I have often wondered how I would make it, or if I would even enjoy being a cowboy out west. Don't get me wrong, the horses, the clothes, the lifestyle, the long days, the work and such I know I would enjoy. I could wear the clothes and ride a horse here in Alabama if I wanted to and we already work the long days—so these are not the deal breakers.
My doubts arise when I think about the differences in the ways the cattle are managed. I like being a cattleman because I enjoy being with the cows. I like to watch them. I like the smell. I enjoy the challenge of breeding them to try to make a calf better than its mama. I enjoy the anticipation of what the calf will look like and if it will be bull or a heifer. I love watching the calves grow off. I know each one by name or number.
Here in southeast Alabama we can graze cattle year round on summer and winter grazing. We can run a cow/calf pair on an acre of grass during an average year on average pasture. If you do controlled or intensive grazing on improved pastures like we do, most years you can increase the stocking rate to 1 ½ pair per acre, and in a really good year 2 pair per acre. So on 100 acres of intensively managed improved pasture in an average year, we could expect to run 100-150 pair.
With the cattle restrained to such a small area, we can see the cattle all day long if we want to just by looking out the window. If we want to examine them closely or check out a potential problem, we just hop in the truck or the four wheeler and drive across the road to see what is going on. If there is a calving problem or a sick or lame animal, it does not take us long to get the animal to the catch pen where we can restrain it in the chute and take care of the problem. We have saved a lot of cattle that would have otherwise not made it on their own, especially when it comes to calving problems, lameness and respiratory problems.
Out west, it is not uncommon for a rancher to need 10-28 acres of land per cow/calf unit. To run the same 100 pair of cattle that we run on 100 acres, they would need from 1,000-2,800 acres of land. To run 150 pair, they would need 1,500-4,200 acres. When you do the math, this converts to an area from 1.5 to 6.5 square miles of land to run the same number of cattle.
Perhaps you are beginning to see why I would question if I could or would want to be a cowboy instead of a cattleman. Imagine how long it would take to even find all the cows and baby calves, much less to examine them and take care of emergencies. Because of the heavy brush and rough terrain, most of the checking would have to be done by horseback. If a cow is off by herself calving or has fallen back due to sickness or a sore hoof, they are on their own and vulnerable to all the predators.
When you find one that needs help, walking them back to the catch pen is not an option, so you do the best you can with a rope and whatever you have with you. Finding most of them on an average day would be very unlikely. For many of these large ranching outfits, they gather the cattle once or twice per year for working, branding and weaning calves for market. Other than that, they may never see a particular cow between workings. Only the fittest survive! The cowboy still cares about the cows, but due to the terrain and conditions, he is just not able to see about them like we do here.
I reckon what I enjoy is the shepherding part of the job. A shepherd is with his flock. He knows them individually. He walks with them. He provides for them. He ministers to them. They are always under his watchful eye and never out of his sight. He lets them out of the fold in the morning and he carefully inspects each one as he leads them into the safety of the fold at night. If one is missing, the shepherd knows it. If one needs help, the shepherd helps it. The good shepherd knows, loves and cares for his sheep.
This whole idea came back to me last week when my daughter Ashley gave birth to our second granddaughter and our sixth grandchild. Little Brooke was born five weeks early. There had been a lot of complications and Ashley had been in and out of the hospital for several weeks. During the caesarian delivery, Ashley developed a bleed from a tear in her uterus and it took two surgeons over three hours to get the bleeding under control. That was scary enough.
Two days later, the doctors said little Brooke, weighing only 4lb 11oz, was having apneic episodes where she would stop breathing and that she was having seizures. When I received the phone call, the jet from UAB Hospital was already in the air to evacuate her.
I will never forget as I watched little Brooke leading up to the time the jet arrived, thinking about despite her challenges, how blessed she was and how blessed we all are as her family, that she could have access to the care she was receiving. In most parts of the world, Ashley would have probably died giving birth and all Brooke's daddy and the rest of us could do would be to watch little Brooke die also.
Acts 17:26 says: "From one man, God created all the nations of men. He determined the exact times and places that they should live."
There are so many blessings that we take for granted, so many opportunities that we think everyone has, so much compassion that we see as normal, so much technology that we assume everyone has access to. What we think of as normal, as expected, or as being entitlements, 95% of the world would see as miraculous! In the end, the truth is that we had no more choice in being born where we have this kind of care than a cow has in whether it will be raised in Southeast Alabama or West Texas—only God knows why—it was His decision.
But God knows all His children wherever they are. They are the flock of His field and the sheep of his pasture. He takes care of the little birds and the flowers of the field and we can depend on Him to take care of us. Even the hairs on our head are numbered and known by Him.
I thank God that Ashley and little Brooke have come through this and are healthy, happy and well—so many others were not so fortunate. But I am even more thankful that God is there and is sufficient for us even if things do not turn out the way we want them to. We thank God for every day, every person, every blessing, but most of all we thank Him for Himself, for His love for us and the eternal Hope we have in Jesus Christ.