A ranch is not just any patch of rural ground, and the saying, "All hat, no cattle," is more than a joke. It’s true most ranchers prefer not to reveal the size of their places, but despite differences, a real ranch is measured in hundreds of acres. To populate the plains, the U.S. government offered 160 acres to anyone with guts enough to start an agricultural enterprise.
The first folks to raise cattle on these arid Western acres worked hard to acquire enough land, grass, and water to make a real ranch. The ones who hung on were learning to be ranchers.
Anyone whose families are still ranching has the benefit of several generations learning how cows and people can survive here. These diehards have studied native vegetation and wildlife, weather and hardships in a particular landscape. They know their land and their cattle intimately.
The jacket of a popular author's book says that she lives on a "40-acre ranch." No real rancher would care to make that statement. Similarly, only uninformed journalists could write, "Sen. Jones lives on his10-acre emu ranch." The correct way to write that sentence would be, "Mr. Jones lives outside town with his emus." Forty acres, 10 acres -- those are home sites in the West, not ranches.
A ranch is in the complicated business of raising certain types of animals to sell at a profit. (Real ranchers know they may not get a profit every year, know the business requires long-term commitment.) Large herbivores-- cattle, horses, or sheep—graze by the hundreds on a real ranch. Modern ranchers have stretched the definition to include bison, but emus, ostriches, camels, llamas, mink and other exotic critters need not apply.
Here's another way to recognize a real ranch: it's fenced with at least four strands of barbed wire strung tight on posts set firmly in the ground to keep those big grass-eaters where the rancher wants them. No self-respecting rancher would erect plastic made to look like white boards; it's not practical.
At some point, after a real estate agent tried to call 10 acres a ranch; somebody laughed so he coined the diminutive "ranchette." Have you ever seen an ad for a "farmette?"
Why would anyone want to call himself a rancher when environmentalists and members of animal-rights activists attack us, and critics describes us as "land-rapers" --at best. Under our current political system, the term rancher may connote power and hint at pools of oil under cactus-strewn acres. This fad will pass, and it's no excuse for misusing the language.
Even the soberly authoritative American Heritage Dictionary is confused. For ranch, it says: "An extensive farm, especially in the western United States, on which large herds of cattle, sheep, or horses are raised." Wrong; a farm is not a ranch. Some ranches produce crops, but only as part of the primary business of propagating and selling the aforementioned grazing animals.
The Dictionary compounds its error: "2. A large farm on which a particular crop or kind of animal is raised: a mink ranch." BLAP! That's two mistakes, and a striking example of why ranchers have been too patient with this nonsense. I pity the poor slob who tried to profit from rats with dense fur, but when he applied the term ranch to his enterprise, we should have acted harshly at once.
Moreover, someone who owns a ranch is not a rancher. Sen. Smartbotham's political ads may say he "owns a cattle ranch in Oklahoma," but he's a politician, not a rancher. And the term "corporate rancher" is an oxymoron; a corporation may own a ranch, but the guy who's calving out the heifers and feeding the cows is the rancher.
Actually, as a rancher friend comments, he's probably a hired hand, but because he works daily with cows, he has more right to the term rancher than the CEO. The point is the same: owning a ranch doesn't make you a rancher. A rancher has earned his advanced degree by learning from the land and cattle he -- or she-- owns.
A rancher should, at the very least, be able to glance at any available horizon and know instantly how many cows are within sight and their breeding. Most real ranchers will also know how many of them have calves and how soon the calves will be ready to sell.
To be called a rancher, you have to own the land and know the cows by name. You disagree? I can fix that; I've got a pocket knife, and I've decided to be a brain surgeon.
Linda Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She splits her time writing in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a ranch in South Dakota.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.