Modern cowboy Dana Kerns from Wyoming, US, talks rope skills, steaks and cattle drives (which you can sign up for).
Dana Kerns, 60, runs the Double Rafter cattle ranch in Wyoming, US, on a homestead his family has been looking after since 1887. He tells us about ropes, steaks and reincarnated Civil War generals
What does a modern cowboy typically do? The first thing you need is to have a passion for animals and the outdoors, because you’re going to be working in all kinds of weather. We’re in a mountain region so temperatures range from 30 below zero to 40 degrees above and you have to be willing to work seven days a week, even if it’s Christmas Day.
You offer paying guests to join you on cattle drives. How did that come about? To make a living in the cattle business is extremely difficult. The markets are volatile, and about 25 years ago we figured we had to find another source of revenue, so we started offering people the chance to join us on cattle drives to supplement the ranch income.
Why is the cattle business so difficult? Americans love beef! One of the reasons is because people so love working with animals and, as a result, about half the beef produced in the US is raised by people who have less than 50 head of cattle, which means they’re working another full-time job and the cattle are a hobby. Consequently, regardless of where the market is, those people don’t have to make a living off the cattle. The family rancher, like myself, with 400 cows is competing against those people, and so I have to make my living from selling beef and cattle drives.
Where do you take the herd on a cattle drive? The mountain grass we graze in the summer is on top of the Bighorn National Forest and my family started trailing our cattle to that grass before it became a National Forest in the 1890s. So we’ve been trailing our cattle up there ever since and without that summer grass we’re out of business, because you have nothing to feed them in the summertime.
To what extent is what you do now true to what would have been done 150 years ago? It’s very similar. We move the camp as needed, we sleep in two-man canvas tents, we have no electricity, no running water, we cook on hot coals and once we set off, these trips are go, rain or shine, often setting off before daylight at around 3am because the cattle don’t like moving when it’s hot. If it snows all day, you’re going to ride in it. Once you start the trip, there’s nothing stopping it, and that’s just how my forefathers would have done it.
What’s the best part of the day when you’re on a drive? I’m an early-morning person, so for me it’s sunrise. The day is crisp and nothing’s gone wrong yet. The scenery is beautiful; it’s all part of the life of a cowboy – and yet, of course, because we live in it all the time we tend to take it for granted. But guests do regularly say that this is the most beautiful scenery they’ve ever seen in their life.
Are the guests actually any help? People are a tremendous help in terms of spreading the message of what we do: there’s quite a movement here in the US to stop us from grazing public lands, so we’re under constant attack from environmentalists. When people come to spend a week with us they go away with an understanding of what we do and see that we care deeply about the animals and the grass and the environment.
What’s a typical meal on a cattle drive? Well, we have a chuck wagon and we feed people very well. We do great big barbecue ribs, steaks, the whole nine yards – it’s definitely not all beans and biscuits. It’s amazing what the cooks can do under very primitive conditions.
In the film City Slickers, Billy Crystal starts a stampede with his electric coffee grinder. What are some of the dumb things people have done on your cattle drives? Oh, all sorts – like people getting on their horse in the morning and going to ride off without untying it first. In fact, we give an award around the fire every night to whoever’s done the dumbest thing of the day and they get to carry a set of white saddle-bags the next day so that everyone knows they were the royal screw-up. We have a lot of fun with that.
What was your strangest day at work? I guess that was when we had a gentleman who came from the south and he was convinced he was a reincarnated Civil War general. He was sure that when he got on the horse it would all come back to him and he’d be able to ride. Of course it didn’t come back to him, and he was so discouraged that he went home after about three days.
Do guns still feature in the cowboy arsenal? Yes, several of my crew members pack a sidearm, and the main purpose is in case we have an animal that is so injured that it needs to be destroyed. We don’t want to have to ride seven hours back to camp and let the animal suffer for all that time, so that’s why we carry. What’s interesting is that if a horse breaks a leg, you have no option but to put them down because they will not heal. When a cow breaks a leg, nine times out of 10 they will heal if you just leave them alone. They’re a lot tougher than a horse and much better at fighting infection.
Are good rope skills still part of the cowboy life? Yes and no. We rope cattle to doctor them if we’re out on the hills, for example, so roping skills are definitely a plus, but I don’t think I’d necessarily hire someone just because they had roping skills. It’s a skill that you have to learn and is not something that’s easy to do. You can lose hands, you can lose fingers, and as a matter of fact I am on crutches for the next 10 weeks with a broken leg because of a fella that had a calf roped and his horse went crazy; I went running in to help and I ended up getting tangled up in the rope and was dragged about 25 yards.
Have you ever seen a film that you think truly captures the spirit of the cowboy life? One of my favourites is the John Wayne film The Cowboys, where he gets all the orphaned kids to take the herd north. The reason I like it is that when I was that age I was trailing cattle to the mountains, too. When I was 10 years old I was on a horse 10 or 12 hours a day, and I can definitely relate to those kids wanting to be considered a man.
Finally, Curly – the old cowboy in City Slickers – said that the meaning of life was ‘one thing’. Have you figured out what he meant? Yeah. To me, the one thing is being able to do what your passion is. In life, you will be happy and successful if you’re lucky enough to do whatever it is you’re passionate about. I feel very blessed that I am able to do that.
‘I don’t think I’d NECESSARILY hire SOMEONE just because they had ROPING skills. It’s a SKILL that you have to LEARN and is not something that’s EASY to do. You can LOSE hands, FINGERS...’
Dana Kerns, an early morning person, says one film that he feels captures the spirit of cowboy life is John Wayne’s The Cowboys