Lee Pitts: Where the cows aren’t
January 21, 2011
The manager of Australia’s largest cattle station thinks that someday ranchers will use the same type of drones that are conducting surveillance for our military in Afghanistan to check up on our cows. He thinks the cameras in unmanned small planes that our government also uses to spy on illegal immigrants along our border with Mexico will someday become so commonplace and cheap that a rancher can dial up a drone, print out a map and send his cowboys to where the cattle are hiding.
We’ve heard this kind of talk before. The Colorado Springs Gazette ran a story in 1885 that speculated that ranchers hoped to solve their roundup problems by employing a powerful telescope that could read brands from 150 miles away.
What I want to know is where was all this technology when I really needed it?
In high school I worked on a 100,000 acre ranch. Well, that’s not exactly right. On a map it was only a couple thousand acres but if you flattened out all its mountains, ravines and ridges I’m sure it would have been bigger than Oprah and Rhode Island put together. As the crow flies it was only a mile from one end to the other but the crows couldn’t even fly there. Not without oxygen, anyway. I’ll never forget that one time on that ranch I went straight over a cliff in a pickup that was pulling a horse trailer and the crane that came to haul out what was left didn’t have enough cable to reach the wreckage. (I miraculously escaped with barely a scratch.)
It was easily the roughest ranch I’ve ever been on and if it hadn’t been for the oil wells on the place it wouldn’t have made much of a cattle ranch at all. At first glance there never appeared to be any cows on the place but that was because they were all hiding in the brush. When four of us kids, who thought we were cowboys, went to gather the cows they proved harder to find than a defense attorney in heaven. We could have used an eye in the sky but we were the only drones on the place.
The problem was you had to ride the ridges and if you spotted a cow half way down the ridge she dared you to come and get her. Invariably there’d be only one cow. It was like one old cowboy said, “There’d be one or two in a bunch and some bunches ain’t got any.” If you did manage to find a cow the wild things were as approachable as a super model. After you kicked the cow off the mountain you had to sweet talk your horse into climbing back up and it was so steep that you rode with your feet out of the stirrups so you could jump off more easily when your horse fell over a cliff. I assure you that I am aware of the Texas school of thought that says, “anything worth roping is worth keeping,” but if you tied hard and fast to the horn in those hills you might follow whatever you roped to your death. That’s why I’m a dally man.
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We tried everything to gather those cattle. We used a dog but it was such a hard job he committed suicide by running under the tires of the hay truck rather than run any more ridges. We tried trapping, bribing and even burning those mossy horns off the mountain. It would have been so much easier if we could’ve just called tech support back at headquarters, had some teenage computer genius consult his computer and tell us where the cows were. That way if we showed up at the corrals with the four of us each pushing only one cow apiece, like I remember happening, we would have had a good excuse when the foreman asked in a smart-aleck manner, “Did you think the cows were just going to follow you in?”
In reply we could have said it was “computer error.”
Alas, I don’t think the time will come during my lifetime when we’ll use drones to gather cattle because on far too many western ranches the information superhighway is still a narrow cow trail with a mountain on one side and a 300 foot fall to your death on the other. You’re still going to have to “back-up” your computer with a crazy cowboy mounted on one courageous caballo.