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Horses and Helicopters

“There’s definitely certain situations where the helicopter shines. But cutting pairs, sorting cattle, you can’t do that in a helicopter or a bike, that’s a horse job. The interesting thing is that people think it’s one or the other, but in combination, you can’t beat it.” 

In the dawn light on the Colorado high prairie, a pilot prepares his aircraft for flight. Diligence proves paramount; the rotor blades, fuel lines, fluids, and controls need to function flawlessly to maintain control and safety. He knows his helicopter well after thousands of hours seated at the controls. He double checks the components, and again for good measure. The engine starts, blades come to life, increasing in speed and slicing through the chilly morning air. The noise increases in rhythm and volume until a constant drone of rotor wash drowns the quiet songs of prairie birds. He seals the cockpit, fastens the five point harness, and lifts off, pointing the nose east towards the rising sun, stirring dust in his wake. A massive expanse fills the windscreen, and long shadows fall across the high prairie far below his skids. He can see for miles.

Across the headquarters yard from the helicopter deck, a team of riders ready their respective modes of transport in the same morning light. Requiring no mechanical checks or fuel–not petrol-based, anyway– their horses run on just grass and water. Long-serving ranch saddle horses, they know what’s expected of them today and shuffle in anticipation. The riders check their saddlebags, put boots to stirrups, and climb on. They have a herd to move, and the harsh Colorado sun waits for no one.

The pilot’s ride proves shorter. He can cover exponentially more ground, after all. Tiny shapes dot the landscape under the helicopter, hundreds of them, grazing lazily on the forage at their feet. These cattle know the approaching sound above and begin to move, condensing into a group, as herd animals do instinctually when presented with stimulus. The pilot pressures them gently from above, steering them, using the aircraft with surgical precision. Within moments, the group begins to follow a lead in the direction of fresh pasture. There are hundreds of cattle to gather this morning, and as the cattle begin to walk in the direction he wants, the pilot peels off in the direction of a sandy creek bottom to search for more.

Back on the ground, the group of riders have covered quite a bit of ground so far. They trot in unison, drumming hoofs and ringing spurs keeping the tempo of their movement. The sun, now entirely above the horizon, illuminates the lead cowboy. He reaches for a leather bandolier slung across his chest, raising a two-way radio to his face, and makes contact with someone on the other end. The pilot answers, voice punctuated by radio static and rotor wash. They have arrived in the pasture in a conjoined effort to move the herd by land and by air.

The scene unfolds like a western-action hybrid Hollywood script, but it’s just another day at Ranchlands. Using a combination of horses on the ground and a helicopter in the air, Duke Phillips III and his son Duke Phillips IV run a large-scale, multi-ranch cattle operation that blends conventional and modern methods, maximizing efficiency in daily operations while minimizing adverse effects on the environment in the process.

Duke III grew up on a large cattle ranch in northern Mexico, where the blending of tradition and modernity was just as striking, the remoteness of that ranch necessitating reliance on seemingly contradictory methods. A five hour drive from the nearest town, the residents of the ranch had to be largely self-sufficient, breeding and training their own horses, drilling their own water infrastructure, and repairing their own tack. Trucks and motor vehicles struggled to scale the steep, narrow trails on the land, so horses and mule-drawn wagons reigned king. These “old world,” romantic, quintessentially Western methods were tried, true, proven and remain utilitarian today at the ranches managed by the Phillips family. “I think it’s indicative of Ranchlands modus operandi, that we don’t do things because of the romance or ‘coolness,’ but because we have a bigger mission. So we’re looking for ways that we have fun and enjoy how we get the job done, as opposed to just being efficient or cool. Or trying to be cool,” says Duke III.

While the “bigger mission” completely defines the decision making process at Ranchlands, some nuanced romanticism sneaks in as a kind-hearted stowaway. Duke III, a lifetime pilot and horseman, says there is a time for both. “A big part of working on horseback is the camaraderie. Trotting around on a horse, with your colleagues, your friends, you’re talking, laughing, catching up with one another; you have time together while you are getting out to the back of the pasture you’re going to be working in. You’re enjoying working with an animal and building a relationship. It’s just something I’ve always enjoyed greatly. It’s where I come from and what partly made me who I am.”

In Mexico, nearly all the ranch owners in the area flew planes to make town runs, neighboring ranches, to make a quick trip across the border to Texas, crossing hours of rough, dirt roads through winding mountains in a matter of minutes or flying circles looking for missing animals. Both of Duke’s parents, Ruth and Duke II, flew in World War II, his mother Ruth as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, and his father Duke II a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot who got shot down over Burma. “At home in Mexico, Mom’s Cherokee Six airplane provided the chief form of transportation on town runs, medical evacuations, and even to birthday parties at the neighbors. We would see a dozen planes parked at a gathering.” The spirit of that Cherokee Six lives on in the skies over the western United States, as Duke III’s own Bonanza sports a trademark desert burnt orange color scheme. It is no exaggeration to call flying a Phillips family tradition, continuing on two generations later with Duke IV and, most recently, Duke’s oldest child Tess.

In 2012, Duke IV spent a season in Australia, where his experience running cattle in a dry environment with severe time constraints impressed upon him the game-changing nature of air support. Extreme monsoon seasons force Australian ranchers to operate within specific margins and to bring cattle to market before the desert turns to mud. Pair annual floods with massive acreages and smaller workforces, and the solution for many operators lies in the sky. Planes are used to resupply remote operations, survey the land, and check on sprawling herds exponentially more efficiently than land bound vehicles can, almost literally creating more labor hours available in a given day. “We always joke about adding the 8th day of the week, 30 hours to a day. We’re always trying to get more time, and aviation really allows that,” says Duke IV. Not only does aviation reduce the timeframe needed to accomplish a given task, it functions as a “force multiplier,” enabling a skeleton crew to complete the workload of a much larger team, which is especially necessary when managing hundreds of thousands of acres between a few people. The Australian usage of aircraft instilled a notion of “using the right tool for every job” in Duke IV, an idea that remains prevalent in day-to-day operations at Ranchlands when success hinges on time constraints. 

Duke IV overcame time constraints of his own when learning to fly a helicopter. Normally, the average would-be pilot spends a minimum of 3 months full time acquiring a license in flight school. Duke accomplished a commercial license in twenty-two days, since he only had three weeks of spare time: “I went in with no experience in helicopters but probably 6-700 hours of fixed wing time. I had a few weeks of free time and called around to see if it was possible. A lot of flight schools turned me away. I found Adam, a willing flight instructor in California, drove out in March, camped out in the hangar for 3 weeks and knocked it out. It was tough, physically and mentally, I think I crashed a helicopter a couple times a night in my dreams.” Clearly, maximizing effective use of time is foundational in the Ranchlands’ philosophy.

A helicopter works in tandem with a rider to turn back runaway cattle in Australia’s Northern Territories. Photo by Hakan Ludwigson.

Choosing the best tool for each job is a complicated matrix of cost-benefit analysis that must take into account expense and efficiency, as well as the less easily quantifiable variables of personnel skill level, environmental benefits, and human enjoyment. At Ranchlands, these tools include horses, aircraft, and dirtbikes. Covering ground on horseback yields an intimate and nuanced glimpse into the state of the land, as Duke III sees it. “When you’re on a horse, it connects you to the land so you can see what’s happening. You can see where the deer are, you can see where it’s rained, you can take a close look at the grass, you can get a better understanding of  the ecological conditions of the land and the wildlife.” Land is a rancher’s greatest resource and the level of detail afforded in quiet observation from the back of a horse is second to none. Observing biodiversity and the condition of the water cycle up close, and being close enough to literally hear the entire herd breathing reveals complex information needed to keep the environment in equilibrium.

Aerial views provide a complementary macro perspective. Seeing multiple pastures at once allows for a comparative assessment of grass and water on a larger scale, forming a vital component to creating grazing plans to keep the herd and the land healthy. Motorbikes, used primarily for checking livestock waterings and fences, fall in-between, providing an option that keeps personnel on the ground while still maintaining greater flexibility than a full-sized vehicle and greater efficiency than a horse. The notion of using both methods hand-in-hand creates the “toolbox” of methods utilized at Ranchlands, and it lends itself to nearly any situation that may arise: “I can get to the furthest point on this ranch in seven minutes, on horseback its two and one half hours. If we have a fire, a broken pipeline, a poaching situation or any other kind of emergency, I can get there fast. If we have a big water event, a flood, it used to take us two days to fix water gaps. Now we can get them all done before 11:00 am without tearing up the muddy roads, because I can shuttle people down the creek. There’s definitely certain situations where the helicopter shines. But cutting pairs, sorting cattle, you can’t do that in a helicopter or a bike, that’s a horse job. The interesting thing is that people think it’s one or the other, but in combination, you can’t beat it.”

To the inexperienced, it seems that moving a cattle herd with a helicopter would result in chaotic stampedes, but the opposite proves true. The maneuverability of the helicopter assists Duke in mitigating unnecessary stress on the animals. His extensive familiarity with cattle makes him equal parts pilot and stockman, and knowing exactly when and how much pressure to apply to a herd to keep them moving without causing a breakdown: “You could create a big wreck if you had a helicopter pilot without any stock sense pushing them to get it done as quickly as possible. Half the time when I’m moving, it’s really busy in the beginning, getting everything walking, then I’ll go land and they’ll walk themselves. It’s really easy. A good move is really boring a lot of the time.  I can do it in a fraction of the time without any production. Having that ability to move to the exact right place, at the perfect time makes the amount of control substantial. And it’s fun.”  

In ranching, using modern methods can teeter on the edge of controversy. The embrace of motorcycles and ATVs, not to mention helicopters and airplanes, is derided by some as a  departure from the traditional, romantic history of the western cowboy lifestyle. But in reality, a purely horseback workday has never been the case, even for ranchers without flying machines. Overall, only a small percentage of ranch work is spent herding or moving cattle herds; instead, the bulk is spent maintaining infrastructure and problem solving. “I think it’s a romance that’s attached to ranching and cowboys riding; horses are a part of that vision that someone has. A lot of cowboys that apply for jobs will say ‘I’ll come to work but only on a horse. I won’t do fencing and I won’t do mechanic work.’ That’s an extreme case, but a lot of people see ranching and cowboying like this. As a rancher, you realize that the time spent out with cattle is maybe 20% of the time, the rest of it is fixing fences and in the shop making repairs; it’s a big facility that needs to be maintained. So I think that’s why you have this negativity towards it; it’s a perception that people have. It’s a personal, maybe an emotional thing.” Emotions aside, modern methods enable ranchers to maintain the land and health of the herd more efficiently. When used in conjunction with traditional methods, we remain true to our heritage, but continue to improve and be better stewards of the land.

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