Texas Primer: The Stock Tank

Of course we know what it means, but it sure is a funny name for a pond.

Ranchers don’t call them ponds. Ponds are for picnics and pollywogs. Ranchers call them what they are: stock tanks for sheep and cattle, for the dead-serious business of keeping animals alive in a semiarid land plagued by drought.

Most tanks in Texas are murky man-made reservoirs, muddy watering holes ringed by hoofprints and dung, built by ranchers who bulldoze pits or earthen dams across gulleys to catch runoff and hold it awhile. Statistically, the average tank in Texas covers four tenths of an acre, but the official figure is somewhat skewed—in South Texas a tank might cover 25 acres, while in East Texas you can almost jump across some.

In the early days when grass and water were free, there wasn’t any need for stock tanks. Cattlemen just nudged their herds along from seasonal creek to perennial spring, mimicking the ceaseless roaming of bison across the Great Plains. Barbed wire and fencing changed the old ways, stranding livestock in waterless grids. To provide for their cattle, ranchers began digging pits and damming arroyos to hold rainwater. It was hard work carrying rawhide bags full of dirt out of a crater and emptying them onto a dam. To strengthen his tanks, one rancher in Live Oak County butchered heifers and mixed their blood into the soil; on the Panhandle’s XIT Ranch, hands threw a few sacks of stock salt into the empty tanks and let cattle thoroughly trample the ground as they licked the salt. Even then, many of the dams blew out during the first good gully washer.


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