The Big Drive
Most modern cattlemen rely on fencelines and 18-wheelers to dictate the migration of their livestock. But some ranches still trail their large cow herds the old-fashioned way — with horses.
By Ross Hecox
Each fall, the T4 Ranch in New Mexico trails about 600 cow-calf pairs from the top of its Mesa Rica down to its corrals below, where the calves are weaned. The trip covers about 20 miles and includes a narrow, winding road that drops 1,000 feet off the mesa.
In Montana, the CA Ranch organizes two drives each year. It moves 2,000 head more than 40 miles, taking the cows and their young calves to mountain pasture in the spring and returning just the cows to the lowlands for winter. Both ranches rely on seasoned horseback cowboys who under-stand the art of directing large bovine masses to a specific destination. It’s a complex task, especially when calves are involved.
“The size of the calves will dictate the speed you’re going,” says Phil Bidegain, whose family owns and operates the T4. “The little ones are taking smaller steps, and they tend to fall into the drags. So you have to slow down and really keep an eye on the drags, make sure one of them doesn’t escape back to where he saw his mama last. Sometimes you have to stop and let them mate up again.
“The calves we move are older and ready to be weaned, so it’s not as difficult.”
The T4 trails half of its herd on the mesa to the corrals one day, weans the following day and returns the mama cows the third day. Then the same process is repeated for the remaining half.
It helps that most of the cows are familiar with the annual trip, but that doesn’t make it automatic, especially when navigating the steep, switchbacked road.
“Coming down, you have a couple of cowboys up front so everything doesn’t start rolling too fast,” Bide-gain says. “And you have guys on the sides keeping the cows on the road. Going up is more difficult than down. We take the cows in three or four groups up the road to the top. You don’t need anyone in front for that.”
Lyle Jordan has helped the CA trail its cows for 16 years. The entire herd moves together, covering the 40 miles in three days. The ranch owns two large pastures strategically placed along the trail for overnight stays. In the spring, the journey actually takes four days. After the second night, the cowboys let the cows and calves spend a day recuperating before covering the final, largely uphill leg of the drive.
“Six to eight guys can handle the job, and you earn your day’s wages,” Jordan says. “The trail isn’t open range like it used to be. There are a lot of people obstacles along the way.
“When we’re moving cows with their young calves, you’ve got to keep the pressure on from behind and, hopefully, everybody is paying attention. Those calves fall back to the drags, and you don’t want them to turn back.
“With that many cattle, if you don’t keep them poking along, they’ll wad up. Ideally, you keep the cattle strung out and flowing forward. If they turn back or stop, well, neither situation is fun to deal with.”
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