It rained and snowed the other day, the first real moisture to soak into this soil since 2021. The rain came slowly, allowing the soil to take a long drink instead of carrying itself down to the bottom of the hill. The soil particles expanded in an earthly sigh of relief.
I took a deep breath, too. I think I heard my neighbors whooping it up.
Last April, I waited impatiently to watch the grass that always turns green, always grows so fast that I can see getting taller every day. I waited through May. I sold some cows. I waited through most of June. The grass remained brown and crispy. I sold more cows.
Brief rains brought short grass and grasshoppers. I sold more cows.
Since then, I have seen semi-loads of cattle streaming down the interstate. Week after week, pickups with trailers full of cattle line up at the auction yard. Some ranchers sold every single cow they owned. Some held on to a thread of hope, always searching the sky for clouds every morning, noon and evening until their cattle had nothing to eat. For many, this rain and snow did not come in time. Now they face a winter without cows.
The financial ramifications of selling livestock are enormous. Calves are a rancher’s wage while the cows – the breeding stock – are her investment for future wages. When the breeding herd is sold along with the calves, the rancher’s income skyrockets this year and plummets next year. Tax law helps a little bit – the money received for selling breeding stock won’t be taxed as income if the rancher buys cows back within the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, though, the rancher is out of a job. And an identity.
How can a person be a rancher if she doesn’t own cows? And if she isn’t a rancher, who is she?
Ranchers, just like everyone else, project their identity by what they wear. An investment banker might wear a Brooks Brothers suit while a rancher wears Wranglers. The CEO of JPMorgan wears cufflinks. A rancher wears boots. The hat most prominently declares to the world that a rancher is a rancher.
The hat declares a person values the moral code of cowboys – integrity, loyalty, and courage. If a person doesn’t own cattle, can she wear the hat without being an imposter?
Conversations among cattle owners are different from conversations among others. If a rancher no longer owns cattle, who needs to talk about bull genetics or the weather or boron as a catalyst for soil health?
The cattle market no longer impacts a rancher with no cows. Why tune in to the morning market report?
Without cows, the horses don’t have a critical job to do. They are no longer partners, only hayburners.
Seasonal rhythms disappear with the cattle, too. No feeding during the winter. No calving in the spring. No hay harvest during the summer. Just like every non-rancher, a rancher’s identity is fundamental to her worldview. Her vision of politics, her role in her community and her purpose in life change when the cattle leave the ranch. Just like the CEO, the mother, the teacher, the writer and the farmer, our identities keep us grounded.
When you aren’t you anymore, who are you?
I still have cows. I can still wear my hat. My options to earn income for the next few years while I rebuild my herd are varied. Others are far worse off than I. This rain does more than maintain our incomes, does more than saturate our ground. This rain maintains our identities.
My happy dance through the puddles splattered mud all the way to my hat.
Lisa Schmidt raises grass-fed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad. Lisa can be reached atL.Schmidt@a-land-of-grass-ranch.com.