MY BROTHER, MITCH, and I were little at the time—he was probably seven and I was four—and Fred was his show bull. Mitch loved this bull, and he took him everywhere, to shows around the state. But one day Fred was in a pasture in front of our house and fell and broke his leg, so we had to put him down. We ended up taking him to a processing plant, and afterward we froze the meat to eat. Mitch and I have always picked on each other, and I didn’t care that much about Fred, so each time we sat down for dinner after that—and I know this is terrible—I would exclaim, “Oh, boy, Fred sure tastes good tonight!” Mitch would cry, and I’d get into trouble every time.

That’s the thing about growing up on a ranch. You learn early on about life, about cattle coming and going and dying and being born. While other kids were riding bikes after school or going to Boy Scout meetings, Mitch and I were involved in 4-H and participating in junior heifer shows. Sure, we had extracurricular activities, like dancing (me, not Mitch), basketball, and football, but once we got home, everything was cattle oriented. The ranch was not only this wonderful expanse for us to explore and play in—we rode three-wheelers, had horses, swam in water cisterns, drank from windmills—but it was also our introduction to the facts of life. We knew the miracle it is to witness a baby calf’s arrival (how many kids get to watch live births on a daily basis?), and yet we also knew there is a time to put an ailing cow out of her misery. Ranching, for all its macho appearance, teaches the utmost in husbandry and compassion.

Now as we watch our own children grow, I think about how the ranch colors their understanding of the world. There’s the birth and life they see around them daily: My four-year-old daughter, Claudette, can already tell you how to recognize when a cow is about to calve (“Her chee-chees are as big as a ball”), and my son, Royse, is well versed in bovine reproduction—probably a little too well versed for a seven-year-old! He has watched us do artificial insemination and has been at the pens for many breeding soundness evaluations. He has seen us collect semen samples and has even looked at bull semen himself under a microscope. This invariably leads to many a discussion on the birds and the bees, but you can hardly escape that when your business hinges on marketing genetics and producing babies, so to speak. Even Claudette knows that a cow can’t get pregnant without a bull somewhere in the vicinity. High school biology should be a breeze for these kids.

And then there’s death, which is just as important a reality. This past summer, the brutal drought took its toll: Cows started getting too thin, calves got sickly. Sometimes we’d drive around and find a cow that was so weak she couldn’t get up. We were feeding the cattle alfalfa and supplements, but we just couldn’t keep up. Death, whether due to the drought, illness, or something as rare as a coyote attack, comes often in this microcosm, and you have to learn to deal with it. I wonder sometimes if the kids will become blasé about death from seeing it so often. They do seem to take it all in stride; they understand quite well that some things are inevitable and that the bulls and the cows are ultimately here to produce beef. There’s one caveat to this, which Claudette has come up with: If an animal has a name, it won’t get eaten (Fred excepted). She has a cow named Lucky Star, for example, and Lucky Star will not be culled or eaten—she’ll stay on the ranch. If you haven’t been named, however, you are fair game, and the kids understand this. (This hasn’t stopped Claudette from trying to name everything she possibly can.)

If the ranch taught Mitch and me the realities of a cattle operation, it also gave us an important bond—not just to the land itself but also to each other. The ranch isolated us in many ways, because there weren’t neighbors down the street to hang out with, and our activities were different from other kids’. This meant we were each other’s entertainment. I still remember trying to cover the ranch on our three-wheelers, gathering and working cattle with the cowboys, and roping and barrel racing together. (Mitch really liked to rope, but my father wouldn’t always let him practice on calves, in case one got hurt. So Mitch would pay me to run across the yard, and he’d rope me and drag me behind his horse. I made a quarter a run. I must have been either an idiot or just really gullible.) I see this same bond with the five kids—Royse and Claudette and Mitch and Linda’s daughters, Morgan, Logan, and Lauren. Though they are not allowed to rope and drag each other—fear of Child Protective Services—they truly enjoy the ranch together, including sharing a horse named Secretariat.

Sometimes I think of the childhood our kids would have experienced had David and I stayed in Dallas. Their walks would have been to and from the park, and their experiences with nature would have been on a marked trail. Here, Royse takes nature walks daily from our house, loves the cattle and the outdoors, has learned to drive the Ranger, and can even shoot a grasshopper with a bow and arrow. In the city, Claudette would hardly have had a pet as interesting as her beloved bovine Lucky Star, whose pregnancy she has been following ever so closely (Lucky Star II is due any day now). And neither one would have gotten to know their cousins as well as they do: This year they will follow Morgan, who is now eight and old enough to show cattle at the junior level, as she takes our heifers Dora and Sonya to livestock shows around the state—they’re anxiously waiting for when they’re old enough to take their own turn at showing. Our children may never experience Boy Scouts or Brownies, but knowing a thousand cows and their lives—and the responsibilities that come with being stewards of the land—will mark them in a different manner. The ranch has a special way of teaching life lessons, and I’m happy it is shaping another generation.

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 installments.