The sunlight peaking over the eastern horizon looks like a glowing fireplace with shades of red, orange and yellow. Horses snort and stamp their feet as they feel frisky with the cool morning air. The smell of the dew is heavy on the sage, and cowboys warm cold fingers around warm coffee cups. Many of them have been up well before daylight, they jingled in the ponies with an old Folgers can half filled with sweet grain for the four-legged mounts. Manes were curried, cinches were checked, chaps were donned and the jingle of spurs echoes through the barn. These are the mornings that cowboys live for. They have spent most of the summer riding a hay tractor, aside from doctoring a few sick critters and pulling ornery bulls, the ponies have been turned out to eat summer grass. With the start of shorter days, cooler nights and leaves and pastures alike beginning to lose their green color, its time for the fall works to begin.
As the sun climbs over the horizon, cowboys are trotting out in a line. Warm conversation is shared among neighbors who have come to help us gather our herd, come next week we’ll go help gather theirs. There are just shy of three miles to ride before we hit the pasture gate, by the time the pasture’s gathered and the cows are penned we’ll have ridden nearly eight. The soapweeds that were in full bloom just a couple months back now look shriveled and dry with only a stalk where flowers had been. When we reach the gate I’ll take half the crew, we’ll ride west by the big tank and the place where that one cow got on the fight, we’ll spread out and ride every hilltop and canyon bottom looking for pairs that might be forgotten.
When the sun begins to chase the cool air from all around, its nearly 9 a.m. and our drive is starting to come together. Cows file out of the canyons like a long black rope, nose to tail they walk making sure to keep their calves close. When the last man reaches the tank with his passel of cattle, its time to count them through the gate and check our hard work. One man counts while another watches the gate, slow and easy is the name of this game. When the last cow makes her trail through the gate, I check the count then point the herd on the trail to headquarters.
By the time we trail those mamas home we are all pretty parched and dusty, we’ll have a cold drink before we sort this bunch. The sorting is quite a thing to see, one neighbor he’s got a horse that’s downright catty. He sits up there sending cows in and by, with a squeeze of his leg or the lift of a rein his mount knows just how to reply. When the sorting’s all done we’ll run the calves through. Its time for more shots, some pour and a dewormer too. We’ll catch weights and sort off all the dinks, the big calves get turned in the weaning lot for some hay and a drink. The cows will get locked up for a few more days, then the vet will tell us how many are in the motherly way. When the headgate catches the final cow, the fall works will be all over, but we’ll miss them somehow.
The changing of the seasons is what makes ranching so much fun. With every season there are new challenges, new chores, and new ways to do things. While the fall works are a big challenge and can be a stressful time, they are probably my favorite part of the year. Fellowship with neighbors, early mornings seeing country that few people get to see from the back of a good horse make my job seem romantic. That’s all for this time. Keep tabs on your side of the barbed wire and God bless.
Meinzer is a fourth-generation rancher raised on the southeastern plains of Colorado. He and his family live and ranch in Oshkosh, Neb.