It's a calm Wednesday afternoon with snow falling down over a ranch in southern Wyoming. Normally, high school sophomore Kagan Sims would be sitting in English, but due to COVID-19 he's outdoors feeding pregnant cows. He said he's figuring out a new balance between work and school.
"I'll just take Monday's and get all my schoolwork for the week done, and then the rest of the week, I'm not counting Sundays, I'll just be doing whatever these guys need me to do," Kagan said.
The Sims Ranch works with 650 head of cattle. Right now, they're getting ready for the busy season in the summer where they'll have to move cattle daily, make hay, irrigate, and move fences. Rather than COVID-19 slowing things down, it's actually allowing the Sims to get a jump start. Melinda, Kagan's mom, said that's thanks to having him and his sister Jentry around.
"We're starting to calf our heifers right now, and Kagan's been able to take a nightwatch because he doesn't have to get up for school early the next morning. Jentry's been feeding a bum calf for us and that just frees Shanon [Kagan and Jentry's dad] and I up to pay attention to our heifers a little more. It just makes it easier on all of us," she said.
A bum calf is a young heifer or bull that's been orphaned or abandoned.
It might sound like Kagan and Jentry are getting a raw deal, but they're getting paid for their work. Plus, they don't mind it. Kagan and Jentry agree it's like summer just came early.
"Call me what you want for saying this, but really this has provided me with opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I've been able to be around my family more. Coming home and being on the ranch, it gives me a chance to do what I actually love to do," he said.
Though, he and his sister do miss seeing friends.
Melinda and Shanon love having their kids around, but there are challenges. They want to make sure school is still the first priority. Jentry's already missed a class Zoom meeting due to helping move cattle.
"Are the kids getting what they need? Are they getting the support from us that they need? Are we in their business too much? 'Cause we're not used to being involved in their day-to-day schoolwork," Melinda said.
On the opposite side of the state, Ian McGivney is home from school, too. He's studying agricultural production at the Laramie County Community College, but is now back at his family's ranch in Kaycee.
"It's hard to not be excited to come home. Especially this time of year, you know, all the baby calves and baby lambs running around," he said smiling.
Between class, Ian's been helping out at the ranch too where he and his family oversees 50 head of cattle and 50 sheep. His mom, Rose, is happy he's there to help with a variety of tasks. Branding will be easier, for example. Like the Sims, it's also better to have additional help just to watch out for calves being born. That came up just last night.
"We had to put a bum calf onto a cow that ended up losing her calf. So we got her all taken care of. And now the calf has a mom, and the mom's got a baby. So, everything worked out good," Ian said.
Rose said it's also nice because Ian's dad works out at a bentonite mine driving heavy equipment. This way, there's always someone home if a cow is giving birth or something needs to get done. For Rose, the main challenge has been reverting to old ways.
"He's been in college for three years so we're not used to having him home this time of year," she said laughing. "And we want to boss him, and he's like, 'I'm 21 I don't need to be bossed.'"
For other ranchers, hiring is a big challenge. The McGivneys said it's likely helpful to welcome kids home, given hiring outsiders may be difficult now. Both due to the pandemic and weak markets, which aren't looking good enough for folks to afford additional labor. Ian was expected to intern on someone else's ranch this summer but can't anymore.
But the McGivneys and the Sims agree that not too much has changed due to the pandemic. In fact, they just feel bad for everyone else.
"It's almost been nice because... I feel horrible for them people, you know they're living in these big cities that are trapped in their apartments and whatnot. But shoot, out here like checking cows and stuff you almost forget that something's even going on," Ian said.
Those in the agricultural industry forecast a tough year for producers with lower returns for their products. For now, though, families are able to continue on at home with a little extra help.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at firstname.lastname@example.org.