Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Becoming a Stockman

I’ve always considered being a stockman one of life’s highest callings. Somewhere over the years, I lost a wonderful statement on the profession by South African Dr. Jan Bonsma, still revered in animal husbandry circles as one of the most eloquent spokesmen of the profession. If I had that quote, I would print it here in Times New Roman, all caps, italics, and underlined.


Part One

Let’s call him Curt. A name befitting his personality. 

For this scion of a fourth generation ranching family delivered his statements brusquely and with an icy edge to each expression. These were uttered under a blond scowl frozen onto his forehead framing each terse and challenging response. In the hour we spent together, I never saw it relax.
I climbed into his pickup and he asked: “How long will this take?”
“Well, not long if I jump in m’ rental car and catch that early flight out of Denver,” I said, feigning amusement. “Let’s say as long as you like.” 
I’d spoken to this arrogant, abrasive cattleman before. Over the phone. Plus I’d heard him sound-off at the lectern of conferences and making pointed remarks from the floor. I determined not to be cowed. I knew he savored his reputation of being a no-nonsense maverick who didn’t brook fools. His former and disgruntled employees confirmed such. Humor, of little interest.
“First off, let’s get this straight,” he said as we drove past the corrals toward the pastures he called  “paddocks.” “This is not a ranch––”
“Right. It’s a ‘stock farm’,” I boldly interrupted, “as are most modern operations today. Not many true ranches left today, Curt.” Before he could agree or dispute my statement, I plunged ahead. “Just remnants of the old-timers, I expect. Lasater’s down in Matheson might qualify. Tom and I both agree, the term ‘ranch’ gets tacked on to some goofy––”
“You know Lasater?” Curt finally scowled my way. “How do you know Lasater?” he demanded, the notes of his tone clear, betraying the notion I had––by association with Tom Lasater, progenitor of the Beefmaster breed––risen above my station in life.  
“Yes, he took my wife and I on a tour there one Sunday afternoon. Went all over, saw––”
“Didja have an appointment?”
“No, just drove in and he said, ‘C’mon, I’ll show you around.’ ”
“Unbelievable. Tom Lasater?”
“Yep, very kind of him, taking this starry-eyed kid and his bride around. He showed us the bulls and fed cubes to one who would stick its head in the window. Came right up to the Wagoneer and asked for his treat. Never will forget it.”
Suddenly, he was competing with Tom Lasater, one of the legendary cattlemen of the 20th century, for my top ranking of influential American stockmen. “Right, Lasaster,” I continued. “Had a good conversation once with Farry Carpenter too. Toured Buddy Cobb’s operation one weekend,” I added. “Nice feature of this job.” Curt began reciting the details of his operation and philosophy.
“Make sure you get this part right, especially,” he said of his rotational program and philosophy. “Total intergration of grass management and stocking rates is a key here,” he went on for several minutes. Then, “You got all this?”
“I should. That’s why I tape it and take notes both, as best y’ can in a pickup.”
“I’ll need to see your piece before it goes to print.”
“Oh, yes. I always send a draft.” I took the perfunctory photos, so-so stuff shot at noon, said my good-byes, and headed off to the airport, relieved. 
And, as expected, my suggested article on Curt’s operation came back, bristling with additions and rewrites until it was no longer mine but rather an indictment of current industry practices and a sermon without my interpretations. Those he largely scratched out or rewrote at length full of irritable bombast and tactless dismissal of traditional breeds, practices, and lore.
I put the battered article aside for several months and let it stew along with my own annoyance. I finally suggested we run the darn thing as an op-ed piece “without photographs, of course. Or, Curt, you could, maybe should, put your views in an ad with before and after photos. Folks like to read opinions of ran––that is, stockmen, who are swimming upstream. Some might agree or admit you have a point. You could showcase the changes you’ve made.”
I never heard from Curt again. Years later, I understood he became infatuated with documentary filmmaking, thanks to a new lady in his life, sold his interest in the ranch––that is the stock farm––to a cousin, and moved to Central America. So much for strongly held views.

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