TRAVEL; The brand-new cowgirls

On a women-only ranch in Kansas, Sue Nelson finds herding cattle surprisingly easy
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The Independent Culture
TAG number 23 runs down the squeeze chute and pokes its neck through the tailgate. Karen, a junk-bond trader from Austen, Texas, clicks a lever into position. "Now pull!" orders the ranch manager. We heave the metal contraption on to its side, the calf sandwiched within, positioning an electric branding iron above the exposed flank. I lower and press. Steam billows, the hide sizzles and there's the unmistakable smell of burnt hair. When the calf jerks I lift the iron, as instructed, and place it once again over the freshly scorched mark. "You may have to rock the iron," Koger advises, "to get to the tips."

The result is a clean letter J, the colour of untanned leather. My ranch holiday in the American Midwest is underway: I have just successfully branded my very first calf.

The J is for the calf's owner. Jane Koger: fourth-generation Kansan rancher and a no-nonsense kind of woman. "Your pockets," she warns briskly, "are peeing height for calves." We all take a step backwards.

Jane's Homestead Ranch occupies 5,000 acres of tall grass prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills. It was only after buying the ranch, in 1979, that she discovered the remains of her great-grandparents' log cabin on her newly acquired land. She started taking in hands-on paying guests six years later and those here for the branding weekend are a diverse bunch, ranging in age from early thirties to late seventies. They include bankers, an osteopath, a teacher and two police officers. The one thing they have in common is that everyone, including ranch hands, is female.

Jane cites several reasons for running a women-only ranch. "One was to give women the opportunity but I also like the way women handle livestock. They work smart not strong." For those of us less familiar with livestock, Jane issues two pages of bedtime reading to assist the workings of our female intuition, an agricultural report entitled Cow Psychology. It advises where to stand in order to move a cow and, importantly, how to get it where you want it to go.

Herding - on foot, not horseback - is surprisingly easy. Just place yourself behind the cow, between 7 and 8 o'clock, and once you invade its circular flight zone - or body space - it will move forward to the right. Between 3 and 4 o'clock and it will move to the left. Step a few paces back and the cow stops. With these simple rules, seven novices separated 25 calves and 55 cows into different pens.

Jane has 200 cows but over the summer about 1,000 cattle will graze in her sub-leased fields from as far away as Arkansas and Texas. "This blue- stemmed grass is fantastic," she explains. "Cows will gain over 2lb a day on the grass alone."

Karen Anderson, the ranch's horse-wrangler (another name for a cowboy/girl who herds on horseback), believes the land isn't just good for the cows: she speaks of its "healing" properties. Karen first came to Homestead Ranch a year ago. "I had a typical case of corporate burnout," she explains. The visit completely changed her life. Now, in between running management training courses and professional ballroom dancing, she spends three months of the year at the ranch and plans to move permanently to the area. In a truck, on our way to the stables, she points out marsh ponds surrounded by trees, sand cranes and turkeys perching in the upper branches. "This is some of the richest grazing land in America," she says. "The plains Indian tribes of Kansa and the Kaw lived here and herded buffalo. It was the Kansa that gave the state its name." She reaches into the dashboard and pulls out a chalky-grey flint arrowhead. "I found it by the creek and had it dated. It's 700 years old." That's a lot a years out West.

At the stables Karen brings out the horses and teaches us some basic grooming techniques, such as removing mud and stones from hooves. The saddles are enormous and Western- style: heavier and sturdier than their British counterparts with a central raised mount. Our ride across the prairie is spectacular. Rolling green pastures stretch endlessly to the horizon. Hooves crush clumps of spiderwort and wild indigo. In the distance, a skunk lifts up its tail to spray an unlucky victim. The sky is immense. "It's as if the sky comes down to meet the earth." Mary Anne decides. "I tend to only hike in mountains so I'm used to the earth meeting the sky."

When not performing her duties as a cop with the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin, Mary Anne also loves to ride, but for 78-year-old Anne it's a new experience: "It took three of them to get me up on this horse," she giggles, "but the ride was wonderful."

Gene from Texas, 67, can't wait to get her hands on the calves. "I can either sit home and dry out like a prune," she states, "or I can enjoy myself." She watches impatiently as I prepare for my allotted task, to innoculate a freshly branded bull calf. When my left thigh lodges the neck into position, I jab the needle and pump 5ccs of vaccination under its skin. I don't have the stomach for the final procedure so Gene leaps into position beside Linda, one of the ranch hands. There has already been a demonstration and Gene is the first volunteer. "Grab hold of the scrotum and pull tight," Linda says, "because the tighter you pull the easier it's gonna be." Gene's left hand holds firm, while her right clutches a small sharp knife. "Now just cut off the end of the scrotum and toss it behind," Linda instructs. "Just one smooth stroke."

I stick to the heifers to avoid castrating but, surprisingly, I am alone in this decision. "That's OK," reassures Jane. "This is a can-do ranch not a have-to ranch."

According to Jane, it was the female guests' competence that got the locals talking more than the gender issue itself. "I can take people who've never even been on a ranch and teach them how to work these calves in a day," she says. Guests were first accepted on to the women-only ranch 10 years ago. "I thought lesbians would think this was Mecca," she admits, "but 80 per cent of the women who come here are married and most have children."

Whether to join in the ranch activities is up to each guest and, of course, what's on offer is dictated by the working season. Branding weekends take place in April and May, whereas calving happens in March and weaning in October. And for the non-participators there is always riding and fishing.

The food, without exception, is excellent but that afternoon we sample an unusual dish. It's the result of our labours: a Midwestern delicacy called Rocky Mountain oysters. "This is the inner part of the testicle," the cook explains, "mixed with a combination of flour and cornmeal and then fried." It looks like scampi and there's barbecue sauce on the side. Everyone gingerly picks up a piece and bites. Anne declares them delicious. Sue, Mary Anne's sergeant in Madison PD, eats two. "A complete set," she quips. The cook, Karen Myers, is pleased. This is the end of a year's sabbatical at the ranch before returning to teach English at a Kansas high school. "I kinda see this as coming full circle as I'm doing what my grandmothers did. They were both farm women. So I feel like I'm catching up with my history."

Sunday morning's wildflower hike is cancelled due to rain but no one seems to mind. Some women help with chores, feeding horses or collecting eggs. I decide to wander down to South Fork creek to look for arrowheads. Sue is already there so we scramble among the stones. After half an hour, I shout with joy. Not an arrowhead but small Indian beads. We return for lunch wet, with dirty fingernails and childish delight.

There's a tinge of sadness over our final meal. It's been unbelievable fun. I feel both relaxed and exhilarated. Barb, an insurance broker from Missouri, understands. This is her second stay at Jane's Homestead. "It's like living out my fantasy - being able to come out to a real working ranch, jump on the back of a horse, go out across the prairie, work with the cattle and learn how to move them," she says and laughs. "It's beyond my wildest imagination." !


COWPUNCHING THERE: the Prairie Women Adventures and Retreat is at Rural Route, Matfield Green, Kansas 66862 (001 316 753 3465). Weekends cost $225-$275 (pounds 150-pounds 180), five days $475 (pounds 310); each extra day costs $65 (pounds 40). All prices include meals and activities.

GETTING THERE: American Airlines flies to Wichita or Kansas City. Prices: September, pounds 553 to Kansas City, pounds 668 to Wichita; October: pounds 378 and pounds 518 respectively. The ranch, an hour's drive from Wichita and two hours from Kansas City, will transport visitors who arrive at Wichita for $35 (pounds 25) each way.