Cowboys -- the real kind -- are a vanishing breed

The number of urban cowboys and cowgirls may be multiplying like mad, but times are tough for the genuine article. The adverse economics of the cattle business is forcing many of the nation's remaining cowhands into other occupations.Throughout much of the Rocky Mountains , the lure of high wages for working on oil rigs or in coal and hard-rock mines is siphoning off former ranch hands, including many of the younger members of ranch families.

"There's fewer and fewer cowboys all the time, but there's still some real good ones left and people are real proud of them," drawls Ellis Freeny of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association.

In Wyoming -- the Cowboy State -- agriculture officials say the number of hired hands working the ranches there has declined by one-third -- from 6,000 to 4,000 -- in the last five years.

There are two factors behind this decline, explains Bob Bud of the Wyoming Stockgrower's Association. One is competition with oil fields and mines. "there is no way we can pay $9, $10, even $14 an hour like they do at an oil rig or a mine," he says. Typical pay for an unmarried hired hand on a Wyoming ranch is $500 to $550 a month, plus room and board.

The second factor is the poor economics of the cattle business lately. Ranchers have made money on their beef only one year in the last seven. "In the last five years, 1,300 ranchers have gone out of business here as well," says Mr. Bud. The remaining stockmen have cut down their herds and are trying to get along with only family help.

The picture is similar in Colorado. "I don't have any statistics, but I know we're losin' a lot of people in the western part of the state. Not only experienced hands, but also young people from the ranches. Right now, ranching is hardly a paying proposition.So, even if they want to, it doesn't balance out to stay," reports Hugh Halleck of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

In Montana, the major threat to ranchers is the severe drought in the eastern part of the state. In New Mexico, "Ranchers can't pay hands enough to live on," asserts Denny Gentry of the New Mexico Cattlegrower's Association.

But the cowboy image still packs considerable appeal. "Oh, there are plenty of people who come here, looking for a job as a cowboy. But good hands, people with skill and heart, are hard to come by and even harder to keep," Bud reports.

In Texas "its become very difficult to get qualified help in the last few years," agrees Steve Mundy of the Texas Cattle Raiser's Association. "As the state has become increasingly urbanized, there are fewer and fewer people with the necessary skills. Also, the average age of the ranchers is increasing and the number of ranch-raised kids is drying up," he adds.

In both Texas and Oklahoma, states that are considerably further down the road of industrialization than is Wyoming, most ranchers raise cattle only part-time. They do this in addition to a part- or full-time job.

"When people think of Texas, they think of vast herds of cattle. But the average size of a cow herd here now is less than 50 head," Mr. Mundy observes.

These weekend ranchers are also called "windshield cowboys" because they use sack feed instead of graze and have trained their cattle to come at the sound of an auto horn.Another strategy they have used to cut down on their labor requirements is "cross fencing" -- confining the cattle in smaller pastures so it isn't difficult to round them up.

Texas and Oklahoma cattlemen also report that people are turning increasingly to an old practice called neighboring: Neighbors arrange their schedules so that they can help each other with labor-intensive tasks like roundups.

"Raising cattle and cowboying is a way of life -- one that some people love very much," Mr. Freeny explains. As a result, the tough economic times that are forcing ranchers, particularly younger ones, into other occupations has resulted "in more ill-feelings and resentment than I've ever seen before," he says.

In the next 10-to-20 years there are going to be "big changes" in ranching in the US, "we just don't know what it's gonna be like," says Mr. Halleck sadly.

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