TEJON RANCH, CALIF. — At dawn, John Lacey and four hired hands head out on horseback from the Fish Creek Corral to perform one of the American West's most venerable pastoral rites: corralling a herd of bellowing steers scattered across thousands of hardpan acres.
Lacey, a rail-thin third-generation rancher, leads the way atop Notch, the sure-footed 10-year-old mare he prefers for such chaotic chores. Over his 68 years, he has relied on a succession of horses chosen for their good looks, athletic ability and plain old cow sense.
But the modern world is closing in on Notch and the ways of the Old West.
On the farthest reaches of the range, in a cloud of dust and grit, two ranch hands ride a pair of weather-beaten all-terrain vehicles. The ATVs buzz the desolate landscape like motorized mosquitoes, coaxing the farthest flung of the 2,600 head of cattle toward home.
As the horsemen handle the main herd, the ATV drivers chase down strays, clutching their cowboy hats against the wind and the rough ride.
"You need them both to get the job done right," Lacey said. "The horse has its place on the ranch. But every day, ATVs become more irreplaceable."
Across California and the West, a growing number of ranchers are using ATVs for chores such as mending fences, feeding and watering cattle, herding and even lassoing steers -- jobs for which they used horses exclusively just a generation ago. Some now call the ATV the "Japanese quarter horse."
Ranchers tend to be conservative by nature. Most insist the ATVs will never put the venerable horse out to pasture.
Yet in a lean economy, when ranches make do with fewer employees and resources, the ATV brings a convenience even the most reliable horse cannot match. In less time than it takes to saddle a steed, a rider can turn the key on an ATV and be off.
The machines also don't have to be stabled, fed or brushed and aren't spooked by coyotes in the brush. And they start at about $5,000, compared with $15,000 for a well-trained horse.
"There was a time in my life when if somebody told me that I'd be riding the range among a herd of cattle atop a damned ATV, I'd have told them to go to hell," said Billy Perez, a veteran Lacey ranch hand.
"But you've got to get with the times. They're a real tool, no denying that."
A quarter of the 900,000 ATVs sold each year are used on ranches and farms, according to the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, an Irvine-based industry group. About 7.6 million ATVs are in use nationwide.
These days, custom-made trailers haul both horses and ATVs, which slide down special ramps to hit the range. At raffles held by the California Cattleman's Assn., the sought-after first prize is often a spanking-new ATV, another niche once reserved for the horse.
John Lacey's clan embodies the transition. Its Lacey Livestock and Centennial Livestock operations raise both cattle and quarter horses. Lacey and his son, Mark, know the machines could one day hurt their horse business. Still, they operate nearly a dozen ATVs.
Their ranching style has evolved since patriarch John William Lacey immigrated to the Owens Valley from Missouri in 1867, running 200 head of cattle in the shadow of Mt. Whitney.
Many decades later, his son, Mark Buckner Lacey, was still ranching the old-fashioned way. He used to brag he survived from the horse-and-buggy era to the day man walked on the moon. But when it came to ranching, he'd seen enough progress. He resented the pickup truck's arrival on ranches in the 1940s, scoffing at hands who preferred driving over riding horseback.
"Today, my dad would be rolling in his grave. He'd look at these ATVs and say, 'What is it? If it runs on gas, it's got no place on a ranch,' " John Lacey recalled. "But those old cowboys like my father, who rode horses wherever they went, they're all gone now."
On the 200,000 acres the family leases at Tejon Ranch, the hands ride ATVs almost daily. Still, the Laceys revere the horse.
"I love the animals," John Lacey said. "But anyone who says ranching is a way of life and not a business is talking a lot of baloney."
Making their pitch
At the annual World Ag Expo in Tulare, vendors exhibit the latest farm and ranch technology, from newfangled milking machines to high-tech feed.
The ATV ambassadors are among them.
Salesman Michael Gates hawks a new line of Yamaha ATVs with photos showing the sleek machines posed before grain silos and grazing cattle.
Gates likens the emergence of ATVs to the tractor replacing the mule team nearly a century ago. In a clipped parlance, he explains why the machines beat the competition.
"Horse ain't got no headlights," he says. "See that baby right there? Put a little gas in her and she'll run all day. A horse will give you nothing but gas."