Joyce Gibson Roach

Ranchers on the horns of hard times (nomination for Texan of the Year published in Dallas Morning News)

The West Texas landscape is one dotted with cattle ranches, pump jacks, flaring torches of gas wells, all encapsulated under a blistering sun. Oil and gas revenues rank first in the state’s economy. Isn’t all that true? Not quite. Cattle contributed more dollars than oil or natural gas production in the past. Thanks to a second harvest in the Barnett Shale, gas may now top cattle.

West Texas ranch and range land is honest country—doesn’t deceive you with trees, bushes, vines or shade. There’s no place to hide from the sun. The litany of such places is always supplication for rain and the colloquy of praise is ever for it. The earth is rocky, thorny, and dry, and those known as legacy ranchers who lived, and still do, on the land inherited from their ancestors, often have personalities to match. They, like the land, endure. 

Recently, drought-draped silence hung over West Texas. You read about it, saw the gut wrenching images: the furious winds fanning fire and brimstone, reminding of the Old Testament rhetoric about hell; the roar of fire and fire trucks and the noise of helicopters dropping orange fire retardant and precious water. Dust Devils filled with flames raced across the prairie grasslands west of the urban places where we wrung our hands because we weren’t able to water lawns and landscapes as much as we wanted.  

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, drought destroyed grasses, hay, grain, even cattle and wildlife, all of which had to have water to survive. Then the fires started with relentless abandon.  Ranchers who make a living by raising and selling beef animals witnessed the destruction along side the Forestry Service who provided dozers and helicopters, Texas National Guard, volunteer fire departments, and firefighters. The drought in concert with wildfires delivered a blow of such magnitude that recovery may take years. The economy played descant to the dirge of wastelands.

In Jack County, lying on the eastern edge of West Texas, one rancher, of many across the entire state, witnessed it all, faced the cataclysmic event, fought as hard as he could, and came away almost whipped with his head almost down—but not quite.  He had been through it all before in the 50s, considered the worst drought in the history of the Southwest and West. Jerry Craft, owner of Craft Ranches, is his name and he represents others whose names you may never have heard. West Texans are accustomed to anonymity, even though ancestral roots go back for four and five generations.

During the great fires that consumed thousands of acres and homes around Possum Kingdom Lake, other places were hit as hard. 2500 acres of one of the Craft Ranches went up in flames. State and federal agencies came to help and advised evacuation.

How do you evacuate a ranch? Fences were cut to allow cattle to escape and move to other locations. However, cows put their calves down in the grass, something cattle do when dire circumstances occur. Calves were consumed by the fire, knowing not to leave where their mamas left them.  Other cows, perhaps checking on their offspring or reluctant to leave them, had hooves burned off and were left walking on leg bones. Those animals had to be shot.

Because so many fences were cut, cows and calves got separated and in the aftermath required hours and days to rematch pairs. After matching what they could and pulling orphaned calves aside, Craft gathered a significant number in order to wean them much too early. He hauled the new weanlings to a feed lot where they would be finished; that is, fed to a weight suitable for sale. The animals were forced to stand in un-shaded pens where they jostled each other just to get in the shade of telephone poles. Craft reported that he went daily to check on them until he couldn’t stand any more. The calves were in misery, panting with every breath, indicating extreme distress. Clint, Craft’s son, reported that the ground temperature was measured at 138 degrees.  His home on the ranch had been spared but with the flames coming within 50 feet of his house. He, too, was in the thick of things.

Asking what measures other ranchers took, Craft cited the list of the biggest ranchers such as the Spade, 4-6s, Pitch Fork, Brown, and others who were able to move their cattle to Nebraska where grass and water were available. The costs were enormous but Craft defended their choice because they, too, had been on the land for many generations, developing genetic lines within their respective breeds to withstand the vagaries of Texas weather. They couldn’t afford to sell out and begin again. Oil and gas monies over the years combined with the best ranching techniques allowed them enough profit to make the hard and expensive decision. What will happen to the herds over a Nebraska winter, harsh in its own way as Texas summer, is yet to be determined.

Craft and some others like him salvaged enough to try again.  A rain of 5, 3, and an inch or two fell a few weeks ago to partially fill a small lake, the main water supply for the ranch.  There will be enough to last the winter and maybe the spring, he said, but after that who knows.

There is a myth abroad that many Texas ranchers are oil millionaires, absentee cowboys hiring others to ride their ranges—J. R. Ewings. Not so with Craft and others like him. They are in the business of raising cattle—food—for the nation but also the world. Texas is one of the largest exporters of beef, if not the largest. Beef is still one of the mainstays of protein to a hungry planet, no matter how health experts turn it. Ranching is not outsourced. May their tribe hang on, or at least survive.