The Gambler

The National Finals Rodeo, which was held in Las Vegas, just finished for the year. My family and I haven’t gone in quite a few years. It always seems like this time of year is hard to get away from the ranch with feeding and cold temperatures. I was thinking about my last work trip there and I had to smile. The last time I was in Vegas my friends asked why I wasn’t playing the machines. I told them that I didn’t need to play those things because I gamble every single day whether I want to or not…I’m a cattle rancher! I smile when I say that to folks because it’s the truth, but not many truly understand the depth of what I’m talking about (unless they themselves are ranchers).

            I’m sure you’ve heard or seen the following quote:   “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” ~John F. Kennedy

            That quote holds much truth and it hasn’t changed a bit since he said it. As a cattle rancher we are at the mercy of so many things:  the weather, the cattle market, fuel prices, retail pricing on ranch supplies, equipment prices, and the list goes on and on. I know some people don’t understand why we do what we do when we have so many things that play against us. The answer I’ve come up with is pretty simple. It’s because it’s in our blood and we wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. We love this life with all our hearts!

Not everyone loves what they do every day, but I’m happy to say that I’m not one of those people. It’s funny to me to admit this, but when I was younger I didn’t plan to end up where I am. In fact, if you’d have told me that I’d be ranching I would have thought you were crazy. My plans when I was younger didn’t include this life. I honestly think it’s because when I was younger I never slowed down long enough to let my heart and my brain connect. When I finally did, this is the only life that ever made any sense for me. I’m so glad that things happen for a reason and that destiny took over.

            When you grow up in this industry you learn at a young age about hard work and you have a strong work ethic. You understand that your word is your bond. You also learn that many things and lives depend on you and you understand the magnitude of it all. You know it’s all on you and nobody else is going to do things for you. You care deeply about everything you do on the place because it’s a reflection of who you are and it’s also a necessity to ensure ends meet. Every life matters on the ranch also for obvious reasons, but it’s more than just about the almighty dollar. Those critters mean something to you and knowing you are responsible for them instills a lot of pride in a person. The bottom line is there is no “app” that replaces good old-fashioned hard work, heart, sweat, and effort. Yes, there are easier ways now to get work done than in days past, but in order to have success in ranching you have to be a bit of a “gambler”. You also have to have grit, drive, desire, and determination to hang in there for the long haul. Ranching isn’t for the faint of heart by any means.

            As ranchers we can only do so much as we are at the mercy of Mother Nature out here so that’s where the “gambling” thing comes in big time. We “gamble” a lot when making decisions affecting our operation. How much feed to buy, what kind of feed to buy, when to bed cattle down due to an impending blizzard, when to breed your cows so calves aren’t born too early in storm season, where to put in a water line, how much hay to put up, how much hay to buy when we don’t have enough of our own to put up, etc. I think you get the picture of the daily “gambling” we do out here.

            The cycle of life on our place is pretty much the same every year for us. A few things may change here and there, but for the most part things stay the same. Every winter we feed our cattle in their winter pastures. We get our cake delivered in the late fall, so we are ready to go when inclement weather arrives. We also have hay delivered then (if we weren’t able to put up enough). We keep our horses close and get them in every day (we do this 365 days per year). Ensuring everything has water is a big deal around here. Depending on how cold It is determines how much water we chop. Chop? Yep, we use an axe to chop out our dams and water tanks when needed. We don’t have electricity to most on the place, so heaters aren’t a possibility unless it’s for the horses at the corrals. Talk about physical activity! It gets dang cold here in South Dakota. At times the ice has been around 18” thick! Chopping that ice and then getting it out of the hole with a pitchfork or shovel keeps us in shape around here.

            Every spring we are excited for calving season. After the long months of winter, it breathes new life into our hearts and the countryside. There is nothing like seeing baby calves bouncing around in a green pasture! On the downside there is nothing so heart-wrenching and disappointing as seeing a calf carcass (or many) in a snow bank after we’ve been dealt a vicious blow from an ever-lasting Old Man Winter. Many a time I’ve wiped away a tear or two of frustration and anguish at the harshness of Mother Nature. I’ve been angry about the unfairness of it all, but in the end, I realize that is what makes me hold life so dear. It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely worth it. I cherish every moment and I’m thankful for the many that come through each year. I guess you might say I’ve come to accept the fact that you can’t save every critter. You can try your hardest, but it’s a crap shoot sometimes. All we can do is prepare and plan the best we can…and pray.

            At the tail end of spring we enter into branding season. It truly is one of my favorite times of year. It gives us a shot in the arm after some difficult months weather-wise. To see those healthy babies all gathered up truly warms my heart. Once branding season is over we seem to roll right into haying season. As I type this I’m smiling…we really don’t go by the traditional season names out here. In fact, the more I think about it I think we should be split into more seasons than just four. They would be:  feeding season, calving season, branding season, breeding season, haying season, fire-watch season, bull pulling season, pre-conditioning season, shipping season, preg-checking season, and ranch clean-up season. In between all of that we fit in all kinds of other seasonal things like fixing fence, checking the herd, working on our horses in and out of the arena, roping as time allows, and competing in the occasional ranch rodeo.

            You can see that every single day out here on the ranch is a busy one. As I mentioned above there are a lot of modern conveniences now that the generations before us didn’t have, but where you get right down to it ranching is an all-hands-on-deck sort of life. It’s a great life for sure, but there isn’t much time for lazing around and goofing off. I guess I should say that isn’t how we live our lives out here. Maybe others do, but I wouldn’t want to trade places with them. I know that what I’ve learned in owning and operating our own place is that you don’t win in your business or your life by chance or accident. I am half joking when I talk about “gambling” in ranching. We do in one way, but in a bigger way it all comes down to how we run our operation. We budget as well as we can, we plan ahead, we project our year based on our history, but also with knowledge of how things can change quickly. We put a lot of effort and heart into what we do and leave less up to luck or “gambling” per se.

The life we live isn’t an easy one, but without the trials and tribulations we sometimes face I fear we wouldn’t have the tenacity needed to be a cattle rancher. There are over 178 years of living in our documented history here in this great land (much more on the undocumented Native side) and I’d like to think that all of our ancestors would be proud of us and what we are doing…. I know I am! We look at our lives out here not so much as a daily existence, but as our way of helping to feed America in a way that we are proud of. We are proud supporters of the USA-Raised Beef program and I hope you are aware of how much this means to people like us. Our livelihood and the success of what we do every single year depends greatly on the American consumer. If we lower our standards and allow beef from other countries to take over, we will be no more. I fiercely support what we do and what my family has done for the past five generations. If we are fortunate enough our son will be able to carry on the sixth generation proudly in cattle ranching. As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to pay more attention to these things. Made in America is becoming something less and less and that truly concerns me. If we, as a people, don’t support each other and stand up for ourselves I fear that the biggest “gamble” of all will be in just continuing to do what we love to do. How can we ensure a royal flush in our hands? We can stand up for ourselves, we can demand the products we desire for ourselves and our families be made in the USA, and we can use our voices and other avenues to ensure that our vote counts for something.

Looking back at the history of our great nation I see something that has never occurred to me before. As folks back East loaded up their wagons and headed west they were “gambling” in one sense, but in their hearts, they were following their dreams. Their example can be followed by all of us. While some threw their hands up in the air and turned back, a lot didn’t. They trudged forward. They did this with a tenacity that was absolutely necessary in order to overcome the harsh conditions, loss, struggle, and other non-savory things they encountered. They persevered, and they are the reason most of us are where we are at today. When we read about this history we don’t read about the folks who gave up. We read about the ones that went all in, held their cards, and played out their hands. They most likely didn’t think about what they were doing like that, but I can see it so plainly. In order to persevere in ranching or in life in general you have to view each day like a hand you were dealt and play it to the best of your ability. Life to me is the game you are playing…you don’t just fold your cards and walk away. You may discard some cards that don’t fit, you may have to bluff a little in times of uncertainty, and in some things, you won’t always be the winner. However, if you quit playing the game you will never come out on top. That to me is how ranching compares to gambling and that’s why I already consider myself a bit of a “gambler” whether I want to be or not. When push comes to shove when defending our way of life, you’d better believe that I’m one to raise whether I’ve got an ace in the hole or not. I know that what I love is worth “gambling” for no matter what!

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