Ranching is one of America's most enduring traditions. It conjures up mental pictures of the Wild West, open fields and pastures, grazing cattle and sheep, horses and cowboys around a campfire. But how did ranching begin?
Today's ranches trace their roots to Texas in the 1800s. Because cows and bison were so plentiful, roaming the open plains, cowboys could easily round them up and take them to market. Mexican cowboys -- vaqueros -- ran many cattle ranches during this time. Around the 1830s, American settlers began driving the vaqueros out. The Civil War began in 1861, and many settlers went off to war. Their absence allowed cattle herds to roam free and grow bigger.
On the "open range," great herds of cattle roamed from place to place without borders or fences to keep them in. Ranchers kept track of their cattle through earmarks and, later, brands. When it was time to sell the cattle, cowboys would round them up on horseback and physically herd them to a new location. However, as more and more farmers started raising cattle, vast areas of the open range became overgrazed. By the late 1880s, lack of grazing pastures and bad weather led to a massive drop in cattle numbers.
Wanting to protect their own herds, ranchers and farmers began fencing off their land with barbed wire to keep the cattle from roaming. This way they could keep track of their own cattle and ensure their land didn't become overgrazed. These fenced-in, self-contained ranches became the modern ranches of today.
Modern ranches operate like efficient machines -- miles of fencing, irrigation systems, corrals for holding sheep and cattle, loading chutes and trailers. The cattle drives of yesteryear -- when cowboys would round up and physically lead a herd from one location to another -- are slowly dying out. These days, ranchers typically move cattle via truck and trailer. Horseback cattle drives now cover much shorter distances. Some ranches use traditional cattle drives as a tourist attraction instead.
But it still requires a lot of work to keep a ranch running smoothly. Ranchers must take care of the animals, the land, the machines and perform dozens of other jobs. And they hire ranch hands to help out.
You might be wondering -- is a ranch hand the same as a cowboy? It depends on your definition of "cowboy." If you're thinking about a cowboy in the traditional American way -- a solitary man on a horse who spends his days herding and roping cattle on drives across the Great Plains -- then probably not. Today's ranch hands don't usually go on cattle drives. Instead, they work on the ranch, performing tasks ranging from animal husbandry to fence repair.
Being a ranch hand is a lot of work and a different way of life from what most of us are used to. Read on to find out what it's like to be a ranch hand.