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

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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

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