Few things pose a bigger risk to a moving herd of cattle than an oncoming train.

A train stops for neither man nor beast; just ask lifelong ranchers Jerry and Nancy Winn. Two tracks cross their 48,000-acre ranch in the high-desert country south of Navajo, Arizona. The rail lines’ placement, combined with the fact that the Winns practice intense rotational grazing to maintain their forage quality, means that at least twice a year they must drive a herd of cattle over a set of active tracks.

The trick is, the Winns never know when a train might come or from what direction, and it always comes fast.

“There’s no schedule, so we can’t call and ask what time a train is coming through,” Jerry says. “They won’t give you notice or any information. [If you call to ask,] they almost laugh at you. That’s what we’ve had to deal with for a long time.

“The train is not going to stop. So we remember how dangerous it is and prepare for it.”

The Winns have always ranched alongside railroads. The east/west line was laid down by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway long before Nancy’s grandfather, Ransom Spurlock, put the original family ranch together in the early 1900s. It’s now run by BNSF—the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway. The north/south line was built when Nancy was a girl in the 1970s, and is run by Arizona’s public power utility, Salt River Project.

“The train that you actually hear sometimes is the [east/west] Santa Fe, which is clear down in the valley,” Nancy says. “But that noise carries, and you might think a train is coming [on the north/south line] and it’s not.

Henson Winn monitors the cattle’s steady progress over the tracks, all while keeping an eye on the horizon.
Henson Winn monitors the cattle’s steady progress over the tracks, all while keeping an eye on the horizon.

“The north/south takes coal to the power plants south of us. If the train is coming from the north going south, it’s slower. But if it’s coming from the south going north, it really flies through there because it’s empty, and it’s going downhill.”

One crossing is a tunnel under the tracks, and Jerry says it is harder to get the cattle to go through it than to cross over the tracks.

“Both ways are tough, but one is more dangerous,” he says.

Well ahead of a railroad crossing, Jerry puts together an experienced crew that knows horses, cattle, the terrain, and exactly what to do at the sound of a high, lonesome wail and the sight of a train on the horizon. The Winns have always used spotters—Nancy is one—a couple of miles up and down the track to keep watch. That task has become much easier with the use of cell phones.

“We have a plan where everyone has a job and knows what to do,” Jerry says. “That’s important—to have guys with great knowledge and understanding of the situation. Everyone really works together. We know what each other is thinking, so we don’t have to worry that someone’s not paying attention or doesn’t know what to do. That’s never in our minds.”

Good Crossing

The crossing from the West 9-Mile pasture to the “PMA” pasture goes eastward over the north/south line. Though the country is wide and open, it dips and rolls, and visibility down the track is more limited than one might think.

“We have it timed so we know how long [crossing the herd] is going to take,” Jerry says. “At that crossing, I never cross more than 300 head. There are other crossings where we can see farther, and I can cross more cattle.”

The crew gathers early to reach the crossing by mid-morning. They bunch the cattle together right before they cross. When the spotters give the okay and the herd is in position, Jerry signals to start the cattle moving. They must go through a gate, across a narrow gap, over the rail line and through another gate.

“When we start, we want to do it as quickly as possible and get them pushed over,” Jerry explains. “It’s difficult to stop a herd of cattle when they are starting across the track if you are midway through; they want to follow. That’s one of the things we have to be cautious about [if a train comes].

Jerry Winn riding through pushing cattle
Rancher Jerry Winn helps bunch a herd of 300 cows prior to crossing the active railroad track that runs between two of the Winn family’s pastures.

“Not all of them want to go, especially yearlings that have never crossed the track, or calves,” he adds. “If we have cows that repeatedly don’t like to cross, we’ll look at getting rid of them for that reason because it makes it dangerous for the rest of the herd.”

The men behind the herd keep it bunched. They know how hard to push and when to fall back as the cattle cross, watching for Jerry’s hand signals. Jerry and his son, Henson, each take one side of the herd at the crossing, making sure the cattle go straight over.

“We are there because it’s our herd and our responsibility,” he says. “It’s not that we have more knowledge; we just have more at stake. If a train comes, we’re going to have to make the decision to split the herd. We need to be the ones responsible to be on the track.”

Once on the other side, they let the cattle drift and slow down. When the whole herd is over, they trail them to the PMA water tank.

“Any of the guys I have could do any part of the crossing,” Jerry says. “They are all good horsemen and they understand how cattle think. That’s really important. You don’t have a lot of time to sit and decide what to do. You just have to do it.”

In all their years of crossing the railroad, Jerry remembers only one time when a train struck the last few stragglers in a crossing. It happened more than 20 years ago, but the memory is all too vivid.

“It was heartbreaking; a tragedy,” he says, his voice tight. “You don’t ever want to see it again. It taught us the most: It’s very serious; be very precise. We are a little worried every time we do it.”

But crossing into the PMA pasture has a way of reminding him to be positive, he adds with a smile.

“PMA stands for ‘Positive Mental Attitude,’ ” he explains. “Nancy’s dad [Pat] named it. We don’t know why! Maybe he was thinking he didn’t really like that pasture because it didn’t have good water, but he was going to have a positive mental attitude about it. Who knows?

“We’ve upgraded it since. We’ve put in better water and fencing.

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Western Horseman.

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