By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
Of all the great philosophical arguments, and all the dominating current events, I feel one of the greatest things in society is overlooked… cow trails. Growing up in the middle of nowhere with no pavement and being one of the best bicyclists in the world (in my mind only), cow trails appealed to me at an early age. My fondness for the diminutive bovine highways has stuck with me. One time as a youngster I talked my Dad into letting me help gather the cattle for branding on my bike–we were gathering one of the few relatively flat fields on the ranch. I was enjoying rolling down the smooth cow trails, in my mind doing bicycle feats that no one had done before. Turns out our remote, big country cows didn’t respond well or even appreciate the 10-year-old cyclist, even if I was the greatest bicyclist in the world. Even the horses didn’t like it or the people on their backs. When cows heads go up and they move off at a rapid clip, that is the cue that you are doing something that makes them uncomfortable. Horses didn’t bother the cows, four wheelers and pickups didn’t bother the cows; you probably could have driven an ambulance through those cows with lights and sirens on, and it wouldn’t have bothered the cows as much as a ten-year-old on a five speed mountain bike. Low-stress cattle handling being an important part of our operation, the bicycle gathering met an untimely end. Despite the abrupt end for my bicycle cattle gathering career, my admiration for cow trails continued, and strangely enough, I may have contracted something from the cows that day. Because now, I have a similar disdain as those cows when I come across an unyielding cyclist on a narrow road.
The cow trail is far more important than just the role it played for the amateur adolescent cyclist. The cow trail really is a thing of beauty, and I say “cow trail” because the trails made by the yearling bovine is far less sophisticated than that of a mature cow. The youthful animal has not yet mastered the combination of laziness and efficiency to match that of the cow when it comes to trail construction. The pasture inhabited by the weaned calves or yearlings will have trails going straight up and down hills, exhibiting that youthful impatience doesn’t allow for efficiency and sophistication. The real cow trail makes perfect grades, contouring hills and valleys to connect the farthest reaches of the pasture to the water trough. Given the right moisture content, the correct composition of the soil with just enough clay, cows will make a trail with absolutely zero pitch from side to side, no matter how steep the hillside they traverse. It is important to keep in mind, cows have absolutely no idea that they are making trails and still end up with engineer grade construction. Cows, on accident, will often make better roads than the best engineer the State bureaucrats have on staff.
The consistency of the grade that cows set to get from a low elevation to a higher elevation is maybe unmatched in man or nature. I learned from my grandpa and my dad to try to find a cow trail when pioneering a new road around a hillside with a dozer, because cows always take a consistent grade. The same lesson was taught by them to me when putting in a pipe line where you are trying to avoid high spots that might air lock in a gravity flow situation. The hillside trails created by cows also creates consistent terracing that prevents erosion when heavy rains come. Another benefit, and possibly most important, is the countless grass fires that have stopped at cow trails. Despite my personal magnetism to cow trails because of the beauty and efficiency of their construction, cow trails are a benefit to the environment as they combat erosion and wildfire. Cow trails don’t exist without cattle grazing and cattlemen. I didn’t know the economic and ecological benefit at the time my admiration started, just a little kid on a bike, rolling down a smooth cattle highway.