David Zirnhelt. Photo submitted.

Ranch Musings: Why do we ranch?

David Zirnhelt puts himself in the position of early settlers as he thinks about why people ranch

I have been trying to put myself in the position of early settlers and compare what they might have been thinking with what we were thinking when we chose to start out in this business.

For many early settlers, they had survived the flawed or failed gold rush where it is probable that the money spent exceeded the intake from gold findings. In any event only some of the operations continued until today where we see gold miners still on the landscape.

I know the homesteads around here were originally places to call home when other seasonal employment was not happening: places where one could grow a garden, keep some small animals, a milk cow and ride horses for transportation and to work the land. People created their own gainful employment. I doubt they saw subsistence ranching as a job. A roof over the heads of the family and something to eat was about the most someone could expect when starting out.

The elk, which were here until the moose pushed them out, were supposedly a main source of food. Having cattle could provide a source of food and then if the herd was grown, some for sale locally.

Some larger operations were able to thrive based on the abundance of grass in the low lying areas of the interior. Little if any hay was necessary, and what little was needed could be harvested from small plots farmed with horses or harvested from natural meadows by hand or with horse machinery.

The growing settler population provided a market both local and in the developing cities.

Horses importantly provided power and mobility were easy to keep on the open pastures. They became essential to the pasturing on the open range.

The cowboy culture was essential to this developing way of life and the business of ranching. This culture was a combination of gentle care for the animals and the toughness needed to keep control of critters … horses, cattle, sheep, predators and maybe neighbours.

Let me take you back to 1862 just a few years after the height to the gold rush in the Cariboo, 1858 in Barkerville and 1859 in the Horsefly.

Smallpox devastated a very large part of the already-settled villages of the First Nations. British law was supposed to protect already settled areas from preemption. If the original people were removed by disease (which was European) or resettled by the Church somewhere, then land opened up for new Settlers.

Back to the “why” did people want to ranch? Many First Nations ranchers and cowboys were the mainstay of the ranching industry. I think it provided a means of supporting their families and communities, in addition to traditional economic activities. I won’t pretend to speak for them except to recognize the important role they played as cattle and horse owners, as stewards and contractors for their own and others’ businesses.

Ranching for settlers provided an opportunity to essentially control considerable lands and enjoy the freedom and the opportunity to be on the land.

Some of ‘us’ saw it as the ability to build our little estates or for other big empires with places dwarfing the farming estates and small holdings in much of Europe where our ancestor came from: a place to call our own.

Now we express our vision as being the best stewards of the land we can be and providers of food for our nation and some of the rest of the world. This vision requires some querying.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: Zirnhelt on B.C. Cattlemen’s Annual Meeting and Education Day


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