What Does a 21st Century Cowboy Do?

Cowboys wake up at 4 a.m. Calving season is especially busy. Cowboys check on the cows two to three times a night during that season. In 2021, Texas was the number one beef producing state, and Oklahoma was number two. The largest segment of U.S. agriculture is beef production. 

Cowboys have to come on the job with their own equipment. That means a horse, horse trailer, pickup truck, saddle, blankets, ropes, and feed along with other gear like gloves, boots, hat, spurs,  tools, firearms, and knives. Cowboys are responsible for their vet bills. 

Saddles can cost thousands of dollars, but an average cost is around $800, and a saddle is like a good pair of boots; it must fit the horse and cowboy properly. Some of the major work for a cowboy includes riding pastures to check for sick cattle, horses, or other large animals, delivering calves, doctoring sick animals as needed, vaccinating animals, fence repair, catching cows that break out, gathering, sorting, and shipping yearling calves, and operating and maintaining heavy equipment. 

Some ranchers still brand their cattle instead of tagging them, but they use electric branding irons today.  Other jobs a cowboy tackles are water trough and water well repair, feeding livestock, artificial insemination, landscape maintenance, and hay production. Cowboys suffer from major injuries, and some require surgeries, and become scarred up throughout their careers. Broken ribs are a given. Ranch owners may or may not offer health insurance. 

How Much Does a Cowboy Earn?

When a lot of us drive around in Texomaland, while it is growing with more and more developments and people immigrating here, we see our heritage in the working ranches. Texomans live different lifestyles; some commute to the cities to work, and locals have to drive long distances to go shopping. Our agricultural culture is evident to us, but have you ever wondered how a cowboy makes a living? Or how much a cowboy earns?

Ziprecruiter reports that the cowboy’s average annual salary is $31,466 in Texas, and $33,198 in Oklahoma as of January 2022. The cowboy’s job is 24/7, and only the larger ranches can afford housing for their hands to be there no matter what happens. 

Why Do Cowboys Cowboy?

Cowboying for a living is an extremely tough and dangerous job that rarely affords them a vacation. Cowboys love their jobs. We have not learned how to automate livestock. Cowboying is a lifestyle, because they live for the animals year round, seven days a week. There is no work-life balance for a cowboy. 

Cowboys teach their children how to ride and rope early—at age two and three. Ranch children have to get a lot of learning done, and it takes years. Most cowboys grow up on small family operations. Boys of age ten do a full-grown man’s work on a ranch, and girls are not spared ranch work. 

Step by step, as ranch kids grow up, they earn an education you do not get from school. Not all ranch kids want to stay on the ranch for life, and they take another career path. But there’s something about being born into a ranching family that grabs a kid’s soul and keeps him or her in the saddle. 

Cowboy Culture

Rodeos are the most exciting shows I have seen in my lifetime, even more exciting than the many great concerts. I go for the bull riding events. The big rodeos are the best, but I’ve been to a bunch of small-town rodeo events, and they are also a blast. 

A lot of historical references say rodeos are a celebration of the past, but the skills needed to win rodeo competitions are not of the past. Cowboys and cowgirls learn their skills right on their ranches today. Amateur rodeo competitors can earn around $10,000 to $15,000 a year. 

The rodeo began with influence from the Spanish and Portuguese ranchers who began tending to cattle in masses around 1000 B.C. Immigrants to the American continents learned to herd and brand, and organize round-ups and cattle drives from the Spanish and Portuguese. 

With the mixed cultures of Mexico and Spain, the cowboys of the 1800s in the U.S. began holding informal competitions on ranches. They competed for a pot, or sometimes just for the glory of the competition. The word “rodeo” was first used in English around 1819, according to Merriam Webster. “Rodeo” is not an English word. It comes from the Spanish word “rodear”. It means “to surround'' or “to go around”

Millions of people attend rodeos every year. As of 2019, bull riding was the fastest growing sport in the U.S., and some sources claim it is the fastest growing sport in the world. Nationwide, there are over 600 rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), and thousands more are independently operated. 

Many of the original events at a 19th century rodeo come alive today as barrel racing, breakaway calf roping, hog roping, goat tying, bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, and team roping. Equestrian sports are not limited to rodeos. There are thousands of competitions of various types in other countries. 

Rodeo clowns are legendary entertainers. The rodeo clown’s gear is a barrel to hide in. The bullfighter clowns pop out to distract the bull or keep the bull away from the cowboy after being thrown or jumping off. The comedy clowns serve to keep the crowds entertained during breaks in competitions. 

The Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR) has strict animal welfare policies. The PBR considers bulls valuable professional athletes. Stick contractors own and take care of the PBR bulls, and these businessmen demand the best treatment and respect for their animals. Get ready because the traditional rodeo season runs spring through fall and concludes with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas every December. Tickets are on sale now for the big rodeos. 

Cowboy Poetry and Songs

Another form of cowboy culture came to us from lonely cowboys on lonely nightwatch on the cattle drives after the Civil War. Men with varied backgrounds came to drive the cattle to the railheads from the 1860s until the railroad tracks were finished in the rural West. They could be veterans of the Civil War, Mexican vaqueros, Native Americans, or former slaves. 

Cowboys wrote songs and poems and shared stories while listening to the cattle low. Jack Thorp, a rancher and surveyor in Estancia, New Mexico, asked a printer about publishing a small book of cowboy songs, Songs of the Cowboy

Songs of the Cowboy is the oldest known anthology of cowboy poetry, and it is available on Amazon. Jack collected these songs from cowboys all over the West. In 1908, it sold for six cents a copy, included twenty-three songs, and was the first book published devoted to cowboy songs. Jack wanted to preserve the ballads created by ranchers and cowboys to calm cattle on the range. 

Western historian and musician, Mark L. Gardener, and illustrator, Ronald Kil, are featured in an often reprinted edition of Songs of the Cowboy. Purchase of the book includes a CD with songs and poems from the original 1908 edition and the 1921 expanded second edition. The cowboy poetry genre began to gain exposure in agricultural magazines, feed store calendars, diner menus, and other places where cowboys gathered to share their stories and memories with each other. 

Today, promoters build whole festivals around cowboy poetry readings. While traditional rhyming poetry is still popular, free verse cowboy poetry is making an appearance at events like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, the Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas, and the Chisholm Trail Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Duncan, Oklahoma.  

Besides poetry readings, events at cowboy poetry gatherings include educational Q&A sessions about modern innovations in ranching operations, humorous stories, singer-songwriters, cowboy craft exhibitions, rendezvous, country swing dances, and more. For example, the Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering features ticketed shows, free sessions, chuckwagon breakfasts, a keynote address, open mic sessions, a youth poetry contest, and Saturday night dance for two days with afternoon and evening shows. 

America’s Favorite Icon: The Cowboy

He is known around the world. I am not being sexist; most people think of the cowboy as a man even though cowgirls are just as talented. Other vocations just as rough helped tame the West, like lumberjacking, farming, railroading, and hard rock mining, and were just as dangerous. But, the image of the cowboy sticks in the minds of people around the globe. 

Charles Moreau Harger wrote in Scribner's Magazine in 1892:

"The cowboy, with his white, wide-trimmed hat, his long leather cattle whip, his lariat, and his clanking spur is a thing of the past."

Thank goodness his prediction did not come true. 

We cannot live without cowboys, and neither can many other countries who enjoy beef. In 2020, beef and beef variety meat exports amounted to 1.25 million metric tons worth $7.65 billion, the U.S. beef export value equated to $349.10 per head of each steer and heifer processed in 2020, and 13.5% of U.S. beef and variety meat production was exported in 2019.

I am grateful that I see cowboys all the time where I live in western Texomaland, either riding their horses for a pleasure ride or working. I drive by this young cowboy's small acreage often, and he always has two or three Black Angus cows or bulls or yearlings. I always see cowboys in the stores with their spurs still on their boots. Every spring I see the beautiful yearlings and a whole bunch of that black gold, not oil though, but Black Angus cattle. Actually, I see a lot of oil rigs too. The cowboy and his job are here to stay. 

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