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Monday, September 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Chuck Oxley
BRUNEAU, Idaho Only an authentic cowboy could live by himself for weeks at a time on a rocky and remote patch of ground in Idaho's central Owyhee County, a stretch of the interior West where cattle outnumber people by an untold margin.
At age 29, Jeremy Mink is the real deal a buckaroo with a handlebar mustache, a .38-caliber revolver strapped to his side and a familial commitment to the herd of 1,400 cattle he lives with year-round.
"Good cowboys and good hands don't make things happen. They set it up and let it happen," Mink says. "The objective isn't to see how tired you can make your horse."
Mink works for rancher Chris Black. Together, the two manage Black's herd on 187 square miles of private and leased public lands.
Today's art of cowboying is the same as it was 150 years ago, when cowboys in the Spanish vaquero tradition roamed mountain ranges and low-slung plains.
But in some ways, today's cowboy is as high-tech as he is high plains.
Tools of the trade
Global positioning units tell cowboys where they are. Handheld computers allow them to accurately record range conditions. Biomedical research allows them to vaccinate calves for up to 15 diseases at a time.
Black's family has run cattle in Owyhee County since 1876. His tall, lean frame wears the cowboy uniform perfectly tight jeans, a black muscle shirt and a wide-brimmed Western straw hat.
Soft-spoken and judicious with his words, the 45-year-old former track athlete and martial-arts expert says motorcycles, four-wheelers and pickups are just as important as horses. But it's the technology of the past 20 years that has added so much to the profession.
And formal education in ecology, biology, engineering and business management has changed the cowboy himself.
"We use methods that are more in tune with the environment, and we use a holistic approach to management," Black says. "We're looking for a way to enhance the system and still be here."
But Black says the hardest thing about being a 21st-century ranch owner has been getting used to talking to people overcoming his natural shyness.
"Talking to people is new to us we didn't do that in the past," he says. "We have to be aggressive and get our point across to people."
Valedictorian to vaquero
Mink is a compact, wiry man who admits with a smile that he's "wound a little tight." Maybe it's the solitude of the mountains. Maybe it's the quarts of strong, black coffee he drinks every day.
His chattiness belies the cowboy stereotype, as does his flat-brimmed Australian-style leather hat.
A class valedictorian with a 3.98 grade-point average, Mink could have chosen almost any career path. Yet, like his father, also a cowboy, he longed for the solitary range life.
"It's cliché, but I guess I was born about 50 years too late," he says. "The kids I grew up with, there was a difference between how we understood work and play. People would ask me what my dad did, and I said, 'He didn't have a job he didn't have time for one.' "
From April until June, Mink lives several hours away from any passable road. In July, he moves closer to home at the small house known simply as "cow camp," 3-1/2 miles from the nearest maintained dirt road.
Although Mink is Black's employee, the relationship goes deeper. Both men come from longtime Owyhee County families that have known each other for generations. Their mutual respect comes across even when they're apart.
"You won't find a better hand than him," Mink says matter-of-factly from the driver's seat of his pickup, as Black rides on the flatbed, spreading water in a dusty corral in preparation for the next day's branding operation.
Black's range runs along a north-south strip of land in central Owyhee County a county larger than the state of New Jersey with just over 11,000 residents.
During spring and summer, cattle graze openly at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. As fall approaches, the herd is trailed down into the valley, where it will spend the winter.
A day in the life
In summertime, Mink rises about 3:45 each morning to ready the herd's next move. Three or four border collies hop on his motorcycle, balancing themselves on the back fender and handlebars as they ride out to meet the cows.
Through the day, he'll keep them moving at a slow pace until around noontime, or whenever the temperature climbs high enough to halt the day. The cattle "shade up," and Mink catches a nap or reads.
In the late afternoon, the animals stir as he takes charge again for a few hours. As the sun sets, Mink reaches into his kit bag and pulls out his Palm Pilot. He records the day's activities, along with the high and low temperatures, the weather and anything else of interest.
Later, Black will download that information into his home computer, building a historical database of everything that happens on the ground. The information is used to put together range-management plans required by federal agencies that lease out 95 percent of Black's range.
Midsummer is also the time when Black and other ranchers hold to the time-honored tradition of calf branding. Neighbors and friends are called in to help out. "It's a social thing," he says.
Charlie Lyons, a 38-year-old cowboy from a neighboring ranch, has driven his truck to the Blacks' cow camp after putting up fences all day. Lyons, Black and Mink manage a few hours of sleep before rising at 4 a.m. to eat breakfast and exchange some good-natured ribbing.
They then strap on spurs and leather chaps and head into the darkness to get the horses and drive more than 100 head into a waiting corral.
Branding: how it's done
To the uninitiated, cow branding can be a shocking and brutal experience.
First, the calves are separated from their mothers. Then one at a time, a mounted horseman lassos a neck or leg and drags the animal to the branding area. The calf is stretched by the legs to hold him tight. Two needles are stabbed into the neck, and the ears are notched to help with long-distance identification.
An electric branding iron, kept hot by a generator, burns through the animal's hair and produces a strong, musky odor. The calf howls with pain when the iron hits flesh.
If it's a male, the animal is castrated. A razor-sharp knife quickly cuts away the sack, and the testicles are drawn out, sliced away and thrown into a bucket.
If the animal has horns, a de-horning iron is pressed onto each side of the head, burning any spurs off at the white core and preventing any future growth. De-horning prevents animals from injuring each other later.
It's all done in about 2-1/2 minutes.
The cowboys work stoically but intently, taking neither pleasure nor regret at the obvious suffering of the animals. The point is just to get it done quickly.
Others join in the work in late morning, including Black's wife, Dixie, and their children; Joseph, 16, Justin, 12, and Bridget, 8.
Dixie works in nearby Glenns Ferry as a small-business owner and real-estate saleswoman. She clearly enjoys the ranch life, gulping beer as she wrestles calves to the ground with her patented "commando move" basically a body tackle.
Joseph doesn't like dealing with the animals, though he works hard building fences during the summer. But Justin jumps right in, bloodying his hands as he castrates the males.
If Black has any designs on turning the operation over to his family when he's older, Mink says, he'll go with the ranch.
"I told him he could fire me, but I won't leave," Mink says.
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