If you want to measure the depth of rangeland knowledge a Wallowa County grassman has, you’ll need a very long plumb line.
Plenty of ranchers across the state have learned their land, but Wallowa County growers face unique challenges due to a landscape that ranges from 9,262 feet to 840 feet.
The 2018 Wallowa County Grassman of the Year selected by Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association is a prime example of a successful rangeland manager and cattleman.
Dwayne (1955) and Carol (1957) Voss run 600 mother cows plus yearlings and bulls on land in Joseph, rangeland at Horse Creek on the Lower Imnaha, land on Sheep Creek halfway to Imnaha, The Horse Creek Ranch on the Lower Imnaha, Vance Meadow in Buckhorn and other land — mostly steep hillsides.
“Our land ranges from 4,200 feet to 1,700 feet,” Dwayne said.
Dwayne got a good education when he studied for his degree in Forestry and Rangeland Management at Central Oregon College in Bend back in 1975 — and he spent three summers working for the U.S. Forest Service before he discovered he preferred cowboying. His academic education was fleshed out with reality –– long hours in the saddle.
“I’d spent time in those canyons,” Dwayne said. “The day I walked out of Joseph High School in 1973, I had my bedroll in my pickup, and I went to Horse Creek (the Jim DuPratt ranch in Imnaha) and went to work driving cattle out of there clear up to the Divide.”
Good instruction came from ranchers and other cowboys.
“I was fortunate to have been around some of the real old-time ranchers and cowboys in the earlier days. The late Max Gorsline of Upper Prairie Creek used to say, ‘If you’ve got twice as much grass and twice as much hay and twice as much firewood as you think you need, you’ve got about the right amount.’”
Dwayne’s Wallowa County “professors” also included the late Jack McClaran, Mike McFetrige, Lou Warnock and Kid Marks.
The 21st Century grassmen and ranchers in Wallowa County still do a lot of things the “old way.” Dwayne and grown son Will don’t chase the grass by hauling the cattle from pasture to pasture. They trail them hundreds of miles every year from ground in Joseph to land on the Divide.
“We’re pretty much on the trail for 30 days when we start leaving summer pasture,” Dwayne said.
He also spends a lot of time out on the winter range in Imnaha with four horses, a few pack mules and a small pack of working dogs. Out in Imnaha at the rudimentary ranch-house, there’s no phone, no cell service, no electricity.
Some nods to modern technology have crept in. He uses satellite Internet, a radio that will reach his nearest neighbor and solar power and a backup generator. When he walks out the door of his house in Imnaha, he disappears into the past.
“It’s just like it was a 100 years ago. It’s pretty old school,” Dwayne said. “It’s rugged country, and it’s all horseback.”
Dwayne tried to modernize cattle branding just a tiny bit early on, he said.
“The first year we were down there (Imnaha), I loaded a calf chute on my pickup to take down just in case I needed it. I got caught in Imnaha by Dan Warnock and he gave me so much crap over hauling that calf chute down there, I turned around, and I brought it back, and I never took it down.”
So, branding remains the social event of the year with families and friends from all over the area bringing their ropes and horses for a full day of work. The favor is always returned.
The tradition of sharing chores stretches way back and many of the branding helpers are in their 70s, Carol said. “You’d never know it. They can work circles around people half their age.”
The Voss’s have been fully involved in their cattle community for many years as members of the Oregon Cattleman’s Association and the Wallowa County Stockgrowers Association. They were formerly in the Haygrowers Association and in 4-H with their children, Erin (now of La Grande) and Will (and Jesse) Voss of Enterprise.
Carol, who retired from teaching at Enterprise Elementary School, also volunteers at school and at senior meal days.