Food News

A Local Cattle Rancher's Winter Storm: Cows on Ice, Abandoned Calves and a Missing Leg

Cows were given extra sustenance during the frigid temperatures to help them endure the stress of the storm.
Cows were given extra sustenance during the frigid temperatures to help them endure the stress of the storm. Happy Hollow Ranch

Last year when we met Brandon Howley at Happy Hollow Ranch in Willis Point, the birds were chirping, a red fox burrowed in the pasture and cattle hid from the sun under trees lush with leaves.

Howley inherited this land from his tough-as-nails grandfather, former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley. The younger Howley brought new life to his grandfather’s land, growing the herd from 250 to more than 600 head of cattle. He tackled the science of ranching, learning everything from the chemistry of dirt all the way to humane slaughter practices. He sells beef online for local delivery and at the Dallas Farmers Market.

We checked in with Howley to see how his 600 furry neighbors held up. The frigid temperatures were something he had prepared for, but the week brought a lot of unique complications.

How’s things?
Well, we’ve been going through a wild and crazy time. It’s been the most stressful and chaotic time ever, but we’re good.

What did you learn about ranching last week?
Well, that it’s impossible to attempt to predict the unpredictable.

One of our biggest problems that we didn’t expect was the animals wandered onto the frozen lakes. So, we had to routinely go out into the pastures and break the ice so they wouldn’t get stranded or fall through. In one case, we were able to lasso a cow off the ice. He had slipped around so much he was easy to get. But, in another case, a cow fell through the ice.

Did he make it out?
No, with temperatures at -2 and with the windchill, we couldn’t get him out fast enough. So, we had to make sure we just tried to keep them off the ice. The cattle couldn’t tell the difference between what was ice and what wasn’t.

click to enlarge Horse trainer Lin Whetstine rescues a calf from the cold. - HAPPY HOLLOW RANCH
Horse trainer Lin Whetstine rescues a calf from the cold.
Happy Hollow Ranch
What about the calves? It’s calving season, right?
Yes, our season runs from the last week of December through the first of March. We had to go out routinely and check for newborns because, for one, they’re wet, and then their mothers lick them. So, we had to make sure they knew to get back with the herd for warmth and not isolate alone. We had about 40 new calves just last week. About four didn’t make it. We found one calf on the backside of the property whose mom had abandoned it. She was probably just working on survival instincts and went to find warmth. We found the baby just curled up in the grass and brought it in.

Were you able to save it?
Well, we’re not sure yet if it will make it. It’s very stressful to separate the mom from a baby because it’s obviously not natural. We have to really consider if we need to intervene. But, we grabbed some to get them bottle feed, a thermal blanket, enough to sustain themselves through the storm.

We lost one cow to wildlife.

A predator killed a cow during the storm?
Yes, something took a whole front leg off.

A whole leg of a full-grown cow?
Yeah, it had to be a big cat. We caught it on video and we think it’s a black panther. TPWD (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) said these cats are moving up from Mexico, which just amazes me. But, it took that whole piece, then also went for where the brisket would be found on a cow. Scavenger animals hunt differently than that. We’re working with TPWD to identify and trap it.

How did you manage your whole 600-plus head of cattle?
Well, that’s another thing I learned last week ... the importance of teamwork. There were times I was stuck and couldn’t get out. I couldn’t have done this without our horse trainer Lin Whetstine and ranch manager Lorenzo Chavarria. We all took shifts, rotating on who would break the ice, coordinating and planning together.

We covered pipes, making sure lines to water troughs were continually dripping. We also made sure we had X-amount of extra hay because cows will unroll bales of hay by pushing it with their head to make bedding. So, we had to set out about 20% to 30% more for bedding.

We also put out supplemental feed to help them get through this really stressful time.

Ok. So, bear with this asinine question, but do cows get cold?
Oh, yeah! Absolutely. When it was freezing outside they looked like statues, not moving, grouped together. They’d come in to eat, then go back to the bedding and stay there huddled together all day.

Did they behave differently when the weather warmed up?
Yes, there was an immediate change in their behavior. Once it got into the mid-40s, the calves were running around. They’re much more active.

Are you still selling beef at the Dallas Farmers Market?
We took off the past couple of months, but we plan to be back in mid-March. We also deliver nationwide now for orders through our website.

How often do you make local deliveries?
We deliver locally every Tuesday.

If you’ve always dreamed of the ranch life, or want to learn more about Happy Hollow Ranch, they’re hosting a Howley Legacy Roundup in late March that includes a meal prepared by guest chef Cody Sharp and a front-row seat to a rodeo. 
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.