When some folks think about the cowboy life or ranch life, they think of being horseback 24/7. In fact, there are a fair number of cowboys I’ve met in the past few years who only want to be horseback. If they can’t do it from the back of a horse, then they don’t think it applies to the ranch. I once had a guy tell me that if he had to irrigate for a job, he would figure out how to do it horseback.

Whitehurst marci
Freelance Writer
Marci Whitehurst is a freelance writer, ranch wife and the mother of three children. You can foll...

I mean, you can ride your horse to go move a wheel line, but a four-wheeler works a lot better if you’re dragging K-lines.

The movies always show the glamorous aspects of ranching as well, like moving cows, beautiful sunsets …

Does this align with what your workdays look like?

Sure, it’s a part of life – nice sunsets and gathering pastures – but it is a small part of our daily lives. Granted, I also work off the ranch, so my days look different anyway. But I can tell you that a lot of time is spent doing dirty work and office work.


Lest you think I’m a bit ditzy after my column about not using a map in North Dakota, let me assure you that I do know how to read one – and I know I ought to have had one with me on that trip. However, I did expect to be with a group of people and truly thought I was following our wedding party. I didn’t find a gas station on the whole adventure to stop and buy a map. It wasn’t one of my proudest moments, but when you expect to show up at a wedding reception and end up at a funeral … well, those stories aren’t meant to be kept to yourself, even if they don’t shed the best light on yourself.

The point is, regardless of my map story, studying and learning are a big part of our ranching operation.

We’ve come to learn the rhythms of ranch life that work for us. Much of what we learn comes through trial and error, but we also try to take classes, read books, visit blogs and review research. Sometimes it applies to us, sometimes it doesn’t. Regional research varies because climate and forage differ, depending on location. (Of course, this publication shares a lot of useful information that works across the U.S.)

One tool we’ve grown to love and appreciate perhaps more than any in all our learning is a solid spreadsheet. 

They are handy when working cattle: Someone (usually me) stands at the chute and helps with shots and records as cattle come through. We record weight, body condition, health stats and demeanor. If there’s one that says “crazy” in the demeanor column, she isn’t going to stick around.

Recently, we preg checked the cows. We recorded the obvious (open or bred) and double-checked their tags and weight. If it seemed like a cow was carrying a calf that was larger than expected, we documented an earlier calving date, all inside the handy-dandy columns of a spreadsheet. Since their tag numbers were already recorded, it was fairly easy to find their numbers and input information. The crew had already recorded if the calf was a steer or a heifer during calving season, which made things even easier.

In fact, you know that look that can happen when you see a shiny new saddle? Or a new pair of spurs? Or freshly braided reins and romal? Or a nicely stacked row of hay? The one where the eyes get a little glazed and starry-eyed? I’ve seen that look over a perfect spreadsheet.

And if there’s a color-coded pie chart? Well, that’s like dessert before dinner.

We have charts for precipitation, breeding, calving, overall health, weight gains, pasture rotations and forage growth, irrigation usage, feed rations, etc. It sounds extreme to some, but when all the records are easy to pull up, it is a snap to keep tabs on the business. While we all love and appreciate the ranching lifestyle, that alone doesn’t pay the bills; it has to be combined with business acumen.

The business end of things helps the crew make decisions about the herd each year. There are the obvious cows to cull – but if there is one in question, a quick scan of a spreadsheet helps solidify which way to go.

Now, I know we are approaching the holiday season and there are items on the wish list like new gloves, new tires, new fencing pliers, books and clothing, but if I could possibly come up with a new spreadsheet, I think my cowboy’s eyes might light up. I’m not sure what to do yet, but perhaps I could put some columns together. Maybe a spreadsheet about spreadsheets …