For Karl Ramstetter, certain decisions are as black and white as one of his Herefords: When a neighbor is in need, he does whatever he can to set it right.
So when the fourth-generation Colorado rancher heard about a program that was collecting cattle and donating them to North and South Dakota ranchers who'd lost 300,000 cows during last winter's blizzards, he didn't hesitate to pitch in. It didn't matter that these neighbors were 1,000 miles away.
And Mr. Ramstetter is not alone. Bound by a lifestyle that brings hardship and bounty in equal measure, ranchers across America have responded to help their Dakota colleagues overcome their losses. So far, the relief effort - called One Good Cow - has spread to 18 states, and donations total more than 3,000 cows. Ranchers from as far away as Virginia have responded.
"This shows how much people in the cattle industry care about their neighbors," says Lisa Schmidt, the Whitehall, Mont., native who cofounded the program. "It shows that neighborliness goes beyond distance."
And while the One Good Cow drive asks ranchers simply to donate a cow due to calve in 1998, Ramstetter didn't stop there. As president of the Colorado Grange Association, he spread the program's message to the 80,000 grange members throughout Colorado.
The response has exceeded his expectations: Colorado ranchers have donated about 50 cows, and nearly $10,000 to assist families in the Dakotas. The cows are valued at $700 to $1,000 each.
"It's just unbelievable how many people are getting involved and giving cows," says Ramstetter. "It's always been the case that ranchers and farmers help each other out. But it's kind of mind-boggling to think that a rancher would give away a cow - that's really a chunk."
"Those that don't have a cow to spare are donating money," he adds. "They're just real touched by the whole thing."
Ranchers on the receiving end of the program are every bit as touched by the generous support. In Charlson, N.D., Carol Rolla's family just received 31 cows thanks to the relief effort. Last winter, the Rollas lost 48 cows during a frigid storm - nearly half their herd.
"The thought that a total stranger would care that much to want to help - it's just beyond your wildest dreams," says Mrs. Rolla "We thought we'd go belly up, and have to quit. But this is a chance where we can start over.... It's literally an answer to prayers."
One Good Cow was born last summer when Mrs. Schmidt and neighbor Michelle Tebay mused that if every rancher in the West donated a cow, that would put stricken Dakota ranchers back on their feet. "The whole purpose of One Good Cow is to keep people in the cattle business," says Schmidt.
The program is not aimed at replacing every lost cow, rather it is supposed to ease the blow to ranchers who were hit the hardest. The tax-deductible gift helps ranchers continue their traditional lifestyle, says Schmidt. "Those who give a cow are giving a gift of life to a rancher."
The two women solicited "live" donations because, as a result of extensive livestock losses last winter, there weren't any cows on the market in the Dakotas. So to help cover the costs of hauling gift cows to their new homes, an international charity called Orphan Grain Train donated stock trucks and enlisted volunteers to make deliveries.
The program will continue accepting cow pledges and cash until the first of the year. The Colorado effort expects to send at least two shipments of cattle north by then, says Ramstetter, who ranches on 700 acres near Golden, Colo. where his great-grandfather homesteaded. "We're off and running with it."
The Rollas, meanwhile, continue to be amazed by their windfall. "When I first heard about this, I thought we'd get just one cow - you know, One Good Cow," explains Rolla. "But at that point I was so discouraged that I applied anyway, thinking anything would help. Then I heard we were getting 31 ... it's absolutely wonderful."
And next time there's a donation effort, she adds, "I'd like to be the one who donates a cow."