One sunny afternoon in February 2014, Buck Birdsong heard a low cry echo across his Longview ranch. One of his cows, a recent mother, was wailing relentlessly, a slow beat of deep, frantic moans. He jumped in his beige F-250 to investigate, rumbling over the ranch’s winding dirt roads, through the pasture, and out toward the shallow, moss-covered pond that sits near the back of his land: 112 wide-open acres nestled amid the Piney Woods of East Texas and punctuated with a few clumps of elm trees, where his small herd of cattle often gathers in the shade.
As he approached the pond, Buck saw a single calf lying beneath a tree. He quickly realized why its mother had been bawling. The calf lay stiff and still, its dark, velvety coat cold to the touch. It had been dead for hours.
He grabbed the 250-pound calf by its legs and rolled it over, searching every inch of the animal for a possible cause of death. Buck had been raising cattle for a long time—this ranchland had been in his family for more than a century—and he was accustomed to losing the occasional animal, even the young. There are a lot of ways for a calf to die. It could be as complicated as a rare hereditary disease or as simple as nibbling on a few too many acorns or on a piece of toxic trash that had blown in from the road. But if the calf had been sick, Buck hadn’t noticed, and at first glance there was nothing obviously wrong with it besides streaks of dried scour (diarrhea) on its backside. He thought the animal might have been dehydrated, since it lay so close to the pond.
But then Buck saw what looked like a bullet hole on the calf’s back, and he surmised that maybe a stray shot had escaped from the woods of the hunting lease that borders about a third of his land. More likely, he knew, the hole was probably a peck mark from a crow or vulture. Erring on the side of caution, Buck called the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office and filed a report with the deputy who came out to the ranch. With no clear cause of death, the two men agreed, the dead calf was simply an anomaly. When the deputy left, Buck fired up his tractor with its front-end loader, dug four or five feet into the earth—just deep enough so varmints couldn’t reach the carcass—and rolled the calf into its grave.
A few days later, he heard the wailing of another cow. He rushed over to the pond and discovered a second calf, also dead, lying beneath the same elm tree. Buck rolled the animal over but couldn’t find a hole like the one he’d puzzled over on the first—though he did see streaks of scour. One dead calf could have been a freak occurrence, but two such similar deaths, so close together, surely meant that something was wrong. Buck loaded the lifeless animal into the bed of his truck and drove twenty minutes to the veterinarian’s office of Randall Spencer, in nearby Gilmer.
Wielding a pair of hedge clippers, Spencer opened the calf at the sternum, reached inside, and, one by one, pulled out the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, the liver, the intestines, and the spleen, slicing them up and carefully inspecting their contents. It wasn’t until later, when one of Spencer’s colleagues reached his hand into the last of the calf’s four stomachs, that they found something unusual. He pulled his hand out and spread his palm, revealing a small pile of a type of grain that can be toxic to cattle. Buck had never fed that particular grain to his herd, and when he returned home and searched his land, he found no trace of it anywhere. How, he wondered, had his calf ingested it?
Within a week of the vet visit, Buck heard yet another distress call coming from one of his cows. This time, the calf he found by the pond was close to death. It was wobbling unsteadily, as though it were drunk, and it had the same streaks of sickly gray scour running down its backside that he had noticed on the two dead calves. Buck loaded the calf into his blue gooseneck trailer, guiding it carefully through the chute, and raced to Spencer’s office, the tall pines that line Texas Highway 300 whipping by his window in a dark-green blur.
After examining the calf, the vet told Buck that it was possible the animal had licked a discarded car battery. Buck left the calf with Spencer and again searched his property, this time for a battery, but again he found nothing. A couple mornings later, he got a phone call from Spencer. The calf had died overnight—there was nothing he could have done to save it. Spencer had already performed a necropsy on the dead calf, and he told Buck that he’d found the same suspicious grain inside it.
Over the next four years, fifteen more of Buck’s calves would die. Investigators with the sheriff’s office, a Texas game warden, and even a special ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association have worked the case, but so far, none have been able to identify any leads. The cause of death, however, is clear: the same toxic grain has been found inside each dead calf. Someone, it seems, is intentionally killing Buck Birdsong’s calves.
The Birdsong family name runs deep in Longview. Buck’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and uncles all owned cattle ranches in the area. Birdsong Street cuts through the southern part of town. Buck, who is 68, says one of his earliest memories is of his grandfather’s ranch just north in Pittsburg, where his father, who served for years as Gregg County clerk, frequently brought him as a little kid. Buck couldn’t have been more than three when his grandfather’s car got stuck in the muddy pasture one day. As his parents would later tell the story, Buck’s grandfather had to drive the tractor to pull it out, so he stood Buck, still in diapers, on the front seat of the car and told him to steer.
During the summertime when he was a teen, Buck would wake at three-thirty to milk the cows on one of his family’s ranches, go tend to the beef cattle on another family ranch during the day, and then return to milk the dairy cows once more. When he’d finally get home at six-thirty, sweaty and exhausted, he’d sit down for dinner and then go straight to bed, only to wake up early the next morning to do it all again. But he loved the life, and he knew from an early age that he would always want to be around cattle. He graduated from Texas A&M with degrees in journalism and animal science—his classmates called him the “animal evangelist”—and he almost took a job writing for a cattle industry trade magazine before he accepted one in public relations with Southwestern Electric Power Company in Longview. Even while he was raising three daughters with his wife, Becky, and working for SWEPCO, he’d return to the nearby ranch that his dad had bought from some cousins in the sixties, working in the mornings and coming back for more in the evening hours. When his father died, in 1986, Buck took over the ranch’s cattle operation for good.
Each morning at the ranch these days, Buck wakes at six, reads the newspaper, and then pulls on his grass-stained overalls and tucks them into his work boots. By seven, he’s heading out to check on his cows, his truck disappearing into the hazy morning light. The calves are Buck’s biggest source of income on the ranch—feedlots buy them and fatten them for slaughter—and if everything goes right, he can make a modest profit. But a cattle rancher’s future is as volatile as the East Texas sky. In contrast to the reliable drumbeat of his daily routines—mending fences; killing invasive plants; cutting and baling hay, should rain permit it to grow—Buck, like all independent cattle ranchers, is defenseless against the vagaries of what seem like a thousand forces beyond his control, from foreign trade wars to the weather.
A major drought has plagued some part of Texas at one point in every decade of the past century. When drought strikes, grass-fed cattle have no grass to eat, so ranchers like Buck have to either sell off most of their herd or spend more money on feed. And when demand for feed is high, so are prices. From 2010 to 2011, Texas experienced the driest twelve-month period on record, and the state’s farmers and ranchers posted a $7.62 billion loss, dropping the statewide cattle herd, the nation’s largest, by about 600,000 head.
Sometimes, of course, too much rain can fall. In 2008 Hurricane Ike killed up to five thousand Texas cattle and flooded coastal pastures with its saltwater storm surge. When it rains at Buck’s ranch, cars have a tendency to skid off the road bordering his land and career through the perimeter fence, one time even splashing into the pond. He had to replace one wooden corner fence post with a sturdy, crash-resistant metal bracket anchored in concrete.
Buck’s herd consists of about fifty adult cows and, after calving season each fall, an additional fifty babies, some of whom he’s had to pull out of their mothers by hand. Even for a small herd like his, the operating costs are enormous, and they have only increased over time. When he bought his first tractor in 1985, it cost him $12,000. When he needed to upgrade a few years ago, it set him back $63,000. It’s the same story with mowers, trailers, balers, rakes, feeders, and fertilizer.
Being an independent rancher is simply not financially attractive, and by 2012 there were 20,000 more Texas farmers age 70 or older than there were Texas farmers between the ages of 25 and 34. Aging ranchers are left with little control over what will happen to their land when they’re gone, since their sons or daughters are often uninterested in continuing the ranching tradition they’ve inherited. The land might be sold to become the latest tentacle of an encroaching suburb. Or it might be snapped up by larger farming corporations, which are slowly starting to squeeze out independent cattle ranchers like Buck—just as they already have done to poultry and hog farmers—in their march toward industry domination.
Buck’s done his best to keep cattle ranching in the bloodline. His daughters also have fond memories of spending time out in the pastures with the cows, and his grandchildren like to play with the animals and give the calves names. His favorite family photograph is of his grandkids propped up on golden bales of hay stacked in the barn. Each Christmas at the ranch, Buck gives his daughters packages of fresh beef.
If a terrible drought returns and stays for good or should the cattle market ultimately prove too costly for Buck’s ranching to survive, then that Christmas tradition might someday come to an end. And with the longevity of most small cattle ranches already in question, the dead calves have made Buck’s grip on the future all the more tenuous.
Buck is not one to let his emotions show, save for a quick smile or the slight furrow of his brow. A trucker hat usually covers his shock of gray hair, shielding his round cheeks and nose from the sunlight; his eyes are conditioned into a nearly permanent squint. He and Becky, a retired schoolteacher and university instructor, often sit at the dining table in the redbrick ranch house they built in 2000 and watch the late-evening skies darken slowly over their pasture. Sitting there one day this summer, Buck gazed out at a wall of gray thunderclouds that had appeared out of nowhere and spoke softly. “I’ll just wonder, you know,” he said. “I’ll look at thirty calves out there in the pasture and say, ‘Well, I wonder which ones will be next?’ ”
Correction: This story has been updated to fix a spelling. The Texas town is Pittsburg, not Pittsburgh.