Photos by Carli Wentworth
The sun illuminates the morning sky as he saddles up and heads down that lonesome, dusty trail. It’s a full day of herding cattle and mending fences; working with his hands is all he has ever known.
This is the cowboy life we have come to know from a thousand old John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies.
But that lifestyle is as out-of-date as the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa.
The cowboy of 2012 is about technology, genetics and breeding the best stock.
“We all try to hang on to the nostalgic past,” said Kevin Hafner, vice president of operations for Express Ranches. “But the fact is, time and technology have allowed our industry to grow, and we now embrace technology to produce the quality product our discriminating public demands.”
In a few short years, Express Ranches have grown into the largest seedstock producers in the country. “Seedstock” is a term generally referred to as the breeding of animals to produce top-quality beef.
“Genetics is the lifeblood of our operation,” Hafner said. “We rely on every tool available to help us provide a quality, predictable product that will add value to our customer’s bottom line. When you consider the unbelievable technology available to us, you might say we are ‘high-tech rednecks,’” he laughs.
The lifeblood of the organization, Hafner says, is the dedicated and loyal ranch employees.
“It takes a lot of man-hours to produce our product. The manual labor, not to mention the paper trail, is very demanding. The days of #2 pencils and Big Chief tablets are a thing of the past. Words like ‘network’ and ‘web-based data’ are something we have had to embrace to allow advancement in our field. Never did I think that my day-to-day chores would include email and a hard drive,” he says.
A typical day at the ranch is anything but typical.
“I chuckle when asked that question,” Hafner laughs. “We have to wear so many different hats. I might be meeting with clients in another state one day, then home the next day fixing equipment or hauling hay. We are blessed to have many valuable people here at Express. We have been tasked to look after these animals and this land, and we do not take that task lightly.”
While technology drives today’s cattle business, the moral lessons and the cowboy way of life are still deeply rooted in the industry.
“The old Lonesome Dove days are gone,” Hafner says. “Our forefathers braved blizzards and dust bowls with nothing but grit and pure fortitude to keep them motivated. Times have changed, but some things haven’t.
“Few people have had the opportunity to witness the newborn calf as it wobbles to take its first steps, or stayed up all night with the half-frozen calf making sure it has a fair chance to survive. These are only a few of the perks of the job, and we are blessed to work in an industry where contracts are still sealed with a handshake,” he says.