Palabras Pintorescas - The changing times of the ranching business

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By Editha Bartley

In the “something old is something new again” I have a Jan. 25, 1990 copy of “Livestock Weekly,” the newspaper any in-the-know rancher needed to read back then. Son John discovered it stashed away in our shop. And about the same time a friend and neighbor gave me a copy of an article written about the fate of the current cattle rancher in Texas Monthly.

According to the newspaper, quality steer calves were selling for a steep price per pound; they go for twice as much in some markets today. That does not translate into “making a killing” in the cattle business. Production costs have shut down many cattle ranches across the West. The Texas Monthly story, quite a lengthy article, delves into both the history of cattle ranching and touches upon the unpredictability of ranching in the future. S.G. Gwynne did a lot of research and interviewed some big- time and some not-so-big-time ranchers to get their take on the future. The author asks the question, “Could we be witnessing the end of the ranch as we know it?” I’d have to say “yes.”

I didn’t realize there were no big cattle drives in the U.S. until 1866, after the end of the Civil War. These huge cattle drives started in the South, and ended up in the North. Yes, that war put a stop to lots of different things, didn’t it? Things then changed again in the 1880s when the railroads sliced through our big West. And within a short period of time both the barbed wire and the windmills changed the ranches of the West. Americans like to eat beef, so feed lots and packing plants sprang up from Chicago to California. The specter in the background has always been the drought, that evil that is still with us today. And about the time one problem is solved, another pops up, like Mad Cow disease (I don’t know of a case anywhere in the U.S. today) or the idea that eating red meat kills us off at an early age. A lot of my 80- plus ranch friends laugh at that idea, I might add.

The Livestock Weekly doesn’t go into details but back in 1990, ranchers were already looking into innovation and diversification to be able to hang on to their ranches. Oil and gas drilling has kept many a ranch afloat along with big game hunting. And lots of ranches have been subdivided, swallowed up by the expansion of a town. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, which tempts many hard-working ranchers to sell out. And last but not least many ranches are lost because the heirs can’t pay the inheritance taxes on the acreage they inherit. One rancher in Texas noted that the only way to keep a ranch today is to have just one heir. If the ranch is divided up against a bunch of kids, nobody wins when that fight ends up in the courts.

That cold wind cuts right through us again today, but I did have a visit with both our lazy horses and fat cows and I told them they were lucky. They have good quality hay, running (but icy) water readily available, and tight sheds to stay in when it gets really stormy. Gosh, I can talk anything over with them, from politics to stories about ranching and they just ignore me. So it goes in this crazy business!

Editha Bartley lives in Gascon in Mora County. She may be reached at 454-0563.