We're nearing the end of the traditional family ranch. Another generation or two will be the last ones to consider their property as a legacy to be nurtured and able to offer the owner a reasonably comfortable lifestyle.
Part of the cause is a chronological factor. Each succeeding generation is further removed from the original founders of the ranches. Those multi-generational efforts to establish a life based on cattle and hay have become more abstract and less important to the descendants. The sense of responsibility to honor those efforts has waned with time. It's only natural.
In my family, there are only a few of us left who remember our grandfather and none, of course, who remember our great-grandfather who homesteaded the place in 1867 and died in the 1920s. To the younger members of the family, the old-timers are little more than pieces of granite in the cemetery. The memories of their struggles and trials to make the property a working ranch are either forgotten or unknown.
The drive to continue the struggle, no matter the efforts required, has abated. Now, instead of being a heritage, many ranches are considered to be an onus. The rancher supports the ranch, when a generation or two ago, the ranch supported the rancher. That's a big difference, and a sad one.
The economics of ranching have changed. We now use sophisticated and expensive machinery, which has increased the productivity of our labor by a factor of four, by my estimate.
We're trying to support this increased productivity with an animal that was domesticated more than 10,000 years ago. The first cow owned by a human took nine months to reproduce, and a hundred centuries of refinement hasn't changed that. We're using $120,000 tractors to feed a primitive beast that gives birth once a year. We've increased the spending, but are limited on income by the constraints of bovine physiology.
And the disparity is increasing. We can accomplish more, but the old cow can't. The calves we sell are larger, but it's still one calf per cow per year. It takes almost a half-million dollars of equipment to put up the hay – a process that takes less than a month before the machinery is stored away until next year. But the interest on the loans continues while the cows gestate and the rancher worries.
Another phenomenon causing the disappearance of traditional ranches is the size of the families themselves. Houses that once sheltered four or five children and, at times, two generations of adults, now have only one or two kids and their parents.
Many rural schools are at risk of closure, with the few remaining students bused to other towns. This tendency has already reached the high schools, some of which don't have a sufficient student body to even field a football team.
In the past, most ranch children assumed that they would finish high school and maybe college, then be absorbed into the ranch to continue the tradition of baling hay and feeding cows. But now, many, if not most, question the lifestyle that ranching entails. They doubt the viability of a career that has little more to offer than a 90-hour work week, a yearly income of less than $25,000, with no vacation, retirement or health insurance.
Another facet of raising cattle that is disappearing is the pride of a good day's work. When ranching consisted of mainly hand labor, a person could derive satisfaction from the efforts he or she exerted during the course of a day. If it was hard digging, the rancher went home in the evening, not satisfied with the number of post holes that were dug, but comfortable with the knowledge that he put in an honest day. If the ground was soft, the rewards were increased. The efforts exerted were on a par with the results obtained. But now it's only the results that matter.
Since the pace of accomplishment has been facilitated by expensive machinery, the goals are restricted to finishing tasks quickly and rushing off to others – all of which cost money, and at times yield little return.
While this panicked flight from job to job continues, the rancher lies awake at night, anxious about the money spent in the name of agrarian progress, while the 10,000-year-old cow eats her fill and lies peacefully chewing her cud, letting nature take its nine-month course in her primordial womb.
She knows a good thing when she's got it.
It's the rancher who is trapped in a stampede of dystopian worry.
Richard Geary is a rancher in Helmville. He can be reached at email@example.com.