Driving Cattle in the New West
Written by Jim van de Erve
The cattle drive. It's a part of the Old West. A bunch of hardened cowboys driving cattle over unfenced range, led by a stiff-jawed trail boss and followed by a hardtack cook in a chuck wagon.
Is it part of the New West? Has it been relegated to the theatre of City Slickers or is the trail drive still a part of day-to-day cattle business?
Ranchers still have to get cattle from point A to point B, from the home ranch to summer range and to market. But if you were to do a survey, you'll probably find that most ranches these days truck their cattle to summer range. It's easier than driving them with horses, they get it done more quickly, it's less labor-intensive, and the odds are less that they will lose cattle or have major incidents. The cattle don't lose weight. Mark it up to modern efficiency.
Some outfits still drive their cattle, however. The Nyhart Ranch in Twin Bridges, Montana, still does, and they think the older way is better. Brian Smith of that ranch contends that the cattle are healthier when they're driven, that it keeps them in better condition and they have fewer foot problems. They've never had problems with the cattle losing a significant amount of weight on the drive. He says they mother up better on the range when they're driven. And for a small ranch like them, it's much less expensive.
Plus, it's tradition. The Nyhart crew has been driving their cattle to range for over seventy years. They have one of the oldest leases in the Three Forks Range Association. It's 50 or 60 miles from their ranch ten miles south of Twin to the association's Cow Camp on the Upper Ruby. They've done the trip so often that both cowboys and the older cows know the way like the back of their hand (or hoof). That doesn't mean it's easy. It's serious business. Wrecks happen. But there's another tradition that the Nyhart crew abides by, and though they might not say it, another reason they trail their cattle.
They have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.