The Saratoga Sun -

Ranch hand sings lessons learned

'Student of the cowboy' relays day-to-day life on the ranch


March 13, 2019

Photo courtesy Daron Little

Daron Little plays at the 2018 Grand Encampment Cowboy Gathering.

The economics of ranching are, to put it simply, complex. Whether it's a ranch that's been family owned for over a century or an operation that spans hundreds, if not thousands, of acres, the issues faced are often the same. The health of cattle, the availability of food and the abundance, or lack thereof, of water are concerns shared by ranches of all sizes.

Because of the complexity of ranch economics, the life of a ranch hand is one filled with long hours and hard work. On the TA Ranch, north of Saratoga, Daron Little is one of those ranch hands, "I've always been fascinated with, and been a student of, the West. What I call 'the American Horseback Culture,'" said Little. "I study the Texas style of cowboying. I study New Mexico, California, Nevada. Usually, especially in Wyoming, in our area, it's an interesting place because it's a central location. We get a lot of Texas-style guys that come up in the summer. We get guys from the West Coast or the Great Basin, buckaroo style and it all kind of coagulates here."

Little, while originally from Louisiana, moved to the Platte Valley two decades ago. Since then, he has immersed himself into the world of ranch work and continued his education of the West. Being a ranch hand, Little's day-to-day will vary depending on the season. Right now, for example, his days are pretty slow as the TA waits, like the other ranches, for the water to begin flowing. Feeding the cows that the ranch has wintered is the biggest item on his list of things to do.

As the snow melts, however, Little's days are about to get busy as the TA begins to work on their irrigation systems. While most ranches are gearing up for calving season, which usually takes place in March and April, the TA takes a different approach.

"We do some different things than most ranches in this area, in this region, do," Little said. "Most people will calf in March or April. We start calving in May, which allows us to focus on the irrigating, because that's when the water comes."

According to Little, the TA does not have any heifers, a young female that has not produced a calf, only mature cows.

"We let them be range cows and we lose a few because of that, but we just have a different philosophy of a mature range cow should be able to go out and have her own calf and take care of it and then, when they come in the fall, we look at all of them," said Little.

This approach to calving allows the ranch hands on the TA to focus on "chasing water" as they begin to work on irrigation. Driving along Wyoming Highways 130 and 230 during the early spring, one may see backhoes ripping out willows that have grown along the banks of irrigation ditches. The TA is no different.

"I've gotten now to where I can run a backhoe just about as good as I can run a horse," Little said.

Willows are detrimental to an irrigation system. Not only do they drastically reduce the amount of water a ranch has to work with, but their expansive root systems can cause ditches to "trash up." Different kinds of debris will get stopped by the willows and cause the ditches to blow, allowing water to escape the banks of the ditch. That means the areas on the ranch that need water aren't getting it.

"They always say, in the West, 'cattle is king,' but really, really, water," said Little. "In our area, water is king because we can't do anything without it."

As the winter comes to an end and, with spring just around the corner, Little thinks it will be a good year for water. When the water is plentiful, according to Little, the ranches get along and things are less tense than in low water years like last year.

"On a year where you don't have ample enough water, irrigation becomes more important, but it also becomes more time consuming because you only get it once," Little said. "It's a fleeting courtship. When the water comes, you better be ready, you better use it then because when it's gone, it's gone. You have to be ready, you have to astute and you have to be ready to commit to irrigating. When the water's short, the hours are long. It's easy to irrigate when you got a lot of water."

Little admits that, in his younger years, he considered irrigating to be "farmer work." As he has gained more experience ranching and become more mature, he has realized the importance of irrigation and its important to a ranch.

"As I've become more mature and understand ranching and learn to enjoy ranching more, I understand how vital that is to the whole deal," said Little. "Some people will argue and say 'irrigation is the most important,' some people say cow health is the most important, some people say 'well you gotta be able to handle your cows good.' My experience is that it's all integral. You need to be good at all of it be successful."

With the amount of work a ranch hand has to do; irrigating, fixing fence, feeding cattle, etc., one might think there's time for little else. Along with his work at the TA, however, Little is also a singer/songwriter and has been invited to play at venues such as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas and will be attending the Western Heritage Classic Ranch Rodeo in Abilene, Texas.

Much of Little's day-to-day life influences his songwriting and, according to him, he gets a good reception when he plays for a crowd that is filled with other ranch hands.

"I may not do as good, monetarily, selling merchandise there, but that's my crowd. Working guys, ranching and cowboying, that live the life. That's who I write for," said Little.

Along with playing for the people he writes for, Little also has had the chance to play for those who are not all that familiar with the ranching lifestyle.

"What rang home to me is that, the urban public perception of ranchers and the ranching/ag community is that we are just simple people, and it varies from abusers of the land to caretakers of the land, and what people don't realize is that we are quite cerebral," Little said. "We study land stewardship, we study the environment. It astounds me every time that people think that we are out here to abuse the land because the land is what makes us our living and gives us our lifestyle. If you don't take care of the land, your cows will show it, your product will show it and pretty soon you'll be out of business. It's simple economics."

So, when Little is playing for an audience like that, he uses his music to help educate them on the realities of ranch living and let them know that ranchers have many of the same concerns about the environment as they do. For Little, it's important to show that ranches and ranchers are trying to take care of the land and take care of the environment because it is what affords them that lifestyle.

"The economics of ranching is pretty tough. You gotta work at it, but it's a good life. It's a worthwhile life," said Little.


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