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168 On the Wings of Eagles November ended with several days of nearly constant rain, cold winds, and temperatures in the thirties. It was another chilly event provided by an El Niño–inspired weather system that brought record rainfall to the southern edge of the Flint Hills. The storm dropped some five inches of moisture that fortunately remained liquid, considering the calamity befalling the rest of the region. Farther west the temperature dipped below 32 degrees, and ice accumulations ripped the limbs from trees and tore down utility lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity. During the rain, my young Lab Cody and I mostly drove back roads looking for wildlife. Driving rural roads during inclement weather allows for a glimpse into a world that most people pass by in a hurry. On the prairie, it’s a landscape where cowboys still rise before dawn to truck hay and compressed feed cubes to their cattle. During winter months, feeding cows is a daily business, something that happens come rain or come shine, what cowboys do to keep their animals fat, happy, and profitable. Therefore, if you rise early enough and get off the blacktop roads, you’ll see feed trucks slowly navigating often muddy two-track trails across reddish orange pastures, the truck sirens blasting. An elec- 169 On the Wings of Eagles tronic device mounted in the feed truck has replaced cowboys on horseback and their cattle calls. A siren certainly summons livestock from the far ends of each pasture, but I miss the cowboys and their falsetto whooping. It was a comforting sound, a wail followed by the clomping of horseshoes followed by the thunder generated by several hundred head of Hereford or Angus cattle, all hustling for a spot in the chow line. The husband of my mother’s best friend died while feeding cattle. He was in his eighties and had been a cowboy all his life, had nothing else to do and knew of nothing else he wanted to do. So his employer, a rancher who owned cattle and land on a large scale and a decent man, moved him to a small outlier ranch in Kansas, where he’d be in charge of a manageable number of cattle for as long as he was able. The old cowboy passed away early one morning when some ranch equipment slipped from its mooring and crushed him. Afterward there was some debate concerning whether he should have moved to town and faded away into senility staring out of a dusty window, like so many other men his age. I always felt that if the jack on that outbuilding hadn’t slipped, he most likely would have pushed it over himself when the right time came. Sadly, it seems that the drivers of those muddy early morning trucks represent a way of life that’s going the way of cattle calls, prairie-chickens , and the ability to make a living and still remain close to the land. Someday, maybe sooner than I’d like to think, folk in these remote ranch houses will be replaced by mega-operations with the finances to do business on a scale that won’t allow heritage or nostalgia to stand in the way of profit, no matter how destructively it’s obtained. Corporate agriculture doesn’t have a culture or a family tree to think about. Nor does it need to deal with the desperation of constantly living on the edge of financial meltdown. Mega-ranching won’t go broke ifdroughtstealsasummer’sworthofgrassorifcattlemarketstakeone of their unpredictably cantankerous nosedives. Basically, big business maintains a friend at the bank, a good lawyer, and a talented accountant who can revive a balance sheet gone awry. Small cattle operations can only hope that rain comes in the spring, calves stay healthy, and the residents of the ranch house stay healthier. Keytoallofthis,ofcourse,isthegrass.Hereintheremainingminuscule percentage of original tallgrass prairie, this past summer had been one that makes ranchers almost giddy. By the end of the growing 170 On the Wings of Eagles season, any idle grassland was almost too dense to walk through. Even pastures that held cattle through the summer remained lush as frost in November began to turn the prairie pinkish orange. On the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, the concentrated buffalo herds of the breeding season were, by December, broken up into scattered bands, the bulls staying to themselves with a few fellow bulls and the cows, calves, and yearlings grazing together...


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