Behind the Barn Door

Internships at working ranches offer a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to be a good hand.

By Katie Navarra

Riding across open ranch lands, a warm breeze whipping through your hair and your horse’s mane—it’s the classic image that comes to mind when you envision a working ranch. It’s a romanticized dream that many entertain, at least briefly in their minds. Turning it into reality, however, can be a little more challenging than conjuring daydreams.

Working ranch communities are close-knit, and both day workers and long-time ranch hands share a code that prioritizes the livestock and personifies the lifestyle of long days and rugged terrain. Finding a ranch-hand job without connections can be challenging, and is often mademore successful with a solid reference.

For those who are willing to work hard, there are opportunities to knock off the greenhorn and work toward becoming a seasoned hand. Grit, even more than experience, is the ticket to that opportunity.

Lasting Experiences

Sam Phillips, a management trainee for Five Rivers Feedyard in Kersey, Colorado, didn’t grow up on a ranch. His grandfather owned a small Longhorn herd in Texas, and Sam always hurried out to see the animals whenever he visited. Frequent relocations for his father’s job took the family from California to the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

“We always spent a week at my grandparents, and I’d be out to help him feed at 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.” Sam said. “My grandfather was always outside doing some kind of work, and I always wanted to be outside with him, even if it was raining.”

Sam attended Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and a class field trip to the R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas, posed an opportunity he had never considered—an internship on a working ranch. Donnell and Kelli Brown have welcomed more than 50 interns over more than two decades to the ranch, where they run a herd of approximately 1,000 Red Angus seedstock on 6,000 acres in North Central Texas. Their interns get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make the ranch run smoothly.

At the Brown Ranch, interns are responsible for feeding and saddling the horses so they’re ready to embark on the day’s jobs by 6:30 a.m. The goal is to wrap up by 5 or 6 p.m. each day, but a broken fence, a sick cow or a storm often means the job isn’t through at quitting time.

“There are a lot of unglamorous chores here that they pitch in and help with,” Kelli said. “They dig ditches and help pick up rocks off the side of the road so they don’t ruin a tire. Scrubbing water troughs in extreme conditions and cleaning manure out of the artificial insemination barns is all part of it.”

Sam credits his success at his current feed yard post to the lessons imparted by the Browns. Hesaw firsthand the importance of pasture rotations and management to avoid overgrazing. Ranchers have always had to make sure their cattle had enough to eat and drink, but changing climates have made it necessary to more strategically manage the resources.

“For the most part, we were moving bulls and cow/calf pairs from pasture to pasture all on horseback,” he said. “It taught me how to handle cattle safely and properly.”

The Browns leverage their connections within the ranching community to help graduates of their program find full-time positions.

“If someone does a good job and will make a good hand, we make an above-normal effort of helping them with a reference or recommendation,” Kelli said. “We have a village of people all over the country. They call us because they know we have young people working with us and ask if we know any who would be good workers.”


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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