Are cowboys riding off into the sunset?

Justin R. Lessman

Justin R. Lessman

Cowboys have been an intricate part of SDSU for as long as students and alumni can remember. The university, originally South Dakota State College, is the state’s lone land-grant university and once flourished primarily off its strong reputation as a top agricultural school.

As production agriculture? crops, range land, livestock? was the main drive behind agriculture in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, those that were involved in the production life were often the students who attended South Dakota State College.

That is, the cowboys.

It is for this reason, in addition to its location in the midwest, that cowboys were and are often associated with the school in Brookings.

Dan Gee, professor emeritus of animal and range sciences, has been at SDSU since 1965. He said that cowboys regularly attended his classes, from the very first one he taught here to his last.

“It’s always been a fairly stable number in class,” he said. “The number of (traditional cowboy) majors has remained stable.”

Yet, as of late, some around campus have been noticing a decline in the number of cowboys at SDSU. Is the mystical breed of roper and rider dying off?

Recent trends in the College of Agriculture and Biological Science seem to indicate this, to a degree.

As the enrollment numbers of both students at SDSU and in the College of Ag and Bio constantly increase, areas of study often associated with cowboys have remained stagnant, or in many cases, losing students.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1977, the number of animal science majors stood at 237. Fall 2001 statistics show that number fell to 211. Range science numbers have remained fairly constant, from 18 in 1977 to 25 last fall. General ag majors, a favorite of those who plan on returning to the farm or ranch after graduation, fell dramatically from 171 in 1977 to 122 last fall.

Yet, just as traditional cowboy majors decline in popularity, areas of agricultural study not usually associated with the breed are constantly gaining new students.

Wildlife and fishery numbers increased from 129 in 1977 to 173 in the fall of 2001. Twenty-five years ago, 53 biology majors attended SDSU. Last fall, that number shot up to 171. Landscape design numbers rose from just 26 in 1977 to 82 last fall.

Demographics also indicate the demise of the SDSU cowboy.

Of the 1,595 students enrolled in the College of Ag and Bio, only 10 are enrolled from the traditional cowboy states of Montana and Wyoming.

As for South Dakota itself, just 75 students come from west of the Missouri River – traditional cowboy habitat – with 63 from the Pierre area.

That’s just a small percentage of the 1,020 South Dakotans enrolled in the College of Ag and Bio.

While some see the era of the SDSU cowboy coming to an end, a few still exist.

Andy Shirey III, a student cowboy from Pray, Mont., said he believes that cowboys in general are in danger of fading away.

“The cowboy is a dying breed,” he said. “That can be traced to the multi-diversification of agriculture.”

Shirey said that agriculture as an industry is becoming geared more toward agri-business rather than production. With a decreasing emphasis on production, he said, so too goes the cowboy.

Matthew Knott, a sophomore Range Science major from Corvallis, Mont., said he is not sure if cowboys are dying out, maybe just changing.

“It just seems to me that a lot of cowboys here have lost their pride and are afraid to show their true colors,” he said. “They may be a true cowboy at heart or at home, but just don’t show it on the outside.”

Knott said if the cowboy is indeed a dying breed, he may have a few reasons why.

“Ten years ago or so, there was more ranchland around here,” he said. “Now, there’s more farmland? more corn and soybeans. Cattlemen are getting pushed farther and farther west. Or it could be that people are getting lazy. Cowboying is hard work.”

On the other hand, Gee said that he has not noticed a decline in the number of cowboys at SDSU at all.

“No, I haven’t seen that,” he said. “Of course, depending on your definition of a cowboy, whether that’s west-river, farming, ranching, horses, rodeo club, whatever. I see no decline.”

#1.887747:4044254040.jpg:sunset.jpg:Matthew Knott, a sophomore Range Science major from Corvallis, Mont., spends his summers high in the mountains of Idaho as a hunting and fishing guide and outfitter?s hand. He dreams of being a fire-jumper in the forests of the West, and wouldn?t give up his way of life for anything. :