WATKINSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — If you don't think they're serious about sustainability out at the University of Georgia's J. Phil Campbell Sr. Research and Education Center in Oconee County, then you haven't seen the revolutionary, yet old-fashioned, way they're tending their cattle herd.
Instead of herding cattle with trucks, humans on foot, or Kawasaki "mules," they're doing it with horses and men — not cowboys, but stockmen.
It's the old way, but it's a new way for many ranchers or farmers who raise cattle, said Richard Boatwright, who rides herd on the Campbell farm's cattle along with C.J. O'Mara.
"This is commonplace in many areas of the country, and it's good for the cattle and good for the people," said Boatwright, 42, who managed a Wyoming ranch before coming to work at UGA.
"Every now and then, people see us working with horses and they look at you kind of funny," said farm supervisor Eric Elsner. But he's come to believe horses and his two stockmen are better for the pastures and better for the cattle.
"I'd rather have a horse hoof print on my pasture than a 20-foot doughnut," he said.
UGA's herd numbers between 400 and 500 at any given time on the Oconee County farm, whose 1,050 acres includes about 650 acres of forage or pasture, he said.
At times, tending the herd is a full-time job for the two men, though at some times of the year the cattle may take up only about half their work time, Elsner said.
The cattle are used by UGA researchers investigating a range of questions related to cattle, forage and keeping farms and pastures sustainable.
Boatwright, whose official UGA job description is "Farmworker II," and O'Mara, a senior agricultural specialist, ride cow ponies, two American quarter horse mares named Crystal and Sunny.
Sunny's quick and what stockmen call light-footed, while Crystal is strong with a low center of gravity, Boatwright said.
The cows just seem to relate better to horses and riders than to humans on foot or in a vehicle, O'Mara said.
Cattle seem to instinctively see two-legged humans as predators, but they don't have to overcome that fear with horses, Boatwright said. To a cow, a horse is first a fellow four-footed vegetarian, a creature that some level speaks the same language, albeit a different dialect, he maintains.
Riding the range on horseback is one of America's most romantic images, but working the herd with horses is just plain practical and cost-efficient, said Elsner and his stockmen.
"The J. Phil Campbell sort of philosophy is sustainability, and working cattle with horses basically is sustainable. The tires don't go flat on a horse," Boatwright said.
"Some people say it's just another mouth to feed," O'Mara said.
But the cost is low, Boatwright said. It costs less than $1 per day to maintain a horse, he estimated.
They do admit that herding cattle on a horse is more fun than doing it on foot or in a vehicle.
"You almost don't need to tell the horses what they need to do. It's easier on us, and it's easier on them (the cattle)," O'Mara said.
And though the work seems slower on a horse than on a motorized vehicle, it's not, they say.
"If you're quiet and savvy, you're going to get it done," O'Mara said.
The role of stockman is somewhat new for O'Mara, who grew up in a south Florida city before studying at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton and the University of Georgia.
But Boatwright, another University of Georgia graduate, is in a way following in his father's footsteps.
"My dad was a cowboy in central Florida. I grew up riding horses and roping chickens," he said. His father taught him to rope by having him lasso chickens, he explained.
Boatwright hopes UGA's use of horses and stockmen will accomplish another goal besides sustainability and reducing psychological stress on the university's cattle.
"If we can preserve these skills, I'd be a happy fellow," he said.
Information from: Athens Banner-Herald, http://www.onlineathens.com