Jake Betts looked every bit a cowboy as he tugged the reins of a horse named Leroy and jangled up a ridge.
He wore Levi’s, wrapped with leather chaps. Cowboy boots with spurs. Rope coiled off the side of his saddle. Cattle in the distance, almost 1,100 head to be driven on this day earlier this week.
And all went well until Leroy bucked and Betts fell backward onto some rocks. The crew laughed for the rest of the day as the aching cattleman winced watching cows march into tractor trailers.
“I’ll be fine if I can just make it through the shipping season,” Betts said.
It’s that time of year — late July, the shipping season — when the Flint Hills cowboys saddle up.
Meet the modern-day wrangler: Betts and 10 other cowboys and cowgirls commenced this roundup at the first break of light.
The bovines they corral are speckled across a vast, spectacular stage. For the last four months, the cows have munched on a thick carpet of native bluestem grasses.
And in keeping with Old West tradition, they’re rounded up by men, women and children on horseback, not in the four-wheelers or pickups that many ranchers favor.
“For 50 years — since about 1890, actually — we’ve been talking about the disappearing cowboy,” said James F. Hoy, director of Emporia State University’s Center for Great Plains Studies and an author of books on Kansas history.
“But if you get off the interstate a ways, cowboys are still out there. They don’t carry a pistol anymore in their holster. Now it’s a cellphone.”
A cellphone and intricate spreadsheets help Cliff Cole manage the ranching operations here, and they’re extensive: A half-dozen caretakers reside on 80,000 acres owned by West Bottoms businessman Bill Haw, who with a Texas partner also owns the cattle — all 40,000 head.
For Haws’ “contract cowboys,” the July roundup largely is a family affair. Three generations of the Nelson family, for example, have been herding pretty much the same way, on horseback, for decades.
Holton Nelson, 15, has been helping drive Flint Hills cattle since he was 4.
Older brother Nate has taken college courses on livestock raising and agribusiness. “But what we’re doing now,” said Nate Nelson, 25, “you’re not going to learn out of a book.”
Nate Nelson whooped, whistled, slapped his thigh and the cows moseyed on when his horse Geronimo trotted up.
The Nelsons — Nate’s dad Shane is one of Haws’ caretakers of the land — have seen plenty of changes in the raising, feeding and shipping of beef stock. But the roundup remains an ancient art, a job that can’t be outsourced or, as most of these cowboys see it, carried out any other way.
By cowboys, that is, wearing long sleeves even in the heat, pointed boots rather than sneakers or work shoes, and jeans no other color than blue.
When not herding during the monthlong shipping season, the cowboys and caretakers brand the livestock, administer vaccines and fix fences year-round.
Few get rich doing it.
“This lifestyle is the opposite of prosperity,” said operations manager Cole.
Many of those who show for the roundup aren’t getting paid, per se. They’re neighbors and relatives willing to help so long as the favor is someday returned.
Still, the intangible rewards to them are priceless.
Their workspace extends to distant horizons. And driving all that cattle is a midsummer sight to behold, performed on slopes so remote, few human eyes but for the cowboys’ will view it.
Break of day
Jade Cole, 16, rose at 3:30 this morning to meet her uncle Cliff, the operations’ manager, at the edge of a dark dirt road. Sleeping truckers are parked nearby.
Other wranglers, including Betts and the Nelsons, arrive for the roundup, their pickups hauling trailers carrying horses.
Somewhere out in the hills are thousands of head of Mexican-born beef cattle, about a year old, unaware they soon will be herded into 18-wheelers for the third or fourth time in their lives, now destined for the feedlot.
But you can’t hear them. You can’t see them. The rising sun is just beginning to paint the sky azure.
A roundup requires daylight — the earlier, the better. In the heat of July, moving cows a few miles can stress them.
Every pound they shed in their procession to the pens is money lost by the cattleman.
A good cowboy treats the moving herd as precious cargo. “The calmer they are, the less shrinkage,” Cliff Cole said.
But too calm is a problem. A trained eye can spot a droopy, sluggish steer from 100 yards out. That animal will be pulled from the procession and marked, so the feedlot knows to segregate it in case it’s sick.
Dawn reveals spots of livestock scattered across the Flint Hills vista. The riders take their places. Their horses commence an easy trot, knowing full well how this is done:
Approach a cow. It will move.
Each cowboy has a signature command to get wayward cattle to join the parade. None resists.
“That’s their herd mentality,” says Nate Nelson. “You get into their little bubbles of safety and they’ll start moving, following each other. It’s like someone getting into your face. It’s uncomfortable for them.”
The reflex dates back forever. A cow all by itself is a slow target for predators; they’ve learned there is safety in numbers. Thus they move as one.
Even when heading off to slaughter.
That’s Ryan Gasche directing traffic. “Ryan’s a yelper,” Betts acknowledges.
This roundup is complicated by a breeze. Cattle tend to face the wind, and today they are being guided in another direction.
At 7 a.m. the horses pick up the pace. After a mile-long march, the herd flows shoulder-to-shoulder to the crest of a hill and then breaks into a jog, as if the pens by the side of a road are just where these cows desire to be.
Gates swing open and closed.
Gene Ernest backs his cattle truck to the far end of a fenced maze, where the cows will ascend a ramp and enter through a rear opening the width of a linen closet.
Before the beasts clamber up, Ernest arranges the interior passages of a semi-trailer with sides resembling giant cheese graters. He slides back corrugated ramps, directing some cattle upstairs and others downstairs.
Sometimes he’ll be subjected to a “hamburger attack,” when an unruly bunch of bovines pins him behind a swinging door or against the trailer wall.
The truckers carry their own electrified cattle prods, or “hot shots,” to keep the procession from the pens moving in the same direction. A single person standing in the wrong place, even without a prod, can spook cattle and reroute dozens of them at once.
Pounding into the trailer, 26 cows fill the top deck of Ernest’s trailer, 26 share the bottom deck and 20 occupy other compartments.
Ernest jokes with the cowboys, then climbs into his rig, where his herding dog Skeeter awaits. They’ll haul the bawling cargo 50 miles to a Potwin, Kan., feedlot, then head back for more.
“I’m 51 and been doing this since I was 18,” he says before leaving. “It’s the camaraderie I like. That keeps everything going.”
Where these cattle were going, the feedlot, they’ll enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet from troughs. This permits a beef cow to bulge from 620 pounds to 1,200 in about 30 weeks.
Then it’s on to an Amarillo, Texas, slaughterhouse.
These cowboys and cowgirls like what they do, though they don’t much like talking about it with outsiders.
Especially not to city folk whose grasp of the beef business is limited to the eating part.
“We don’t like to go to town more than we have to,” said Cliff Cole, 54. “Hate to say it this way, but we don’t really want to be in close proximity to people.”
Said landowner Haw:
“You’ve heard, ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys?’ They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone even with someone they love?
“That’s Willie Nelson singing about these guys.”
Cowboy Gasche, the yelper, recalled a recent getaway to Kansas City with his wife. They arrived on a Friday and aimed to spend the weekend shopping and checking out a Royals game.
By Saturday morning, Gasche had endured the city long enough. “We left at 9 a.m.” and missed the game, he said.
Some of the workers of the Flint Hills ranches boast of understanding cows better than people.
At an earlier roundup, caretaker Shane Nelson demonstrated.
He climbed behind the wheel of a Ford F-350 and headed to Lincoln Pasture, one of 14 pastures that he manages.
“You have to get them to know who you are,” he said.
He stopped the pickup, climbed out onto the bed and fired up a generator. An auger spilled over the side of the truck a meal of high-protein pellets roughly the size of wine corks.
Returning to the cab, Shane Nelson crept the truck forward and started honking. The cows took notice.
The pellets fell and cattle by the hundreds jogged toward Shane Nelson, who kept honking and circling.
He at this moment was their ice-cream man.
“When we ship these guys tomorrow, they’ll follow this truck right out of here,” he said. “Yeah, a little like the Pied Piper.”
Silly cows. If they knew the cowboys better, they’d know this one loves ribeye steak.