Mamas, Please Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys
Apr 04, 2014
Market Rally Radio featured Farm Journal's Greg Henderson on the show Wednesday and the conversation spurred quite the exchange on twitter. The comment that got everybody stirred up was wondering who is going to be the next generation of cattle producers, and what will it take to turn cropland back to pasture.
I grew up on a half section in Grundy County, Iowa and I remember as a boy, riding my pony through the maze of hayfields, hog pastures and wide waterways. We weren't cattle producers but my dad ran up to as many as 300 ewes each year with some of the earliest market ready weanling lambs available in this part of the state. Believe me, if there is one thing you can count on, it is that sheep will test your fences.
There were many times when we had to rescue sheep that had gotten their heads lodged in the fence, hoping for greener grass on the other side. On our first pheasant hunting trip in the back 40, grandad spent a lot of time helping me learn to safely climb fences while carrying a shotgun. Later, when I had my own acreage, I took great pride in the fences I built. 52" cattle panel with a line of barbed wire secured tightly to the top rung. Building horse fence is no picnic, but having safe, reliable confinement for livestock is essential.
Barbed wire was the fence of choice beginning in the late 1800's, but as more of the central U.S. was claimed and fenced, the practice became controversial. Ranchers in the Texas panhandle were quick to erect fences to keep grazers from other operations out, knowing that their grasslands could handle only so much grazing pressure. This angered free graze and cattle drive operations and soon, fences were being cut as a form of protest and to allow cattle to move from one place to another.
This was the wild west at a very volatile point and the range wars enticed vigilantes and violence to the American frontier. In 1884, in response to the fence cutting epidemic, Texas passed a law making it a felony to cut fences.
It is hard not to be nostalgic for the days when a days work was measured in how many fenceposts a man could set before lunch. Agriculture was less polarized between grain farmers and livestock producers and most farms had to keep the cows, pigs and horses out of the cornfields. That is not the case in the present day and in this climate of drought, pasture and rangeland are parched and unproductive, making it hard to feed cattle.
As economic forces drive more cattle ground toward row crops, rangeland will be converted to cropland, and the old fences that were such an issue to rangers at the turn of the century, pulled up. I have read books lamenting the fencing of the west, usually wondering how the author thought people were supposed to keep their sheep in.
The last few years have seen a runup in corn prices that made cows expensive to feed. The runup ran out on corn in the summer of 2013, but by then herd sizes had dipped and western pastures were parched by the heat and summer sun.
If the fences strung across the prairie marked a revolution in cattle production, the removal of those fences surely is a marker as well. More folks live in town now than ever before and as the divide between rural and urban life widens, the understanding and appreciation for what it takes to produce steaks and hamburgers is lost.
The field of farmers has shrunk, and the way forward for grain production has been forged by large scale operations and corporate farms, and it gets harder for the small scale operator each year. It is possible, probable even, that corporate farming will have to take the place of the family owned operation if young cattle producers continue to exit the business.
For many, nostalgia is the only place the old ways survive today. The practice of rotating livestock through a series of feedlots and pastures on their way to market takes up a lot of space and soil, and current market conditions continue to push growers to maximize land use.
As pastures are tilled and converted to cropland, the nature of cattle production will change as well. Unless we go down the manure road, this has very little to do with fertilizer, but American agriculture is an integrated system of feedstock and kill weights. It is a system that has fed the world with a steady stream of hamburgers, pork chops and, yes, the occasional leg of lamb.
Waylon and Willie called it pretty close when they sang, "Lonestar belt buckles and old faded levis, And each night begins a new day. If you don't understand him, an' he don't die young, He'll prob'ly just ride away." Young cattlemen are 'riding away' and, as it is with all agriculture, the young need to learn the everyday tricks and skills that only a lifetime of animal husbandry can yield. My plea to you livestock producers from poultry to pork is to make succession planning an intentional part of your operation. Mamas, please let your babies grow up to be cowboys.
Boy rides cowdog photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection / Foter / No known copyright restrictions
Wire sunset photo credit: Steve took it / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Rancher with son photo credit: pixelsrzen / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Young cowboy photo credit: goingslo / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)