Nerd Herd

Parched by the drought, ranchers are stampeding the Internet.

WHEN THE GRASS and stock tanks dried up at his ranch at Washington-on-the-Brazos this summer, Don Limb logged on to the Internet and tried to sell some cows. A computer operations manager at NASA, he maintains a homepage for his Limb Cattle Company on the World Wide Web, where visitors can browse prices and click on color images of his Longhorns. By mid-summer he had sold more than a dozen head on the Web and answered electronic mail inquiries from as far away as Italy and New Zealand. “It’s just like the stock market,” he says. “When things are bad, you always look for an opportunity.”

Cyberspace is the newest frontier for Texas ranchers, a hidebound bunch who prefer punching cows to punching keyboards. “Cowboys tend to be the last ones to use technology,” says Wyman Poe, a marketed manager at the TD Cattle Company in Hearne. But depressed prices and a lack of rain are forcing them to blaze a new trail. With an investment of only a few hundred dollars for a Web page or an Internet ad, they can have the global cattle market at their fingertips. TD Cattle Company , for instance, has signed up with a new online marketing service called CATTLEweb in hopes of reaching Mexican ranchers who will need to replace herds decimated by the drought. Information on its Web page—including breeds and prices—appears in both English and Spanish and can be updated easily. “As soon as they get some rain down there and try to restock,” Poe says, “there’s no telling how much it’s going to help the market up here.”

CATTLEweb, which is based in College Station, is one of several firms launched this year by computer-literate Aggies to help ranchers go high tech. It is run by brothers and Texas A&M alums Paul and Taylor Marvin, who charge $25 to $50 for a listing and $250 a year for a Web page; they’re also working to set up and online cattle trading system. Across town, married A&M seniors Leslie and Cain Neal founded the Cattle Pages . It began as a free listing service for breed association directories, but as demand increased, the Neals added Web pages for $450 a year.

Ranchers are even getting creative. Before it held a big sale in May, the Barbee-Pair Limousin ranch near Dublin put its catalog on the Net. Bovine Elite in College Station is marketing bull semen and artificial-insemination services online. Hartzog Angus Ranch in Bovina has posted its herd history. And when Don Limb needed to buy hay, he searched the Web and ordered 32 tons of alfalfa from a Kansas producer. “This is a new toy for ranchers,” says Poe, who has spotted good buys on feed while surfing the Net. “We’re finding new things on it to play with all the time.”

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