Ranchers and Livestock: A Complex Relationship

17 May

As I travel and talk to the general public, I find that a grand majority of them, from omnivore to vegan, are concerned about the welfare of livestock. They care deeply about the way livestock are treated and they are appalled by the videos of abuse that are put out by various animal rights groups. They like to tell me about their dog, cat, or maybe even their horse and how they couldn’t bear the thought of those animals being eaten.They wonder how ranchers feel about these animals and their welfare. Do we really care?

This is always a difficult discussion to have with folks since the relationship a rancher has to his livestock is very complex and most of the public has little experience with animals to relate to a rancher. In addition, the videos they see and stories they hear are not an accurate representation of the industry. So what I typically do is tell my story and what livestock have meant to me.

For me, caring for livestock was never a question. It was all that I’ve ever known. One of my first clear memories is helping my mother pull lambs at 2 AM when I was three or four. I started showing lambs at four with my ewe lamb named Pirate, and I showed my first market lamb at six. I got my first pony about the same age and a horse soon after. We’ve always had cattle and I was literally raised in a barn (a sale barn to be exact). From that age, I had chores and wasn’t allowed to have dinner until my animals had been fed.

Pirate and I at my first show

In my house, we raised our own meat. So from a young age, I was feeding the animals that would end up on the dinner table. It was just normal. All the animals were cared for and treated with respect no matter their end point. Plus, who wants to eat something that has been mistreated?

Most of what I read on this topic from agriculture folks goes into the time taken caring for the health and welfare of livestock, the scientific reasons that we use one system over another or the calling that ranchers feel in their hearts to take care of livestock. These are all true and I could give you hundreds of stories about the joys of saving animals on the verge of death, the stress of always worrying about their well being and the heart break of seeing them go. But I think what exemplifies the story of a rancher’s relationship with an animal, is the story of my Dad and Blackstrap.

An old cowboy once told me that cowboys get one good horse, one good dog, and one good woman in their lives (if they are lucky). Snapper was Dad’s dog. My mother is the woman. Blackstrap was his horse.

Snapper, Dad’s dog and my guardian

Dad got Blackstrap when he was twelve and they grew up together. Blackstrap was a big, stout Quarterhorse gelding that was basically jet black. Dad raised him and broke him to be a cow horse.  I heard stories about the things this horse did from the time I could walk. I even rode Blackstrap with Dad before I could walk. Not that he was without his faults, but Dad seemed to love him even more for those. Dad rode other horses later, but they were always compared to Blackstrap and none of them could ever measure up.

When I was about six, Blackstrap developed colic while on some spring pasture. After trying all he could, Dad realized Blackstrap was going to die. My father is a practical man. He knew dying of colic wasn’t going to be pleasant, so Blackstrap needed to be euthanized. If there is one thing Dad can’t stand, it is to watch an animal suffer. So we loaded Blackstrap up and took him to the horse slaughter plant nearby (this being 1992 and horse slaughter still being legal). I can still vividly remember Dad walking him across the scales and up to the floor himself. It was the first time I saw him cry.

At six, I knew Blackstrap was going to be put down but not that we were at a slaughter plant. Once I grew up and figured it out, I asked Dad, why take him there? His response has always stuck with me. He said that Blackstrap was always a horse with a purpose. Those folks would do the most humane and professional job euthanizing him, and Blackstrap would still have a purpose.

I guess the whole discussion comes down to your belief system. I believe cattle were put on this earth for us to use and cowboys were put on this earth to take care of the cows. Thus, we tend to our animals using the best animal husbandry we can.  We know their overall purpose is to feed people, but they aren’t treated like hamburger on a day-to-day basis. It is this overall purpose that drives us to take care of them.

There is pride and honor in caring for animals that will feed hungry people. It’s a calling and one that ranchers take seriously. It is a purpose that drives us through days of mud and blood, rain and snow, sweat and tears. The relationship and obligation that a rancher feels for his animals is one that cannot be expressed, it must be felt. It’s something that can only be seen in the lines and wrinkles of a rancher’s face.

Dad thought I should move away from agriculture and be an engineer. For a while I tried, but it never felt like my purpose in life. I believe my purpose is to help share with the public that ranchers can and do care about livestock all the way from conception to consumption. Pasture to the plate, these animals mean the world to ranchers.


Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


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7 responses to “Ranchers and Livestock: A Complex Relationship

  1. Angelique

    May 17, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Agreed that there are many, many ranchers like you who genuinely care for their animals. However, cattle ranching is the only part of conventional livestock production that gives anything like a decent life to animals. The vast majority of pigs and chickens raised for meat in the US (not to mention the cows and chickens used for dairy and eggs) are raised by corporate farms or contract farms where the link between farmer and animal has been all but severed. So, unfortunately, I’d have to say that your comment “the videos they see and stories they hear are not an accurate representation of the industry” is false. They are an accurate representation of conventional confinement livestock production, which is where most of our meat comes from.

    • ruminationsfromtheroad

      May 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      I respect your opinion, but I must humbly disagree that open pasture grazing (to which I believe you are referring) is the only production system that “gives anything like a decent life to animals”. From reading about you and your blog, I see that you show a great interest in agriculture, animal welfare and the environment. For that I commend you. But I also see that with your background, it is hard to relate a producer’s feelings or agricultural systems to you because you have little personal experience with food animal production with which to relate.
      The point of this blog is to show folks that a “factory farm” as portrayed in the media is really people like me that work and care every day. Simply put, you can’t make a broad stroke characterization of an industry through videos that are made with the agenda of destroying said industry. What I am trying to do is to shed light on the actual people in the industry and show what it is like to be in agriculture. This rings true whether you are a rancher, dairyman, pork or chicken producer and no matter what production system you are in. Thankfully for people of your opinion, there are products available that are third party verified for animal welfare practices. So you have some meat eating options that might fit your views.
      I haven’t gotten around to explaining different confinement practices and their benefits to animal welfare, but I will. Until then, you can find videos of Murphy Brown’s pork production system here and views from a city girl turned cattle feeder here. Thanks for your comment, hope you keep reading.

    • Jonathan Coleman

      May 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      The real problem is that people such as your self do not realize how many farmers and ranchers actually do care about their animals. So many people only beleive that there are two sides of farming/ranching. One is large scale production farm and the other is Joel Salatin and the like. The absolute truth is that ranchers are the ones that need to be praised not crucified. You see so many videos but if you notice they are the all the same videos just from different cuts. I remember a down holstein cow video from the late 90’s. I have seen that same video so many times. Where is the video showing a rancher caring for his animals in the cold and rain and muck outside? Where is the video that shows an organic cow that has been “wormed” with diatemaceous earth that is so malnurished from worms that the calf can barely walk? I have seen that first hand.
      If the general population wants to change farming practices we have to praise our ranchers and farmers that do a good job. Not praise only the ones that are or claim to be organic. We need to stop placing all ranchers in the same catagory as a large scale production farm. That is what needs to be done.

      • Angelique

        May 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm

        Jonathan, your comment confuses me. In your second to last sentence you state “stop placing ranchers in the same category as a large scale production farm.” I agree, for the most part. Ranchers do not take part in the egregious confinement practices used on most (not all) conventional pig, chicken, and dairy cattle farms. Ranching has no equivalent of battery cages for chickens, or gestations stalls for pigs. For more on my viewpoint on farm animal welfare, I encourage you to visit my blog at

    • Jonathan Coleman

      May 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      Angelique, I’m not sure what the confusion is but my simple point is that we need stop demonizing everyone that is not like what you prefer. I do not agree in any way with caged chickens and I do not purchase chicken from the store. I grow my own. I will gladly give an antibiotic only if it is needed and I prefer not to give hormones because I do not want to pay for it. You would be surprised how many actual farmers/ranchers share that same practice with much of their livestock.

      My point is so many people only see the bad. Only hear the bad. Where is the good. I have read your blog and I do not see where you have congratulated a farmer for his/her fine work. Or completed a bio on a farmer to see what his/her veiwpoints are. I only see farmers getting a bad reputation because they are often placed in the same catagory as a large scale production farm. One does not have to be organic to treat their animals with respect, have their own health and the consumers health in mind, and produce a high quality product.

      In closing, I would like to see and hear about those good farmers and ranchers. Not just the same ol Joel Salatin story ( Which by the way his animals are given antibiotics when needed, I know this first hand) or the highly opinionated food documantaries that only give just enough information not all of it.

      I enjoy your blog and also follow

      Jonathan Coleman

  2. Azure James

    May 18, 2012 at 3:12 am

    Great job!

  3. Bobbi

    May 22, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    First of all, I would like to applaud you for your patients…it is incredibly hard to have people condem and critisize your way of life and still be able to maintain a level head. It is easy for people on the outside to look in and judge us (people in the livestock industry) because they have never walked a day in our shoes. They have never helped to bring a calf into this world, or giggled while the show heifers followed them along fence for the feed bucket. No words can ever make them understand the bond one feels towards the livestock he or she has raised. And they will NEVER know what it feels like to walk your favorite show steer on the trailer to go to “hamburger heaven.” It is a way of life that is unlike any other. It is rewarding and humbling, and it is the best kind.


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