Public interest in the 6-ft. snowstorm that hit Southeast Colorado has melted away with the coming of warmer temps, but the difficulties for area ranchers in many cases are just beginning. The calving stories are almost too horrific to recount -- abortions, weak calves, older cows calving early and/or not producing milk, and poor calving percentages. I recently talked to a cattleman who said he'd consider a 50% calf crop at this point a minor victory.
This rancher had been planning to background last year's calves through the winter. Instead, he sent what calves he could gather to town in early January in an attempt to preserve his limited feed resources for his cowherd.
He confided that, like so many other cattlemen, this was a storm he wouldn't be able to ride out. He was making plans to capture whatever equity he had left, and was plotting a direction for his family in the next stage of their lives.
Despite the fact he was wrestling with feelings of failure, regret and the repugnant prospect of moving into town to get a job once the last of the cows and land were sold, he still took pride in the fact his calves had topped that early January market. It was a validation of sorts that, despite the giant curveball thrown his way, he'd fought the good fight.
I didn't have the words to make this cattlemen feel any better. I couldn't imagine the toll all those 18-hour days had taken on his psyche, all the stress, the frustration, and to have known the outcome was decided in the first few weeks. Still, he'd lived up to the code. His thoughts through it all had only been on the welfare of his cattle and his family.
As our conversation ran down, he looked at me. I thought I detected a tear in his eye and a slight quake in his voice, but I couldn't be sure because I was too busy trying to hide my own. He said, "I'll be able to provide for them (his family); I know that. I just can't shake the feeling that I'll always just be an unemployed rancher. That was all that I ever wanted to be."
I understood what he was saying. Like so many other times, I realized how fortunate I was to live this dream. It also made me understand just how dependent we are on Mother Nature and the fragility of our livelihood.
That rancher may not have cows this time next year, but I hope he knows that in my eyes he'll always be a cattleman of the highest regard -- a cowboy with grit. There's no higher compliment.
-- Troy Marshall