NORMALLY AT THIS TIME OF YEAR we’d be selling our Vintage 2007 females (our bulls go in October and February), but we canceled a few weeks ago due to drought conditions. I know, I know—if you were reading along last month, you’re aware of how I gushed about the wildflowers and declared this a spring of so much promise. Well, then came a late freeze and no follow-up rain. That’s Texas weather for you.
Canceling is no fun, but the good news is that, in the grand scheme of things, this won’t be too big a hit for the ranch. That’s because, unlike our bulls, the cows can stay in the herd; we’ll just have more production units than we’d planned. Don’t get me wrong. We’re still encouraging anyone to come and buy private treaty. But we called the auctioneer, told our vet not to come, sent out some seven hundred “canceled sale” postcards to the folks on our mailing list, and pulled our ads from the cattle magazines. In fact, the ads were a big part of why we decided not to go through with the sale: When it came time to photograph the cows, the images just didn’t look good. The grass was burned from the freeze, and the cows had just come out of winter. We knew we could get them fat and pretty by sale time, but we also knew that whenever there’s the threat of drought, no one’s in the mood to buy. No grass, no moisture—who wants extra mouths to feed under those conditions? We didn’t even want all our cows.
No sooner had we canceled the sale “due to the drought,” as our postcards said, than you can guess what happened next: It rained. Two inches! You’ve probably seen it all on the Weather Channel these past couple weeks. And not only did it rain—it hailed. Huge, golf ball—size hail that sounded like we were being attacked by the Mexican army. “Can’t we just get normal rain here?” exclaimed my husband, David, as we listened to the clatter at one in the morning. (He had even more to say the next day when he noticed the dents in our car.) And of course—of course!—we’d only just bought the irrigation water for our farmland. You wonder whether to laugh or to cry. You know how people say that if you ever want it to rain, you should just wash your car? Well, the joke around the ranch now is that we can just make it rain by canceling a sale. (I only wish it were that easy! During all this, it didn’t rain a drop at Ojo de Agua or Cinco Reales, our properties to the south. When they say scattered thunderstorms, they aren’t kidding.)
As for all the wildflowers I raved about last month, there’s a story there too. Partly because of the freeze, which allowed plants other than grass to take hold, and partly because of the rain, there’s been an explosion of lobelia, a beautiful blue wildflower. Lobelia has medicinal properties and was used by Native Americans at one time in herbal remedies as a relaxant (it’s also known as Indian tobacco). But lobelia in high quantities is poisonous, which spells trouble for our cattle: When a cow eats the flower, she supposedly gets addicted, so she just keeps eating and eating. And because it’s a relaxant, the cow eventually becomes so lethargic that she lies down, goes into a coma, and dies. If you find her early enough, you can treat her, but most often she is too far gone to save.
Well, just after we’d called off the sale, my brother, Mitch, and I decided to spend our newly found time branding our weaning heifers, to move them to my father’s cousin’s property, Nopalito Ranch. This was as much for the good of our heifers as our budget: We had been feeding them a corn-based daily ration, but with the drought looming (at least at the time) and with corn prices practically doubling (I suspect all the recent excitement over ethanol has played a part), we needed to get them off feed and find them a good place to graze. After a week of branding, however, Mitch received a call from a neighboring rancher about the loss of some cattle to lobelia poisoning. Alarmed, we checked our ranch for any signs of the blooms but saw nothing disturbing. So, assuming that all would also be well at Nopalito Ranch, the next day we confidently put our first load of cattle—forty head—in our trailers and headed down the road. Just imagine our surprise when we pulled in and suddenly found ourselves in a sea of blue flowers: lobelia, beautiful as ever, all over the place. It seemed as if it had grown almost instantly. (It would later bloom everywhere on our ranch too.)
We knew what we had to do, but after a week’s worth of hard work, plus a month’s worth of hearing about the cost of feed from our mother/boss, the idea of turning back was almost too much to bear. With the cattle still in the trailers, Mitch and I yelled at each other for a while. Then we called the boss to get her opinion. She captured our frustration with perfect sarcasm: “Well, just turn them out if you want to kill them.” (Take a tense moment and kick it up a notch; that’s a family business for you.) Needless to say, we drove them all right back. One of the cowboys was standing there at our ranch waiting for us to load the next set, and when he saw the heifers still in the trailers, he was like, “What the hell are y’all doing?”
You just can’t win, really. Drought, rain, hail, corn prices, lobelia, morning drives with forty heifers in tow—there’s nothing like ranching to humble you and remind you that you’re not in control. There actually hasn’t been a lobelia outbreak like this in years, and in our circle, it has affected countless friends and family members. It’s all that anyone talks about. As ranchers, we feel acutely at the whim of Mother Nature (a funny observation, I suppose, for the month in which we celebrate motherhood), but the secret is being flexible and finding the tenacity to ride these things out. Plus a sense of humor: Heck, by the time you read this, we’ll probably all be worrying about the drought again. Or maybe building an ark.