YOU KNOW, EVERYBODY HAS THEIR WIDGET, their product. Cattle are like any other business; there are different people along the production line to get the steak to the grocery store or the milk to the market. So it’s more than just that idyllic image of cows grazing in a pasture. They’re our production units, and we have to consider the economics.

Some cattle breeds are known for their milk, like Jersey or Holstein cows, while some are known for their marbling, like Angus cattle. Right now we are the largest registered Charolais herd in Texas and the third-largest in the nation. The Charolais, or “the great white breed,” as my grandmother liked to call them, are known for being a heavier-muscled beef breed. And they’re a terminal breed, which means that most people buy our bulls to breed to their commercial cows and produce calves that get slaughtered for meat. In effect, they buy them to get more pounds of beef from their herds.

So our cows, so to speak, are our factories: Each one is here to produce a calf. Since the ranch’s main commodity is purebred Charolais bulls, we put a lot of time and effort into having our cows deliver the best product. We have about 1,500 mama cows and about 40 herd bulls. The cows get a bull around January 1—each bull breeds about 40 cows—and they’ll usually start calving in the fall. Around November, babies start showing up everywhere, and they continue to until about May. (There are some 1,200 of them on the ground right now.) The calves are given an ear tattoo that identifies them and their mother, and at about seven months, we’ll wean them. Then we’ll work and process them, meaning we dehorn them, vaccinate them, and brand them with their herd number and our Flying U.

Through all this, we’re constantly culling, weeding out any genetic traits we don’t want. We cull about 10 percent across the board for general quality, and then we’re always on the lookout on top of that. With the bull calves, for example, one of the things we cull on is testicle size, because it’s an indicator of fertility—which is, of course, what we’re selling. Depending on feed prices and available space, we’ll either send the calves we cull to auction or we’ll fatten them here and sell them for slaughter ourselves.

The product line doesn’t stop there. At about a year of age, our calves are scanned, and we start preparing them for our two annual sales, in October and February. By “scanned,” I mean ultrasounded, which is a thing of modern ranching: Nowadays we can tell our customers what our bulls are from the inside out. We run the bulls through a chute, and a certified technician scans for ribeye area, back fat, rump fat, intermuscular fat, and all that, producing a report. The device is much like the ultrasound machines found in gynecologists’ offices—we’re just looking for different information! So if you come to buy a bull, you not only can see with your eyes whether he’s a good choice but you can also tell on paper. This means you can select for traits you can’t see, like percentage of intermuscular fat (which you want high, for good marbling). You’ll also read that the bull has had a Breeding Soundness Evaluation, that his semen is good, and that he’s fertile. Every customer uses the data differently to select for specific qualities; some customers don’t use it at all. But if you want that information, we have it.

Our inventory is different from a store’s, say, in that we can’t just close the door and go home at five o’clock. We worry constantly about our cattle having enough water, getting sick, or dying. It’s not something you can just walk away from. A recent incident at the ranch is a perfect example of this. My brother, Mitch, and I were waiting for 165 of our cows to arrive one night from East Texas. Because of the drought, we had shipped them out to be pastured near Henderson for the year, but now we were having them brought home in time to calve this fall. It was about nine or ten o’clock, and Mitch, who had been waiting at the chute, called me to say he could see the trucks pulling up to the main gate. I was walking out of the house to help him unload when he called me again: “Tonny, the truck is hung up on the railroad tracks! You’ve got to call to stop the trains!” The cows were in four pots—semi double-deckers—and the first one had gotten stuck on the tracks. As I drove down the caliche road from my house, I called 911, but that was clearly not going to work. So when I got to the gate just south of the main entrance (which didn’t take me as long as it should have), I dialed the emergency number on the railroad-crossing sign there. I reached an operator, who said, “Oh, my God, ma’am. We show a train to be within two miles of the crossing. You have to get flares and signal the train!” She was panicking, I was panicking, and as I drove by the main entrance, I could see the truck was still stuck—with forty pregnant cows inside the pot. While Mitch and our cowboy Robert tried to push the truck off the tracks with a tractor, I drove toward the train on the wrong side of the road, flashing my lights—how was I going to find flares? The train finally started stopping, and it came to a halt ten feet, literally, from the crossing. We were all dying inside. The engineer got out, and he said, “If you had called twenty seconds later, I wouldn’t have been able to stop.” It’s one of the most dramatic things we’ve ever been through.

By the time we unloaded all the heifers, it was one in the morning, and at seven the next day we had to start working the cows again—business as usual (albeit with a good story to tell). That’s the way it is on the ranch; you have to keep everything going. Now we’re focused on getting a Charolais shipment out to Guatemala, and we’re revving up for the big sale next month. Most people might think they know a lot about cows, but there’s more to this industry than meets the eye. Even our kids understand a lot of the cattle operation. The other day, my mother-in-law, Liz, was in town, and we were talking about cows in the car. And my daughter, Claudette, said out of the blue, “You know, cows have milk and meat,” to which Liz said, “You mean girl cows.” And Claudette answered, “Don’t you know—all cows are girls!” From the mouths of babes.

Tonnyre Thomas Joe lives on the Thomas Ranch, in Kenedy and Willacy counties. She has been chronicling her life as a rancher for Texas Monthly since August 2006. Read her previous installment.