Running a ranch nowadays is much the same as it was in the nineteenth century. The main differences would lie in the increased volumes of paperwork, the existence of grants for land improvement and maintenance, and the necessity to consider rare plants and animals which might inhabit the ranch. Also nowadays there is more machinery to maintain, and the rules for vaccination and de-worming of cattle are stricter. Other than that, the creation and management of a herd and the maintenance of all the physical parts of a ranch are similar.

Book-keeping is a vital part of any ranch
Book-keeping is a vital job on any ranch

In the nineteenth century records would have been kept in handwritten ledgers and the job was very likely tedious to an outdoor person such as the rancher undoubtedly was. However, tax record-keeping aside, a ranch could not have been run effectively without records being kept on the individual animals, the various purchases, and the ways in which years differed one from another.

A very important outdoor job, although still not one to do directly with cattle, was the maintaining of fences. Some cattle might still have been grazed on common land in those days, in which case they would be rounded up in the time-honoured way. But inspection routines and quick responses to breaches would be vital in order not to lose cattle and not be responsible for damage – including the incursion of your bull among your neighbour’s heifers.

Handling facilities were enclosures used for any jobs in which cattle needed to be sorted and marshalled. They might include sorting pens, working alley, crowding pen, working chute and squeeze chute. They were defined by wooden posts and rails, not just barbed wire, and they had to be maintained as well.

Managing the grazing of cattle was an important job. Stocking rates, carrying capacity and animal impact all had to be considered, and a rancher needed to understand the soil, the vegetation and the topography of his land in order to deploy his herd. It should be remembered that the open range had recently ceased to be, or was in imminent danger, because of over-grazing.

Feeding cattle as opposed to letting them graze was an activity then as now which had an enormous impact on the annual budget of the rancher. It was often a make or break factor. Therefore cattle would be fed hay for the absolute minimum of time, and wherever possible would be given such alternative feed as crop residues. The hayfields of course needed to be managed – the best moments to cut, rake, and bale.

Calving season was one of the high points of the year. A rancher needed to be prepared for difficult births, cows which didn’t become attached to their calves, signs of illness such as pneumonia in the calves, injuries from their being stepped on, predators etc. Some ranchers chose to breed their heifers earlier than their cows so as to give most attention to a batch of births which, being first time, were more likely to be problematic.

Not much has changed for cowboys
Not much has changed for cowboys

Calves needed to be tagged and vaccinated, and any bull calves not destined to be sires had to be castrated. As for branding, typically this was a social event at which other ranches helped out, obviously expecting the favour to be reciprocated.

Nowadays bulls can be semen tested and there is even the possibility of artificial insemination, but in the nineteenth century bulls were valued on their reputation, and they were indeed very valuable. The herd might be split up and serviced by different bulls – in different breeding pastures in order to avoid competition and consequent injury to the bulls. One mature bull could typically handle 30 to 40 cows; 50 if they were in a small pasture.

A herd was always in flux. Cows might die, or ones that were injured, sick, unbreedable, or had maternal issues or especially bad temperaments, might need to be culled and sold. They would be replaced in the herd with heifers taken from a carefully chosen stock. Excess livestock such as weaned calves, heifers and steers, or cattle that were destined for slaughter, had to be sold through auction or private treaty.

It was demanding work making sure the whole herd was in consistent good health, doing every job at the right time, and paying attention to any problems that might crop up. There were also the horses and the stock dogs to keep an eye on. And once one year was out, it was time to do it all again.

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