Git Along, Lonesome Ranchers
Cattle ranching has always been a perilous proposition, but a slew of new challenges, from soaring land prices to crippling drought, has kicked the legs out from underneath the state’s most iconic business. Could we be witnessing the end of the ranch as we know it?
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I am standing in a cattle pen on the JA Ranch, near Amarillo, a place of almost mythical dimensions. The outfit’s 130,000 acres sprawl over one of the most dramatic landscapes in the American West: the colorful cliffs, canyons, draws, hoodoos, and bottomlands of Palo Duro, the nation’s second-largest canyon. The history of the ranch is just as impressive. Founded in 1877, the JA was an era-defining enterprise and one of the first big, successful cattle ranches in America. It was born as a partnership between Irish financier John Adair and legendary cowman Charles Goodnight, the first white settler in the Panhandle and one of the pioneers of both the cattle drive and barbpred-wire fencing. But the most remarkable thing about the JA is not its fascinating history, its size, or its physical beauty: it is that, more than a century since it began, the same family still owns it. John Adair’s great-granddaughter by marriage, Cornelia “Ninia” Ritchie, is the current owner, and she has an efficient, profitable operation. On the day of my visit, I’m treated to an example of this. In an upland pasture, amid a small storm of flying mud and manure and saliva, dozens of bellowing cows are waiting to be inserted into a hydraulic squeeze chute in order to be “palpated.” Palpation is an age-old technique to determine if a cow is pregnant. It works like this: a man, who is literally covered with cow manure from head to toe and wearing a lubricated transparent plastic glove, inserts his arm to shoulder depth into the cow’s rectum and feels for the presence of a fetus in the uterus. The process is fast and methodical. The palpater on this particular day is a friendly fellow named Laban Tubbs, who is also the director of the Ranch and Feedlot Operations Program at nearby Clarendon College. He knows what he is doing. I ask him how much money he charges to do this. “Three dollars a cow,” he says with a broad grin, then returns to his messy work. The cows in the pen this morning are almost all bred up, which makes everyone happy; a high rate of fertility is one of the most important components of a ranch’s success.
Some five hundred miles southeast of the JA lies the Brown Ranch. It’s not nearly as big—unconfirmed reports have pegged the size at 16,000 acres—but like the JA, it’s a well-run operation. I’ve driven down to Beeville, about ninety miles south of San Antonio, to see it close-up. In front of me, six cowboys on horseback are driving 40 cows and 33 calves from pasture to pen across a grass prairie. The riders are fun to watch: they scour the brush and root out the outliers. They wheel, canter, and gallop to chase down strays; they keep the animals moving. It’s a nice show, but the really masterful horsemanship comes a few minutes later, at the pens, when the riders separate the calves from the mother cows so that they can be sprayed for flies, lice, and ticks. The task is not easy: the last thing the calves or their mothers want is to be separated from each other. In a small and chaotic enclosure, amid the bawling of powerful, unruly animals—more than half of whom weigh one thousand pounds or more—the riders and their horses execute the job with ballet-like precision.
But just as at the JA, the outfit’s dazzling efficiency is not what makes it truly noteworthy. Even more striking than the expertise of the cowboys is the fact that four out of six of them, representing three generations, are named Brown. The oldest, Austin Brown II, is 68 years old. He’s the grandson and namesake of the ranch’s founder and its current patriarch. His son Austin III, known as A3, is 42 and a strapping six foot six and looks like he could star in cowboy movies. Then there are A3’s kids: Austin IV (he goes by Cuatro), a tall 13-year-old who can operate much of the ranch’s heavy machinery; and 8-year-old Addie, the only female, who not only works cattle on horseback, shoots hogs, and drives the ranch truck but also takes ballet lessons in town one day a week. Since 1924 the Brown Ranch has raised cattle on its big, beautiful, live-oak-strewn pastures. It has prospered even though, unlike many financially successful ranches, it has almost no oil and gas income and little revenue from hunting leases.
These two ranches represent a Texan ideal. Watching the four Browns sweep down from the ridge on their superb, leggy chestnut horses, it’s impossible not to be moved by the timeless scene. The U.S. cattle ranching business was born in this part of Texas in the nineteenth century, when Anglo cowboys adopted Spanish ranching practices and, in doing so, redefined the American West. While the cowboys of the JA and the Brown aren’t exactly driving cattle up the Chisholm Trail, they remain a part of this mythical history just the same. Through them, and the thousands more just like them on ranches all across the state, the glorious enterprise of fabled cattle barons like Goodnight is still alive and well.
Or at least it’s nice to think that. The truth, however, is that the JA and the Brown may be among the last specimens of a breed in decline. “We’re dinosaurs,” says Austin II. “There are very few of us left.”
By “us” he means families who own their ranches, live on them, and support themselves by raising and selling cattle. At the start of the twentieth century, this arrangement described virtually all of the ranches in Texas. No longer. The self-supporting rancher-resident is fast disappearing from the landscape, having been replaced by an assortment of largely absentee owners who, though they may raise some cattle, primarily use the land for other purposes: oil and gas drilling, hunting, conservation, or real estate speculation. No one knows exactly how many rancher-residents are left—maybe 5 percent of the total remaining ranchers. Probably less. The JA and the Brown turn out to be exceptions to the rule: ranching in Texas, as we used to know it, is dying out.
Of course, ranching in Texas has been endangered almost since its inception. Cattlemen have always been subject to disasters beyond their control. The mid-1880’s saw not only the birth of what would become the modern ranch but also devastating drought and winter blizzards that left tens of thousands of cattle dead on the plains and a massive collapse of cattle prices that ruined many new cattle barons. It’s a tough, almost comically cruel business, one that has never had a shortage of land-rich, cash-poor folks who spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the weather.
But what’s happening now is far more destructive. Put simply, the economic model that has long supported operations like the JA and the Brown is no longer sustainable. There are a handful of reasons for this. All of them date to the past sixty years or so, but recently they have become especially acute. In the fifties, the advent of giant feedlots and large meatpacking houses began to streamline the business, leading to bigger cows, shorter fattening times, and sleeker distribution systems. This was largely good for consumers: prices dropped, and beef became less of a luxury and more of a dinnertime staple. But such efficiencies also meant smaller profits for individual ranchers. In the past decade alone, labor and energy costs have doubled. Where once one hundred cows or fewer could support a family, now it takes five hundred or more, and still there is little room for error.
That is just the beginning. In Texas, family ranches are also the victims of land prices that have risen so much, with an attendant increase in property and inheritance taxes, that they often make it impossible—or just plain crazy—not to sell out. Such prices simultaneously prevent buyers of ranchland from ever getting a return on their investment by raising cattle, meaning that there are no more new ranchers who can actually make a living at it. Meanwhile, other uses of the land abound: urban sprawl has swallowed up some of the best pastures in the state; the commercialization of hunting has led to a large-scale conversion of grazing land to hunting land; and there has been a steady growth in the market for weekend ranches. Since around 1980, passive investors from the cities have been on a prolonged buying binge that now accounts for as much as half of all Texas ranchland and has removed vast swaths of it from cattle production. “In order to stay in the ranching business, you have to have either a mega-operation or another source of income, like oil or gas or wind power,” says land commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose office has a conservation easement program aimed partly at preserving family ranches.
It hasn’t helped that domestic beef consumption itself has declined by more than a billion pounds over the past decade, a casualty of things like competition from leaner meats, such as chicken, and a boom in environmentally conscious vegetarianism. The industry has had to deal with a mad-cow-disease scare in 2003 plus bad PR about everything from cholesterol to the inhumane treatment of animals.
Taken together, these changes transformed an already challenging industry into a perilous one. Then came the worst single-year drought in Texas history, and ranchers hurried to sell off cows they could no longer afford to feed. Ultimately, livestock owners in Texas lost $3.23 billion last year, and more than 80 percent of the state’s ranchers reduced their herds significantly. As of this past January, the number of cattle in the state—some 12 million—is at its lowest point since 1968.
Of course, Texas still has more ranches than any other state—more than 150,000, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, double the number of the runner-up, Missouri—but the overwhelming majority are now relatively insignificant affairs. Currently, the average number of cattle per ranch in Texas is just thirty. If all goes well and all calves are sold, a herd like that might earn its owners $5,000 or so this year. (Many ranch owners in Texas keep a small herd just for the agricultural exemption, which can decrease a property tax burden by as much as 90 percent.) Alongside these small-time operators are people like the Browns and Ninia Ritchie, owners with more acres and many more cows but with only slightly better profits. Then there are the creative newcomers intent on reinventing the business to make it last and the wealthy businessmen who just like having cows on a big ranch somewhere, no matter how much money they lose in the actual operation.
What defines them all is that they love what they do. Cattle ranching remains so stubbornly persistent because it is a business based not on profit but on love. Minus the love, which is to say the myth and the romance and the longing for something old and archetypal in American life, cattle ranching could not possibly exist as it does today. Which, of course, makes it one of the most illogical large-scale businesses on earth. The question is, How long can a business run primarily on love? When does the harsh economic reality catch up?
“A good many of the ranching families in this area are gone,” says Jon Means, standing by his pickup truck in a southern pasture of the Moon Ranch, gesturing with a sweep of his hands to the primordial volcanic peaks and sweeping panoramas of the Davis Mountains, in West Texas. “They have sold their lands and left. And most of them have sold to people who are not ranching. People who want the investment in the land, not the cattle.” Jon, a lean, wiry, and bespectacled sixty-year-old, is not one of those people. Along with his wife, Jackie, and sister Kay (who lives in St. Louis), he owns the contiguous Moon and Chispa ranches, near Van Horn, which total around 90,000 acres. He has no plans to sell any of it. The two ranches are mostly remnants of the enormous parcel of land Jon’s great-grandfather John Z. Means assembled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a virtual cattle empire that at one point stretched some sixty miles. (Currently, the family’s Texas land, along with a 40,000-acre New Mexico ranch, places them among the hundred largest landowners in the country.)
Their spread is astoundingly vast; as a single piece of private land it is almost incomprehensible. Standing in a hunting camp on the property, you can see clear from the 8,085-foot peak of El Capitan, in the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico border, all the way to the Sierra Vieja on the Mexican border—a distance of probably one hundred miles. This entire view is unobscured by a single electrical wire, wind tower, or cell tower. But the land is not empty; there is history here. A few feet from the pasture where Jon has parked is the old Butterfield Overland Mail trail, a stagecoach route from Memphis and St. Louis to San Francisco that operated from 1857 to 1861. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, you can still see the trail clearly, climbing through the draws.
Jon was raised on the property, and as a boy he worked all parts of it. He was 23 when his father died, in 1974, and he took over the outfit, married Jackie, and settled in to make a living and raise three children. Though cattle prices were always unpredictable and rainfall was often poor, Jon and Jackie prospered. They taught their children to ride and rope and handle cattle. And they employed three full-time hands who had been with the family for decades. For a while, they lived a life not unlike the one Jon’s ancestors had lived. “November was the social season, and in the spring there were calves,” says Jackie. “We sold them all at once to one man. We knew most of the people in the area—we socialized a lot, went to the church with our friends, sent our kids to school in Van Horn.”
The Meanses run a type of ranch known as a “cow-calf” operation. It is the first stage of beef production and the one that has changed the least over the years. It remains the most common type of operation in the U.S., accounting for 70 percent of all domestic cattle (most of the rest are found on “stocker” ranches that buy and graze weaned calves). The basic idea is dead simple: the rancher acquires a herd of cows, which live mainly off the grass in his pastures. He uses selected bulls to impregnate as many of them as possible—90 percent is considered good—and nine months later the calves are born. They spend six to eight months drinking their mother’s milk and nibbling on the ranch’s grass. Then they are weaned from their mothers; put on grass or wheat for a few more months, either with the original ranch or with a stocker operation; and shipped to a feedlot for fattening. (Sometimes ranchers skip the second step and send their calves directly to the feedlot.) There, they will be fed some 2,700 pounds of corn and other feed and fattened at a rate of three to four pounds a day, so that at sixteen to eighteen months of age they weigh 1,200 pounds or more and are ready to be slaughtered and sold to packers. The rancher can sell the calves outright to the feedlot, maintain ownership through to the point of slaughter, or partner with the feeder. (Steers are all sold for slaughter; heifers can either become replacements for aging cows or be sold for slaughter as “market heifers.”)
A continuous lineage stretches back from cow-calf operations like the Meanses’ to the early days of cattle ranching, which began in Texas in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s when the first ranches were established on Spanish land grants. By the time of the Texas Republic (1836 to 1846), ranching was established as a small-scale local industry. There were early and difficult cattle drives, but for the most part, Texas was simply too remote for its cattle to be brought profitably to market on a large scale. The Northern blockade of the South during the Civil War effectively stopped all cattle drives east of the Mississippi River.
But in the years following the war, the world quickly changed. Railheads in Kansas meant that Texas cattle could now be shipped to Eastern and Midwestern cities. And thus, in 1866, the northern cattle drive was born. Ambitious men began gathering up cattle in Texas—most of them feral Longhorns with horn spreads of four to eight feet—and pushing them to destinations like the Kansas cowtowns of Abilene and Dodge City. Along the way they faced Indian attacks, stampedes, swollen rivers, and a host of other obstacles. By the 1880’s, expanding railroads, refrigeration, and a busted cattle market had curtailed the drives; nevertheless, they had launched an industry and supplied America with an enduring set of characters: trail bosses, drovers, wranglers, and grizzled cooks who served chuck-wagon grub under starry Western skies.
As the drives declined, two pieces of technology gave rise to the modern ranch: barbed wire and the windmill. The former closed the open range; the latter could produce water from underground and thus allowed the grazing of pastures that were once useless because they were too far from water. A few years later, most of the plains were fenced off. One of the first ranchers to amass a large, fenced ranch in West Texas was John Z. Means, who began running his cow-calf operation in 1884.
The Means family had worked the same way since the beginning. But the business itself got harder and harder as profits struggled to keep pace with the rise in costs. Like so many ranching families, the Meanses were hit hard by the 2011 drought. Well accustomed to ranching in an arid part of the state, they spent large amounts of time and money to control erosion and brush and keep their pastures open and full of grass. But last year’s drought, as well as an extended dry spell in the nineties, made it tough to support cattle. Though the ranch has plenty of water for the cows—some 20 wells, many miles of pipes, and 120 troughs—the grass has suffered terribly. Earlier this year, the Meanses sold or moved about three quarters of their cattle. Some were sent to rainier pastures in New Mexico, Kansas, and North Texas.
They were not alone: ranchers in Texas were shocked to learn in 2011 that the 6666 Ranch, one of the biggest, oldest, and richest operations in the state, had for the first time shipped all of its cattle north to other pastures. The Meanses may soon have to do the same. “It is a terrible thing to go through,” says Jon. “Cows were all I ever cared about. They have been my life. It is hard to see it all evaporate. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
But the drought masks a deeper shift that has only been accelerated by the recent lack of rainfall. It begins with the difficulty of making a reasonable profit but does not end there. “There have just been so many big changes,” says Jackie. “A number of the ranching families are gone. They have sold out. Many of them had been there for generations. Schools have changed. Church has changed. We feel more and more alone out here.” Most of the Meanses’ friends and peers, in fact, had sold off their lands and moved away even before the recent drought.
One of those friends, Katy Hoskins, who sold her family’s West Texas ranch in 2002, explained it to me. “It was mainly economics,” she said. “The margins for raising cattle just got tighter and tighter, and where you used to be able to make a living with four hundred cows, you can’t anymore. There was no cash flow. We were looking at a choice between borrowing a lot of money to try to expand, which is very risky, or going ahead and getting out and finding an easier way to make a living.” They were also feeling, as the Meanses do, increasingly isolated, especially raising a young child in a place where there are fewer and fewer people. Escalating land prices helped them make up their minds. They landed on a much smaller ranch near Sweetwater, where, says Hoskins, “we are closer to schools, close to things for my daughter to be involved in. I guess you can consider my husband retired, but he keeps his little herd of cattle and stays busy.” She says she loves the change but concedes, “I miss the mountains terribly.”
As land prices rise and ranching margins narrow, it is remarkable, on a purely economic level, that everyone with a large and decent-looking piece of land doesn’t simply sell out. For the Meanses and their neighbors, this came into sharp perspective recently when a nearby 60,000-acre ranch went on the market for as much as $700 an acre. While few ranches in the area are likely to fetch that much, it doesn’t require a calculator to figure out what a stunningly beautiful property like the 90,000-acre Moon and Chispa ranches might go for on the open market. For now, the Meanses are staying put. “We love the life, and we love the lifestyle,” says Jon. “The land has been in my family a very long time. We feel a moral obligation to take care of it. But at the end of the day, you have to pay the bank.”
Perhaps the most startling truth about the Means operation, or any other large, multigenerational family-run ranch, is how irreproducible it is. If he were starting out today, Jon Means couldn’t do what his great-grandfather did. Those days are not only gone, they are long gone. A big part of this is the prohibitive cost of land. No one who pays $700 an acre in West Texas can possibly make any money off that investment by ranching cattle or even by a combination of ranching and hunting leases. Which is why a lot of the buyers for Texas ranches nowadays are not ranchers. They’re wealthy people who like the idea of owning a ranch with some cattle on it—a place to show your friends and to shoot deer, turkey, or quail on the weekend. This has had the dual effect of raising prices per acre and taking land out of serious production.
Austin Brown II—who also has a ranch management consulting business that often deals with wealthy investors—traces this development all the way back to the thirties and forties. “At that time, the ranching industry was glorified and magnified in the movies, with Roy and Gene and all the boys,” he says. “And after World War II, people of means decided they wanted ranches. So they started buying them in the areas close to Houston, Austin, San Antonio. If you had the money, you could buy a five-thousand-acre ranch and you could run cattle, but the kids could also come out and ride horses, and you could take your friends out there for a barbecue. The next jump was a little farther out, and it just moved like that, until all of Texas was affected by it.”
But since the seventies, the sale prices of Texas ranches have not been based on the productive value of the land for cattle. The prices, which Brown calls “outrageous and ridiculous,” are set instead by the “recreational value” of the land, a squishy concept that might include hunting, fishing, hiking, showing off to your friends, or just looking at the stars. These buyers may end up residing on the ranch or they may not, but in any case, they are looking for what Jay O’Brien, the managing partner of the JA, calls a “psychological rate of return.” “People are managing the ranches they own for something other than internal rate of return,” he explains. Though they’ll probably have the odd Longhorn grazing picturesquely in a pasture, you won’t find them out at the pens palpating cows. And there are, as it happens, lots of them. “There is too much demand for recreation,” says Kerry Cornelius, the director of the Ranch Management Program at Texas Christian University. “Land is overpriced.” Thanks in part to its proximity to San Antonio, the Brown Ranch is itself likely worth between $5,000 and $7,000 an acre; with a reported 16,000 acres, this means that the Browns are sitting on what is potentially a $100 million asset.
But the price of land—particularly the sort of large, unified parcels that ranches represent—has also been driven by something else. “These ranches over the past thirty years have been bought by flight capital,” says Brown. That is, cattle ranches have become a substitute for stocks and bonds. David Anderson, a professor in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, says, “These people are afraid to put all of their money into the stock market. Land is viewed everywhere as a hedge against inflation. If all else fails, you still have the land.”
Not only do you still have it, but because prices have been rising at record rates, you might also stand to make money just by holding on. In the fun-house economics of ranches, that means you could buy a ranch at inflated, recreational prices, lose money on your cattle operation for several decades, and still come out ahead.
Dan A. Hughes, for example, is a successful oil and gas operator in Beeville who, in the past forty years, has amassed 370,000 acres of land, mostly in the form of ranches, many of which are in Texas. “The land has gone consistently up in value,” says Hughes. “One of the first ranches I bought in the early seventies was in West Texas. I think I paid twenty-nine dollars an acre for thirty thousand acres in a semidesert area. It’s a very beautiful ranch. Today it’s probably in the three-hundred-dollar bracket. Plus it had a couple of mineral plays, and we probably leased it for a lot more than we paid for it.” That is a tenfold return, not counting the lease income. “Land is just a good place to put money,” he says. “I have some in bonds and stocks, but there’s no romance in that. Land just kind of sits there and appreciates.” Hughes says his family runs cattle on some of his ranches, but he leases most of them to other cattle operators.
Or consider the even larger acquisitions of tobacco magnate Brad Kelley, who was ranked by the Land Report in 2011 as the nation’s fourth-largest landowner, with 1.7 million acres. Kelley, who lives in Tennessee, has bought massively in West Texas in the past few years: more than a dozen ranches and nearly half a million acres. From all appearances, he is interested in conservation, not cattle, and so while he leases some of his land to cattle raisers, he simply takes the majority out of cattle production. As Clay Mathis, the director of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M–Kingsville, explained, “There are lots of examples of this in Texas—ranches whose primary purpose was livestock that are now strictly wildlife and recreation and no livestock at all.”
Hughes and Kelley are exactly the sort of people who would buy Brown’s ranch if he were to sell it. So why doesn’t he? “It is a hard business to be in these days,” says Brown. “But I just can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be where I am. I wouldn’t take money for that.” Still, in order to avoid being forced to sell out, the ranch needs to generate enough income to continue to support Brown and his extended family. Their approach has been to innovate and diversify. The Brown Ranch was among the first in Texas twenty years ago to offer “preconditioning” or “backgrounding,” the service of taking calves just after they have been weaned—a highly stressful time when the greatest amount of sickness and death occurs—and immunizing them and otherwise preparing them for the rigors of the feedlot. The ranch currently runs about 1,500 of these calves. More significantly, it also became, in 2005, one of the first ranches in the country to crossbreed Japan’s legendary Akaushi cattle—famous for their tender and exceptionally marbled beef—producing a hybrid offspring that brings much higher prices than a normal carcass in the market. It has also become the bull development center for a company called HeartBrand, the first owner of the only herd of full-blood Akaushi cattle outside Japan.
These innovations have been financially successful, but they’re clearly a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The business is still fueled primarily by the Browns’ dedication to the lifestyle. “We love living here with our family and doing what we do, and that is why I am still here,” says Brown. “I would rather have the land than the money.”
Though it is true that few if any owners can buy a ranch today and make a decent living running cattle, it’s not the case that there are no new ranchers at all. It’s just that they don’t look much like John Adair and Charles Goodnight. They tend to look a bit more like Guy Cumbie, a 59-year-old financial planner and investment adviser who bought a ranch eight years ago in Wise County, about forty miles west-northwest of Fort Worth. Before buying his spread, Cumbie knew next to nothing about cattle ranching. “I didn’t know which end of the cow was which,” he says. But he knew, somehow, that it was what he wanted to do, and he was a fast learner. He took classes at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s School for Successful Ranching. While commuting to his job in Fort Worth, he spent time with mentors at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a group based in Ardmore, Oklahoma, that offers free consultations for ranchers. He initially leased his 315 acres out to other cattlemen. But by last fall, he was ready for his first cattle venture at the Bar-C-Bar Ranch.
Cumbie is a serious part-time rancher. It is unlikely that he’ll ever build an empire or even a small fortune. Instead, his main motivation, as another part-time rancher, John Graves, once put it, “has little to do with money or labor but I suppose must be called romantic. Possibly the pull of the legendary Old West has something to do with it.” Cumbie just wants to raise cattle. He wants the deep connection to the myth. He likes the sound of calves bawling as they are led into a squeeze chute for tagging or castration and the smell of burning hide on a spring morning when it’s branding time.
But he also likes to avoid losing money hand over fist. So he decided that instead of a riskier, more-labor-intensive cow-calf operation, he would invest in a more focused play known as a “cull-cow stocker” or “winter stocker” operation. The idea is to buy cull cows—which are no longer able to breed and thus are typically sold for slaughter—at the end of the grass-growing season (when people are looking to get rid of them), fatten them a bit, and then sell them.
In 2011 Cumbie and his wife, Kamee, went down to the Decatur Livestock Market and bought six cows. “We bought scrawny, ribby-looking cull cows and put them out on our pastures, which we had rested for a couple of years, so we had plenty of grass,” says Cumbie. It was an experiment in not just livestock management but also self-reliance. “Me and my wife and seven-year-old processed them ourselves,” he says proudly. “We branded them and ear-tagged them, just the three of us.” What happened next was a sort of miracle. It rained. Suddenly they had a lot more grass. The cows the Cumbies had bought for 52 cents a pound put on more than three hundred pounds each on average and sold in May at the same local market for 85 cents a pound. Gross profit: nearly $4,000. “I only wish I had done three or four times as many,” says Cumbie. This year he plans to increase his herd to eight to ten cows, and eventually he aims to have a cow-calf operation, running eighteen “animal units” (a unit is a mother cow and calf) on his acreage, which, at a ratio of nineteen acres per unit, is the most his land will bear.
Cumbie acknowledges that his business will never provide a significant return on his land investment. “You have to say the land is a given,” he says. “You are living there and enjoying the wildlife and living in the country. If you factor in the land, there is just no way.” His objectives for the ranch go beyond raising cattle. “This land had been pretty badly overgrazed and badly eroded over the years,” he says. “We would like to bring it back. Stewardship is one of our main goals.” That will cost money too.
The Cumbies are a good example of a new breed of moderately well-financed part-time ranchers. A considerably more ambitious (and more expensive) example of the new kinds of ranch owners operating in Texas is Stan Graff, a Dallas-area automobile dealer who purchased a bankrupt, overgrazed, and neglected cattle ranch near Paris, in northeast Texas, in 1983. Graff wanted to raise cattle, as he had on his father’s small ranch in Dallas County when he was growing up, and he did just that for fifteen years, building up his herd to four hundred, pulling up stumps, clearing pastures, planting grass, and raising wheat for winter grazing. Like Cumbie, he went to school to learn the basics of ranch management—in Graff’s case, night classes at TCU. Though he was technically an absentee owner, he spent nearly all his free time at the ranch. He weaned his calves in October, put them out in his wheat fields over the winter, then sold them in late spring or summer. He loved every minute of it.
But Graff, who had made millions from his three dealerships in Dallas and the Mid-Cities, wanted more than just a cattle ranch. Because he is a naturalist and an idealist, he wanted something magnificent: a large, unified piece of land with lush pastures for grazing but also airy woodlands, wetlands, springs, and creeks populated by wild eastern turkey, deer, bear, ducks, bald eagles, and a variety of fish. In the late nineties, while continuing to raise and sell cattle as he always had, Graff embarked on an ambitious plan to rebuild the ecosystems of his ranch. Today that effort includes four full-time ranch employees and another half-dozen paid experts and advisers to help with the fish and game. This sort of intensive land management does not come cheap, nor could it possibly be covered by the money Graff made from ranching. “If I wanted to maximize profits, I would have done something else,” says Graff. “There is a lot of psychic income. I didn’t set out to lose money, but I did.” To put it another way, he shifted money he made in his main business into the rehabilitation of his ranch.
On a tour of the ranch in Graff’s pickup truck, the results are visible everywhere. While the Graff Ranch is not yet a manicured park, it shows evidence of massive improvement. “See that spring?” Graff says, pointing to a crystal-clear stream of water by the side of the road. “When I bought this land, there were no springs anywhere. Now there are eighteen of them.” A mile down the road we come to a large, open space where he used bulldozers to convert bottomland into two 20-acre areas of wetlands and duck habitat, replacing grass with duck-friendly millet. He designed and built most of the ranch’s 34 lakes. He drained the largest of those—the 38-acre Flagg Pond—and installed a variety of habitats, then filled it again. “It’s full of fish,” he says. “It also has the best ducks in the county. People I don’t even know call me up wanting to hunt it.”
Graff is remaking his pastures and his woodlands as well. He sprays to kill his fertilizer-dependent coastal Bermuda grass, which once covered most of his pastures, and he is replacing it with native grasses—switchgrass and big and little bluestem, among other varieties. He’s doing three hundred acres this year, essentially restoring the old prairie, though that will mean he can graze fewer cattle on it. He also uses fire to improve his land. He burns five hundred or more acres a year, controlled blazes that consume brush, dead grass, and debris and open up impenetrable thickets for wildlife. He has an eighty-year timber plan, he says, that will eventually allow him to harvest trees and make more money for the ranch. “Initially I was very protective of the timber,” he says, “and thought I was managing it by leaving it alone. But you can’t leave it alone. It just reverts to brush. We cut selectively—for aesthetics, for habitat, for production, for sustainability.” His newly thinned and burned forests look open and inviting, both to humans and to wildlife.
Graff is doing all of this to please himself, because he wants to improve the land. He acknowledges that he could easily make money by leasing his ranch for hunting and fishing. But for now, he says, “I manage this place for me and my friends. I like to hunt quail and duck. My family and friends fish and hunt deer and turkey.” What will happen, I ask, when he and his financial resources are not there to maintain his ranch? “That is an interesting question,” he says. “Thirty years without me or [ranch manager] Jeff [Pennington] and this place would just be a mess again. I feel I have an obligation to leave the place to my eight-year-old son in good shape and to encourage him to continue what I have done. He won’t be able to support himself with the ranch, and he’ll have to work in the city. But all I can say is, when I am looking down from heaven, the ranch better be getting bigger!”
The question of what happens to a ranch after the founder dies is one of the keys to understanding why large family-run ranches are increasingly rare in Texas and why that trend is probably irreversible. Stan Graff had an obvious advantage in building his ranch: he could afford to lose money to do it. But when it comes to keeping the Graff Ranch intact—or even growing it—after his death, he has another advantage that is just as important: few heirs. (Guy Cumbie, with one daughter, is in a similar position.) Heirs, in fact, are the main way that ranches—from 100 to 500,000 acres—get broken apart, never to be put back together. As the descendants of a ranching family multiply down through the generations, it becomes intensely difficult to ensure that everyone will agree on what the best use of the land is. “Land rich and cash poor” is not a condition all heirs aspire to.
The King Ranch, the largest in Texas, with 825,000 acres, offers the classic example of this dilemma. The death of owner Henrietta King, in 1925, triggered a long and often rancorous fight among the heirs to divvy up the estate. This was mostly settled by giving various interests large chunks of land (easy enough when you’re starting with a spread the size of Rhode Island). By the seventies, when the ranch faced another rebellion among the heirs, land was no longer enough. This time it took $105 million in cash to quiet them. Twenty years later, the heirs who had not gotten those buyouts clamored for—and got—the lion’s share of the money coming in from a 1933 oil lease with Exxon. That agreement, then the biggest private oil lease in history, had initially helped the ranch pay its considerable estate taxes, but in the end, it also kept the majority of the heirs from demanding something more extreme, like liquidation.
Versions of the King Ranch story have been repeated thousands of times in Texas, usually with unhappier endings. “The problem has always been lots of kids and not enough land,” says Austin Brown II. “A lot of families fight over it.” Occasionally, as with the Waggoner Ranch, near Wichita Falls, such generational battles spill out into public. For more than a dozen years, starting in 1992, two branches of the Waggoner family waged a bitter and protracted legal struggle over whether to divide the ranch up or sell it.
The most common way that the bigger ranches have avoided total liquidation has been to simply sell parts of their land, generating cash that can be distributed to heirs. But you can see the looming problem: as time goes by and generations pass, there will be less and less ranchland to work with, meaning that eventually families are likely to wind up liquidating the whole enterprise anyway.
The simplest solution is one that would have seemed counterintuitive on the frontier: don’t have many children. Despite the fact that John Adair’s descendants have never had any oil and gas revenue or diversified their operation into other types of agribusiness, like the King Ranch, the JA has persevered because, well, there just haven’t been very many people to disagree about what to do with it. After Adair’s death, the ranch passed to his wife, Cornelia. She died in 1921, leaving the ranch to the Adair heirs, and fourteen years later, her grandson from her first marriage, 25-year-old Montgomery Harrison Wadsworth “Montie” Ritchie, took over the operation. Starting with nearly 400,000 deeded acres, he strategically sold off portions of it in order to pay estate taxes and buy out his siblings and other heirs. In this way he consolidated both the ranch ownership and its pasturage. (The ranch is now less than half the size it was when he took over, suggesting the extent of those land sales.) Ritchie was a brilliant cattleman too—his decades-long effort to repair the range and restore the native grasses was truly admirable—but perhaps his most fortuitous act was to have only one child. His daughter, Ninia Ritchie, became the JA’s sole owner when Montie died, in 1999, and she, in turn, also had only one child, Andrew Bivins (with her former husband, state senator and ambassador Teel Bivins). Andrew, the sole representative of the fifth generation, is now a managing partner.
As one of the most important (and iconic) ranches in Texas history, the JA’s 130,000 acres are worth an enormous amount of money—far more, Bivins acknowledges, than he could ever make by raising cattle. But he and his mother have no plans to sell—and no one else to answer to. “Because we’re blessed with no sibling rivalry and no different views on how they want the place run, we have not had any squabbles or any tension,” Bivins told me. “My mom was raised on the ranch, and she wanted to maintain it for me. I want to maintain it for my two children, and I will let them decide what they want to do with it. I don’t feel that it’s my choice to decide what happens to the ranch.” His mother still lives on the ranch in the main house, a corner of which consists of the cedar log cabin Charles Goodnight built in 1879. “There has never been any question of selling this ranch,” she says. “I love it here. I am a hands-on person, and I just want to be on the ranch, working cattle or riding or hiking—just being here.”
It’s lunchtime at the Augustus Ranch, in Yoakum, a cattle outfit about one hundred miles due east of San Antonio, owned and operated by Dennis and Cordelia “Dee Dee” Kaspar. I’ve come to hear about an ambitious plan the Kaspars have to future-proof the ranching industry and ensure its viability for generations to come. But first, we must eat. The fare is, predictably, beef. Brisket, to be exact, minimally seasoned, cooked in their oven, and served on a big platter on the kitchen table.
This isn’t just any brisket. It came from one of their steers, an animal that was the product of an intense program of genetic research and selection, an animal raised on grass and barley and flax, without hormones or antibiotics or the massive quantities of corn typically used to fatten cattle. All of this has to do, of course, with how the Kaspars are going to save ranching, but none of it has prepared me for the actual experience of eating their meat. It’s astoundingly good. I have had plenty of oven brisket in my life but nothing remotely like this: it has a barbecue-like tenderness that would make a pitmaster jealous and a flavor that calls to mind a marbled tenderloin.
“That’s unbelievable,” I say.
“We were hoping you’d like it,” says Dee Dee, with a knowing smile. She and her husband believe that what I have just eaten (and continue to eat, so long as they put it in front of me) is the last best hope for the cattle ranching business in Texas. In a commoditized industry where beef producers almost never come face-to-face with the consumers of their products, Dennis is running furiously in the other direction. For him the path to success in the business is to make it all about the consumer experience: not just the taste and texture but also the knowledge of exactly where the beef comes from and who produces it. It’s a fairly visionary idea that the Kaspars believe can make it possible for families to make a living again from smaller ranches.
Dennis has been a rancher for 26 years. He is also one of the owners of the Shiner-based Kaspar group of companies, founded by his great-grandfather, which produces wire, tubing, and sheet metal products and is the world’s largest maker of coin-operated newspaper racks. (His grandfather invented the shopping cart.) Dennis is not a hobby rancher. He has been running a cow-calf operation full-time and living on the ranch since he graduated from Texas A&M, in 1985.
Over the years, Dennis produced beef under contract for an “all-natural-cattle” marketer, and in the late nineties, he began dreaming about running a similar type of operation himself. Finally, in 2007, he took the plunge. Starting with an existing herd of some seven hundred cows, he began selectively culling and breeding his cattle based on the taste and tenderness of their meat. He wanted to take a hard look at exactly what sort of beef he was producing.
“Most cow-calf operations don’t ever get any kind of data back,” he says. “Nobody—not even the guys who retain ownership of their calf crops on the way to the feedlot—has the face-to-face with the consumer to say this carcass was tender or tough, this carcass tasted good.” The Kaspars took the opposite approach. “We gave cattle away, looking for feedback,” Dennis says. He did “shear-force” testing on meat to see how tender it was. He found that marbling—the usual standard for grading beef—too often was no guarantee of tenderness. He experimented with genetics, culling the herd down to eighty cows. And he tinkered with his feed to see how it would affect the flavor of the beef itself. He raised his animals on grass, never gave them antibiotics or hormones, and instead of sending them to the feedlot, finished them on his own mixture of barley and flax. In all of this, he was vertically integrated in a way that almost no cattle operations are: he controlled everything from the calf’s genes to the food it ate, from birth until death. (The only thing he did not do was slaughter his own animals, though he says he will start doing that next year.) Such a program allowed him to not only make sure the beef tasted good but also make substantially higher margins than a traditional cow-calf operation. It was a grand and expensive experiment, with no certainty of success.
At last, in February 2011, he began selling his beef to high-end butcher shops and restaurants. He and Dee Dee made the contacts themselves, marketed their own products, and even personally delivered the meat. “I wanted to put this product in the hands of chefs,” says Dennis, “because they know how to cook and handle meat, and they get immediate feedback.” His beef was an instant sensation. His products were simply better than most of what was out there. His genetic work was vindicated. Within a year he was selling all the beef he could produce to a collection of Houston markets and restaurants that includes Revival Market, Down House, Hubcap Grill, Oxheart, Underbelly, and Feast.
“His products are outstanding,” says Morgan Weber, a co-owner of Revival Market, Houston’s acclaimed specialty butcher shop and grocer, who himself produces high-end pork. “I feel like I know a lot about what is going on in the country, and he definitely has one of the most interesting programs in the U.S. right now. Considering how small his operation is—he’s slaughtering only a half dozen a month—to be able to do what he does is mind-blowing.” The Kaspars’ beef bears their own label at Weber’s counters: it sells for between $6.95 and $38.95 a pound.
But the Kaspars’ diet-and-genetics program is merely the first part of a more ambitious plan. They intend to scale their operation up from their current 320 Angus crossbred mother cows to 1,000 within five years. “I see no reason why we can’t do that,” Dennis says. “We have the land. The main key is marketing. We do that ourselves. We make our own contacts. We eventually want to go direct to consumers.”
Still, the really ambitious part of the Kaspars’ plan comes next. They actually want to increase their herd to 10,000 cows within twelve years, even though they have nowhere near enough land to graze that many animals. The solution? Become partners with lots of the mom-and-pop ranches around the state, especially in Lavaca County, which has enormous numbers of them. “If you have twenty-five head, you have no buying power and no selling power,” says Dennis. “I can extend my model to the small producer. He uses my genetics, my system, my ability to market. I use his land, his labor. My idea is a way to get grass and a lot of it, and it keeps the small producers from being crushed.”
As Dennis tells me this, we are in his truck in one of his pastures, surrounded by his handsome cattle. It takes a moment for what he says to sink in. He’s talking about smaller ranchers making decent money from cattle ranching, more than just enough to buy a new refrigerator or make a down payment on a car. “Our long-range goal is to create value in an agrarian lifestyle, to help people make a living,” he says. “Our goal is to be able to purchase or lease land with cattle-operating money.” It’s a breathtaking vision. “The Kaspars have a really good reputation for being able to pull off crazy ideas like that,” says Weber, who grew up in Yoakum. “Personally, I think managing a bunch of farmers who may or may not completely understand all of that presents nightmarish kinds of management issues. But if anyone can figure it out, they probably can.”
Looking out over the gently rolling pastures, green from a recent rain and strewn with lovely old oak trees and jet-black cattle, it is possible to believe Dennis is right. Perhaps there may be a way to save the self-sustaining family ranch, to keep the business from becoming little more than a hobby, pursued in small, insignificant ways for its own romance. Dennis Kaspar is all about romance too: he loves cattle, and he loves his way of life. But he also understands that you can run on love and myth and romance and history for only so long, and then you have to start thinking about money.