NSS 75th Anniversary Convention

Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life


Cattlemen Were Farmers First

When William Stock, Batiste Recanzone, Jim Byrnes, the Lye brothers, and the other early settlers unloaded their wagons and set up homesteads in Paradise Valley, they were coming to be farmers and sheep growers as much as to be cowmen. The range cattle industry as we know it today was just beginning in the middle 1860s, and the Nevada settlers practiced agriculture as it was practiced across most of the West--as a diversified operation in which crops of grain were as important as cattle. Indeed, the first farmer-ranchers in northern Nevada started business in answer to the good markets for grain and hay and cattle in the booming mining centers like Virginia City and towns like Unionville. In the early phases of the business, families had their market crops freighted to the mining areas over wagon roads and largely sustained existence at home on what they could produce in their own gardens and farm lots. It took the coming of the railroad in the late 1860s to open up the ranching country and give the farmers and ranchers access to distant markets in California that soon became their chief commercial outlets.

The Old South is generally credited with the invention of the range cattle industry in the West, and perhaps rightly so, but in northern Nevada the business was developed by Midwesterners, Northerners, immigrants from Germany and Italy, and California Mexican vaqueros. The open-range cattle business glorified and exaggerated in popular fiction, movies, and television shows really flourished for a brief time, from about the end of the Civil War to about 1890. Because of a combination of economic conditions and the killing winters of the late 1880s, vast herds of Texas longhorns were no longer driven over thousands of miles of trails to Kansas or Missouri railheads and markets or to the frontier Northwest, and the cattle business settled into its modern character of family and corporation ranches raising cattle for local herd replenishment and regional markets. As Nevada settlers realized that scarce water supplies and low soil yield made the usual sort of farming operations difficult, they turned to a single enterprise for long-term investment, grazing cattle, mainly Hereford, on the open ranges. The names of the pioneering ranches reflect their initial goals and visions--like the William Stock Farming Company (1864), which today is a cattle ranch--and while they began to concentrate on cattle raising at the end of the nineteenth century, they continued to cultivate grains and hay crops for their own use and for local trade. Every Nevada rancher is a farmer too, since he must irrigate hayfields and harvest his own feed crops for feeding cattle through the winter on the home or "base" property. Few ranchers could afford to purchase winter feed, so they developed keen abilities and technical skills in the yearly cycle of irrigation and harvest of hay and grains.

In addition, many of the old cattle ranches began as sheep-raising operations. Particularly in the days when cheap, good labor was available, before the federal grazing lands were enclosed and brought under control in the 1930s and before the development of synthetic fabrics, sheep were profitable. Ranches like the Stewarts' 96 (originally the William Stock Farming Company), the Recanzones' Home Ranch, the Millers' 101, and the Pasquale ranch owed at least part of their early success to the sheep industry. The 96 Ranch once ran as many as twelve thousand Merino sheep. For many of these farmer-ranchers, like the Stocks and Recanzones, the demise of the sheep trade was not exactly mourned. There were problems with landless "tramp herders" whose many sheep competed with local ranchers' cattle for scarce grass on the open range, and there was a gradual shift away from diversified stock toward concentration on range cattle. Some welcomed the sheep industry's end and turned their attention and resources to developing the cattle herds.

In Ernest Staples Osgood's treatment of the range cattle industry, the "range cattleman" is credited with certain contributions to the developing United States. He was the first to make effective economic use of the dry plains, and his business brought foreign investment to the economy, stimulated the national urge for building transcontinental railroads and communications networks, and laid the foundation for the development of communities and states in the region. To this list could be added the western rancher's refinement of irrigation processes. Domesticated crops were watered in systems of ditches by the Pueblo Indians in the American Southwest. Spanish colonization further refined irrigation techniques, and the Spanish colonial bureaucrats devised codes of water rights for farmers based on a tradition of prior use and first settlement. The techniques of watering crops in northern Nevada come out of Hispanic colonial usage, but they are also reminiscent of medieval British and European irrigation. Ranchers in the late nineteenth-century semiarid West brought irrigation to a fine science, and the old systems of banked ditches and head gates across fields remain effective today. At the same time, ranchers and farmers are taking advantage of new, complicated, and expensive water systems involving deep-drilled wells and sophisticated electric appliances and machines. The expanding cultivation of root crops, which need more water and fertilization than native strains of hay, ultimately means less natural annual moisture available for cattle and hayfields. As the annual snowfall, on which the ground-water yield in the valley is dependent, remains fairly steady over the years, use of deep wells and water technology will increase as the water table falls.

Family ranches have sizable gardens. In the early days, when more hired hands and larger families lived on the home ranch and when wives needed to can and preserve vegetables and fruits for home use, they were as large as 150 feet square. Today's best gardens are likely to be about 18 by 20 feet. They are laid out east to west and planted with some combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, wax beans, onions, radishes, cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips, spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, peas, squash, and peppers. The perfectly ordered garden is framed by lilacs and other ornamental flowers and bushes. Ranchers long ago devised ingenious ways to water gardens by building an irrigation ditch from the nearest hayfield.

Ranching is a different operation in each particular region and climate. As Marion Clawson has written, it is the diversity of ranching that is striking, not the sameness. For the family rancher, and to a degree for the corporate outfits, the similarities are in the reliance on nature's ample or scarce resources in order to graze cattle or sheep for slaughter for human consumption; the need for sophisticated agricultural technology to support one's ranch competitively; the day-to-day engagement with a federal or state agency's regulations and regulators; the need for stout, quick cow horses to get certain jobs done; the carrying of huge debts to maintain yearly operation; the need for wage laborers during certain times of the year; and a liability to boom or bust according to the vicissitudes of national and international economic and political situations. In the West, there is a growing feeling among family ranchers that the control of their business and their future well-being is somehow vanishing. Some will survive while the unsupported or less capable will move off the land into Winnemucca, Reno, or San Francisco.