NSS 75th Anniversary Convention

Buckaroo: Views of a Western Way of Life


At the Ranch

Nature and weather control life in the range cattle industry as in farming; battles with foul weather and tough landscape are waged year in and year out. A rancher is almost completely dependent upon the natural water supply to keep the bunchgrass in the high country and in the desert growing and usable for his herds. "Bunchgrass" is both a particular small grass type and the general name for assorted hardy forage grasses like fescues and wheatgrass. He has more control on the home ranch, where the elaborate systems of flood irrigation channel water over fields of alfalfa and grains.

The pace of life on the ranch is slow. There are jobs like sitting on the back of a quarterhorse, meandering after cows nibbling grass under the sage. The alarm clock whines, you get up. When your work is done, you lie down. The daily cadence has been developed over years of experimentation and practice to find out what makes things work.

The cadence of the days then merges into the larger cadence of the seasons. The yearly round of life and work on Paradise Valley ranches runs like this: In the spring, there is calving, "turning out" of the herd onto federal grazing lands leased from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), cultivation of crops, and irrigation of fields. Young cattle are branded and marked before being released on the grazing allotment with other cows. Experienced hands "start" colts on the path to becoming good cow ponies. In the summer, branding and marking continues, the cattle are moved from section to section of the BLM lands, then onto the higher U.S. Forest Service lands, and the main hay crop is harvested and stored on the home ranch. Each Father's Day brings the main social event of the season, the annual Fireman's Bar-B-Cue hosted by the volunteer fire department in the valley. And the Fourth of July has always been a buckaroos' holiday. In the fall the cattle are "gathered" and driven from the high country back down to the home ranch. Buckaroos brand the missed cattle and select cows to be sold and shipped to market. Hunting and trapping seasons commence. The main autumn social occasion is the Fireman's Ball at the Odd Fellow's lodge hall. It is also county fair and rodeo season; in addition to large regional and national rodeos, there are occasional "ropings" held on family ranches like the 96. There are also "team roping" competitions, which differ from multievent rodeos. Here, two mounted riders work together in roping calves. There are team ropings at regular intervals from spring to fall, and the events are more for insiders than for outsiders. Winter is a time for catch-up chores about the home ranch, feeding cattle daily with the past summer's hay crop, and vacations and rest. There are more cattle to be sold and marketed. And there is the weather to be studied: will there be enough snow to replenish the valley's streams and water table? Throughout the year there are jobs that know no season too--the constant checking and doctoring of cattle and horses, periodic butchering of a steer for home range consumption, and routine maintenance of property and equipment.

The people of the region respect custom, order, and practical knowledge gained through apprenticeship and by following established techniques. It is a way of life that treasures and is given sustenance by old patterns of thought and attitude. But change has been continual, particularly in the technology of hay production and in the private use of public grazing lands. And in conveyances: the four-wheel-drive pickup truck is to some ranchers the most important development in their lifetimes.

There are several distinctions between ranching and farming. A small paradox: Ranchers are farmers, but farmers are not ranchers. Ranchers have always tilled the earth to a certain degree to produce grains and have worked hayfields in order to harvest the necessary feeds for cattle, horses, and mules. Among key factors separating "ranch" agriculture from "farm" agriculture are these:

  1. Ranchers and their hired hands produce crops mainly for their own use on the home ranch. In a good year, a rancher may have an unusually abundant hay crop which allows him to market the surplus hay tonnage at distant points, but this is not usual. Ranchers customarily trade surplus hay bales to neighbors whose crops or supplies may be scant that season; this does not fall within the commercial sphere but is one of the ways ranchers cooperate for mutual aid and well-being.

  2. Farms are commercial crop operations where the primary energies are funneled into growing and selling cash crops. Most farmers keep cattle, but the herds are usually considered secondary in importance to the farming operation, often indicating the farmer's desire for diversification. Farmers and ranchers harvest the same alfalfa, wheat, oats, and barley, but ranchers keep the crops for their own use, while farmers ship them to Winnemucca for sale and transportation to big city markets. Dairy cattle operations are farms, not ranches, since the essential product for market is milk, not livestock. Several old ranches in Humboldt County are now farming operations. This significant development is lamented by some ranchers, while it is heralded by others as a way of surviving in the future.

  3. Ranches and farms have in their employ one or more wage-earning laborers. But their skills and characters tend to differ. Buckaroos farm, but farm hands do not buckaroo. The true buckaroo prefers working cattle on horseback. But during lengthy periods of the year buckaroos attend to agricultural equipment and the irrigation of hay fields for late summer harvest. Buckaroos maintain and operate modern haymaking machinery--combines, swathers, windrowers, balers, "harobeds," stack-retrievers, tractors--but most prefer cattle work. Buckaroos and farmhands, like ranchers and farmers, have had an uneasy relationship in the West. Along with sheepherders, farmers have in the past been in serious competition with ranchers for the land. Many Nevadans like to make distinctions between buckaroos and farm hands, though few express the difference as vividly as Pete Pedroli did during a visit in July 1978 at his ranch outside Winnemucca.

    Dick Ahlborn: Well, I'd like to ask you one other question. Could you tell the difference between a buckaroo and a farmer, just by walking down the street?
    Pedroli: Yeah, you could always tell the difference.
    Ahlborn: How?
    Pedroli: The way he walked. Buckaroo was generally stoved up from sittin' on a horse so damn long. The farmer, he was generally stoved up from goin' over the clods and the dirt followin' the plow.

The image outsiders have of cattle ranches populated by tough cowboys on wild ponies wrestling mean longhorn bulls is not altogether correct. Television shows like "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," and "Big Valley," and the countless Western movies seldom give us a glimpse of buckaroos sweating over a blown-out diesel tractor tire or heaving wet hay bales. Unfortunately for our conceptions of buckarooing in the West, we know little about these men in that large part of their lives spent fussing with balky combine engines or mending endless miles of barbed wire fence, doctoring edgy cows with injection guns filled with vitamins and serums, or working through stacks of government regulations and tax forms. The reality of western ranching life and the buckaroo business was lost in the mythology and legend that began a hundred years ago.

Some observers think that farming is the wave of the future in the arid West, thanks to new strategies of land preparation and irrigation; indeed it is likely to became increasingly difficult for the family ranch to maintain itself by raising cattle alone. Ranchers customarily paint a dark picture of the future of their business. Carlo Recanzone and his son Butch, who as a young man hopes to continue operation of their pioneer family ranch, agree that their future is in the government's hands. They can make it, they say, but there will be significant changes. In an optimistic mood Butch says, "Ranchers are known to be survivors." One of the strengths of western ranching families is that they are inheritors and conscious curators of a significant piece of the real and mythic American past. They know that the past of gritty pioneers and greedy exploiters lives visibly and immediately in their present. A family ranch is a living family album, and in its story are lines from every history book about what America is.