August 20, 2013

South Dakota Cowboys in The New York Times

Thank you to James Estrin for publishing MY RANCHING LIFE series on The New York Times LENS BLOG - letting the world see the family ranchers / cowboys at work in South Dakota.

During the interview with James, I realized my artist statement may be a little general in describing the many events which transpire during a ranching year - working alongside my ranching partner, Lyle O'Bryan, for the past ten years. When I showed up, Lyle was working on his own.

The cattle spend their time out on the range - grazing in the big wide open. Mid March - mid April is our calving season. During calving, it is all about riding on the cows, six to eight hours daily, for several weeks, to see that all is going well. I ride north, alone, in a pasture of several thousand acres to look at the cows. Last year, with the drought, there was no grass. We kept the cows on the river bottom and hayed them more. When riding, you look for any cows in trouble - backwards calf, taking too long to calve once they start,  'mothering' abandoned calves etc ... If there is a problem we trail them in to the barn where we can tend to them better. Sometimes this doesn't work and we have to handle it in the pasture. Spring calving season often gets the added challenge of blizzards and snow storms. If a calf gets 'chilled' we pull a sled behind our horse and bring them in to warm them up and see that they 'suck'. Sometimes our timing is good - sometimes not. You have to get calves mothered up, graft a calf who lost it's mother onto another cow, pull calves that aren't coming out properly etc. While I ride, my ranching partner hays the cows. Sometimes we ride together. If a calf has scourers we rope it and give it a pill and keep it from getting dehydrated. You rescue as many calves and cows you can - sometimes things are out of your control. Green grass with nursing cows brings the possibility of grass tetany. We keep hi mag mineral out for the cows - sometimes riding with a pack horse to replenish. If a cow is wobbling around, you try and drive her to mineral. If she is down, try and inject the minerals needed into her juggler, after roping her down or getting her in a chute. Once the grass gets beyond this initial stage it levels out - unless there is a major hail storm. We also watch for cows getting bogged down in the mud around the dams and pull them out of they are stuck. Though it can be challenging, I enjoy the singular focus of calving season and no longer try to multi - task with my photography business. I don't like to have anything else on the agenda - just think about one thing - riding on the cows and calves and getting them fed.
Snapshot of Henry & Me trying to relocate an abandoned calf  - Spring 2013
Snapshot of Spatz and her New Baby - Spring 2013
Lyle on Foxy Packing Mineral on Rocky
Calving season leads into branding season in May. The ranching community south of Belvidere, South Dakota and beyond has a strong neighboring system. Family ranchers help each other out in the spring at branding time and in the fall when cattle are worked and at shipping time later in the Fall. On the Quarter Circle XL Ranch, we neighbor with the following ranches : Badure, Double X, 7 Cross, Willard, Fox, Forune, Anderson, Devries, and Brunsch. These ranchers neighbor with us and other ranchers in the area - making for a good sized crew. The ranchers here brand in the traditional way : building a wood fire, roping and wrastling. Making for a timeless experience and allowing me to cover many miles on horseback in the Spring and Fall and take photographs on many different ranches - not to mention the camaraderie. Branding days consist of beautiful sunrise gathers with the crew and great home made lunches afterwards. I usually do a lot of wrastling, some roping and sometimes vaccinate.
Branding Day on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch - 2007 - MY RANCHING LIFE Series

After branding season, summer begins. The cows and calves are out in the big wide open pastures as they are all year long. They graze and we ride on them to make sure they are doing ok, that there is no pink eye or foot rot and just basically making sure the water is good and grass plentiful enough. If we have to doctor a cow or calf, we rope it in the pasture - head and heel it - and give it a shot.

Haying season is in June. We put up hay to feed to the cows in the winter and spring. I usually cut the hay while my ranching partner bails the hay. We just work around the weather and get it done. Later in the summer, we move and stack the bails. During June we also turn the bulls out - yee haw - which starts the entire process over again. In between cutting and bailing hay, Lyle or I ride on the yearlings to make sure the bulls are with the cows and yearlings. Fencing happens in the spring, summer and fall also. No one ever catches up on fencing.

Fall cattle work starts later in August. Ranchers get their calves in to give them their Fall shots - to keep them healthy and to fulfill requirements from buyers. This involves some beautiful morning gathers of large herds - with the crew of neighboring ranchers. There is nothing like riding out, just as the sun rises, with a crew of 15-20 cowboys - everyone in full gear. Like going back in time.

We also help neighbors trail their cattle several miles to and from summer and fall pastures. Sorting cattle happens in the Fall too. When we sort we work pairs off and chose the calves we want to keep over to breed. It is so nice when the temperatures drop and it comfortable to be in full cowboy gear again.
Fall Cattle Work on the Badure Ranch - MY RANCHING LIFE Series
Late October into early November is when ranchers start to ship calves and work off replacement heifers to keep. While also getting the cows to winter pasture in order to utilize and also rest all the grass on the ranches - to not over graze.

Putting Pairs Back out on the Double X Ranch - MY RANCHING LIFE Series
December begins feeding time for the cattle and replacement heifers and bulls. I enjoy feeding cattle, heading out with a pickup full of cake. My Ranching parnter or I stand atop a quiet high river break and call the cattle in - watching them trail in from far away. As they approach and surround the pickup it is just us and the cows and the big wide open. So peaceful expect for their mooing and calling back to us. I hop in back and scoop off many shovels of cake while the cows run along beside.  Lyle did this alone for many years - tying to steering wheel while hopping in the back to scoop the cake. Many ranchers figure ways to cover things on their own and make it work. After I have scooped the cake out, I look back to a long line of black cows eating. We take along an ax to chop 6 "- 10" thick ice at a couple river crossings and a few dams each day so the cows can get a daily drink of water.
Daily Diary Snapshot of the Herd Stringing in For Cake

Daily Diary Snapshot of Part of the Herd - Snowy Feeding Day

Daily Diary Snapshot - Driving Away From a Caked Bunch of Cattle

 Then it all starts over again ... Amongst all of this are poetic moments of riding under a clear starry sky - riding in 50 mph winds - rescuing calves - antelope running by - eagles flying overhead ... endless beauty out in the big wide open.

My Ranching Life 35mm Negatives

I came across a roll of 35mm film from several years back. Working cattle with Chris Elwood, Diana Elwood, Lyle O'Bryan, Baxter Badure and crew on the old Double X Ranch. Happy days with good friends working out in the big wide open. So much archiving to do.

August 2, 2013

Lyle O'Bryan - Super Cowboy

Lyle O'Bryan on Cody High Atop a River Break on his Quarter Circle XL Ranch

Film Still from MY RANCHING LIFE series. I hear an enormous swelling cinematic soundtrack when I look at this photograph and think of all the experiences had on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch and all the images, in my mind, of Lyle cowboying.

I was in Deadwood the other day and took Lyle in to see some photographs from MY RANCHING LIFE series at The Lodge at Deadwood. I got a little choked up watching Lyle look at this photograph of himself on Stringy - who is no longer on the ranch - and holding my first horse, Beau. Although he was rough riding and kind of crazy, Lyle had Stringy broke to work and cut cattle without any bridle. I can definitely feel the passage of time now - it is all at a different stage - as hard as I try to make time stand still around me.

MY RANCHING LIFE "Lyle on Stringy Holding my Beau-Horseshoe Butte"

Lyle walked up to take a close look at the prints. A real deal looking at a photograph of himself, the real deal. While doing so, a girl from the establishment approached and handed him one of my cards while describing the woman who took the photographs. Lyle replied "Yes, I know her - she leases my place." Very funny. Reality meets what looks like fantasy but is full on reality.

Lyle looking at a print from MY RANCHING LIFE : "Lyle Wrangling Horses"

I hope my photographs serve a greater purpose, one day. This is a story of real people doing real ranch work in rural America as my life intertwines with it all. The connections to the cowboys and cowboying of the past are getting fewer and fewer. Lyle is a living example of their teachings and experience. Today is tomorrow's legacy. Long live the American Cowboy.