The Old West is gone but cowboys still ride the range and beef on the hoof still goes to market
W. O. MITCHELL
STARTLED, two crows lifted from the cottonwood bluff, flaming yellow against the foothills, wheeled high, their wing tips black fingers against the sky. Cawing they dropped behind the lift of the twin buttes, and still cawing rose against the harsh outline of the Rockies, cool blue in the hot, still afternoon. Now and again the foothills’ wind stirred through the high, tan grass. Wind whispering—crows cawing—Indian summer in “Cow Heaven.”
In the 80’s Southern Alberta was simply that, an ungrazed empire of grass and water, a wide, new country where “a man could hang his pants to a fence post, an’ find ’em there when he come back.” Healthy too, Old-Timers will tell you, where you’d have to kill aman to start a cemetery. This was the “plumb wideopen range” where cattle drifted from the Rockies into Saskatchewan, and in some bitter winters as far south as Montana. This was the country of the oldtime brands, the Circle, the WR, the Bar U, the Turkey Track, and the Three Walking Sticks.
“Cow Heaven” has changed now: there are farms and fences on the flats where cattle used to graze for summer feed; the ranches have withdrawn farther and farther into the foothills where frost makes farming perilous.
Throughout “Cow Heaven” there are approximately 300 large ranches. In the foothills some of these are: the Bar U, Flying E, the Walrond, the 44, the A7, the D, the R Bar, the 7U; farther east on the prairie lie the 1HL, the Bar X Bar, the Bar N Bar, and the Hat.
Sprawled over the foothill ranges sweeping higher and higher to meet the Rockies, lies the Anchor P or Rocking P, one of the larger ranches left in the West. This great ranch consists of approximately 25,000 acres of deeded land, 12,000 acres of leased land and forest reserves almost impossible to estimate. These reserves can best be described as running from the meeting of the Old Man and Livingstone rivers to the British Columbia border. The Anchor P is a company operating, in a sense, three ranches—the old TL Ranch on Willow Creek, the Bar S on Mosquito Creek, and the home Anchor P Ranch, where that brand originated.
Out on the Anchor P not so much has changed. The tan Buffalo grass on the ranges splashed with applegreen and the yellow of cottonwood, the far hills hazed lavender and russet with wild rose haws and buckbrush turning, the flat, clear lift of the Rockies pulled into sharp, wrinkled peaks, these have not changed. Here are such Old-Timers as Shorty Marino, and Clem Henson, a tall, lean Texan, one of the old trail herders who has punched cows on the Three Walking Sticks and the Turkey Track in Saskatchewan.
There are other boys, 25 in all, who take care of the branding, the haying, the roundup of steers in fall, the weaning, and the wintering of the cattle. Then, too, there is Moy, the home ranch cook, a most important member of the ranch personnel.
The shortage of manpower in this country, particularly of experienced hands whose training has taken a lifetime, is acute. Capable stockmen for the last few years have always been hard to get, and with the war the situation is even worse.
These men in their faded blue levis and highheeled boots, with their stained old Stetsons, and perhaps a silk kerchief around their necks, have ridden since boyhood—bareback at first; they’ve learned the proper way, “by failin’ off.” Dale, who breaks the horses for the Anchor P, will tell you he rides “by see an’ by feel.” He always keeps his eye on the horse’s head.
In the beef roundup, which began with the “cropping out” of a few fatter steers in July and ended about the middle of October, six of these men rode out 30 miles from the home ranch, into the Willow Creek area
where the summer grazing range held steers fattening for market. Here, as Rod Macleay, owner of the Anchor P, explained, were 600 three-year-old steers ready for market. Farther west were 600 two-yearolds that after fattening would be shipped the next fall.
Rod and his riders spread out to the farther reaches of the range up the sweeping hills, where the cattle had drifted through the summer grazing first around the creek and working up the hills in search of feed. Working in, the boys “threw down” the cattle toward the floor of the valley. Down the draws came the steers, following the line of least resistance, fat, grassfed whitefaces, “spooked out” of the scrub willow, streaming down the cattle trails worn in the tan hill sides—trails going down like thin, dark capillaries to meet the main artery threading along the valley floor. All day the men worked, whistling the cattle down, slowly, never running them, for every running steer drops dollars as he goes, in shrinkage. At 10 cents a pound on 600 steers such shrinkage runs into money, five per cent being a matter of four to five thousand dollars.
After the bulk of the steers had been rounded up the
boys were busy picking up strays that had been missed. By ones and twos and tens they came down; chunky, square-hipped Herefords predominating, with here and there a shaggy jet Galloway, all of them with briskets butter-fat from summer grazing. And as they came, the herd below grew, a great, shifting brown mass dotted with white faces, flowing lazily at its edges like some gargantuan amoeba, an uneasy one-celled animal caught in the foothills’ fold. Behind them the hill ridges were lit with unexpected sunshine; farther back a slightly threadbare carpet of dark pine crept up the mountainside to meet the clean piping of glacial snow that ran along the mountaintop.
With the strays “thrown down,” the trailing to the holdup pasture began. Two men, the drags, stayed behind the herd; on either side rode the swings; two leads went ahead. There were lead steers too, those range-wise animals who point up the rest of the herd.
A strangely muted procession is the trailing of steers for market; there are sounds: the hingelike creak of saddle leather, the steady “hish hish” of the long dry grass against the legs of the walking steers, now and then a long, low moo, the rude, lunging crackle of a stray off in the dead undergrowth to one side, the urgent whistle of the swings hurrying loitering steers along, here and there in the strung-out cattle Continued on page 63
Continued, from page 9
a cough, wheezing — almost polite.
At the end of about 10 miles the cattle are bunched in one corner of a field; spaced about the herd, the swings and drags and leads sit their horses, horses’ heads tossing impatiently at the flies. Shorty Marino, his bay’s neck made proud with a martingale, looks over the herd, rides in, and minutes later is following out a “poordoer” turning to right and left, its rump tossing as it trots. Clear of the herd, Shorty is met by one of the boys who escorts the steer to the gate and the field where it will be held. Shorty is in the herd again cutting out a two-year old that will have to be marketed next
fall. The next steer does not run; h'.s fore legs move stiffly; tiny ha/e been frozen; he is not a fat steer. Nor is the next one, running wich his mouth open. Last spring a mineral deficiency caused him to eat bones that littered the range. Now a bone in his throat forces him to hold his mouth open.
With the “poor-doers” and the twoyear-olds cut out, the balance of the herd take the trail again; at the end of it some are drooling long stringers of saliva; their mouths are open and their breathing comes harshly. They have walked slowly, but then they are fat steers ready for market.
From the day of their birth these animals have been under pasture; they are grass fed, grass fattened. They are ready for market without grain finishing. Here is one of the few range countries in the world that can boast of turning out choice, butter steers that have been grass fattened alone. These animals weigh from 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and will bring from $120 to $150 at prevailing market prices.
Many of the large ranches look upon grain finishing as a separate business, and the frosts back in the hills, making it difficult to raise grain, support them in their policy. As a result much of the finishing is done by feed yards farther east and south. Here one finds that mostly two-year-olds are marketed profitably. This is the cover crop country.
Most ranchers seem to be agreed that a farmer was responsible for the origin of the cover crop, that it began in the Claresholm district where strips of wheat were seeded in mid-August at right angles to the prevailing winds, the purpose being to keep the soil from drifting. A farmer with cattle to feed turned his cattle loose on the young wheat in spite of common opinion which said that the animals would bloat. They didn’t; they got fat at the rate of two and a half to three pounds a day. The objection was raised that animals fattened on such lush feed would shrink a great deal in shipping. They didn’t. Other people pointed out that the meat was a redder color than that of grainfed cattle. It was found, however, that one week of grain feeding at the end of the cover-crop period made it difficult to distinguish between cover crop and grain finished beef.
Rode As Slave Boy
It is a long call from cover crop to the early days when cattle roamed at will over two provinces and a state, when calves were never weaned and there was not even hay to supplement the winter feeding, when there was lots of sugar for pies for the boys, syrup for flapjacks, and a pot of coffee on the stove from breakfast till turning in. Those were the days of such men as Johnny Franklin, Lem Sexsmith, Senator Dan Riley, Jack Blake, and George Lane. They were the days of Nigger John Ware who learned to ride as a slave boy when falling off meant the bite of a black snake whip. They were the days when Senator Riley rode dispatches from Edmonton to the Battle river during the Riel Rebellion.
Senator Riley will tell you that the life of a rider was not an easy one; he has his own explanation for the fact that all the old cowboy songs were mournful. Drinking so much coffee, and jumping into a saddle before the food had a chance to become properly acquainted with their stomachs gave the cowboys indigestion.
Like his forerunners, the modern
cowboy still suffers from indigestion. In other respects he has changed. He is not the drifter that he was, hiking to town to shoot his summer wages in poker after the fall roundup is over. In the course of a year he may only leave the ranch once or twice for a week’s holidays, usually spent in Calgary. His life is a hard life and in 1943 he is a jack-of-all-trades — everything from blacksmith to cattle midwife.
In summer he trades his high heels for farm shoes and rides a mower or drives a push pole team. He has fences to ride. In winter, dressed in long woollen underwear, woollen shirt worn under buckskin or sheepskin jacket to break the wind and keep in body heat, perhaps with three pair of pants on and an old buffalo or coonskin coat, he rides out with the ache of a blizzard wind between his eyes—the more bitter the weather the greater the need for him out on the range. If he is Shorty Marino his great black mustache ices into two walrus tusk icicles.
Modern beef is pampered today. The modern animal must have hay in winter and the modern cowboy must see that he gets it. In the spring over “Cow Heaven,” high above the foothills, there is loud laughter, not when the chinook lets an arch in the foothills’ sky, and honeycombs the snow but on the wet, miserable, 20 below days at calving time. Nigger John Ware is laughing, and Buck Smith, and LaFrench. They laugh at the boy down below, carrying a vaccinating gun in his left side pocket and a bottle of milk for a weak, newborn calf in his right. He has a needle and thread in his vest pocket. He will use them for sutures on a cow that needs attention. They laugh louder still when they see the kitchen on the Anchor P, where Moy tries to get supper with eight calves in his way, and Stewart and Shorty rubbing them with hot blankets and sacks, or trying to get warm milk down their throats.
Men like Senator Riley, Lem Sexsmith, a year retired from the Bar U, Clem Henson of the Anchor P, all now in the Indian summer of their lives, can tell you what the old days of the great cattle roundups were like. They can tell you also about Tamoose, the “little - sized fella” that ran the MacLeod hotel in the 80’s.
This was the hotel where guests learned, from the regulations posted in their rooms, that they must take off their spurs on retiring. This too, was the hotel where it was imperative that guests rise at 6 a.m. in order that the sheets be used for tablecloths, where one shot through the door brought water, two, whisky, three, a deck of cards. Baths were furnished free down by the river; insect powder could be obtained along with the luxuries of soap and towel, at the bar. There was a private entrance for ladies—by ladder in the rear. No spitting was allowed on the ceiling; and people upstairs were asked to shoot up, those down, down.
Stockmen To The Last
When Old-Timers speak of the early days one realizes that these men are not old. They have seen much time; all the winters and summers are there on their faces, in the furrows, and the crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes. Long and lean, for the most part, they still have a lithe dignity that does not belong to usual old age. They do not retire as other men do; they are stockmen till they die.
Clem Henson, of the Anchor P, will
tell you he’s not old. Just back from the hospital in High River, Clem sits in the bunkhouse with rangy-looking hens pecking in the dirt before the open door. He holds his head high, with its shock of grey hair down over his forehead, and his voice is a soft Texas voice, with an echo of Will Rogers in its drawl.
“By Grannies ah ain’t old,” he’ll say. “My stomach’s old, that’s all—too plumb old to digest no more.”
And Clem is right; he rode fence all last summer; he was in on the branding and the calving as well. He helped with the haying, 2,500 tons of it pushpoled into great loaves dotting the land as far as one can see.
Clem says that today’s cattle have changed since the early days. They’re a better class of cattle, but not as heavy as when steers weighing 1,400 to j 1,600 pounds were marketed at from j four to five years old. “Our only j market in them days,” he says, “was the English market.” In those days it was not unusual for a steer to weigh a ton. Cattle ranged far in search of feed and water, wintering in the shelter of the foothills and drifting East for summer grazing. It was the rangier animal that survived. Such animals necessarily fattened slowly and required four to five years to become prime.
Water and feed have been put in easier reach of cattle today; springs have been boxed up, windmills erected, so that the farthest an animal has to go for water is one or two miles. The supplementing of winter feed with hay, the fencing off of choice fields for winter pasture, these have increased the quality of cattle and speeded up maturity.
Today there seems to be a return to heavier cattle. During depression years the bulk of marketed cattle was yearlings and two-year-olds weighing eight to 1,100 pounds. It was felt then that such weights were tenderest, and the cuts a more economical size. With the Army not concerned over unwieldy roasts the weight has risen, so that now beef marketed runs from 1,000 to 1,400 pounds. It is felt now, also, that at these higher weights, the optimum of flavor and tenderness has been reached.
For the 40-week period from January to October of this year there have been 110,961 inspected slaughterings, while in 1942 for the same period there were : 81,050, an approximate increase of 35%. ;
It is expected that there will be a ! larger supply of beef for market this year; feed has been good with the ! exception of cover crop and grain in the southeast section of Alberta. The Dominion Department of Agriculture estimates a 12% increase in cattle in western Canada over the 10-year average. Ranchers feel that any increase in meat will come from the cattle raised by farmers and small operators farther east; the war has not ! caused the larger grass ranchers to i increase their herds appreciably as the size of the herd is determined by the carrying capacity of the range, and ranches have always carried the i optimum number of cattle.
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It is Indian summer now in the foothills where the cottonwood is yellow touched up with high green, and the Rockies stand fiat and distant against the sky. In “Cow Heaven” now there are oiled highways, and fences: there are telephone poles that march along beside the spreading cover crops green as billiard table baize. The clear fall sky is deep-throated with bright Continued on page 67
Continued from page 65 yellow training planes that grow, circle, and dwindle. There are crows calling. In “Cow Heaven,” as in the early days, there is still the wildwine and bittersweet of Indian Summer.
It’s in the heart of Lem Sexsmith hoeing his strawberries, wearing highheeled boots as black as licorice; in the heart of Senator Dan Riley in his blue business suit, but wearing still an old red kerchief knotted at one side of his throat; and in the heart of Clem Henson drinking his twelve cups of coffee by noon, and pushing back on his head a crushed and stained old Stetson. Indian summer is there with its inexpressible nostalgia and out on the range the foothills’ wind stirs now and again, whispering carelessly through the high Buffalo grass.