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The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher

The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher
Brandon Thibodeaux

Somewhere out in the northeast corner of Young County, about 40 miles south of Wichita Falls, an aging cattleman cups his gnarled hands around his mouth, and from it comes his call, high and sharp and short. It snaps over mesquite and chaparral with the clarity of a rifle's report.

"Whoo!"

His hands return to his sides as he scans the landscape. Post oaks stand blackly in the dim morning light, not far from where the West Fork of the Trinity sits shallow and still.

He hears nothing and calls them again. "Whoo!"

A half mile away, a cow responds, a deep bellow coming from its guts, terminating in a full-throated bawl.

"I'd just as soon have them stay where they are," 82-year-old Jack Loftin says. "They just tromp. Every blade of grass is valuable."

He turns and, in his tentative but efficient gait, rounds the front of his blue Chevy pickup, grips the steering wheel and hoists himself into the seat. There's an automatic feeder mounted to the truck bed, loaded up with alfalfa cubes he'll feed to his herd to supplement their waning supply of grass. The cubes smell of molasses, an odor that fills the truck's cab.

The truck starts off along tire ruts worn into the thinning buffalograss. He mashes the horn for a moment. And again, calling them to him. The cows bawl again, and their call becomes choral as others join, knowing well the ritual after a straight year of feeding on cubes.

He steers through the dense stands of mesquite, whose taproots sink deep underground and will survive when everything else here is dead. Their limbs rake the side panels and roof of the pickup, and their thorns screech and etch faint new lines in the paint. Fifty yards out, an immaculate rib cage belonging to one of last winter's casualties bleaches. Ahead, a calf in the truck's path faces it down, then turns and lopes on. Cows filter out of the brush, complaining and converging on the truck. Loftin stops at a spot where the dun-colored grasses are ground into the dust, and where a handful of halved old tires are crusted with rock salt for the cows.

Loftin's blue eyes dance over the backs of a few dozen head and one bull. He doesn't see the white one that's a bit of a loner, but figures she'll show up next time. She has to. There isn't enough growing out there to sustain a full-grown cow. He counts them and appraises their conditions, and shakes his head.

"They're shrunk in the back, all right," he says, eyeing hides draped thinly over rib cages and sunken into the slopes of pelvic bones. "They'll get worse, I imagine."

Across his pastures, the buffalograss — a hardy native grass that's supposed to be drought-resistant — is moisture-starved after the driest year in Texas history and a summer of triple-digit temperatures. It's common to feed during lean winter months, but it's a sign that trouble has come to cattle country when ranchers feed through the spring and summer. As their demand for feed rises, prices keep climbing, up to nearly $20 per hundred pounds. It doesn't sound like much until you do the math: 70 cows, 1,500 pounds per week, week in and week out for a year straight. Like just about every other cattleman he knows, Loftin was forced to sell off half of his herd this summer just to stay afloat, and very well may have to sell these too.

Loftin clambers back into the truck's cab and activates the feeder. It spouts cubes as he drives in a long, slow arc. The cows jostle for position on the line, tossing off strands of saliva like spidersilk. The hollow noise of their large molars crushing cubes resounds.

Loftin parks and walks across the pasture, scuffing along in a pair of lace-up brogans with leather peeling back from the toes. He ducks between strands of barbed wire hung from mesquite fence posts and, before long, comes to the only thing standing between what remains of his herd and the sale barn: a stock pond rimmed with ragweed and milkweed. It's down to five feet but holding for now.

"If we could just get some rain," he says. "You'd be surprised how quick it could change."

Later, he pulls off Loftin Road and rattles over the iron cattle guard and across the washed-out dirt road, his house framed unsteadily in the windshield. It's an oil pumper's house he bought for $1,865 in 1953. He had it trucked out to a rise on this 450-acre spread in Archer County, which has been in his family since 1933 (and happens to be adjacent to the ranch Pulitzer-Prize winning author Larry McMurtry grew up on). It had a water well productive enough for household use. He rocked over the outside with sandstone slabs he found in the pastures, and eventually built an east wing when he and his wife, Marie, had children.

 

Mrs. Loftin is a sweet, attentive woman with a short head of wavy hair the pearly color of lamb's wool, who makes sure guests sitting in the tiny living room's cloth recliners are in the path of the house's only wall-mounted air conditioning unit. She never did love this life the way he did. She didn't love the way he brought his worry and frustration home like a stone on his back, rather than checking it at the door the way a salaried man might. "I doubt if the younger ones feel it the same as the older ones," she says. "They may have the financial commitments, but the older ones feel like it's a journey they've been on, and don't want to get off."

Hard to judge, though. Loftin wasn't born to a generation of men likely to open up and unburden themselves of their dread. But she knows he wonders what his father would think about the way his only son has managed these dry times. He can't help but compare himself to him, to the way he carried his herd through the drought of record that lasted seven long years in the '50s. At night, he's begun calling out in his sleep — "fussin'," she calls it — as though he's demanding an answer that doesn't exist. And he prays that if he learns the answer, it wasn't always there outside his bedroom window, where a dry stock tank sits in a swale amid 450 acres barren of a single grazing cow for the first time in 160 years, since before his forefathers settled this region in 1875.

He had planned on ranching until he could no longer walk out to his feed truck, or until he died out in the pasture. He says he can hold on for one more month. If the rains don't come by then, he'll take them all to the sale barn.


Texas is in the midst of the deepest yearlong drought in its history. And it's not just South Texas or West Texas. Save for a few counties, the entire state is in a condition of "exceptional" drought, the direst rating the national Drought Monitor can give. The previous record for one year came in 1956, at 70 percent of normal rainfall levels. This year that record was shattered, with 40 percent of normal rainfall.

Yet another dry winter and spring are predicted, as the Pacific Ocean-temperature phenomenon known as La Niña pushes all the moisture north of Texas for the second year in a row. Beyond that, no expert can say for certain how long this drought will persist, or how long it will take the state's $7.6 billion cattle industry to rebuild, if it ever truly can. Livestock losses have been pegged at more than $2 billion.

Cattle auctions across the state are working overtime, running well into the early morning hours, and it isn't just the "open" (not pregnant) cows moving through the auction ring. Sale barn owners are disturbed by the number of young, productive cows with years of calving ahead of them, all headed to meatpacking plants — an indication Texas cattle ranchers are cashing out. The big operators who can afford it are trucking their herds to Nebraska and the Dakotas and Wyoming, leasing pasturage where grass still grows.

Across the Texas countryside, an ecological and agricultural disaster is moving in slow motion. Hay crops across the state have been decimated. Along Highway 67, through Comanche and Brownwood and Coleman, there are barren fields, blackened pastures and long stretches where nary a cow is seen grazing. The only activity, in fact, is the 18-wheel cattle trucks roaring past, bearing loads north, anywhere but here.


On a sweltering August morning, the air brakes of a cattle truck exhale as it comes to a stop, its diesel engine idling on the edge of a 3,200-acre ranch somewhere between Archer City and Windthorst. The truck's trailer is backed up to the mouth of a loading chute, which is attached to a system of holding and working pens and a barn whose corrugated tin siding rusts and curls like moist paper.

"Boys, I'd stay out of his way this morning," Bryan Griffin says, staring out of his one good eye and referring to his 62-year-old father. "His horse fell on 'im."

He goes on to describe the cussing his father, Dennis Griffin, gave him when he roused Bryan from sleep, and the cussing he might give everyone here if they don't step lightly.

Bryan used to roughneck, working oil and gas rigs all over the state. Sometimes he says he misses it, but he can't miss hazards such as the one that prompted him to hang up his coveralls, when a chain snapped and lashed him, shattering the left side of his face and pulverizing his eye. Now he ranches with his father instead, running their own cows on their own pastures but also tending a herd of Mexican feeder cattle, thickening them up with leased grass on a ranch owned by one of Archer County's ranching dynasties.

 

The cows are the property of a feedlot in Hart, about 70 miles north of Lubbock. That lot pays the Griffins to fatten them up. Roughly half of U.S. cattle imports come from Mexico, at an annual average of about a million a year. But ethanol subsidies have driven up the cost of feed corn, prompting some feedlots to seek pasturage as a cost-saving tool — in other words, it's cheaper to pay these men a fee per head than to supply these small-bodied Mexican yearlings with the calories they need to render good carcasses.

In this drought, though, plans are changing. One by one, the stock tanks on the ranch have failed. There's been no meaningful rainfall in this part of Archer since September of last year. As a result, the Griffin family's fattening-up business is wasting away. These yearlings are on their way to Hart early, and the 2,600 head that once stocked this ranch are now closer to 600. Running yearlings is how Griffin makes most of his income. That might have as much to do with his disposition as the spill his horse took this morning.

Bryan and the truck driver aren't waiting long before his father drives up in a Chevy pulling a gooseneck trailer. The elder Griffin moves purposefully, long brown hair flaring behind a straw hat shoved down on his head, grunting something unintelligible that may or may not be a greeting. He unlatches the trailer's gates and leads by the reins a sorrel cutting horse with a white stripe down the length of its face. He slips a finely tooled, spur-strapped boot into the stirrup, grabs hold of the saddle horn and pulls himself aboard, loosing a quick, anguished howl on the way up. Griffin won't see a doctor for several days. When he does he'll find out he's got three broken ribs.

A championship roper, he is transformed once mounted, riding with the grace and ease of a man who's spent much of his life horseback. A toothpick jutting from a brushy goatee, he spurs his horse into the holding pen and begins sorting the steers from the heifers so they can be weighed separately. He presses them up against the fence until they bolt, identifying the steers in a split second, running them down and heading them off. He pushes the heifers past a set of swing gates and into a separate sorting pen. "Hey hey hey!" he yells, pushing them along with the force of his voice.

Once some 40 Brahman and mixed-breed heifers and steers are weighed, he drives them toward the loading chute, enveloped in a cloud of red dust. "Hey hey hey." Their hooves knock and clatter as they mount the chute planks and pass into the shade of the trailer — helped along with an occasional jolt from the truck driver's cattle prod when they balk and bunch up.

Griffin loads his sweat-streaked horse and pulls out ahead of the cattle truck. Bryan's friend, Joey Veitenheimer, a truck driver from Windthorst, says that aside from sale barns, cattle truck drivers are among the few benefiting from the drought, at least in the short term. They keep getting busier and busier, hauling for ranchers who have no choice. They're moving anywhere from 50 to 80 percent more cattle since the drought deepened in July.

The Griffins have certainly been keeping them on the road. A few weeks after this load, Bryan will report that not a single cow remains on their 3,200 acres.


Bidding cards peek from the starched shirt pockets of men in straw hats, arrayed in stadium seating around the wrought-iron auction ring of the Gainesville Livestock Market, its white paint flecked with dung. A handful of yearlings bunch and scatter around the auction ring, pissing and shitting into the dust as ringmen drive them from one side to the other with whips that crack hard across their metatarsals and snouts. Eventually the final bid is cast, and they're chased from the ring with the crackle of electrical current issuing from the tip of a cattle prod.

"Five by five," yells 34-year-old James Peyrot, his splayed hand held up for the 5-year-old cow, now five months bred. He leans against a protective barrier, the knotted end of his drafting whip flicking absently, and calls the opening bid.

 

Peyrot, the auction owner, will buy as many as a third of the cattle that come through the ring of the Gainesville Livestock Market today — some for himself and some for big buyers up north. He has a handlebar mustache the color of rust and wears a pair of expensive-looking jeans torn fashionably across the thighs. He started working at this auction when he was a 12-year-old boy. Everyone here knows him, and they call him Redbone, though he swears he isn't sure why. Some of them chuckle about the way he dresses — more like a city boy than a cattleman — but they also respect him as a peerless judge of beef and a serious operator with nearly 5,000 head of his own cattle on feed and pasture at a ranch he keeps.

Far from thinning his herd, Peyrot's invested to the hilt, because he knows one thing: Once the ranches are empty and the cattlemen have sold all they can bear, supply will dip far below demand. When that happens, the man with cattle to sell is king, and he can practically name his price.

"I'm it on this damn cattle deal," Peyrot says. "Because everyone else is getting the hell out."

Above him, the auctioneer drones into a microphone covered with a red bandanna in that breathless monotone, calling bids, pressing the buyers for a little more.

A weaned calf is led into the ring. "Two hundred, one seventy-five-badeebadawbadee-one eighty-eight, two hundred, now two-thirty."

Buyers for feedlots and meat packers signal subtly, hands lifting and falling, pushing the price still higher until the calf is sold and whipped out of the ring with ruthless efficiency. This sale began at 10 on a Friday morning. At the rate ranchers are lined up around the sale barn, idling in big diesels hitched up to gooseneck trailers crowded with bawling cattle, they'll be here until 2 the next morning, even as ringmen whip them through at 250 to 300 an hour. In the end, nearly 3,000 head change hands, mostly from small-time cattle ranchers who are selling off their herds to slaughterhouses, or maybe to ranches up north. The ring men periodically pass fat stacks of sales slips from the auction stand to Peyrot's wife, Katie, who processes the buys in the business office.

"There's nice mama cows that are going to the packers," she says, shaking her head.

Peyrot leaves the ring and slumps into a chair on the second row. "Two months ago," he says, "they were thinning down. Now, shit, they're selling 'em all.

Even the young cows, many only recently entering their productive years, are being sold by ranchers who have no forage to sustain them and who otherwise can't afford hay prices, which are soaring on high demand, an anemic Texas harvest and $80-a-ton trucking costs to bring it in from out of state.

"Usually, these little young cows, you couldn't buy 'em because they wouldn't sell 'em," Peyrot says. "We're killing them all."

Auctions across the state, including Producers' Livestock Auction in San Angelo, one of the biggest, have seen their weekly runs tripled. Dr. David Anderson, a Texas A&M economist, is predicting a depressed calf crop and the biggest year-on-year reduction of the herd in state history — as much as 600,000 head if slaughterhouses keep working at this clip.

It could be worse: Ranchers could be getting a pittance for their beef, the way they did in the '50s when prolonged drought struck and the bottom fell out of the market. This time market forces conspired in a way no one could have predicted. A sagging economy continues to keep demand high for cheap protein like ground beef, allowing the market to absorb what would otherwise be considered a glut of breeding cows unable to yield those fine middle cuts like rib-eye. These are Hamburger Helper times, and it just so happens that Texas has a surplus of hamburger cows.

In the café behind the stands, just out of the reach of the scent of livestock and feces, a woman flips burgers, and patrons pour tall glasses of sweet tea from Igloo coolers. Will Cook, a rancher from Madill, Oklahoma, less than an hour north of here, mulls the predicament of the rancher while auction hands coated in dust, sweat and dung down their lunches quickly. "You're durned if you do, durned if you don't. We could get an inch of rain tomorrow," he says, imagining the storm that could bring his ranch, his business, back from the brink. "But we've got pecan trees with the limbs breaking off. I've seen cedar trees that are brown on top. The dust on the ground is a foot thick. Normally, it's three inches."

"Yesterday, we gathered 'em all up," he says. "We cut the herd in half and today we sold 'em."


 

It's a familiar refrain in Concho County: The young folk never came home. They went off to college, got married, chased the oil patch and stayed gone. The ranchers sold their land to rich out-of-towners when they got too old to run their own cows, and now the farm-to-market roads are lined with 8-foot wire fences holding the exotic game now stocked within.

But Gabe Stansberry, 35, the fourth generation of Stansberry to ranch this sparsely populated country east of San Angelo, did come home, eventually. He'd graduated from Texas A&M with an engineering degree and took a position as a sales rep for a Houston chemical company, traveling up and down the Gulf Coast. His father had urged him to learn another trade. The ranch would always be there, waiting, he said, and it was prudent to have a backup plan if drought hit or beef prices took a nosedive.

Tall, dark-headed and handsome, Gabe left Eden, Texas. But after nine years, he tired of the traffic snarls in a city where people seemed to live one on top of the other. Then his wife became pregnant, and in that moment he knew he was going home. He wanted his son to grow up alongside him and his father, Robert Stansberry, 63. He wanted his son on horseback, out on the pastures, not in some suburban cul-de-sac breathing Houston air.

He also felt a responsibility to bear some of the load as Stansberry aged. He had always wanted to work at his father's side, and he had always wanted to glean the lessons a lifetime of building up and expanding the cattle operation had taught him, both in bumper years and in the dry times he'd weathered when so many had failed.

In 2007, Gabe returned to Concho County. "This is exactly where I want to be," he says. "And exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my life."

For the first few years, he shadowed his father, learning what to cull and when, how to prepare for the winter, how to manage money when paydays come not in bi-monthly direct deposits but maybe once a quarter. As his confidence grew, he began making operating decisions. There wasn't a moment when his father said, "OK, you make the call." But eventually Dad stepped back and Gabe stepped forward to claim his birthright.

He learned that his father stocked the ranch lightly, as though he was always prepared for drought. And when the rains stopped coming in the fall of 2010, he culled the open cows like he always did. Only this time, he didn't replace them. "I feel like he saw it coming."

From there, they kept culling, trimming 50, 60, then 70 percent of the 250 head they stocked during wet years. In July, they weaned the calves they'd usually keep until October, and sold them off too. They're hoping, if worst comes to worst, to hold on to a core herd of 40 or 50 young cows, to avoid the astronomical buy-in that everyone predicts — think $2,000 replacement heifers.

But even that's looking less and less possible. In the last few weeks, some of the tanks they use to water their cattle have given out. The water well feeding the concrete reservoir, which in turn feeds the water troughs the cows drink from, has weakened. They're hauling water in a 1,600-gallon, trailer-mounted tank, filled from the garden hose and the city water tower. A cow needs about 40 gallons of water a day when the temperature edges up to the 100s. They're hauling 3,000 gallons a week out to the cows. Figure in the cost of diesel burned trucking it across the pastures, the full work day it consumes, the wear and tear on the pickups, and you begin to understand why ranchers pray the tanks hold out.

On pastures north of town, there's plenty of water, but termites are devouring what's left of the dead grass. Stansberry has seen few white-tail fawns this year, and he doesn't expect a turkey hatch, or for the quail to run. Every animal, every industry, suffers.

"There's nothing you can do to make it better," Gabe says. "You have no idea when, how or what's coming. You have to make the decision to sell or hold stock. You could sell everything, and it'll rain next week and keep on raining. Then you have to buy back in and it costs three times what you sold it for."

It's a decision that keeps his father up at night.

"You lay awake, trying to figure which is the best move you can make, and you don't know," the elder Stansberry says

 

If there were nothing more at stake than his own herd, his own operation, he would have sold completely out by now, he says, aiming to buy back in during better times. But it isn't his herd alone anymore. Because right behind his son sits a fifth generation of Stansberry. Question is, should he keep his grip, or does he let go?

"I'm not gonna be able to do it much longer," Stansberry says.


How does a rancher know when to quit? When he has emptied his savings account for hay bales and feed to get his cows through the winter, and the bank does the math and decides not to loan another cent? When his stock tanks go dry, and the cost of hauling water becomes too great? When his cows look like the bunch beneath a catwalk at the Wichita Livestock Sales, hides drawn tight over rib cages and pelvises, but drawn in at the flanks, giving them that bass-violin outline?

Is it when he's certain it won't rain in a week or a month or five months? And what if it does, and he sold every cow, and the cost of a replacement heifer nears $2,000? What then? How do you start over? And what of the younger men, few though they may be, who've taken jobs pumping leases to pay off the feed bill? How long before the steady paycheck calls?

What about the old-timers, like Jack Loftin? What would his wife do with him anyway, rattling anxiously around the house all day, a man who prospered and failed in barometric increments, who curses the rocky soil, the dry weather and the stubborn cattle by turns, but whose identity is irretrievably bound to each, just like his father's and his grandfather's? When does he quit? Does he even know how?

There's a long, pale scar running along Loftin's tanned forearm, which is a little crooked, like the lightning-struck post oaks on his feed road. Many years ago, the sleeve of his Army fatigue jacket caught the power take-off shaft attached to a post-hole digger, wrapping his forearm around the rig's U-joint and snapping it like a dead mesquite limb. He never straightened his arm again after that, nor could he completely bend it, but he learned to get by.

It hangs slightly away from his side as he walks down to the stock tank some 200 yards from the house. The tank has become a gray chancre coated in a fine dusting of salt. The clay bottom has dried out completely and contracted, sinking deep fissures as it splits into an infinite assortment of flaking, polygonal shapes. Loftin can get through just about anything. He can jury-rig and improvise and wield the native ingenuity impelled by necessity. But he can't make it rain. He can't make the grass grow. He can't fill this tank.

Still, out here, it's as though the needle has been lifted from the spinning record, and all the noise of the world stops, and it's just the wind hissing through the dead buffalograss. It's where he was always supposed to be, from the moment he was born until the day he dies. Raising cattle. Now, he doesn't know what's coming.

"I don't know until the time comes what I will do," he says. "I hope it don't come."

But at least for today, the sky above him says enough: Clear, blue, untroubled.

Brandon Thibodeaux

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