Truck of Hope
Local ranchers donate time, effort, money and cows to ranches devastated in recent Kansas fires
Last month, wildfires raged across the desiccated, wind-swept prairies of grass in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, destroying the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers across a great swath of the Great Plains.
The fires were fueled by a "perfect storm" of conditions: a wet 2016 summer that allowed a lot of grass to grow, followed by a dry 2016-2017 winter that turned it into an almost perfect kindling for a rapidly expanding fire.
In Kansas, 22 of 27 counties in the state were affected, with over 650,000 acres burned. Somewhere between 4,000-8,000 animals, mostly cattle, were destroyed in the fires or humanely euthanized after suffering burns in the blazes that tore across the state, according to an estimate from the Department of Agriculture.
Ranchers fortunate enough not to lose cattle found themselves faced with an entirely different dilemma: how to feed their animals when massive areas of prairie and the life-sustaining forage on them were burned to a crisp.
The economic impacts of the fires are yet to be fully understood. In some parts of the affected area, fencing, which can cost $10,000 per mile, needs to be completely replaced. Other ranches and farms lost buildings and equipment which can cost millions to replace.
The USDA has already set aside millions in funding to help farmers and ranchers recover. But if you ask around among local ranchers, you'll be told they're not really the kinds of people who look for the government to help them. And they're not the types to ask neighbors for help either.
James Sewell of TA Ranch outside Saratoga-who donated half the funds needed to pay for trucking the cattle to Kansas-said, "Most ranchers just don't have the mentality that the government's going to bail them out. They don't generally rely on the government or someone to bail you out."
That's why sometimes, when it comes to helping others, it's best just to do it rather than talk about it. And, it's probably a good idea not to make a big deal about it, too.
Dwight L. Moody, a 19th century American evangelist and publisher, is commonly quoted as saying:
"We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won't need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don't fire cannons to call attention to their shining-they just shine."
The ideal espoused by Moody that righteousness and benevolence stand out on their own, and there is no need to bring attention to oneself for their works. Goodness is self-evident, and it's never about the person doing the sharing, it's about making the world better for others when one can.
Dean Talbott, a Valley rancher, seems to embody Moody's quote almost perfectly. After seeing the destruction wrought by the fires in the plains, he decided to donate a cow to a Kansas rancher who lost his herd, and he doesn't want any recognition for it, telling everyone who asked about it that he didn't think it was a big deal, and wasn't looking for recognition for his deed.
Then he decided to ask every other rancher in the Valley he knew to do the same.
Many did, and Wednesday a truck laden with 26 head of cattle left Encampment bound for a ranch in Kansas.
Tuesday afternoon at the Lion's Club Arena in Encampment saw clear blue skies punctuated by the occasional cloud, with temperatures nearing 60. A few ranchers, including Talbott, worked to herd the 26 cows headed for Kansas into pens to be readied for their trip. The truck, a semi with a large stock hauler, waited nearby. Before they could be loaded, the animals had to be inspected by a vet and a state brand inspector.
Traveling across state lines with a group of cattle with different brands can be an interesting experience if one is stopped and inspected, according to the driver of the truck, so it's very important to have all the paperwork in order.
Unlike what people in the cities see on movie and television screens, cowboys spend a lot of time doing paperwork, especially when they are embarking on a multistate cattle drive.
A veterinarian from Carbon County Animal Hospital in Rawlins, Amanda Daniels, was on hand to inspect the animals and sign off on their health. A brand inspector for the state of Wyoming was also there to inspect the animals before their odyssey.
At one point, the ranchers realized they did not have a critical number for several animals. That number is located on a small metal earring on the animal called a brand inspection tag. To make sure all the paperwork was in order, those animals had to be found and separated from the rest of the herd.
The four were pulled away from the group and sent down a chute where their metal earrings could be inspected and the number noted. The tag means the animal has been inspected for Brucellosis, a bacterial disease carried by cows, sheep and other animals. The bacteria are zoonotic, meaning people can pick them up from infected animals. The disease causes chronic fever, pain and fatigue. Left untreated, it can cause heart failure, arthritis and liver problems.
Once all the animals had been inspected by the vet and the brand inspector and all the paperwork had been filled out, signed, inspected, stamped and organized, it was late afternoon.
The work done for the day, the animals would leave in the morning in a cattle hauler for their journey east.
"If you're blessed enough to bless someone else, you should do it," Talbott says. "Otherwise you're just wasting space."
Talbott heard from a friend in Kansas after the fires who asked if he would donate a cow to help a rancher in Kansas who had lost everything in the fires. He agreed to do so.
Then he asked every rancher he knew in the Valley to do the same thing.
The response was overwhelming; almost everyone he contacted said yes. The cows that would be going to Kansas came from ranches across Carbon County, from Encampment to Medicine Bow, and from as far as Baggs, on the other side of the Sierra Madre Range.
People in agriculture, he says, are a basically a big family and when someone needs a helping hand, others offer it, even if they're not asked. Sometimes, in fact, it's best not to ask.
Talbott, who originally requested that his real name not be used in this article due to his overwhelming sense of humility, said that there is a prevalent attitude among those in ranching and farming that one should not ask for help.
"People who work with their hands are a self-sufficient bunch," Sewell of TA Ranch said. "Sometimes they're reluctant to even ask for help.
"It usually takes someone to push on their behalf. They're not going to ask for handouts."
Talbott became the person who pushed on behalf of a Kansas rancher when it came to getting cows donated, as well as doing all the hard work of getting them ready to go. To him, it's just "paying it forward." Talbott knows what it's like to have a community step up and help in a time of need.
"My son had an accident and was hurt really bad," he said. "he almost died twice." People in the community offered to do a benefit for the family, but Talbott refused. They did it anyway and raised $10,000 for his son.
The event, he concedes, affected him deeply. "It helped me a bunch," he said. It's also why he felt so strongly about aiding ranchers who had lost everything in the wildfires that ripped across the nation's central plains.
"I guess it's kind of a pay it forward thing," he says. "You can look around anywhere and find people in need and you can feel sorry for them, but you still gotta step up."
Wednesday morning, the cows are ready to go. The cattle hauler, the money for which was donated by TA Ranch and Dusty Voorhies was at the Lion's Club Arena in Encampment, ready for the journey east.
The cowboys were back early, and began the process of herding 26 reluctant cows into the compartments in the cattle trailer. They worked methodically, dividing the cattle up into groups of five or six, then herding them into the hauler. Once in there, the compartment was closed off and the job began again with another group of cows being moved into another compartment of the hauler.
Some of the cattle though, were not having any of it. One cow was herded into the trailer but decided it had other plans. It ran out, down the ramp and through the chute it had just been loaded through. The others in its compartment saw the rogue bovine and, deciding it had the right idea, went right after it.
Cowboys quickly got out of the way of the pack by clamoring up the rails of the cattle pen.
Eventually, the herd was loaded into the hauler. Under the bright blue, cloudless Wyoming sky, the truck passed under the archway of the Lion's Club Arena, headed to Kansas with a truckload of hope for a rancher devastated by fire.
The cattle arrived in Kansas the next morning. They were delivered to the daughter of the rancher who would ultimately own them. In a video sent to Talbott by mobile phone, she picked her father up to drive him over to her house. Upon arriving, the man asked what was going on with the cattle hauler and his daughter's cows.
"They're your cows," she says, explaining they were meant to be a surprise for him. He wanted to know where they came from. She told him they were donated by a group of ranchers in Wyoming.
"That's a heck of a surprise," the man said over the tinny smartphone speaker.
Talbott cracks a broad smile as he watches the video which was sent to his phone as he spoke to the Saratoga Sun. He had done something for someone else the way the community rallied around and supported him when his son was injured.
But he still didn't want any recognition for his acts. He insisted when this article was written that everyone who donated cows, services, time, money or anything else be mentioned.
Anyone but him.
"I'm not doing it for me," he says. "I just don't want any glory out of it, you know, I want to help, be part of it and I kind of ended up being a leader in all of this.
"I don't know if 'silent leader' would be the right way to say it."
Mere hours from the holiest day in Christianity, at a time when Americans from coast to coast are divided over politics, race and hundreds of other moieties real and perceived, Talbott just wanted to do something good for someone who needed it, all without any recognition.
"I think God puts passion in every one of us, and maybe part of the message is to look deep into yourself, see what your passion is and follow it."
Talbott says that often, people wonder why tragedies, like the fires that decimated agriculture across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas happen. But he says he sees such events as an opportunity for people to come together, become stronger and be more compassionate with one another.
Such works, he says, should be done, but not for glory of the person doing it, but the for the sake of those who are being helped.
A bright light of compassion and humility certainly does not need a cannon to announce its presence, but sometimes, for the rest of us, it doesn't hurt to have the fog of day-to-day life, politics and petty differences lifted so it can be seen.