Armed cowboys in South America drive cattle the old-fashioned way in Colombia : The Picture Show : NPR

Colombian cowboys are known as llanerosSpanish for Plain Men.

Carlos Saavedra


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Carlos Saavedra


Colombian cowboys are known as llanerosSpanish for Plain Men.

Carlos Saavedra

ORIENTAL PLAINS, Colombia — Driving their horses, half a dozen Colombian ranch workers are herding cattle across the flat prairies of eastern Colombia. They have a long way to go because this 4,000-acre ranch stretches to the horizon and beyond.

Unlike in the United States, where nearly all beef cattle are fed in confinement and where cowboys are mostly a thing of the past, cattle in Colombia are raised on vast, open pastures. As a result, supervising the herds requires the special skills of Colombian cowboys, known as llaneros — Spanish for “men of the plain.”

With its ponds, flocks of birds, and panoramic views, this ranch is a gorgeous setting for work that is often brutal.

Cows are in a corral on a farm in Casanare, Colombia, waiting to be artificially inseminated.

Carlos Saavedra


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Back at the corral, the llaneros pulling cattle to the ground, immobilizing them, and then pressing several red-hot irons into their hides to identify their owner and the farm where they are being raised. At one point, they spot a stray bull. To prevent it from destroying the herd and making the cows pregnant, one of the llaneros unsheathes his knife and quickly castrates the bull, which roars in protest.

Also shocking is the fact that – instead of wearing cowboy boots – most llaneros go barefoot. They include Antonio Cova, who has worked on farms since he was 13 and who says his bare feet are as tough as animals’ paws.

“It’s a tradition,” he explains. “You create calluses on your feet so that nothing will hurt them.”

Llaneros they use red-hot branding irons to tag cattle to identify them and the farm they belong to.

Carlos Saavedra


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Carlos Saavedra

Llaneros have been proving their resistance for centuries. Seasoned horsemen and marksmen, they fought alongside the South American liberator Simón Bolívar in the early 1800s to help secure Colombia’s independence from Spain.

In fact, some llaneros — like Antonio Cantor — are still armed. Pulling a pistol from his holster, he says, “The revolver used to be a normal part of your wardrobe.”

Nowadays, llaneros continue to be fundamental for Colombian livestock. Most farmers here cannot send their herds to large commercial feedlots. However, pastures in remote areas of Colombia are relatively inexpensive.

Llaneros drive cattle in a corral in Casanare, Colombia.

Carlos Saavedra


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Abelardo Bravo, a businessman from Bogotá who bought this farm 13 years ago, says he couldn’t manage it without his faithful llaneros.

“They are brave people,” he says. “ONE plain man won’t back down from anything. He may weigh 150 pounds, but he’s going to face a 900-pound bull.”

Still, plain man the life is not all muscle and machismo.

While milking the cows before dawn, one of the llaneros sings softly so the animals relax and give more milk. Indeed, llaneros have their own genre of music and are quick to start singing. Singer the Pistol Packer plain manoften plays a small four-string guitar, known as a cuatro, and sings songs about the joys of horseback riding, herding cattle, and courting local ladies.

Many farmers in Casanare still carry pistols.

Carlos Saavedra


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However, sometimes he wonders if plain man traditions will last. Farms are gradually getting smaller as they are passed down within families and now require fewer workers. Any llaneros are taking easier jobs in cities or on nearby rice farms and oil fields.

But after nearly 70 years of raising cattle in the countryside, Cantor says he’s not moving.

“This is where I was born and raised,” he says. “This is where I grew old. And this is where I want to die.”

These are the horses that llaneros use to herd cattle.

Carlos Saavedra


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After slaughtering a cow to feed the llanerosthe skin is dried and cut to make a leather rope.

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Llaneros subdue one of the cattle so that it can be marked.

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Left: Cattle waiting in a trough to be vaccinated and checked for disease. Right: Many llaneros Prefer to work barefoot. They say they are used to it and that the calluses on their feet protect them.

Carlos Saavedra


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A veterinarian on the Casanare farm keeps an eye on the cattle.

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Llaneros they often sing while milking the cows to relax the animals so that they give more milk.

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Farmers eat tripe and beef soup for breakfast.

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Antonio Cantor, a pistol magazine plain manhe plays a four-string guitar known as a cuatro and sings songs about the joys of horseback riding, herding cattle and courting local women.

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The farm also houses a herd of buffalo.

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ONE plain man lasso a cow.

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A cowboy tries to subdue a cow so that it will be marked.

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Cattle sometimes die of snakebite, leaving their carcasses in the hot sun.

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ONE plain man saddles to the herd of cattle.

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Farmers cut off a pony’s tail and mane.

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ONE plain man ties up a stubborn cow that refuses to follow the rest of the herd.

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