His horse is his livelihood.
And, it has been almost since he could walk.
“I was about raised on a horse, and when I was still pretty small, about seven or eight, I began going along with my dad, Joe, on his job looking after cattle on the Cimarron National Grasslands,” said Billy Barnes of Elkhart.
So, obviously he’s a cowboy, heart and soul. In official recognition of that distinction, the Morton County native has been inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame at Dodge City.
“Well, I’ve been out here a long time,” analyzed the 60-year-old cowboy, who started his career riding a small bay horse called Ole Bob on the 108,175 acres of government land.
His dad was a range rider for the Morton County Grazing Association in the far southwest corner of Kansas, bordered by Colorado and the Oklahoma Panhandle. The Santa Fe Trail goes through the rolling short grass and sand sage prairie.
The lifestyle was in his blood, and right out of high school, Barnes, then 18, became a range rider. Of course, as young cowboys will do, Barnes tried his hand at rodeo. “I roped some, and I tried a few bareback broncs,” he admitted.
But, the real cowboy world, looking after cattle in big pastures, was his true calling. “I became manager of the grazing association in the 1970s, so I’ve been doing this all of my life, literally,” Barnes stated.
About 5,200 cattle graze the pastureland for six months each year, from May until November. “These are mostly cows with calves, but there are usually about 1,200 yearlings, too,” Barnes quantified.
Cattle owners have long term grazing contracts, with different acreage allotments. “There are 74 permit owners, but we don’t usually have more than five herds grazing in the same pasture,” Barnes clarified.
Looking after those cattle requires Barnes and two other cowboys to be in the saddle many hours a week. It takes plenty of horse power, too.
“I’ve had a lot of good horses over the years,” Barnes said. “I guess the best one would have to be a buckskin gelding I called Buck. My strawberry roan, Marty, that I use now is a good one, too.”
Although Barnes isn’t in the commercial training business, he’s personally started a number of his own horses.
With such large numbers of cattle, counting is no little job, but when there is sickness, Barnes and the range riders are really called into action.
“We generally head and heel the cattle right out in the pasture, and do most of the doctoring ourselves,” he explained. “If the cattle are too sick, sometimes we’ll call the owners to help or to come get them.”
Barnes added, “We really don’t have too much sickness. Our death loss is less than one percent.”
Buffalo grass and gamma grass make up the native short grass prairie, with more desirable grazing on the north side of the Cimarron River. “Sand sagebrush reduces grazing quality on the south side,” Barnes described.
Elk, pronghorns, porcupines, prairie chickens, roadrunners, lizards and rattlesnakes are found in the area.
Water is always an issue with so much livestock on so many acres. “There are 168 windmills and 43 electric pumps for water supply,” Barnes tallied. “It’s a pretty good chore to keep everything in operation.”
Roundup time is especially hectic for Barnes to not only get everything caught, but also back in the correct owners’ possession.
“We usually have the owners come help us gather,” he said. “Some of them tried to bring their four-wheelers, but I put a stop to that. If they’re going to help, they do it on horseback. We don’t allow four-wheelers.”
After cattle come off grasslands in the fall, the work is still there. “We always lots of fence to fix,” Barnes revealed.
For obvious dedication to his job, Barnes received the 75th Anniversary Chief Award from the Cimarron National Grasslands.
Barnes’ cowboy spirit shows through in all that he does. “I wanted to learn how to do Dutch oven cooking, and then I started getting requests to give programs about it and to help with meals for community functions,” he commented.
Programs are presented for the Morton County Museum, and Barnes cooks for the trail ride in conjunction with the annual Pioneer Days celebration.
A Volunteer Award was presented to Barnes by the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for preparing meals at the Eighty-One Corrals Campout before the St. Jude Trail Ride.
Always having a desire to drive horses, Barnes didn’t have that opportunity until just a few years ago. “I bought a broke team of Haflinger mares, complete with harness and wagon, in Rogers, Ark.,” Barnes reminisced.
Now, he’s even more popular around the community driving in many celebrations, but most importantly giving rides to others.
“I have a couple of vehicles, but the rubber-tired wagon is the one I use the most, especially for hauling school kids around,” Barnes smiled.
Plans call for raising foals out of his Haflinger mares, Cricket and Linda, and then Barnes intends to train those horses to drive as well.
Youth have always been a soft spot for Barnes and his wife, Myrna, who have four children and nine grandchildren.
Although none of the children are likely to be following in his boots as a cowboy, Barnes has a 13-year-old grandson who eats up the life. “He really likes riding a horse and helping with the cattle,” Grandpa said.
Officially in his job 42 years and riding beside his dad at least eight years before that, Barnes plans to continue his cowboy life. “By now, I know every cow trail that is out there,” he confessed. “I can’t do anything else, so I’ll be here until they run me off.”