By Drew Slattery

The American Rancher

February 22, 2021

How the old-school cowboy identity can adapt to a connected world and play the crucial role in the future of sustainable beef. 

In a world with self-driving cars and smartphones, the weathered hands and dusty-chaps identity of American ranchers might feel like an aging caricature to some, or a painful reminder of American westward expansion into land long stewarded by Indigenous American Indians. 

But, while both of these perceptions are certainly true, I want to make the case for another way to view the rancher identity: as the key to a future where truly sustainable beef production is not only possible, but the norm. 

Cowboys are the key to sustainability? Hear me out.  

A Common Thread

On paper, a day in the life for a  beef cattle rancher in central Florida and a rancher in Montana couldn’t possibly be any different. While one might be managing their herd of hundreds of animals on a ranch smaller than most big city malls, amidst heat, hurricanes, and invasive tropical pests; the other is managing their herd of thousands spread across hundreds of miles through blizzard conditions, wildfire, and predator population expansions. 

But listen to the conversation as a Montana cattle producer and a Florida cattle producer share a steak dinner and talk about their day, and I bet you immediately notice the common thread of the ‘cowboy identity’.

Aesthetics and historical contexts of the cowboy aside, ask most cattle ranchers what is central to the identity of the cowboy and you are likely to get some version of the same thing. A deep connection to the land they work and animals they raise, a commitment to a strong work ethic and problem solving in the face of any adversity, a sense of self-reliance and independence, and dedication to serving their community. 

Sustainability: What’s Old is New Again 

While the specific scientific measurements of what makes beef sustainable or not might vary depending on who’s set of metrics you are looking at – in order to move beef production closer to anyone’s version of sustainability, it is going to take ranchers. 

On paper, the differences between the context of a beef supply chain sustainability goal and a goal you might see in a cowboy’s diary probably aren’t that different: 

  • Overcome difficult obstacles and engineer solutions to provide for a better future? Check. 
  • Do the right thing as stewards for the animals and for the land? Check. 
  • Take care of my own business so people in town or regulators don’t have to? Check again. 

Sustainability goals are really just fancied-up cowboy goals. I believe by framing sustainable cattle production as a method of production steeped in cowboy tradition and identity, something that is a part of that identity not separate from, we can more effectively and efficiently motivate cattle producers to make the sustainability changes they can.

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