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Going from a cowboy to a cowman

Billy Whitehurst Published on 25 February 2015
Cowboy and child

Have you ever thought about when it happened? Not many of us really know an exact date or even an exact year, but those of us who are starting to get a little gray or a little thin on top know that at one point we made the rite of passage from cow-boy to cow-man.

When we were younger, if we saw a hair out of place on a cow critter, it meant that it needed to be run to the ground, roped, tripped and that hair put back in place. That’s the cowboy.

Over time, the cowman develops the attitude of determining the least stressful way to handle the animal – slowly work up on it, lay a gentle long throw on the old girl, lay her down as gently as you can, doctor her quickly and quietly, let her get up slow and easy and then settle her back onto her feed, and let that horse walk away as quiet and calm as you left the barn.

It’s an attitude and a state of mind that comes with maturity, and maybe a few too many wrecks in our cowboy years. With that maturity comes a wisdom that makes us better cowmen (or women – forgive my lack of correctness).

When I was teaching a class of students on cattle handling, I told them that it was my job to help transition them from cowboys to cowmen (and the female equivalent). No one understood what I meant. Three years later, I ran into a former student. He commented that he finally understood what I meant. He had been working for a ranch in a camp job and had to do all of the herding and doctoring solo. Somewhere along the way in that job, the light came on for him.

It is hard to pinpoint the single most important aspect of any given ranch. Several years ago, I heard Trey Patterson of the Padlock Ranch speak at the annual nutrition conference in Bozeman, Montana (an opportunity that you should take advantage of if you can).

He made the comment that in ranching you can be a good cattleman and go broke; you can be a good range manager and go broke; and you can be a good businessman and go broke. Each of these is like a leg on a milking stool. You lose one, the stool doesn’t work anymore.

Most of my writings involve stockmanship in some form or fashion, primarily because it affects each leg of the stool. True stockmanship goes beyond the cattle and how we handle them. It takes into account how we manage the land, how we tend to our cattle, where we put our money (minerals, vaccines, better handling facilities), and how we spend our time.

Do we practice our open field roping just for fun (cowboy), or do we practice to make it easier on the cattle and the horses we use to tend those cattle (cowman)? Have you ever noticed that the best and gentlest horse and dog trainers are often the best cattle handlers too? Why is that? It’s an attitude, a life philosophy if you will.

We live in a world that seems to be getting smaller with a society that is not only further removed from the land and the livestock, but also more critical of how we do things. This is one of the many reasons why every now and then we need to give ourselves a self-assessment and ask ourselves how well we like the results. If we don’t do this, we will never get better at what we do.

Here are some questions that come to mind to ask ourselves:

  1. Do we want to hurry up and get it done, or are we willing to operate on “cow time”?
  2. Do we make investments for our own comfort, or for the betterment of the livestock, the land and ultimately the economic viability of the operation?
  3. Are we willing to admit to ourselves that we may not be in the right frame of mind on a particular day to be out with the animals? I once worked for a rancher who was grouchy one morning when we were going to work some young colts, and he looked at me and said, “I’m afraid the human might come out in me today; we had better change plans.” That takes a big person.
  4. Are we willing to admit that even though we have “always done it this way” and “gotten along just fine with it” that there may still be a better way?
  5. Are we willing to admit that we simply may not have the knack for certain things and that we might just be money, time and heartache ahead to get the right person for the job? (Ouch! You mean I could actually be a better farmer than a stockman or vice versa?)

Sometimes an honest answer to questions we ask ourselves can be a real eye-opener. Remember, the worst person you can lie to is yourself.

Over the next year, I’ll be writing and blogging about some of the various parts of the bigger picture of cattle production that true stockmanship affects. Until then, keep your cinch snug.  end mark

Billy Whitehurst

Billy Whitehurst has spent several years as a working cowboy (and now cowman), rancher, land and livestock consultant, BQA trainer and university extension educator in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. He currently resides near Cardwell, Montana.

PHOTO: Photo provided by Thinkstock.

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