Tuesday, January 24, 2023

What's the big die up?

 The decades leading up to 1886 were boom times for cowboys. Ranches from Montana to Nebraska were basking in tall grass, free range, and no fences. An estimated 5.7 million head of cattle roamed the areas. That, my friends is a lot of beef. Keep in mind a healthy cow  needs at the minimum of 25 to 30 pounds of grass per day to keep 1000 pounds on the move.

Seasons leading up to the 1880's had been mild. Plenty of mild winters, gentle rains kept the plains green and lush. However, as we know, wait five minutes and the weather will change.Mother Nature must have gone on vacation - the mild summers turned harsh. The rain forgot to fall. Heat and drought dried up the waterholes and burnt the grasses. Ranchers had not yet begun to employ the strategy of  supplemental feeding, limiting herds to what the land can sustain. By the fall of 1869, herds were hurting. Millions of head of cattle were under weight and in no shape for the change that was about to come.

It started in November. The snow came in force dropping a foot and half of the white stuff and it didn't stop, the snow continued through December ringing in the New Year with gale force winds and temps falling to fifty degrees below zero. If you think that was bad, Old Man Winter had a few other tricks up his sleeve. It warmed up enough to give into freezing rain followed by a hard freeze that put the tender grass beneath a huge layer of ice. Cattle couldn't break through to graze. Many died of exposure to the wind, the cold, and other predators.

Ranch owners, many of whom lived in Europe knew nothing of what was going on. Few if any stored hay for the winter. Few if any had the resources to hold the amount of hay needed to sustain herds this vast. Beneath the mounting snow, carcasses of thousands of animals lay hidden until the spring thaw.

As the snow and ice receded, the dead covered the plains, filled and blockaded streams, dammed rivers. It is estimated that more than ninety percent of the herds were now carcasses. The smell permeated the land for thousands of miles. The majority of stock growers went broke. The mere fact that the cattle had disappeared changed the way of the cowboy forever. Most lost their jobs and had to ride the chuck line -working for food and moving on. Ranches that once opened their bunk houses to those needing shelter were closed. With no livelihood, the cowboy turned to the only way he could make money, using a long rope, a running iron, and rustling cattle to stay alive.

The old ranch system, the trail drives, the industry itself - never recovered. The Big-Die -Up or the Great Cattle Extinction nearly killed off the American West.


Nan O'Berry  

1 comment:

Julie Lence said...

Such a sad time in history. Thankfully, our ranchers know much more now in the way of taking care of cattle, but still, living this close to Colorado's eastern plains, I know one can not always stop Mother Nature.