Being a modern cowman has its challenges. The realm of ranching is constantly changing with an increase in demand for grass-fed beef, conservation efforts sweeping across public lands, and an introduction of innovative tracking methods. Ranchers are left to decide the best management practices for their herd and their land.
The USDA categorizes beef into five yield grades and eight quality grades based on muscle-to-fat ratios, bone-to-meat ratios, and even coat coloration. Although cattle tend to fatten up faster in a feedyard and therefore go to market quicker, ranchers debate how much time (if any) animals need in the pasture before heading to the lot. The breakdown results in discussing the quality of meat and marbling. Profits can come in faster by turning over cattle regularly at market after keeping them in feedlots. Letting the herd out to pasture can be pricier: More land and time are needed, but having cattle out for longer can result in leaner meat with more flavor. Some ranchers have their preferred market weight and pasture-to-feedlot timeline, knowing what that will bring in at auction.
Branding is often associated with the old American West, but the technique is still a popular way for ranchers to identify their cattle, especially when they are grazing on public lands owned or managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Another popular and even more widely used identification method is ear tagging. By tagging each cow or steer in a herd, ranchers can monitor and track animals individually during calving season, for sickness, or for rotational grazing. With the introduction of RFID technology, ear tags have also taken on more significance for ranchers. The quick scanning methods allow ranchers to identify animals and pull up records more quickly.
Another challenge ranchers face is the changing landscape of land ownership and management. The Bureau of Land Management owns more than half the land across the West. To manage the land, the BLM administers grazing permits to ranchers, who work the nearly 155 million acres by running cattle. The number of allotments and acreage has decreased by 50 percent over the past 60 years, and some permits are tied to ownership of nearby property. With strict rules and regulations, not to mention associated fees, these permits can lead to higher costs. Also, because the land is public, ranchers risk finding unexpected travelers and tourists to the areas on their property.
Despite the differences of opinion or practice, ranchers ultimately must decide what is best for his or her herd and business model. With changes in demand, technology, and land management, modern cow men find themselves not only ranching, but also working to protect the cowboy way of life.