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The Tradition Continues

Cowboy Herding Cows
Getty Images/Ingram Publishing | Ingram Publishing

The livestock business has changed over the years in many ways. From cattle breeds to feeding methods, vaccinations to handling practices, in the past 50 years new ideas and methods have brought many gains to the industry. With those gains though, there have been some changes that are bittersweet.

One of the major changes is the transportation of cattle and sheep. In 1963, most folks had a stock rack in their pickup, some had small bumper pull trailers, and bobtail trucks were very common. Where roads were bad or non existent, livestock were taken to market or a shipping point under their own power.

With the improvement to roads and the time saved shipping by truck, ranches started moving toward the more modern method in the 1960s when the first big trucks were introduced to the Northern Plains. In 1963, the big rigs were 39 to 42 feet long with a straight trailer that could be double decked for calves and triple decked for sheep. The whole rig was usually 45-50 feet long, bumper to bumper and the weight limit was 40,000 pounds. It was in that same era that the first cattle pot or “possum belly” semi trailer was introduced but was very rare.



In 2013, livestock transport is done on a huge scale. Many gooseneck livestock trailers can easily haul 15 head of mature cows, pulled by pickups with more horsepower under the hood than the semi trucks had in the beginning. Semi tractor/trailer rigs have steadily gotten bigger with the addition of axles on the “pots” to disperse the weight. The rig of this day and age is about 75 feet long, bumper to bumper, with the “pot” at least 53 feet long with three to five axles. Depending on the type of cattle, 57,000-60,000 pounds can be loaded on to the triple axle rig.

In the ’60s, the good roads weren’t everywhere though, some still aren’t, and traditions hang on pretty tough in the ranching country. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, many head of livestock were still driven to shipping points or sale barns for marketing. Whether hauled from there in semis or on the train, the stock had walked there on their own. If handled quietly and allowed to walk at a reasonable pace, shrinkage was minimized and the stock would arrive in very good weighup condition.



The development of the outer edges of communities slowly started narrowing the corridors where stock could be driven. Housing developments and golf courses cropped up and the occupants of both entities proved to be quite averse to a big string of cattle or sheep traipsing across the premises.

“The little acreages, even around the small towns, and too many fences pretty well ended the trailing of cattle to the sale barn in our area,” said Brad Otte of Martin Livestock, Martin, S.D. “We have a golf course near the sale barn and they sure get upset if even one old cow goes out on it. Trying to trail cattle past that would be pretty hard.”

Similar problems were mentioned by salebarn owners and managers in Miles City, Mont., Lemmon, S.D., Belle Fourche, S.D., Valentine, Neb., and points in between. In some areas, one ranch might trail a few in once in a while, but it’s a rare thing and not an annual event.

The last big drive in to Ft. Pierre Livestock was in 1995, according to Willy Cowan. “We drove 1800 head of bred heifers and later, 2400 steers right through Ft. Pierre, across the Bad River Bridge and across the railroad tracks to the sale yards.” The Dowling yearlings were summered on the Tribal Ranch about 18 miles from Ft. Pierre.

Cowan stated, “They drove good. They’d been driven to the Tribal Ranch from Draper in the spring, so they were broke pretty good. We had a good crew who knew how to handle cattle too.”

Recalling that last big drive, Cowan said that about midnight the night before the drive, his wife had asked him what would happen if the train came through when they got into town. He assured her that that wouldn’t happen. “We were right down in town when sure enough, here it came! Dennis Hanson went and got it stopped somehow and we made it into the yards without a wreck. I don’t know how he did it but it’s sure a good thing he did!”

Cowan said that it wouldn’t be possible to do it now. The development of the country west of Ft. Pierre and the increased traffic would make it impossible to get through.

The Faith, South Dakota salebarn still has people who trail into the yards as there is fairly good access along a section line. Scott Vance said “My Dad, Gary Vance, always trails yearlings in. It’s about nine miles. Others who do are Gary Drum and some others who bring bred cows in for the spring sales. Tom Mason used to until about three years ago when a car nearly killed someone. Tom’s gone now, but he did it for a lot of years, as did Irving Jordan.”

Crossing the highway enroute to the yards is always a tedious proposition, as Mason’s experience proved. “People just don’t understand cattle and we’ve had some pretty close calls,” said Vance.

Harrison, Neb., on the other hand, is still quite livestock friendly. Though the sale barn closed down the fall of 2012. many still trail their cattle in to weigh them and ship them out of Harrison.

Andy Federle, whose family ran the salebarn from the time it was built in 1947, said that most outfits trailed in because the stockyards were very accessible from any direction. “In 1991, the White River flood washed out the railroad tracks and they were never replaced. That railroad right of way works really good.”

“We just trail down Highway 20,” said Jim Bannan. “For over 40 years we’ve trailed them to Harrison. Most of the bunches were 200-250 head and it was a family deal. We’d have three to five people, including kids and grandkids, sometimes more. It’s about five or six miles from where the yearlings summer and we can usually have them there in about two hours.”

Bannan continued, “We use saddle horses, occasionally a four wheeler will be along. That four wheeler can be pretty handy to go ahead and handle traffic.”

“We’ve just always trailed cattle to town. We’ve been on the ranch for over 100 years, so it’s pretty traditional,” stated Bannan. He added “Ten years ago, I’m sure half or two thirds of the cattle in the area were trailed into Harrison.”

Others in the Harrison area that still trail in are the Zimmerman, Cross, Whitham, and Geiser ranches.

The Zimmermans have trailed in for most of 30 years, according to their daughter Wanda Cross. As long as the country around Harrison stays fairly open, the tradition should continue, though finding the help to do it is getting harder all the time.

Near St. Onge, S.D., the Ridley ranch has trailed their cattle to the salebarn for three generations. First Bat and Rosie and the kids, Andy and Wanda, then their families. The tradition will hopefully continue for more generations.

So, as the sleek gooseneck stock trailers and huge “bull racks” head down the highways, somewhere there will still be ranchers and cowboys trailing cattle to ship them. Modern and quick is good, but sometimes the old traditions just feel right, and an easy walk to town saves a lot of stress on the cattle. The added benefit is the enjoyment of doing a job with family and friends, just as they’ve done for generations, and that’s something that one cannot put a dollar value on.


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