Trouble in a Leather Sack
Let me state for the record that I am not a cowboy. I can not throw a rope. I can not brand a cow. I don’t own a 10 gallon hat. I do know that “trouble in a leather sack” means “cow” in the Sand Hills. Seth Adam told me so.
I may not be a vaquero but I do like spending time with cowboys, especially if they let me tag along while they’re out working cattle. It’s always interesting to learn how things get done in different parts of our country. Soaking it all in from the saddle is a bonus. Besides, some one has to guard the gate so the cows don’t escape.
Trailing Seth and Doug
The mules and I are taking a week-long break in Hyannis, Nebraska while I spend some time with my wife Julia. Hyannis is in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, home to thousands of cattle that are still tended the cowboy way.
Julia arrived on Monday. Tuesday morning, in a series of twists and turns that involved a lanky cowboy and a log cabin, we ended up tagging along with 2 brothers – Seth and Doug Adam – as they doctored cattle and moved bulls.
Seth and Doug train horses and raise cattle in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Our “job” (I’m sure they could have done it without us) was to open and close the odd gate and hold their mounts as they doctored cattle.
The Sand Hills region is part of what many call the “fly over” states. This really is an injustice to what goes on here. Here are some photos from this region I thought might interest you. I hope they give you a better understanding of the workings of this little-noticed part of America.
Getting Ready to Work Cattle
Unlike the movies, where the cowboy gallops onscreen twirling a rope after a fleeing calf, working real cattle takes a lot longer. Horses have to be caught, hooves trimmed, mounts saddled. Only then does the cowboy ride out on to the range to do what needs to be done. And so it went for us.
Shifting and Doctoring
Seth and Doug run what’s called a cow and calf operation. They raise Angus Hereford crosses. At a certain time of the year, they turn bulls loose with their cows and heifers. The bulls pasture breed the cows (as opposed to artificial insemination which is very common in the cattle industry). The calves are born around March, are raised to a certain weight, then sold at a livestock sale. The buyer then raises the calves to market final weight (or sends them off to a feed lot that puts on the final pounds).
Our first order of business was separating 9 bulls from the cows.
After the bulls were moved, it was time to doctor calves.
Not as Seen on TV
Thanks to TV and John Wayne movies, many people think that ranch work is all about ropin’, heelin’ and dallyin’. At top speed.
Sure, cowboys gallop after cows but for the most part, they work quietly, calmly. The whole point of raising cattle is to make money. The calmer and more relaxed the cows, the healthier – and more profitable – the endeavor.
Seth and Doug rode slowly through their stock looking for signs that a calf might need a bit of attention – droopy ears, ear discharge, a sluggish gait, an infected ear tag or a bloated body.
The vast majority of the calves were in great shape.
Still, a few calves needed doctoring. This is where it got ranch-y.
What impressed Julia and me the most was the steadiness of Seth and Doug’s mounts. Seth has started hundreds of young horses, preferring to put mileage on them behind cows, not in an arena. He starts them as 2 or 3 year olds. Often, after a few early rides, he will turn them back out for a period of time. Then he’ll resume training them.
He (as are Julia and I) is critical of people who push their young horses too hard, too young. Long term, these early “stars” wind up with soundness and mental issues. A patient man after Julia and my heart.
Cattle sorted and doctored it was time to water the horses.
Yesterday, to remind Brick and Cracker they’re resting, not retired, Julia and I took them for a ride among the grass covered Sand Hills dunes.
Tomorrow, Julia returns home. The day after that, I saddle the mules and, half hour before first light, swing in to the saddle and head west. From Hyannis, I follow Highway 2 toward Ellsworth and Alliance. We are Wyoming bound
A man can ride across America alone but he doesn’t do it all himself. The people of the Sand Hills have been hugely generous to me. This week, they extended that same generosity to Julia. Thanks:
- Tim Billingsly: for putting me in touch with Seth and Jenna Adam
- Seth and Jenna Adam: for providing Julia and me with a cabin, repairing my pack gear and letting us ride the super-behaved Dally and Sadie.
- Keiko Sakakibara: for the shower, runza, washed clothes and great conversation
- Mose and Micky Hebbert: for putting up the mules while I’m visiting Hyannis
- to everyone else in town, from grocery to feed store, that made our stay so restful and memorable.