What is the role of ranching in the economy and society of the West?

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Ranching allowed the West to be commercially viable whenever minerals were not available. Land was cheap on the Plains, and one could control many thousands of acres for less than one could in the East.

Controlling water rights was and is very important for ranchers. Many of the largest landowners in the West were rich Easterners or Europeans seeking to create a "cattle kingdom." These people knew little about raising cattle; rather, they employed ranch managers and cowboys who provided the labor for the enterprise. The most successful ranchers during the days of the cattle drives fought homesteaders for water and designed large houses in order to proclaim their wealth.

This system of ranching was popular between the end of the Civil War and approximately 1886, when there were thousands of cattle on the open range and a demand for beef in the East. If one had enough capital to buy cattle and employ cowboys, one could make a great deal of money in this enterprise. Cowboys were paid very little considering that their lives were in constant danger; like most of the laboring class during the Gilded Age, the American cowboy had a hard life and a relatively short career, as many left the profession to do other jobs after a few years of driving cattle.

While ranch culture still exists, it is not as large of an enterprise as it was during the late 1800s. A series of blizzards in the winter of 1886–1887 killed hundreds of cattle. The price of cattle also fell. Many ranchers are still on the Plains, and some of them still use the land their ancestors used over one hundred years ago, but vehicles, drones, and helicopters now make it possible to move stock from one area to another more efficiently than using underpaid cowboys. Hired hands are still in use by some of the largest ranches, but they have access to more technology tools in order to work more cattle. The era of the open range is over, as ranchers can now move their stock to market using semi-trucks rather than railroads.

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