Never ask a man the size of his spread

I’m a city kid.  I don’t always know the cowboy way or the “Code of the West“.  I have asked many questions over the years that, in mixed company, may not have gotten a straight answer.

One particular question especially brings some ranch-folk to the edge of their patience:  “How many acres do you have?”.  City-folk are unaware of the question they are asking of a rancher.  To a rancher, what they are really asking is, “how much are you worth?” or “how much money is in your bank account?”.

Minnesota Prairie Roots author, Audrey Helbling, and I have been discussing the code via email.  She tells me her experience is much different among midwest farmers.  In fact, it seems to be a badge of some kind to announce the size of their spread.

To me–a city kid–that question was really just asking in order to understand the vastness of a ranch.  Growing up in a house, on a lot versus many acres without a neighbor for miles is hardly comprehensible, this question just seems to give a frame of reference.

But, alas, it is the code of the west to never ask a man the size of his spread.

A must read by Gladiola Montana!

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15 thoughts on “Never ask a man the size of his spread

  1. I shall remember this should I ever venture down to New Mexico. Should you travel up north to Minnesota, feel free to inquire about acreage. It’s interesting how something even as seemingly innocent as asking about acreage can evoke such different responses depending on geographical region. I learn so much from your stories of ranch life. Keep the stories coming so this Midwesterner can continue learning.

  2. Hysterical…..I would have asked the same question. I grew up in New Jersey, so you can imagine my frame of reference when it comes to acreage. Also, I was born in New York City and I always giggle when you refer to yourself as a city-kid. Its all a matter of perspective I guess.

  3. I’ve found etiquette differs from region to region on asking a man the size of his spread. ( and yes, sometimes with not so friendly of a response) When I ranch handed in the Midwest, (Ohio) folks bragged about their acreage as did those in most the Southern states I worked at. I never worked in the East. (I think they just eat cattle and don’t bother with raising them.)Out west in Idaho from where I was raised, it seemed OK to ask but like the Midwest, many ranches shared the land with farms. I discovered in Texas a person would think you’re rude to ask and just might up and walk out on you with an expletive following. I think the difference is whether the land in the region is being farmed or grazed. Farmers are extremely conscience of the size of their tillable and non tillable land. They try to squeeze every bushel of crop from each acre and it’s not unusual for farmers to share their secrets to each other. The farmers I know just don’t seem concerned if a body knows how much they till or leave fallow. I wonder if the real difference in etiquette originated from the ‘free range’ days out west when fences (marked out acreage or ‘size of spread’) caused such animosity. Back then it was wise to hold close to your chest your herd size and how much you were going to drive to market and when.The real reason today is probably more like, “ just mind your own business Bubb!”

  4. Spot on! As a child, my parents would always remind us never to repeat any of their “business” to others, this included discussion of acreage. Here in Nebraska, where farming is the main source of income in rural areas, most know each others farms and how large they are. They also share acreage yields, costs of production, etc. with no reservations. I have often thought about on how ranchers and farmers differ on this. I believe one reason ranchers are less likely to share this information is the concern they have on how it would be understood. If you tell a “city person” that you operate on 50,000 acres, they considered you a rich land baron. They would have no understanding on what the term “land poor” means. They would have no idea what little profit is actually made most years- all they would understand is the extremely large amount of real estate. Now if you took the time a explained to them that it took 50 acres to feed one cow, that one cow produced one calf, the chance that calf would remain alive is ninety-five percent, and would bring one dollar a pound on the market, then they might begin to understand the ranching business! Most people, however, would still have no idea. So, unless you want to give an introductory course in ranching economics each time someone asks “how big is your spread?”, it’s easier just to answer they way I was taught and just say “I really don’t know”! Again, you hit the “nail on the head” with this blog

    • My wife uses the “don’t know” tactic. That does not seem believable. I usually say something vague, like, “up that road to the cattle guard and past that ridge.”
      I wrote about this very issue too.
      http://cowboylawyer.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/outlaw-hideout/
      People who ask about numbers of acres or numbers of cows probably do not mean to be rude, but would be offended if asked how much they are paid for their job, or how much their house cost, or what they paid for their car. They just don’t think those economic questions are the same as asking a rancher basically, “How much do you own?”

  5. Out West you also never ask how many cow/calf pairs you run or basically, “how many cows do you have?”. As you well know, having cattle, it’s just like the land thing, it is indeed like asking, “How much money you got?” Yes, “…do you have?” is correct…not “got”, though that’s the way it comes out. 😉
    ~d.

  6. I agree with the view out here…so very true! Yeah you do not ask as it is a private thing…it is the value of your ranch in a way when someone asks how much land do you own and how many cows….it is kind of like a slap in the face…and considered rude….one of those unwritten laws in the code of the west…..and yes often I have found that people who live in cities think we ranchers and farmers are rich due to size of ranch and herd….it is funny but the whole time I have lived here in the so called North Country from the town we are closest to…we are immediately thought of as wealthy and living in the land of plenty….he ha ha….no we just work our buns off 24/7 and try to do it right….any money we make goes back into the property and herd….vacations…what? time off….when? Lots of money….where?

  7. Reading this sure tickled me!! I can’t tell you how many times I have told someone that I didn’t really know how many acres we had. Don’t you know the “city folks” must think that it is nuts not to know what you have! But we sure aren’t going to”brag” about the size of our place here in New Mexico! I wonder if you ever asked me that question when we first met? Haha, now look at you…at one with the cowboy code!! I am LOVING your blog!

    • I had heard “I don’t know” a time or two, for sure!

      I don’t know if I would’ve asked you or not! We were too focused on Chi Omega and chasing college boys–or at least I was! 😉

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