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The Field Guide to Agriculture


Can you identify agriculture happening the same way you can identify an elk, moose, or river otter? Just as with wildlife and natural history, you can improve your enjoyment of Jackson Hole and your sense of place by knowing a bit about the agricultural and ranching activities going on around you. Therefore, here are a few basics (tongue in cheek for those who already know these things) for the next time you look across the pastures around Jackson, see someone “out there” on the land, and wonder what they are up to:

When you see a person “out there” with the livestock in late winter (primarily March), they may be “checking cows”. This is usually done by an individual or two from a pickup truck or on horseback at times. The purpose is to assist cows in giving birth, tend to new calves, and collect data such as birth weights, gender, and health conditions.

As the streams start to flow in spring and you see a person on an ATV, with hip boots, a long sleeved shirt, Wrangler jeans, a hat, shovel, orange fabric sheets, and perhaps a dog, you can automatically identify “irrigating”. This involves repeatedly touring the fields and ditches to actively paint the landscape with irrigation water in just the right way, based on personal experience. The water flows change almost by the hour, so rearranging the orange tarp “check dams” that make the ditches overflow or change directions must be done constantly. This daily activity continues, non-stop, until mid-July or early August, and may reoccur in the fall.

A truck, ATV, or perhaps a small tractor with fence posts indicates “fencing” is going on. Again, an individual or two dressed in work clothes, and perhaps a dog, are typical. The purpose of this activity is to repair or replace miles of fencing and gates. Posts, rails, nails, wire, staples, lots of elbow grease, and a good eye for straight lines are the necessary ingredients for this line of work. Good fences are crucial for controlling and managing proper grazing so that livestock will stay safe, happy, grow, and come into reproductive condition again – the summer’s nutritional bounty influences the size and number of calves the following spring. Just as importantly, grazing vegetation must be cropped in a manner that stimulates regrowth, promotes root development, and captures water and sunlight for the next year.

“Cowboying” or “wrangling” is occurring when you see individuals or small groups of people on horses – or perhaps a motorcycle, ATV or pickups – moving deliberately at a measured pace, with or without livestock present and an optional dog or two. The purpose is to seek out, tend, count, catch or move livestock.

“Branding” is heralded by late spring. People can be observed in larger groups or flocks, usually near corrals and pens with lots of livestock present. You’ll count multiple trucks, horses, stock trailers, and humans in various get-ups, outfits, or broken-in work clothes. Watch closely for the pecking order within the group of humans based upon age, gender, brains, brawn, and ownership of things like land, livestock, equipment, and honor. Like a slow moving ant mount with bursts of rapid movements by some individuals, people appear to have assigned tasks. The purpose of the commotion is to gather, count and capture recently born calves in order to tend them, mark them, doctor them and ultimately alter them for their marketable destiny as healthy steers, reproducing cows, yearling heifers, or perhaps breeding bulls. An additional purpose is to allow the humans to socialize, which has great importance for sustainable agriculture.

Most importantly, remember that agriculture in the West is known to be the most effective and least expensive type of open space and habitat conservation. Why? Because it ties the land to free-market incentives, the joys of gardening, productivity targeted for humankind, closely held traditions, status, and healthy personal identities. All of that constitutes a rich recipe for vested land stewardship: Individual families of ranchers and farmers who are dedicated to finding a way to sustain themselves from the inherent, long-term, and basic productivity of land, water and sunshine, as citizens of our community.

-Tom Segerstrom

Photo courtesy of Anne Muller.

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