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?
Git Along, Lonesome Ranchers
Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden and Stuart McSpadden

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

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