What Technology Brought About the End of the Open Range?

September 11, 2023
David Sunnyside

The open range ended when ranchers consolidated their herds, and technology brought about the end of free-roaming cattle. Infectious diseases, improved pasture, and a growing population pushed herders to permanently fence in their herds. Barbed wire was a crucial factor, but so were the invention of the railroad and the discovery of refrigeration.

In the 1800s, ranchers owned a few hundred acres for their homes and sources of water, and herds roamed free on large tracts of public land. Twice a year, cowboys would round up the herds to brand calves (in spring) and gather steers for sale (in autumn).

When Michael Kelly invented barbed wire, it revolutionized cattle ranching in the West. He twisted two separate wires into one cable with barbs – like those on pointed spears or palisades – that were painful to touch and taught cattle to keep their distance.

While it didn’t happen in a day, the widespread use of barbed wire eventually fenced out public lands, and herders were squeezed from their living pattern by homesteaders who fought for land-use rights. This resulted in range wars and eventually shifted the balance of power from free-roaming ranchers to property owners.

The Murphy Act in 1937 and Florida’s state legislature’s mandate to fence in cattle rounded out the final blows to the open range, as did the advent of better tick-borne diseases like Texas fever. In 1949, the University of Florida’s Extension program helped ranchers build their fences by offering to buy timber cheaply and demonstrating how to treat fence posts against weather damage.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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