Buck Matthews was crossing northeast Oregon’s Big Sheep Creek on his quarterhorse, Rose, two winters ago when they suddenly crashed through the ice.
Matthews, a 29-year-old cowboy, swam for his life while dodging the mare’s flailing hooves. Man and horse reached the riverbank, then trekked four miles back to Matthews’ pickup and trailer to avoid freezing to death in subzero temperatures.
“It was pretty wild, and I was walking fast to keep warm,” Matthews said. This winter, a pack of gray wolves shadowed the pair as they herded cows in the snow-covered canyons east of Enterprise.
Such is the life of “riding for the brand.” Matthews and other cowboys in rugged eastern Oregon accept the hazards, long hours and low pay because they love what they do.
Now they have a bigger worry: staying employed.
The recession and ranch economics are trampling the job market for cowboys, one of the West’s most enduring symbols. Many cowhands are out of work, work for ranches only part time or have left the field altogether.
Veteran cowboy Ray Wilson, 66, of Joseph has given up looking for a ranch job. “The young unemployed cowboys I know have moved on,” he said.
Rancher Rod Childers said he gets a couple of calls a month from unemployed cowboys, some from as far away as Nevada, looking to work on his 400-cow spread near Enterprise. He needs the help but can’t afford to take anyone on full time.
“I used to hire somebody to help me through the winter,” he said. “I do very little of that now.”
It’s the same story for Matthews’ employer – his uncle, Todd Nash. Nash manages the Marr Flat Cattle Co. ranch near Joseph, just a rifle shot from the yawning Hurricane Creek mountain pass into the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The 550-cow operation would have employed six full-time cowhands a couple of decades ago, said Nash, while using a pocketknife to skin the hide off a stillborn calf. Now he has just Matthews, part time.
“If there was a way I could pay Buck more and keep him longer, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Nash said as he and Matthews used baling twine to tie the hide onto a week-old orphaned “bummer” calf in hopes of tricking the dead calf’s mother into letting it suckle. “There just isn’t a lot of extra money in the deal.”
So May 1, Matthews will swap his saddle and spurs for a backpack tank of herbicide and hiking boots. He’ll spray weeds for Wallowa County, in northeast Oregon, to support his wife and two children, then return to the ranch Dec. 1.
“My dad was a cowboy in Imnaha, and I’ve always had my hand in it,” Matthews said of riding, roping, branding and building fences. “But cow prices are way down, and I know it’s hard to keep a guy hired.”
‘It’s all here’
Cowboys and cowgirls don’t make much money. Hired livestock workers earn a little over $10 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In eastern Oregon, ranchers prefer to pay day wages – $100 to $150 – for buckaroos who provide their own pickups, horses and herding dogs.
It’s tough to pin down how many cowboys the state has, but the Oregon Employment Department office in La Grande estimates about 2,500 people work as hired hands tending cattle as well as sheep, pigs, poultry, horses and bees.
Jason Cunningham, a Wallowa County cowboy, is one of them. Like Matthews, he’s never wanted to do anything else, even after breaking a collarbone last summer after his horse “T-boned a cow” at full gallop, and after spending three weeks in a hospital 11 years ago with head injuries from a horse wreck.
“God, family, country – it’s all here,” said Cunningham, 30. “You don’t have to miss any of it with this lifestyle.”
But also like Matthews, he’s lining up other jobs for summer. He plans to break and train horses, watch over someone else’s cows on 3,000 acres he rents, work for day wages for a local rancher, and shoe horses on weekends for a pack station near Wallowa Lake. If he lands a U.S. Forest Service contract, he’ll clear trails, too.
“You used to have one job and be able to live on the ranch,” said Cunningham, who has a wife and four children. “Now, that’s not enough.”
Wilson, the veteran cowboy, joined Cunningham in the trail-clearing bid. He also operates a 10-year-old custom saddle shop near Joseph, but orders all but evaporated with the poor economy. Social Security checks don’t cover his bills.
“It’s going to be horrible,” he said of the prospect of clearing trails. “I figure I’m going to gut it out.”
A herd of problems has conspired to cut into cowboy jobs.
Mechanization and other efficiencies have reduced the need for farmhands over the decades. Fewer people go out to eat because of the recession, cutting the demand for restaurant beef. As ranchers retire, their land can end up in the hands of wealthy “amenity ranchers” seeking recreation, or with conservation groups. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has purchased 36,400 acres in Wallowa County, most of it since 2000, said Jeff Fields, a spokesman in Enterprise. And ranchers’ children often go into better-paying, less-stressful work.
“There is a general problem with succession in American agriculture,” said Bart Eleveld, an economist with the Oregon State University Extension Service. The older generation of ranchers – with an average age of 57 – had to hold onto ranches for the income, and their kids couldn’t wait until their 40s to take over.
“The younger ones went on with their lives and planned their careers,” Eleveld said.
Fewer cows, higher costs
On a simpler scale, there’s less need for cowboys because there are fewer cattle to tend. Inventories of all cattle – including beef and dairy – have fallen in the U.S. and Oregon. Northeast Oregon has been particularly hard hit, with numbers dropping 35 percent from 1999 to 2009, compared with 19 percent statewide.
U.S. beef cattle – mother cows that produce a calf each year that’s raised and sold for meat – total 31.4 million, the lowest since the middle of World War II, said Tom Field, a Colorado rancher and spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Denver. Oregon has 535,000 beef cattle, according to the USDA, an 18 percent drop since 2000. Beef remains Oregon’s fourth most valuable commodity, but its value has fallen steeply in recent years.
Meanwhile, the price of beef hasn’t kept pace with the cost of producing it, Eleveld said. Ranchers need to buy fuel for trucks and equipment, he said, and pay for veterinary care and drugs for the cattle. For those who grow hay for their cattle, fertilizer is a big expense.
“It’s just difficult to make a family living off it,” he said. Many need to replace machinery but can’t, added John Williams, an OSU Extension agent in Enterprise.
Dennis Arnzen, owner of the Intermountain Livestock Inc. sale yard near La Grande, said a 500-pound steer fetched $1.25 a pound in 1994 and just $1.31 a pound last week.
Cattle prices rise and fall, but production costs seem only to climb, said Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward, who has watched ranchers closely during 14 years in office. Ranchers use good years to cushion bad ones, he said, but “a good year today isn’t quite as good as it was 10 years ago.”
The upshot is ranchers turn to a cost they can control: hiring.
Medical Springs rancher Ron Lay, for one, said he had three hired hands on his 1,200-cow ranch 20 years ago. Now, he and his son, Joe, do all the work.
“All the ranchers cut back on their help,” said Lay, 71. “They are trying to do it themselves because they can’t afford nobody.”
Nash, the rancher near Joseph, said that a decade ago a rancher could support a family with 100 cows and buy a new pickup with a gooseneck trailer full of calves. Now it takes nearly 1,000 cows and a semitruck full, he said.
And while he could save more calves during calving season if he had an additional cowboy to help during births, in tight times ranchers figure it’s cheaper to lose calves. “I don’t know if he would save enough calves to pay for his job,” he said.
Despite all the problems, there are bright spots. Field pointed to increased efficiency in per-cow meat production because of advances in breeding, nutrition and disease management: 632 pounds last year compared with 449 pounds in 1980, according to the USDA. A March 19 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service forecasts better times for beef producers this year, with higher prices and exports.
Field thinks long-term prospects are good. In the next 30 to 40 years, food producers will be called upon to double the protein they produce, he said. “I think there is an absolutely fantastic future for ranchers,” he said – and that means continued demand for cowhands.
“It would be a tragedy,” he said, “if the day comes that cowboys are left to just movies and tall tales.”