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Column: The not-so-idyllic life of a rancher

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A pair of grease- and dirt-stained jeans is an accurate image of ranching. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)2 / 2

"People think ranching is so idyllic, like all we do is ride horses to check cows all day. They don't see this part. Maybe if they did, they'd appreciate their next meal a little more."

"This part" for Shelly Ziesch was the work she and her husband, Robin, were doing the day I visited them, tuning up the corn chopper and truck for silage season. She chuckled a little as she said it. And I chuckled as I nodded in agreement.

It's less than "idyllic" for my husband to work 12- or 14-hour days, six days a week. (He takes it easy on Sunday and only feeds cows. In the winter, that still can mean eight hours or more, depending on snow and the general cooperation of equipment.) I wouldn't call it "idyllic" to be up calving all night in frigid January and February temperatures, as my Dad and many, many other seedstock producers in this region do.

People off the ranch rarely know about those days. Which, really, are most days.

I was still thinking about that conversation as I drove home from the Ziesch's ranch. They live in the county to the west of where I live, and I took the route home that goes by a pasture my husband is renting. I figured it wouldn't hurt to make sure the cows were in their fences.

And, on the way home, they weren't.

It's a rented pasture with an old fence consisting of woven sheep fence on the bottom of the posts and two strands of barbed wire on top. The cows and calves have found new ways of escaping with stunning regularity.

I could hear the frustration in my husband's voice when I called to deliver the news, so I told him I'd do my best to get them back in. I prayed the fence wasn't actually down, since I don't routinely carry fencing supplies to my interviews.

Thankfully, the flashes of black and red I spied as I came up the road turned out only to be four calves. Still, four calves along a road with a 60 mph speed limit could be dangerous, so I scampered to cut off the progress of two calves that were trying to see if the grass was, in fact, greener on the other side of the fence.

So, there I was, in a nice pair of jeans and my best boots and my new Agweek pullover, sprinting down the pavement, racing a pair of overgrown calves.

Idyllic indeed.

I won the race, thankfully and, to be honest, somewhat miraculously. I silently considered that I should take up jogging as I pushed the calves back toward their mothers.

The calves showed me their tricks, squeezing their fleshy bodies between the sheep fence and the barbed wire. Their two partners already had jumped back in by the time I straightened out some wire and made it to my car.

So, I went on my way, hair tangled and stuck to my sweaty neck. And I remembered what Robin Ziesch said while his wife and I were talking:

"But we did sign up for this."

It's true. We all knew what ranching meant back when we decided to buy cows or to marry someone with cows.

I don't know whose fault it is that the image many people have of ranchers is someone on horseback, silhouetted against a glowing sunset or a majestic mountain. But maybe consumers would appreciate their hamburgers and steaks a little more if we replace those images with ones of grease-stained hands working on a silage chopper, a crazed woman racing to get the calves in, boots kicking at the dust-dry pastures in July or manure-stained Carhartts protecting the rancher pulling calves when the temperature is -30.

It's not complaining to tell those stories. It's reality. And it's the true story of the life we chose, idyllic or not.

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