The Land Is Yellow.
Stories from south Texas — Part IX As Told To Katharyn Rodemann
AND ALSO RED, AND PURPLE. Almost every clearing is covered in wildflowers. There are a few bluebonnets, but in this part of South Texas, we have mostly sunflowery-looking blooms. The drought last year meant our spring was not nearly as pretty, but this month shows more promise for the brush country. You can already see camera-happy winter Texans out on the sides of the roads from Raymondville north to our ranch.
It was about this time last year that we inaugurated some new property as part of the ranch, land that we worked hard to develop and is now thriving. If you remember, the acreage on which my family lives is only a third of what I grew up on; after my grandmother passed away, in 1999, the ranch was divided up among my father, Billy, and two of his sisters. (Before her passing, my father and my mother, Claudette, had leased the land from her and run cows on the entire acreage.) When the last fence separating out the land went up a couple of years ago, my family was left to mourn the passing of an era. Still, my parents were quick-thinking. To make up the lost acreage—we wanted to be able to sustain and grow our cattle herd—they looked outward. Soon we acquired some property about 25 miles away, called Ojo de Agua, followed by another tract closer in, which we’ve named Cinco Reales. Before that we had also purchased a smaller space, which we call 1761. (Nothing sentimental or Spanish there; that’s just the road it’s on.)
Now, when you’re putting together a new ranch, so to speak, it’s good to know a few things—whether you’re a seasoned ranching family in South Texas, like us, or you’re simply contemplating life as a weekend rancher in the Hill Country. The first thing to consider? The type of land available to you. Down here we have brush country (this is the typical ranchland that almost everyone pictures, covered in mesquite), irrigated farmland, and dryland farmland (which here can be very dry). An important difference among these is their carrying capacity—meaning how many acres it takes to sustain a cow without damaging the terrain—so when you’re thinking about buying, you’ve got to put pen to paper and do the math, looking at it as the cost of land per cow unit. Irrigated farmland, for example, has the highest capacity (you can run a cow to an acre, while on brush country you might run a cow to six acres), but it can also be the most expensive. You’ve got to think hard for the long term too: What’s the average rainfall in the area for a ten-year span? It’s not a very sexy thought, but in South Texas it is easy to be fooled by a good year. You can’t afford to be taken in by one lush season and overstock, because you’ll then be selling off your cows during next year’s drought.
When my parents decided to expand the ranch, we ended up buying mostly dryland farmland, as well as some irrigated farmland. This meant we had to convert our new acreage to ranchland, to meet our cattle’s needs. Some farmers in our community thought we were crazy. They had spent a lifetime trying to keep grass out of their fields, and here we were, planning to plant it! Good farmland is hard to come by, and how could we make more money ranching than farming? But we didn’t have a choice. Either we found space to put our 1,500 cows or we got rid of them—and we had put too much effort into our genetic pool to do that. So we planted the grass. We used a hybrid called Tifton 85, which is taller, with broader leaves, and has a higher yield than some other choices in this area.
As you watch your grass grow (literally), you have some time to work, so next came the fencing. We enclosed the perimeter, then cross-fenced the land for pastures, using King Ranch wire and cedar posts, plus some galvanized posts. Though none of this land preparation is cheap, you can’t afford to cut corners at this point, because it will only cost you later. (Cheaper, nongalvanized posts, for one, come back to haunt you.) To know where to fence, we hired a certified surveyor to come out and stake our corners. Once again we ran into some resistance from the landowners nearby. See, you have to picture it: Here’s a totally open, flat area that has never, for as long as people can remember, had any visible obstructions aside from growing crops, and suddenly it has fences across it and these big white beasts feeding on the invader—grass—that these farmers have fought so long to keep out. So some of our neighbors insisted our boundaries were completely wrong. One farmer argued that our fence needed to be eighteen inches off the property line—because that’s how far a cow’s neck can reach. Even with a law degree, I didn’t have a comeback! It’s interesting politics to be the new kid in town. I can imagine how the range wars got started during the migration to the American West.
But now, after much labor and patience, we’re full of cows in each of our properties. Working these areas is a lot like driving a new car. There’s the novelty and fun of it, plus all the new components. Unlike on the original ranch, my brother, Mitch, and I have gotten to design the pasture sizes and layout and dictate exactly how the pens are built. And because most of the new acreage has no trees, it is easier to see and gather the cows—though we did have to build shades (big aluminum sheets on poles) for them. Our total number of acres of improved, converted land is now just over two thousand. It is not necessarily the romantic, rugged ranch spread most people picture in South Texas, but it is what it is. It’s a legacy my parents have worked very hard to leave for us.
The name Ojo de Agua comes from the legal description of the property. In Spanish it means “spring”; supposedly there was one on a little hill somewhere in the area. The name Cinco Reales, on the other hand, was my mother’s idea. There are five grandkids, and they, together with the land, represent our tomorrow—a rich resource like those Spanish gold pieces of old. When you name a piece of land, it acquires a character of its own and becomes something you care about. For us this is the sweet side of losing the original acreage; we now look to a better future. It’s going to be a beautiful spring.