The holidays are a special time of year—a moment of reflection, gratitude and goodwill. Like nowhere else, the season is particularly meaningful on ranches and farms, where tradition and heritage come to life and the spirit of compassion often takes a tangible form.
At the same time, the holidays on working ranches require the same devotion and dedication that they do throughout the year. Livestock needs tended to the same as any other day throughout the year, and chores require attention lest operations fall behind schedule. As an old ranch saying goes, the cattle eat first—even on a holiday.
Christmas or not, ranching operations require early mornings and late evenings. The work often entails feeding cattle, clearing watering holes, doctoring animals and ensuring their welfare, particularly when conditions become inclement, as is typical during winter months. It’s work that can begin before dawn and can run late into the evening.
On one multi-generational ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the routine on Christmas morning looks much like it would any other winter day. The owners get an early start, before the sun has even broke over the impressive mountains. The owners, whose family established the ranch more than a hundred years ago, first tends to the goliath draft horses, which have been used since the operation’s earliest days to pull a hay-laden sleigh to feed the other animals.
Once fed, the horses are yoked to a sleigh, which rests on industrial skis to travel the snowpack. The harnessing is no small feat, especially in the cold dark of the morning, and although the barn, erected decades ago, offers some shelter from the elements, the traditional leather cinches and straps prove challenging. But for these ranchers, and horses, it is clear the procedure is instinctive from years of doing.
With the first signs of daybreak appearing, the draft horse team pull the sleigh – loaded high with hay the day prior at the end of this routine, as it will be again today once this load is fed – into an adjacent field. Almost impulsively, the hundred head of cattle, mostly heifers and months-old calves, have lined the feed ground, which is marked with sleigh tracks, hoof prints and remnant hay.
Insulated only by their thick hides and winter coats, the cattle wait dutifully for their feed, which the ranch owners dole out in near uniformity with pitchforks that look as old as the property itself. The process is nearly mechanical, a function of years of practice, but hardly automated. It requires close attention to direct the team of horses, untwine and feed the hay bales, all while managing portions, gathering loose twine and checking on the throng of animals for any signs of sickness.
The process is repeated across several pastures, including a herd of saddle horses, a smaller herd of cattle on a neighboring property, and a small count of barnyard heifers, brought in after showing signs of illness, not unlike a common cold for humans. At one point, the owners take a large axe and shovel to clear a strategically placed watering hole, which despite its running live water has frozen up around the edges, making it difficult for the livestock to get a drink.
After the full load of hay has been offloaded, indicating all the livestock have been fed, the draft horses pull up to a hay barn where the owners reload the sleigh. It’s grueling work, especially in the cold, which requires lifting and stacking 100-pound bales several rows high and columns deep. Only once the sleigh is restocked, does the team pull back into the barnyard, where the horses are unharnessed and fed.
It’s a grueling hours long routine, one that the owners will repeat again in the evening—not only on the holiday but throughout the coldest months of winter, when livestock need additional ruffage to survive the harsh conditions.
“Just like the rest of the year, the animals’ needs come first,” the owners explain. “They get Christmas before the rest of us.” It’s a modest understatement of the rigors of true ranch work.
Even so, and perhaps for that reason, the holidays are a time of jubilee for ranching families. The season brings together families, which have long been the foundation of agricultural operations. Thankfulness rooted in faith seems to abound, for the bounty of the land and the promise of new beginnings in a new year. It makes sense, ranchers will often say, that the nativity scene is set in a barnyard, where even now that spirit of blessings and hope are embodied.
It may be the rustic sense of tradition, the novelty of the lifestyle to most Americans, or maybe just the opportunity of the season, but working ranches have become a holiday destination for many travels in recent years. Travel to Western dude ranches has increased significantly over the past decade, and rates tend to spike around the winter holidays. The trends reflect the burgeoning appreciation for the ethos of the West, which seem to capture the essence of the season.
Across the Mountain West, tourism has become an important supplemental, if not primary, livelihood of ranching operations. Experiences generally tend towards comforts than demanding work, but each offer a foray into the ranching lifestyle.
Ranch properties, too, have become increasingly popular among discerning real estate buyers—which presents both an opportunity and challenge for ranching families. Today, 100 families – private buyers who have swooped up large swaths of land – own 42 million acres of land across the country, which is a 50 percent increase from 2007, the New York Times reported this year.
The renewed interest in the American West’s ranching community has create a boon for ranch owners, whose properties often are gifted down generations. But it’s also created its own challenges, especially where conglomeration has presented difficult land access and water rights questions.
They say ranchers are a special breed, and that’s certainly true. It’s hard to imagine or more demanding profession—one where days off don’t exist—or a more rewarding way of life. That may be why the holidays here are so extraordinary. They are a celebration of hard work and faith, determination and grit, and appreciation for the little things. That ethos imbues every day’s work—even the holidays.
On behalf of all of us at Western Ranches, happy holidays to you and your loved ones, and best wishes in the New Year.