Thursday, April 5, 2012

Iron Reptile

Ask most Americans – most people in the industrialized world in fact – how ranchers go about the business of raising cattle in the 21st century, and most would imagine that the horse continues to play nearly the same major role in ranching today that it did at the turn of the 20th century. That romantic notion of the cowboy on horseback raising cattle on a sweeping, fenceless range is continually reinforced with the television airing of every Western ever filmed, and by countless books and magazine articles.

And while the horse and cowboy continue to be vital assets on a shrinking number of back-country ranches where their special abilities are absolutely indispensable, the reality of the situation is that the horse hasn’t been the backbone of most working ranches for a very long time. In fact, most horses are now owned by non-ranching entities – people or families who own one-to-several horses for pleasure rather than for work. Many of these folks own small acreages and even more 21st century horse owners board their animals.

There are a number of reasons for this change, but the main one is the internal combustion engine. Once the word got out that, in all but the roughest country, automobiles could be used to gather herds, the utility of ranch horses became questionable and the slow decline of ranch horse populations began.

Unfortunately for the romantics – and for many working horses – the advantages of the automobile mostly outweighed the advantages of the horse. The automobile, starting with the Model T Ford, was just as fast as the horse and in the hands of a skilled driver could be just as quick. The car required no hay or tack; no care other than topping off gas, oil and water, stayed where you parked it, was ready instantly when called on, could haul a larger load farther, and could take up tasks that the horse could not.

Over the years the Model T morphed into four wheel-drive pickups, powered three- and four-wheelers, and miniature utility vehicles, each of which has all the attributes of a powered automobile and can do nearly all the ranch work previously done by the horse.

Sunny, a 33 year-old EJE Quarter horse

The romantic in me can’t help but miss the horse. I grew up on a horse and worked cows on a horse and many of my fondest memories feature hard-working horses on the family ranch.

But the realist in me also recalls the misery of riding out in pouring rain and bitter cold, the long hours of eating dust in the drag, of brushing out and rubbing down at the end of the day while hunger gnawed at my guts, the thuds and falls and bruises of the morning “rodeo” required to work the frisky kinks out of my mount before the day’s work could begin.

Where romance meets reality the bottom line comes into play, at least if we plan a second century of raising cattle on the EJE. For our operation, the costs of keeping a working remuda employed outweigh the benefit. Our horses are in a state of permanent retirement. We’re glad to have them and they brighten our days, but they’re ornamental now, and mostly “just for lookin’ at.”

Last Saturday we had the task of moving a group of near-to-calving heifers from their winter pasture to the home-place calving paddock. The trip was six miles, and four of those miles were along a county road.
As seen from the saddle of the Gator, a group of soon-to-calve heifers move along a Kimball County road Saturday on their trek from winter pasture to calving paddock.

We set off, the Boss in his pickup and I in the John Deere Gator. Getting started was a matter of turning a key – there was no time spent gathering horses, brushing out, saddling, etc. At 45 mph, the trip from home to pasture took about seven minutes; by horseback the same trip would have taken 30-45 minutes. The gather was swift as well, and the Gator negotiated the rough spots with ease. Trailing the heifers home took longer, of course, because we moved at the pace of the heifers. Being young animals they left the county road often to explore stubble and dormant wheat along the way, but the Gator had no trouble negotiating roadside ditches clotted with snow and the heifers were returned to the road every bit as easily and quickly as they could have been by horse and rider. At the end of the excursion we turned the heifers into the calving paddock and parked the vehicles. Job done.

The Gator is a fantastic ranching utility vehicle. At calving time its low profile, lights, and very quiet engine make it the perfect choice for checking cows. There’s plenty of room to carry supplies and the seat has plenty of room for a helper. When it comes to fixing fence the Gator is in many ways superior to a pickup. It can carry plenty of supplies while negotiating fence-lines a pickup simply can’t reach. It has four wheel-drive, a low-range gearbox, and a locking differential. It can get in and out of remarkably tight places, and its low-pressure flotation tires don’t disturb the grass. The Gator is even light enough that I can lift and shift it by hand on those rare occasions when I blunder my way into being stuck. It’s no feather, mind you, and shifting it takes effort, but I can still get it done.
A comfortable cockpit with plenty of room for gear, including a rifle, rucksack, and even a GPS.

If I seem to be singing the virtues of the Gator to the detriment of the horse, I don’t mean to. It’s just that I’ve found the Gator to be more useful in my particular ranch application. Were the terrain on the ranch a bit rougher, and were it forested with closely spaced trees, a horse would be indispensable.
While the horse munches her morning corn, the Gator is fueled, loaded, and ready to check cattle.

But that’s not the case on the EJE, and I’ve found that the utility of the Gator far exceeds the utility of a horse or even a four-wheeler. And at the end of the day, the Gator is safer, too.

In my perfect world, the horse would be the go-to vehicle. But that perfect world would have no deadlines and require no quick trips to town. I’d also be wealthy enough to employ a wrangler to keep my remuda in shape.

In my real world, I’m glad to have a Gator. It fits my needs and makes my life a lot easier.

And whenever a beautiful day comes along with a hole in the schedule and the excitement of nieces and nephews to drive an adventure, we can still slap leather to a few horses and play at being cowboys. Maybe even get some useful cow-punchin’ done, too.

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