Yesterday, a four-year-old instructed me on the importance of feeding the heifers each day.
He, of course, was completely right. He watched with self-assurance as we went about unloading a trailer of round bales in preparation to feed the heifers. Our conversation around ranch management practices didn’t strike me as unusual but rather, I enjoyed that he felt comfortable that his contribution was equal to that of my own. He wasn’t wrong. After all, the tractor copilot is a critical role in ag. Kids add a lot of useful liveliness to a ranch.
Ranching often comes down to comparing what is possible with the resources available. The sun only grows grass so fast, and each season optimism hinges on the water released from snow on faraway mountain peaks. While each spring entertains an array of possibilities, fall can be sobering and humbling. But, each experience grows us a minute more, and we condition ourselves to what is possible and what is not. Also, we come to appreciate that which was impossible one day can look entirely obtainable after a little rest and coffee.
The business of cultivation and stewardship is an unconventional art, a process that moves at the speed of creation and regeneration. It cannot be pushed by personality regardless of how strong our motivations and ambition. We cannot rush a plant to grow according to our carefully planned schedule, nor do cattle care what our spreadsheets say. Mechanical constructs as powerful as we perceive them to be are only a low hum when compared to the ageless rhythms of nature. It is a tempo that one learns through feel and exposure, days sitting horseback, hours waiting for a cow who needs a moment of assistance so she can deliver a shiny new calf. But occasionally even the best ranchers can get caught up in systems, methodologies, the politics of business.
This doesn’t happen to four-year-olds, because they don’t have to unlearn the lies we adults tell ourselves to justify where we fit in amongst all the all-knowing know-it-alls. So be cautious around the stockmen who ignore children and don’t have dog hair on their clothes. They have not been confronted with the small part they play in the symphony of nature.
There is no surefire path to success in ranching; it is very much an art.
Some are masters, others are starving passionate hopefuls and others the ever-present critics. From early on the practitioners develop a native eye to the primal signs that separate a good path from the not so promising path, and they continue to add insight until they are gray in the hair. We gain our agrarian literacy by sitting in tractors with dads, doing chores for moms, supervising renegade grandfathers and doing whatever the hell grandmothers tell us to do. Many a lesson is unconsciously absorbed as we labor to contribute to the efforts of our families.
Fall leaves turn, summers come and go and time colors our perspectives. Some years are good, and some bad. Challenge and perseverance teach us the scope and power of possibility, courage and resourcefulness. The lousy times are painful and stick with us a little longer and rob us, little by little, of our confidence. But when a hurdle is overcome, it reinforces that pushing the edge of that confidence rewards us for our persistence. Sometimes the simple, honest solutions my feeding buddy sees with fresh eyes is the very best solution. He doesn’t pine for the good years or carry forward the bad; four-year-olds live for the moment.
So will my four-year-old adviser choose the path to be a rancher, maybe? He is well on his way. If he does, I’m betting that the opportunity will be there. Every so often, a spring comes along where everything is just a little greener, and the plans are just a bit more ambitious. A few years back, before Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef, my answer might have been different because I had experienced many uninspired seasons, and my feelings about the business of ranching were conflicted. Now, I see a rare medium in Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef to move our ranching operation to the type of endeavor that better aligns with our environment and stokes my imagination. The four-year-old and I share the same wide gaze into the future.
And out beyond the next generational horizon I can see the day when my four-year-old helper has a little cowhand sitting next to him, dutifully watching, making sure the heifers are fed.