Autumn in the western states, specifically on cattle ranches involves what is commonly referred to as ‘Fallwork’ – one word. Ranching, like all agriculture, revolves around the seasons. For ranchers on the northern plains, autumn is less about colorful leaves and more about golden grass. The prairie is busy getting ready to close up shop for the coming winter and the rancher has a long list of chores to do in preparation for the changing out of seasons.
Blackbirds flock in huge numbers as they ready themselves for their trip south. Lark Buntings and Meadowlarks head out after the first cold snap. As autumn progresses, ranchers ride as much as they do in the spring of the year during calving. We are at the opposite end of our work on the ranch now. In the spring, we welcome birthing and eagerly anticipate the return of green. In the fall, we watch as plant life slips off to bed, while listening to migrating cranes and geese as we ride, gathering and moving cattle to different pastures.
It is a common reality that ranchers rely on their friends and neighbors for seasonal help like fallwork. You need extra manpower for gathering and for some of the other work detail – vaccinating cattle and shipping the calf crop. However, ‘manpower’ only paints 50% of the picture. The other half is an old saying that goes like this: “Some of the best cowboys are cowgirls.” Most ranch daughters grow up learning how to do all the things that fall under a very general heading called ‘ranch work’. Translated, it means “everything”. The lady rancher can cook a meal for a work crew and slip back into the saddle to do outside work with the cattle. A key element in the making of a well-heeled ranch gal is attitude. Wherever you’re needed most is the place you ought’a be and you do that job happily. Those of us that love to ride might admit to resignation when we’re called to be cooks instead of cowpokes. But, you smoke peace pipe with the idea because you realize how much the help enjoys and appreciates good food after long hours of work. You embrace the job and take pride in wowing the crew with a fabulous meal followed up by an array of desserts to choose from.
Soon enough, you’re outside again and in the saddle. Sometimes, the idea that ranching is a romantic lifestyle is justified. After all, you don’t hear of ballads and poems about electricians or lawyers. But, the cowboy life isn’t all wildflowers, pretty scenery and colorful western sunsets. There are days when a sudden change in the weather finds you without a slicker or enough layers of clothing to keep warm. You know you’re going to get cold. No whining, you just ‘cowgirl up’ and take it. There is also the inevitable heartbreak of animal loss, but if you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have dead stock – a harsh truth in this lifestyle. All things considered, would I trade this line of work for any other? Not on your life. Where else would the dashboard of my ride to work offer a view through the ears of a horse? There is no high-tech car gadget that will turn and ask with sparkling brown eyes, “Where to next, over that far hill or home?”