forwards. Not for the cows or the workers. When you’re a cowboy and you’ve got your calves in these gigantic pastures and it’s all old school, it’s a life to be proud of. And I believe my cows in this feedlot are happy and cared for, too. I do. But when they go to that packing plant they will be killed and that’s the truth of it. We just want to make sure that it happens with as little suffering as possible.”
This is the shadow that has always loomed over those vast, free plains. When I was bottle-feeding Tuff, the calf whose mother abandoned him, I forced myself to face the fact that someone was going to eat him one day. He blinked his big long eyelashes at me and licked the milk froth off his nose and head butted my leg, demanding another bottle. And I thought, “You know what, that’s okay.”
Closing the conceptual gap between cows and beef is awkward, and, until I see the final, ugly part of the process, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to conceptualise it. But, through my work I’ve come to know the blunt contentment of the beef cow. Give her food, and sun, and some space, and other cows, and she will soak up the warmth in her black hide and think about nothing. Before working here, I never knew that such a high percentage of beef cows had access to that contentment. So, this former-vegetarian now eats beef without guilt – with pride, even. When we sit down to supper on the ranch, it makes me happy to think about the life of the cow that we’re eating, to know that Donna shovelled cake while it scampered around the truck two years ago.
And what about the horses, the animals I came here to learn about? The respect that the rancher has for their friends and their cows extends to their horses, too. In Uruguay, the horse is a brother; in England, the horse is a pet. In the Midwest, the horse is a tool. They’re not asked to work hard, but their skills are indispensable and the functionality of ranch life is built around them. It’s obvious in the cultures of moving cattle, roping, and sorting, but it’s manifest in the details too. Gate-latches are on the top of the gate.
I overheard a 17-year-old proudly announce to the crowd at a branding that, “On our ranch we only use four-wheelers.”
Our collective brow furrowed and no one said anything.
The boy went on, “Yeah I’ve never been on a horse.”
“You’re talking to the wrong crowd, buddy.”
On a ranch like that, they’ll either use chutes or they’ll brand in a ‘hot-box’. They drive young calves into a small pen and fish them out by hand because you can’t rope off a four-wheeler. The shape of the ranch has changed forever. So has the cattle-man’s heart. He doesn’t need to operate under a constant principle of care and respect for another being. You don’t have to water your four-wheeler. If you’ve got money, it’ll run.
Saying goodbye to Colorado means saying goodbye to the country-hearted people who look at the rainless sky every day and remember that they’re just specs in the great cosmic sweep. Few ranchers like them remain. When you’re on the plains, it feels like everyone’s a cowboy, like people the world over know how to read a horse’s eye. And then you leave, and the big city lights zoom over you through the diesel smoke and you just hope that there are at least some cowboys, somewhere, forever.
Next chapter: Montana - Bucking Horses on the Run
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