Iowa

Now that it's officially Spring, it should be 'safe' to look back and pat ourselves on the back for making it through a particularly long and harsh winter. Of course, some folks really went the extra mile to help those stalled by that March 2 blizzard that brought two feet of snow, 50 mile-an-hour winds and eight-foot drifts that closed interstates, businesses and schools. A young ranch hand in Bridgewater not only went the extra mile, he went four.

Chris Madrid is his name. He knew that other workers couldn't make it in during that blizzard and he couldn't drive there, so he walked; four miles in white-out conditions to feed cows he didn't even own and ensure their safety. He wasn't expecting a bonus or even a pat on the back. In fact, when asked, he puts his head down and shrugs a dismissive "I've been through worse."

Chris Madrid is a cowboy. A real one. The road that brought him to work as a ranch hand for a cattle operation in Bridgewater, Iowa unwinds slow and easy like a humble yarn from an old Louis L'Amour book.

By the age of 24, Madrid had already seen more of the country by horseback than most have seen from their SUV. Madrid spent recent years drifting through the West like tumbleweed, taking work as a ranch hand and breaking horses for a living in Montana, New Mexico and West Texas. These are 70-hour weeks, where friendships last a lot longer than paychecks; most ranch hands don't earn much more than $20,000 a year.

You can't help but get the feeling that it would take an awful lot to get under his skin. But the one thing that does bother Chris like a cocklebur in the boot, are the activists who influence consumers' beliefs about livestock producers and how they raise their animals. "I suppose they've always been around. But these people are well organized now, have a lot of money and are well educated. They know the ropes; they know how to do these things, what audience to target," says Chris.

In Adair County, where this young cowboy hangs his hat, livestock producers make an appealing 'target' for activists. They raise 53,000 head of cattle. Of course, that number doesn't come close to Iowa's biggest cattle producer, Sioux County, with 235,000 head.

But, these cows do more than end up on your plate; raising them is a living for ranch hands like Chris; their care, transportation, feeding and breeding puts food on the table for those families, too. Madrid has a girlfriend of two and a half years, and has a dream of owning his own place, raising cattle and his own 'herd' of kids.

In a time when folks hold weddings for their dogs and buy tiaras for their cats, it's only natural that people want to think the cow had a happy life before it ended up as steak on their plate. But, the lawsuits and venomous editorials from animal activists threaten the way of life for ranch hands like Madrid and the veteran cattlemen they serve.

"Sure, there are some guys who raise livestock for the money. But there are a lot more who do it because they love the way of life and truly care for the animals. That's the world we need them to see," says Madrid. Maybe a few of those critics should ride a few miles in Chris's saddle, to truly 'get it.'

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