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Across the fence: The hats a rancher wears

Marci Whitehurst for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 July 2019

A new acquaintance recently commented that she was looking forward to the weekend. She punches a time clock during the week and looks forward to the weekends for “down time.” During the week, she wears one hat to complete her job. She’s good at what she does, and it is rewarding to her.

I fully recognize that I don’t understand her life, but I’m quite certain she has no clue about my life either. In some circles, it’s hard to talk about my life because people tend to have a Hollywood idea of ranching, where the barns are always clean, the animals never tire, and the weather is 99% cooperative.

Hollywood never shows someone hosing off their clothes so they can put them in the washer or vacuuming out the washer if you didn’t get it all shaken off the first time. This person wasn’t any different. After her comment about the weekend, she remarked to me, “It must be nice for you, feeling like the weekend all the time.”

I smiled and didn’t reply. If I had, I don’t think she’d have understood. I mean, none of us can really understand another unless we’ve walked in their shoes … err, boots. However, I thought of so many responses after the fact:

  • (Sarcastic) “Yeah, my weeks are so easy; weekends are just an opportunity to eat more bonbons.”

  • (Frustrated) “Sure, we try to work less on Sunday, but since we put in 40 hours before Tuesday is over, that means our weekends are like your workdays.”

  • (Crazy) “Dang, we practice roping on the weekends, so if you stop by, wear pants so your ankles don’t get rope-burned.”

There isn’t a perfect answer for folks who haven’t been around agriculture. I know agriculture isn’t the only occupation to experience intense work hours and various duties. However, people may not realize the wide-brimmed hat isn’t the only one a rancher wears.

  • Wide-brims. These come in handy for keeping sunburns off the neck and the rain from dripping down your back because cattle need care despite the weather. They shield your face too when you’re laughing but don’t want anyone to know.

  • Snow caps. My hubby calls his winter stocking cap his Elmer Fudd hat; it has ear flaps and fleece. During the winter months, these hats are lifesavers. This past December, when we shipped calves, it was -3ºF. Negative temperatures are a little chilly for sorting heifers from steers, but once shipping day is chosen, it doesn’t change. You don’t say, “Hey, it’s a little cold outside; we’re not going to open today …” No, in fact, you spend a little more time outdoors when the temps drop. We gave extra feed when we had consistent temps between -20ºF and -40ºF.

  • Ball caps. Ranchers usually have a going-to-town ball cap to grab, especially if they haven’t showered in a while and are headed to a school function. Just kidding, cowboys must shower, but sometimes we push so hard, a change of clothes and a ball cap do the trick. Ball caps are handy because they are easy to keep in a rig, and you can have several of them so that one can be kept clean.

  • Slicker hood. Technically this isn’t a hat, but that hood on a slicker will go over a ball cap, and that’s a win-win situation. This past weekend, we were moving cattle in a downpour in 40-degree weather, getting soaking wet for hours. (Yes, I know it’s summer, but sometimes Montana forgets that.) Slickers keep the body dry – if only the hood was big enough to go over a wide-brim.

  • Sombrero. These are not traditionally used in our area, but I may or may not have pictures of a group of ranchers wearing them when moving cattle by a main local highway to capture tourist attention. …

Outside of actual hat styles, ranchers wear the occupational hats of:

  • Veterinarian: We call the vet when necessary, but we doctor animals if needed (although that isn’t very often).

  • Chef: Branding and cattle drives call for a mobile kitchen. I serve lunch either on a folding table or the back of a pickup. All has to be transported in and out.

  • Truck driver: Many of us transport cattle, hay and/or grain.

  • Counselor: Aside from parenting, which has its own set of hats, we have to support one another. Winter blizzards, flooding … the hardships truly make you doubt your life course. Some farmers will show a negative number for their paycheck this year. Few understand that heartache, getting out of bed to work sunup to sundown only to break even or lose. To those experiencing the brunt of it all, all our hats are off to you.

Ranchers wear many hats: plumber, electrician, heavy equipment operator, mechanic, teacher, musician – too many to list on one page. This does make it difficult to explain to people what our lives are like. However, those of us in it understand. We also understand we need to make time for fun. Beach hats, anyone? We can put on our thinking caps and pretend that water hole is in an exotic location.  end mark

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