To most ranchers around Cache Valley, snow on the mountain tops means the cows are coming home. Interestingly, as nights get colder, cattle that have been “out to grass” migrate toward the lower pastures where they know they will be fed. Thus, roundup begins.
This year, I learned about roundup first hand when my daughter Kimber and I participated in this exhilarating, living piece of continuing history.
But there is much more to fall roundup than a pleasant ride with the cattle. Despite the fact that some ranching families have called Cache Valley home for generations, new pressures have threatened the cattlemen’s way of life and the right to graze on public land.
If anything, our ranchers are resilient. They are determined to keep their industry going. My introduction to the local beef industry was fall roundup.
“The means of roundup depends on topography, but every square foot of range must be checked. Every gully, grove of trees, and stand of sagebrush,” said my aunt, whose cattle-boss asked his name and affiliation be kept private for reasons I will state later. “Riders locate every animal they can and start moving them toward a gathering pen. The cattlemen know exactly how many animals were turned out to graze and thus can count how many should be collected.”
Where livestock are lost to predators, riders will usually find the remains. As seen with recent bull killings in Oregon, sometimes predators are human. Cattle rustling is still a very real crime. Cattlemen take such losses seriously, as each cow on the range costs a certain amount on the lease and means a loss of revenue for the rancher. Human interference in the form of hunters, poachers, and land users who remove fences cost cattlemen thousands of dollars each season. Roundup is a chance for the ranchers to account for every animal.
Once the herds are gathered, the final push of roundup begins. In our group working the cows down to the valley, my uncle’s experienced cutting horse took Kimber after every loose cow that wandered from the herd. My horse methodically pushed the herd in a patient Z-like pattern toward the holding corral.
If our cutting horses could read the road signs, they wouldn’t have needed Kimber and me at all. They knew exactly how to move the cattle and taught us what to do.
In the lower corrals, we “cut” cow and calf pairs out of the herd and led them to the correct corral for their individual owners. At this stage, my job again was to do the reading. Numbers on the cow’s ear tags must match with a calf. Once I found a cow/calf pair, my horse did the rest. Seeing those horses turn and maneuver the livestock was amazing.
Even more impressive were the cowboys and cowgirls who occupied more important tasks so capably, like sorting out the large, cranky bulls. Some families, including mine, had three generations of cowgirls and cowboys working hard all day to get the sorting done.
With the cows, calves, and bulls all sorted in the right corrals, each group was guided down the road to their respective pastures in the lower valley to pass the winter.
Pleased with my roundup experience, I asked my cattle-boss and his wife for an interview. They declined. When I asked why, I was shocked to learn that some local ranchers have received intimidating letters and other threats from “gas-free” climate change groups and anti-grazing coalitions.
An acquaintance, a fearless, life-long livestock producer from Moore, Idaho, explained some of the controversies around grazing rights. At age 62, Diana Adams is now retired from professional range riding. She said some people wrongfully believe cows cause damage to the public property at a cost to taxpayers and to the environment. Adams said that for the most part, that is a myth.
Adams indicated that if cattle are left to their own devices, they tend to congregate around lush stream beds and riparian areas of the wilderness. If allowed to graze these areas without restraint, they can cause damage. That’s where a well-trained range rider and cattle dogs become important. Dogs and range riders push cows from the stream beds to higher grazing country and train the cattle to stay there for forage during the day.
“A range rider does not work for just the rancher,” Adams said, “You work for the public, for the Forest Service and the BLM, too. You protect those lands so the people can enjoy them and help the BLM protect the watershed. You work for the rancher so they can do what they need to and be out on the range. You are up there to take care of everybody.”
Adams maintained that having cattle on ranges is not just good for the economy but helps prevent wildfire and control noxious weeds. Range fed cattle are healthier and provide better meat for consumers. Not only that, but people enjoy seeing cattle on public lands while they hike, camp, and jeep in the countryside.
I agree with Adams and add that having cattle on the range is valuable for other reasons. It proves conservation partnerships between the BLM and land users are effective means of helping the environment. It reminds me that hard work and sacrifice are a very real part of the ranching industry. It helps me remember that men and women dedicate their lives to feeding our nation and the world.
With any luck, those hardworking cattlemen will overcome opposition to keep working ranches alive and well. Roundup is a piece of history worth reliving long after the cows come home.
Kate E Anderson is a mother of five living in North Logan. She can be reached at email@example.com