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Making a Home in the Rolling Plains

The air is cool and dry with the usual Lubbock breeze blowing. The colors are beige, brown and more beige. Residents of Lubbock and the surrounding counties are probably familiar with landscapes of this category. Visitors to the region might be unimpressed with what seems like such a barren ecosystem. However, this region of Texas serves a purpose with both ecological and economic value: it provides habitat for quail.


“I think we’re in a really good spot because we’re right on the edge of the Rolling Plains,” said Brad Dabbert, Ph.D., Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology in the Texas Tech University Department of Natural Resources Management.


Dabbert works with the Quail-Tech Alliance, a research organization at Texas Tech that focuses on quail conservation in the ecoregion referred to as the Rolling Plains, situated in the northwestern portion of Texas, including the eastern half of the Panhandle. Quail-Tech’s research largely focuses on the species northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), which, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, has been spotted in every county in the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock is located right at the margin of this region and is home to Quail-Tech’s research facility just north of Texas Tech’s main campus.


The facility houses important research equipment, flight pens and significant acreage of native rangeland that provides quail habitat. However, Quail-Tech’s research is not confined to this facility or even to Lubbock County. According to Dabbert, Quail-Tech partners with between 20 and 25 ranches in the Rolling Plains. These are referred to as their “anchor ranches.” As the name implies, the goal of working with these private landowners is to “anchor” habitat that is suitable for healthy quail populations.


“As we monitor things, they can learn from each other, and we can learn from them,” Dabbert said.


The partnerships involve listening to landowners’ observations and integrating that information with scientific research conducted by Quail-Tech on the properties. All work for these partnerships is done on privately-owned land.


“It’s a unique agreement that they have to let us have access to their quail populations,” said Matthew McEwen, full-time manager at Quail-Tech.


Managing for quail conservation in the Rolling Plains has implications that go beyond just the quail populations themselves. The research and management by Quail-Tech has significant impacts on both the environment and society.


According to Dabbert, these impacts are twofold. One important factor is they are an indicator species, meaning their population conditions are indicative of the habitat quality.


“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here,” Dabbert said.


Another positive impact of managing for quail conservation is it boosts the local economies in rural communities. When the populations are healthy, quail hunting drives visitors to these small towns, generating business for restaurants, hotels and gas stations. Additionally, landowners can profit from leasing their properties to hunters. For these reasons, keeping the quail populations healthy and stable is a goal of Quail-Tech.


“We’re trying to find ways to make them more sustainable, and we have been able to do that to a certain extent,” Dabbert said.


Some of the techniques for managing these populations are developed on the anchor ranches.


“We have some of the most famous ranches in Texas involved,” Dabbert said.


Perhaps the most notable of these is the Four Sixes Ranch, where Quail-Tech has been able to experiment with various management techniques, including supplemental feeding. Dabbert said supplemental feeding has been one of Quail-Tech’s biggest successes. By providing supplemental feed to the quail populations, they have been able to increase adult survival rates by an average of 22 percent. Such an increase is important because it means 22 percent more hens will nest that year.


“What we have done, instead of just being reactive and kind of watching what happens with quail populations, we’ve tried to actually do experiments to see if we can basically make the lows not as low and the highs higher,” Dabbert said.


Additionally, Quail-Tech’s practice of supplemental feeding has been able to reduce weather-related mortality. During the heavy snowfall of 2014, quail that did not receive supplemental feed suffered a 50 percent mortality rate, while those that did only experienced a 9 percent mortality rate due to improved body conditions, such as sufficient fat deposits.

“Having healthy quail populations is basically the end product of having healthy grassland ecosystems out here.”


Researchers cannot depend on supplemental feeding alone to save the quail populations as other needs must be managed as well.


“One thing I want to emphasize is supplemental feeding won’t work without proper habitat management,” Dabbert said.


He compared the matter to people wanting a “quick-fix pill” for weight loss, rather than exercising and eating right. If quail populations are to be managed sustainably, wildlife biologists must also manage for the vegetation component of their habitat. Quail-Tech plans to analyze what type of vegetation the birds use for cover by looking at percentage of woody cover and vegetation height. This is where technology comes in.


Rowdy White, a graduate student and full-time biologist at Quail-Tech, works with GPS transmitters and a drone to analyze the quail’s habitat use during the winter. After bobwhites are trapped, they wear GPS transmitters as backpacks, allowing White to track their locations upon plugging the data into a computer software.


“These are all actual locations where a bird had been,” White said, gesturing to red dots on the computer screen.


Once this information has been acquired, White then flies the drone over the locations where that bird had been and captures aerial images of the vegetation. The images are of high enough quality for White to identify some individual plant species.


White said as he finishes the project, he hopes it will give insight to researchers and landowners on the type and amount of woody cover used by quail.


Much of this is conducted at Quail-Tech’s research facility, where large buckets sit next to the quail coops and flight pens. The buckets contain native grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), which were propagated by researchers. Wind continues to blow across a landscape of beige, brown and more beige. With the help of Quail-Tech, this region will continue to be an important home for quail and other wildlife.

Senior technician
Cresten Sledge, Texas Tech student, is a senior technician at Quail-Tech.
Flight pens and huts
Quail-Tech’s research facility in Lubbock includes a flight pen and some huts.

The Full-Time Part-Timer

Brandon Ray photographs the wildlife and landscape on his ranch.

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s a kid, Brandon Ray would head up to Palo Duro Canyon once or twice a year to visit his grandparents’ ranch that has been in the Ray family since 1948. When Ray realized he could go to college at Texas Tech University, only an hour and a half from the ranch, he knew that was where he was meant to be.

“I grew up in Dallas, and I’m kind of the kid that grew up in Dallas that never should have been in Dallas,” Ray said.

Ray graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in ranch management, then moved to Canyon, Texas, to take over his grandparents’ land. His main job was ranching and guiding hunts, but then he found himself excelling in another niche.

Right after he graduated from college, he sold his first journal article. Today, he has written and photographed for over 20 different hunting and fishing publications including: Journal of Texas Trophy Hunters, Texas Wildlife Magazine and Bowhunter Magazine.

It’s like I have three part-time gigs, which is good, because when one is slow, hopefully another one is picking up, and you don’t have all your eggs in one basket with one job, Ray said.

“It’s like I have three part-time gigs, which is good, because when one is slow, hopefully another one is picking up, and you don’t have all your eggs in one basket with one job,” Ray said.

In addition to his many jobs, Ray also participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Canyon. These programs provide assistance to agricultural producers to implement conservation practices on their land.

Ray said he has many different species to manage on his ranch, such as mule deer, aoudad sheep, feral hogs and turkeys. He said most of the time he sees ranchers that are completely invested in cattle or wildlife, but he strives to balance it all together with the assistance of the USDA-NRCS programs.

Jeff Lewter, NRCS district conservationist in Canyon, assists Ray in his conservation efforts, which include wildlife-friendly fences, improved grazing management for soil compaction on rangeland through monitoring activities, mesquite control through aerial chemical spray applications, and solar panel water tanks. Lewter said he has enjoyed working with Ray over the last few years and he is an exceptional steward of the land.

sherman_solarpanel
The Natural Resource Conservation Service is assisting Brandon Ray with conservation practices, such as solar panel water tanks.

 

“Brandon understands the importance of taking care of the land,” Lewter said, “as well as protecting and conserving the natural resources found on the ranch.”

Leaving a Longhorn Legacy

Classy Lady poses for a picture at golden hour.
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With a population of 40,000, Cooke County, Texas is a traditionally agricultural focused part of the state. With a blend of production agriculture and the oil industry, something that stands out among the rest is a herd of iconic Texas staples, the Texas Longhorns.

Based in Era, Texas, Scott and Stacey Schumacher, along with son, Stran, and daughter, Selah, stay busy with many endeavors in and out of the agriculture industry, including raising Longhorns.

“When people outside of the agriculture industry think of cows, they think of either Holsteins or Longhorns, so we have done everything to build a brand that captures the novelty that people have with Longhorns,” Stacey said.

Scott is a fourth generation Cooke County farmer and rancher. He was born and raised in Cooke County then attended Texas Tech University and received a degree in agricultural business. After graduation, he returned to Era to continue his work with his family’s farming and ranching operation. 

“Our operation utilizes a lot of land around Cooke County, including leases,” Stacey said. 

Scott and Stacey were married in 2010 and grew their family when their son, Stran, was born in 2013 and daughter, Selah, in 2018.

The Schumachers run a commercial cow-calf operation and also purchase commercial calves at local sale barns to finish out on wheat pastures as a backgrounder operation. To create more value within their herd, they are starting to switch their commercial cattle to registered Angus to enter the Angus bull sector of the industry.

Scott also started a custom chemical spraying company, S&S Enterprises, where he chemically treats pastures and crops. “S&S Enterprises showcases how chemistry can help shape the future of farming and ranching, and ultimately allow farmers and ranchers to efficiently feed the world,” Scott added.

Additionally, he harvests various crops including hay, corn, milo, and wheat for both cattle grazing and combining for grain. 

In addition, Stacey is the founder and Executive Director of the Texas Coalition of Animal Protection. “TCAP is a non-profit organization that provides low cost spays and neuters for cats and dogs as well as low cost vaccines,” Stacey said. The coalition has seven standalone clinics and contracts with numerous cities to do spays and neuters on-site. 

Before Scott and Stacey met, she needed something to get an agricultural tax-exemption at her home.  She was not interested in purchasing something for that would end up on grocery store shelf, but rather something that could be enjoyed for years to come. She loved the look and the ease of keeping of the Longhorns, and she decided they would be a perfect fit for her home.

            After their marriage, the Schumachers decided to keep growing their Longhorn program. The Schumachers sell their calves after weaning or when the animal doesn’t fit their operation’s needs. Since they sell many of their calves at weaning, the Schumachers purchase cows to continue their personal cow herd growth and improve genetics.

            Stacey said Longhorns can be more profitable than commercial cattle if they are marketed correctly. 

            “Social media changed the cattle industry for everyone, but for the Longhorn industry, it really opened up a new market,” Stacey said. 

            A big market they reach with their Longhorns is the homeowners who are moving to 10-to 20-acre plots wanting something that is easy to keep and to provide visual appeal to the land. Stacey said that as long as that market continues to grow, so will their Longhorn business. 

It is super important for people to know that agricultural producers work hard for them and they do that with a lot of pride.

The Schumacher Cattle Facebook page has 265,000 followers watching for updated pictures of calves, daily chores in the operation, or the beloved “Hey Scott!” video segments that highlight various tasks completed by farmers and ranchers, such as vaccinating, tubing and treating cattle. 

“Not being a native country person, I asked Scott a lot of questions when we met.  Through Facebook, I figured out the questions that I was asked a long time ago, people were still asking today,” Stacey said.

While engaging with others on the Facebook page is not Scott’s favorite part of the job, Stacey saw the need to answer questions and show people about their way of life.

The Schumachers use the Facebook platform to sell their Longhorns, inform followers about the breed, and advocate for the beef and agriculture industries. 

Building a brand around the importance of agriculture and the Longhorn industry has been important for the success of their operations.

“It is vital that people know agricultural producers work hard for them and they do that with a lot of pride,” Stacey said. “We have done everything we can to inform people where their food comes from. We want people to know that ranchers do not abuse their animals or the land, but they work really hard to maximize all the things that they can to create a sustainable product.”

Scott and Stacey have seen their son become extremely interested in the equipment they use like tractors and sprayers, and hope that their daughter, Selah, will have an interest in their way of life, too. 

“My hope is that they continue in this industry, just like Scott did,” Stacey said. “We are aiming for longhorns in every pasture,” Stacey joked when asked where the operation will be in 10 years.

5-year-old, Stran, proudly displays his “My Daddy Feeds You” shirt while helping feed cows.

Breeding for Gold and Fame

Dash for Cash Statue that stands outside the Four Sixes Ranch
Dash for Cash, one of the most famous studs to come from the Four Sixes Ranch, has a statue erected in his honor at the ranches’ headquarters.

Dawn breaks in Guthrie, Texas. It’s an overcast day as the staff of the Four Sixes Ranch gather for breakfast. Outside, cowboys are getting horses ready to begin moving and checking herds on horseback, a tradition the Four Sixes prides itself on. Then, it is off to do a day’s work on of the most legendary ranches in Texas.

The Four Sixes Ranch was founded by Samuel Burk Burnett in the 1870s and is currently owned by his great-granddaughter, Anne Burnett Windfohr Marion. This working ranch manages 10,000 Angus and Black Baldy cattle and annually breeds more than 1,200 Quarter Horse mares for the ranch use, performance and racing.

Tours on the ranch

Occasionally, the Four Sixes allows tours of the famous West Texas ranch, and if you are in the horse production course at Texas Tech University, you might just go there on a class field trip. During a tour, a visitor can learn about the history of the Four Sixes, its day-to-day activities, and their horse breeding practices. Visitors are shown around the headquarters, the stallion barn and breeding facilities, and sometimes staff will even take a stallion or two out of their stalls to give visitors a good look.

Kelly Riccitelli, Ph.D., an equine associate professor of practice in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech, takes her classes on the 95-mile field trip to the ranch every spring to show them a real working ranch.

“I think it’s important for students to see what is going on in the industry and what’s current in the industry,” Riccitelli said.

Texas Tech is no stranger to the Four Sixes. The Texas Tech Equestrian Center has sent horses to the ranch to be bred and even had the ranch perform an embryo transfer on a horse. Riccitelli said the Four Sixes is very progressive in their breeding practices and technology and have always been willing to help the Department of Animal and Food Sciences when needed.

“They’re as good at breeding horses as anywhere in the country,” Riccitelli said.

The Four Sixes’ Quarter Horse breeding program has cemented its name in ranching history with the use of advanced technology and a lot of experience. Dr. Glenn Blodgett, the Four Sixes’ horse division manager, is a prime example of tried and tested experience. Beginning his career with the Four Sixes in 1982, Blodgett credits technology for the increase in efficiency and productivity in the industry.

They’re as good at breeding horses as anywhere in the country.

“We’re breeding more mares total than we bred before,” Blodgett said. “We have more stallions on site and fewer mares on site but, yet, we breed more mares.”

Reproductive services

Some of the reproductive services the Four Sixes provides are artificial insemination, semen freezing and storage, mare management, embryo transfer, foaling and transported cooled semen.

Benefits of artificial insemination include reduction of disease transmission, more mares bred, less hauling of horses, ability to add extenders and antibiotics to semen, and decrease the risk of injury.

Freezing and storage of semen is another important part of the Four Sixes’ operation. The ranch is affiliated with Select Breeders Services, which allows them to offer on-site freezing and storage of semen to the public. The Four Sixes’ affiliation with SBS also enables their frozen semen to be shipped to Australia, Argentina, Brazil, the European Union, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay and Uruguay.

“We have a motility analyzer so we can actually see the semen swimming around on a computer screen,” Blodgett said.

Mare management includes basic upkeep of mares residing at the Four Sixes Ranch, for breeding, foaling or other management options.

Embryo transfer consists of taking an embryo from one mare and implanting it into a recipient mare. The Four Sixes maintains its own recipient herd to be able to do this specific reproductive service when needed. Embryo transfers are regularly used when a performance mare is still working and owners would like to use that mare’s genetics to create offspring.

The Four Sixes allows ranch mares to foal out in pastures that are monitored twice a day and has their racing mares foal in foaling stalls. Clients of the Four Sixes can choose either option based on their price point for their mare.

“The Four Sixes is unique because their ranch horse mares are still foaling out in the pasture,” Riccitelli said. “I think it shows a great balance of using technology where it’s needed but not overusing it when it’s not needed.”

The Four Sixes uses Federal Express, Network Global Logistics and its own courier service, Sixes Direct, as a way to transport cooled semen. Sixes Direct serves the Oklahoma City, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Weatherford/Stephenville areas. Blodgett said it is not uncommon for Sixes Direct to ship semen to a ranch in those areas, and on the same day, bring semen back to breed a mare at the Four Sixes.

“This is a more efficient way to get it the same day to those places we are trying to serve,” Blodgett said.

An impressive history

The Four Sixes’ dedication to providing the ranching, performance and racing horse industries with the best possible horses is one of the many reasons why the ranch has been so successful.

George Humphreys, who began managing the Four Sixes in 1932, started building a herd of horses to someday make “the best horses in the country,” according to the Four Sixes website. In the 1960s, the Four Sixes officially added an equine breeding program to its resumé.

One of the most famous stallions to come out of the Four Sixes, Dash For Cash, threw offspring that have earned more than $40 million. The Dash For Cash statue stands outside of the Four Sixes headquarters in Guthrie to remind visitors of the prestige of the ranch’s stallions and breeding program.

In 1994, the Four Sixes was honored with the American Quarter Horse Association’s Best Remuda Award. Now, people come from all over the world to attend the Four Sixes’ horse sales, like the famous Return to the Remuda. Riccitelli said West Texas even benefits from having the Four Sixes in the area because of the tourism the ranch generates.

Everyday advances are being made in the technology and practices used in the breeding industry and the Four Sixes is at the forefront of it all. Blodgett said there are not many businesses that have been around since the 1800s, yet the Four Sixes is still operating.

“We’ve seen changes in the cattle and the horses,” Blodgett said. “The way we raise them. The way we market them. We’ve seen it all change.”

Growing a Love for the Lifestyle

A couple of cowboys were riding the canyons off the caprock in West Texas before daylight to bring in cows and calves for a full day’s work of branding. As the cowboys sat on top of a hill looking out over the canyon, the sun slowly crept above the horizon. Warm oranges and golds filled the early morning sky.

One cowboy hollered over at the rest, “Isn’t this just beautiful?” When it started to sink in what he was referring to, he said, “You know, there’s not very many people in the world that are doing what we’re doing this morning.”

At that moment, those cowboys realized how fortunate they were to live and love life on the ranch.

The Great American Cowboy

The cowboy way of life can be tough due to the unpredictability of weather patterns, market prices and external parties involved in running a successful ranching operation. The dawn-to-dusk nature of the ranching lifestyle takes a toll on those whose livelihoods depend on it.

Bedford Jones, owner and operator of the Jones Ranch near Spur, Texas, understands the impact and responsibilities associated with this specific lifestyle.

“There’s always a challenge,” he said. “I think adversity is something we put up with, endure, and try to overcome. This isn’t just what we do—it’s our identity. It’s who we are. We’re here 24/7, and that’s not bad, but it sure can be tough on a family.”

The Jones Ranch is a thriving horse and cow-calf operation ranch in the West Texas counties of Borden, Crosby, Dickens and Yoakum, covering over 32,000 acres of rangeland and several thousand acres of wheat pasture. Bedford and his wife, Michele, live on their ranch with their four children, Henry, Ruth, Jettie and Susannah.

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Bedford, 45, said he found his way back home to begin ranching alongside his family after graduating with a master’s degree in 1999. Though he was never pressured or forced to come back home, he said he always felt returning to the ranch was his life’s calling.

“With a family operation, I grew up helping because that’s what we did,” Bedford said. “I always felt like that was my obligation. That was my responsibility to help. And I loved it. This is always what I thought I would do.”

Bedford said his love and passion for his family’s operation and the amount of time and effort invested into their ranches is what keeps them operating today despite the hardships encountered throughout the years.

The persistence of drought over the last two decades has forced ranchers to use all of the creative techniques they can muster to survive. For some, it has meant knowing as much about land management and grass as they know about the bloodlines of their herds. For others, it is knowing the right moment to sell cows and calves.

We’re so blessed, but it’s very slow coming.

Michele, Bedford’s wife of 17 years, grew up showing cattle, but did not come from a ranching background. She said the adjustment of becoming a ranch wife was extremely difficult. The family aspect of the operation proved difficult, too, she said, because things were not just about her anymore. However, nothing could have prepared her for the heartbreaking decision that had to be made when it came to selling some of their cattle.

“We’re so blessed,” Michele said, “but it’s very slow coming.”

Michele said she will never forget in 2011 when they were forced to sell part of their herd due to the drought and lack of water and grass. She was pregnant with Jettie, their second youngest child, as she tagged along with Bedford, Henry and Ruth to take their cows to Caviness Beef Packers.

“I just bawled the whole way,” Michele said, “because you don’t ever expect that you’re going to have to get rid of the majority of your livestock, but we did. We had to do that to survive.”

Bedford said West Texas is currently in a similar situation to 2011. He said the land is extremely dry again, and the absence of rain and vegetation leaves most ranchers questioning what is best for their practices.

“It’s one of those things,” Bedford said, shaking his head. “You just never know from one year to the next.”

Inspiring the Ranching Industry’s Future

Running a successful ranching operation takes a little bit of faith and a little bit of luck, but ultimately, ranchers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Those families who root their hope and faith in the Lord tend to have a more positive and respectful outlook for this specific way of life.

Though the ranching profession and lifestyle have their fair share of ups and downs, Bedford and Michele love what they do and hope to inspire their four children to feel the same. They said it is their job as parents to make the kids’ daily tasks and chores around the ranch fun and enticing to keep them intrigued and to foster a love within their children for the ranching lifestyle.

“They all have an interest in this,” Bedford said. “They enjoy it. I’ll take the little girls to go feed, and they like it. Henry knows he has responsibilities. We have to be careful because we don’t want chores to become a burden on them, but they need to understand those responsibilities. The way we try to do it is to make it enjoyable for them. As a matter of fact, they all four do all the chores together. It’s a team atmosphere around here. We are Team Jones.”

Michele said one of her major prayers is for her kids to have a passion for the ranching lifestyle and to be close and understand each other enough to incorporate the team atmosphere throughout their lives. She said Bedford and his parents have worked very hard at putting together a whole lot from nothing, and it is her goal for her children to continue running the operation smoothly one day when she and Bedford transfer over ownership.

“We want them to understand how fortunate they are to be in the position they are,” Michele said. “They are all landowners, and it’s scary that anyone can own a piece of land nowadays without knowing how to take care of it.”

Bedford said it is a big responsibility for him and Michele to raise their children this way. He said his family has always felt it necessary to take care of their property and ensure the land is still usable and in good shape for the next generation. In doing this, there comes a great level of satisfaction being able to look back at what has been accomplished while cultivating the land, raising livestock, and raising beautiful children who love the Lord and have a passion for ranching.

“For me, there’s a lot of little things that make it enjoyable and rewarding,” Bedford said. “I think you have to appreciate those things or you wouldn’t do what we do.”

Conservation of Land & Heritage

Dan and Tom Griffin stand strong on their family ranch in front of angus cattle.

 

On the Griffin Ranch, family traditions are a blueprint for decisions about college, livelihoods and ranch management, but are difficult to amend. Tom, Dan, and Ben Griffin graduated from Texas Tech University like their father and are the fifth generation to manage a portion of the family ranch in Borden County, Texas.

Tom and Dan perpetuate stewardship attitudes they learned from previous generations, but have fostered a stronger relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve their conservation practices.

Dropping off the cap

The Griffin Ranch is about 30,000 acres in total and lies right off the caprock, a stunning 250-mile-long geographic border marking the end of the Southern Plains. They also have another portion of the ranch around Channing, Texas.

“You drop off the cap, and it has a lot more character as far as up and down, breaks and creeks,” Tom said. “Every pasture is a little different.”

Tom, Dan and Ben take care of separate portions of the cow-calf ranch. However, the Griffins act as a team during times like branding and weaning and will help each other take care of the ranch regardless of whose “portion” they are working. They treat the ranch as one cohesive family business and “plan to keep it that way,” according to Dan.

The family has been managing the land since 1926 when Thomas Louis Griffin first established the ranch.

Taking back the land

Based on stories from his grandpa, Tom said the landscape was completely different back then. It would’ve looked more like the Rolling Plains with a few short mesquite trees, if any.

“It has changed quite a bit I’d say,” Tom said and chuckled, “but I think it’s always been dry.”

Thomas Lane Griffin, the brothers’ dad, began battling mesquite on the ranch, a struggle that has continued into the next generation. The trees, a problematic invasive species, suppress grasslands and dominate water resources. They are hard to eradicate, but spread easily.

“Whether you get governmental assistance or not, you have to fight it,” Tom said, “or else it takes over. It crawls through and spreads like wildfire.”

Dan and Tom said they administer brush control through aerial spraying, grubbing with a tractor or excavator, and have recently experimented with prescribed burns collaborating with the NRCS.

Firm foundations

“Since I can remember, Dad pretty much took care of the ranch himself with a couple of hands from time to time,” Tom said. “He’s done more on this ranch than we’ve done together.”

Tom explained Griffin Sr. is not resistant to new ideas and management practices, but he is a careful and cautious, especially not wanting to detriment the ranch’s grazing capability.

“He’s seen a lot more drought in his lifetime than Dan and I have,” Tom said. “He has more experience and is still the final say on a lot of things.”

The brothers consider drought a family hardship along with the passing of their grandfather.

“Paw Paw died in 2010,” Dan said, “and then it didn’t rain.”

“Paw Paw died in 2010, and then it didn’t rain.”

Since 1996, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service reports droughts have taken more than $38.5 billion from the Texas agriculture economy with farm and ranch losses totaling $21.62 billion.

Tom said 2014 and 2015 were positive years for the ranch. Since the “worst” drought Tom has ever experienced in 2011 and 2012, the ranch’s populations of quail, deer, and bobcats have skyrocketed, largely due to the conservation work the Griffins do with the NRCS.

NRCS conservation partnership

With their increasing roles as ranch managers, Tom and Dan have brought new ideas to the table by working closely with the local NRCS’s field office to improve the ranch using conservation enhancements through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The Griffin brothers are able to enroll in NRCS programs as Young Farmer and Ranchers. This incentive gives young families like the Griffins, who are beginning to establish or expand their agricultural operations, a slightly higher cost-share rate on conservation practices and improvement projects.

Dan said the NRCS has helped cost-share projects on the ranch including building fences to help prevent overgrazing, spreading out water sources for cattle, and building a water storage system to save water for drought years.

“Because these improvements are cost prohibitive, we would’ve had to get loans,” Tom said. “The financial assistance from the NRCS makes it easier to do these conservation enhancements.”

The NRCS provides technical and financial assistance but also supports ranchers as an educational resource with a team of district conservationists, water quality and grazing land specialists, and agricultural engineers.

Dan has worked with Matthew Coffman, the NRCS Southern Rolling Plains grazing lands coordinator, to formulate a prescribed burn plan for the Griffin ranch.

“Matt made the entire fire plan, and it didn’t cost us anything,” Dan said. “The prescribed burns have helped with productivity of the grasses and brush control and has made our pastures healthier.”

Dan said working with Coffman and other NRCS staff has sparked his interest to learn more about grasses and how to keep the land productive.

Coffman said he began working with Dan in 2014. He said he is inspired by the large-scale impact on the health of the land from work his NRCS predecessors did nearly 20 years ago.

Coffman said goals for the ranch include building the burn program to the point where the Griffins have applying prescribed burns “down to a science” with a regular rotation of acres and are able to take more control of the process.

“They are just great guys,” Coffman said. “I enjoy working with them, and I can tell they want to benefit their land. They’re working really hard.”

Strong family bonds

Responsible stewardship is one of the many Griffin family traditions that the brothers said is “in their blood.”

Tom said his wife and kids enjoy Texas Tech football games and are able to sit in the same seats that Tom and his brothers did growing up. Tom and Ben were able to get the season tickets their grandparents used to have.

Gloria Griffin, the brothers’ grandmother, still lives at the homeplace and celebrated her 87th birthday in October. Tom said she has plenty of great-grandkids who visit her daily. The brothers indicated their strong ties to their family motivated them to return to the ranch after graduating.

Overall, Tom describes the Griffins as blessed to be able to continue living on the ranch and passing down family traditions and values down to the next generation.

“We grew up riding horses, working cows, hunting, fishing, and going to church,” Dan said. “Visiting grandma next door seem to be about as good a lifestyle to raise kids in as we can think of.”

 

 

The Canyons Called Them Home

The sun begins to peek over the caprock of the Tule Ranch in Briscoe County, Texas. Cooper Cogdell walks out his front door, coffee mug in hand, ready to face the full day ahead of him. A warm golden glow begins to fill the deep canyons where Cooper heads to gather cattle, living out his dream.

A PASSION FOR RANCHING & HORSES
Since Cooper was a little boy, he knew he wanted to be a cowboy like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him. But, he also dreamed of being a Red Raider. While at Texas Tech, Cooper studied agricultural economics and was a member of the Texas Tech Ranch Horse Team. During his undergraduate education, he spent three years on the winning collegiate ranch horse team and coached the team for two years while getting his master’s degree.

“It was probably the most rewarding experience that I’ve ever had,” Cooper said, “The opportunities it presented were something I’ll never give up. The people I met through coaching, and the things I learned while coaching my peers, were beyond beneficial. It was challenging, no doubt. I learned some very good life lessons.”

Holly Cogdell, Cooper’s wife and fellow Tech alum, says her husband definitely used his gifts while coaching the ranch horse team.

“He’s good at teaching people,” Holly said. “He’s good at explaining things, and he’s patient. I feel that being the coach he got to share some of those gifts. He did a good job.”

Cooper worked with many leaders in the stock horse industry including Kim Lindsey and the late Kris Wilson. He credits his experiences with the team to helping him become a better horseman and rancher, which would come to play a larger role down the road.

THE REAL WORLD
In January 2013 while Cooper was coaching and finishing out his last year as a graduate student, he and Holly got married. After graduation, the couple stayed in Lubbock and Cooper accepted a job with Plains Capital Bank as a credit analyst.

“I never thought I’d be in an office, wearing a suit every day,” Cooper said. “But, I worked with a lot of great people and learned a lot from that side of the desk.”

Although they cherished their friends and jobs in Lubbock, Cooper and Holly ached to be on the Cogdell family’s historic Tule Ranch where Cooper grew up.

“I really wanted to be a part of that,” Holly said, “a part of raising my future children on the ranch, in the home, but also on the ranch with Cooper. I wanted us all to be together,” said Holly with a grin. “After we got married, all I wanted to do was be a ranch wife. I was just so excited about that. I think I had a very picturesque idea of what being a ranch wife meant.”

Doors opened and closed, not allowing an opportunity for the young couple to move back to the ranch until the spring of 2015.

“We just didn’t have a peace about coming back here yet until April of 2015,” Holly said. “I remember the specific weekend we came home and were helping brand calves. Cooper and I both had the same feeling of ‘It’s time to come home. We’re ready.’ That next week I found out I was pregnant. It was meant to be.”

RETURNING TO THE CANYONS
Cooper is the fourth generation of the Cogdell family to return and continue the family’s ranching legacy.

“I feel like in the population as a whole, we’re definitely seen as a minority,” Cooper said. “There are not many young people wanting to come back and do this anymore, just because it is so hard – the financial burden of it and the resources available.”

Cooper understands why young adults have a hard time returning to the family operation.

I feel like in the population as a whole, we’re definitely seen as a minority.
Cooper Cogdell

“With the estate taxes and other expenses, it’s just so hard to keep ranching anymore,” he said. “A lot of people work all their lives to get to this point. They want to retire and buy a ranch and raise cattle. For me to have the opportunity to come back home after college and ranch as a living, I feel very blessed.”

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Cooper saddles as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Cooper and Holly run their own commercial cattle and also have a partnership with Cooper’s brother, Blaze and his wife Lottie, while assisting their father, Dick.

“We’ve been talking a lot about simplifying things,” Cooper said. “Buying more land is expensive. It’s not always easy to make it work. This is why we’ve thought and prayed about it so much, about partnering and trying to be more effective in the way we run a business and the way we ranch.”

Not only have the Cogdell’s been a successful cattle ranching family  for over 100 years, but they also raise their own ranch horses and have produced many great cutting horses for the show pen.

Cooper said one challenge that comes with a family ranching operation is the lack of separation between work and home, making it easy to drag work problems into family problems.

“But we’ve been blessed,” he said. “Our family gets along really well. When we’re working cattle, it is usually just family. Nowadays, we’ve got so many cousins and aunts and uncles. Everybody just jumps in and helps out.”

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
The original Tule Ranch, founded in 1954, is currently supporting seven Cogdell families. Many evenings you can find a handful of grandkids gathered at their Nana Bette’s home, discussing cutting horses and old family stories, or at one of the aunts’ and uncles’ houses for supper and a highly competitive pick-up basketball game on the caliche drive way. The care and mutual respect that runs through the family is beyond evident, as well as their love for the ranch and the land they call home.

“Being amongst the Lord’s creation, the land becomes a part of you,” Cooper said.

“Especially these canyons. They’ve always been special to our family. They’re so tough on cattle, vehicles, people, and horses, but there’s something majestic about them – just the ruggedness of them. It’s an art form that God created and we get to live in them.”

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The canyons that run through the Tule Ranch are considered part of the eminent Palo Duro Canyon.

“The stuff that you experience out here are things you can’t experience anywhere else. Dealing with animals, the joy and pain of life, learning responsibility, and work ethic, you just don’t see that much anymore,” Cooper said.

Stirring a pot of soup on the stove, Holly paused looking down at her 10-month-old daughter, McCrae, playing on the floor.

“I think agriculture, in general, really requires you to trust in a higher power and trust in something bigger than yourself, because you don’t have control of the animals, or the rain, or the grass growing, or any of that,” she said. “All you can do is your very best to be a good steward. It makes you realize that there’s something bigger going on and to trust that God is in control of it.”

I think agriculture, in general, really requires you to trust in a higher power.
Holly Cogdell

The young couple agrees ranching is not where their hope is found, but where their joy is found. No matter how challenging it may get, ranching is what they love to do, and it’s a desire the Lord put in their hearts.

Spurs scraping against the porch steps, Cooper swipes off his hat and shuffles his way inside his simple ranch home. Kissing Holly on the forehead, he scoops up his baby girl and says a silent prayer of thankfulness for the life he feels blessed to live and the dream he gets to live daily.

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Grazing a Gold Mine

 

Born and raised in Burkburnett, Texas, Keith Easter said he is a rancher/farmer or vice versa. While attending Texas Tech University, he worked for a friend who farmed and ran stocker cattle.

“I had always wanted to run cattle on my own wheat,” Easter said. “That’s all I have ever really wanted to do.”

Once ready, Easter was given the chance of a lifetime.

“I was very blessed to get the opportunity to buy the ranch I grew up on,” Easter said. “My wife says it was God’s hands that did it, and I believe it.”

The ranch came with quite a bit of farming, Easter said. However, he was excited to be in control of his own operation and his source of feed and wheat.

My wife says it was God’s hands that did it, and I believe it.
Keith Easter

Hard Work and A Lot of Faith

Wheat is a cash crop in the region. From mid-fall until late spring, Easter said, wheat provides a good source of protein for stocker calves.

Easter said the great thing about wheat is that it enables ranchers to have an opportunity to have cattle on high protein forage, and do well, through the winter months when warm season grasses are dormant.

“Wheat is a dry land crop, but it is also a cool weather crop,” Easter said. “It is well-suited for our area. If we can get the wheat planted and established early along with some timely rain, it’s hard to beat.”

For farmers and ranchers to depend on wheat for a forage supply, wheat must be planted early. Early planting allows the plants to get a good start before cold weather and short days set in.

“TAM 401” and “Razor” are the beardless wheat being used by farmers in the region. This type of wheat matures earlier, and it has proven to be a good fall and spring grazer.

Easter said once cattle ship in the spring, he starts running the chisel on his ground, to break it up.

Easter uses two four-wheel drive tractors, a chisel plow with a disc, and an air seeder.

“Once you get it broken up enough,” he said, “you are then able to fertilize and sweep the ground through the summer to keep summer annuals from growing up and robbing your moisture.”

The objective is to get the ground in better shape to have a good seed bed in the fall.

Any time after the first of September when there is an adequate amount of rain, he will begin to plant his wheat. If no rain is in the forecast by the first of October, Easter will dry sow his wheat.

“It is all dictated by weather,” Easter said.

While there are many variables, time and rain are key for a successful wheat crop.

Firm, wet ground is desirable for sowing wheat. “You want your moisture, but you don’t want to get it so shallow it’ll dry out,” Easter said.

Wheat: A Rancher’s Gold Mine

Owner and operator of the Wichita Livestock Sales Company, Billy Joe Easter, said he uses wheat as a source for economical weight gain through late fall, winter, and early spring.

Keith and Billy Joe are cousins who both grew up with agriculture. Their dads are brothers who were raised on a farm.

“Our dads’ good reputations have helped both of us in starting and growing our businesses,” Billy Joe said.

Through the years, they have stayed in close contact because of their interest in the stocker wheat grazing.

“Wheat pasture is a very suitable cool-season grazer that one should take advantage of for fall weaning calves,” Billy Joe said.

Along with his cattle auction, Billy Joe runs his own cattle/wheat operation.

“I use wheat to grow stocker calves into yearlings ready to go to the feed yard,” Billy Joe said. “Along with that, wheat allows me to grow breeding bulls for resale.”

If the market allows, Billy Joe said, he will put first calf heifers on wheat to give the young females a better opportunity to breed back and raise their first calf with ease.

Since Billy Joe does not harvest, he plants a wheat and oat mix to improve grazing.

“I want a variety of wheat that puts out lots of leaf,” Billy Joe said, “and is late maturing so it will last longer.”

Depending on moisture, Billy Joe said his cattle will graze on wheat from December until May.

Right now, the expense to harvest wheat for grain is far too high for farmers to take that kind of loss.

By grazing your wheat you’re taking away your harvest expense and in its place selling it in pounds of beef.
Billy Easter

Billy Joe said thousands of wheat acres are strictly used to grow grain outside of Texas.

Local wheat prices may see a slight impact (slightly higher prices due to less wheat being harvested), but globally it does not affect the price of wheat.

“By grazing your wheat you’re taking away your harvest expense and in its place selling it in pounds of beef,” he said.

Billy Joe is thankful to be able to grow his cattle on wheat pasture, which allows stocker calves to spend less time in the feed yard.

“Wheat is giving us an opportunity to make money,” Billy Joe said.

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