This morning when it came time to release the steers from the trailer, I turned to my partner and said, “Here’s a good job for you, Charlie.”
So Charlie climbed on the fender and began fumbling with the latch. Triumphantly, he pulled the pin but couldn’t get the handle free of the chain. The cattle nervously stomped inside. It probably took Charlie two minutes to find the combination, but finally the handle gave way, the gate swung open and the steers bolted to freedom.
If my helper in the above incident acted inefficiently, it was permissible. This is the first summer on the job. For the most part, Charlie is one of the better three-year-old hired men in the country.
Charlie and his four older siblings have slowed me down and taught me a lot recently. In the next couple of years, the eldest will reach teen age and begin to be quite useful. In the meantime, I’m asking myself how I can best train them to help.
With that in mind, I composed the following “memo to myself” for training my children for both ranch work and life. I commit to these principles:
1. Provide a safe experience. Make a mistake here and all is lost. Teach them early to handle vehicles in a responsible manner and to respect the power of grown animals. Real cowpokes read directions, attend safety courses and wear seat belts and crash helmets.
2. Have appropriate expectations. Expect jobs to take half again the normal time. Don’t let inefficiency discourage you. You’re training your replacements. Expect something to break darn near every week. Each child will sustain a major vehicle repair bill at least once in his career. Be glad if money alone can solve the problems.
3. Be patient and let them do it. Children (and adults too) desire the involvement of hands-on experience. Don’t deny them the satisfaction of accomplishing the task.
4. Beware of teaching that which you don’t intend to teach. Tasks are taught intentionally, but attitudes just come along for the ride. What starts out as just a day in the field can become a bumper crop of thankfulness, discipline or creativity or a weevily bin of worry, anger, blame or prejudice.
5. Teach community instead of isolation. It’s not enough just to do our own work well. We exist as part of a community. We care for the neighbors and learn from them. Some of our best efforts go to benefit others beside ourselves.
Your list might differ, but it’s crucial that each producer develops a thoughtful strategy. Whether you raise Charlies or Charlottes, they’re still your most important crop.
Dan Kirkbride is a cattle rancher who lives near Chugwater, Wyoming, with his wife and five kids. His article first appeared in The Fence Post, Windsor, CO.