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Field Trip to a Texas Cattle Ranch

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Oct 19, 2012 at 18:46:21 PM PDT

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Howdy from West Texas. I'm in cattle and cotton country. Yesterday I joined a busload of environmental journalists and beef industry representatives and visited a cattle ranch and a beef feedlot. My photos from the ranch are below along with a general description of what I learned. The photos of the feedlot will follow.

Jill Richardson :: Field Trip to a Texas Cattle Ranch
About 100 miles west of Lubbock, TX, you'll find the Pitchfork Land & Cattle Company. The enormous 165,000 acre ranch can hold up to 4000 cows, but after a disastrous drought in 2011 and a bad wildfire to boot, the ranch is now home to only 1600 cows (plus calves and bulls).

First, let's go over some terminology:
Cow: A female who has calved
Heifer: A female who has not calved
Calf: Baby cow
Bull: Intact male
Steer: Castrated male
Calf fries: A cowboy delicacy eaten after the bull calves are turned into steers. Known elsewhere as Rocky Mountain Oysters. Here, they are soaked in beer and then breaded and deepfried.

We were told that basic cowboy math is as follows. A section of land is 640 acres, or 1 square mile. If you get 18 inches of rain per year, the land can support 18 cows per section. If you get 22 inches of rain, 22 cows per section. And so on.

With nearly 258 sections (square miles), Pitchfork would have about 15.5 cows per section if it were fully stocked. Right now it has less, of course.

But when one says "4000 cows," it's meant literally. 4000 cows - females who have calved. The ranch also has their calves - presumably one or two per cow - and one bull per 25 cows - or 160 bulls.

We drove along for at least a half an hour without even seeing a cow, the ranch is so huge

Look! Cows!

Initially, they had red cows with white faces, a breed called Hereford. But black Angus cows became popular with consumers, so they began stocking them.

Each year, calves are born in March. They stay with their mothers, graze, and drink milk for six or seven months. They get a first round of vaccines shortly after birth and then they are left alone after that until about October.

In October, the calves are moved into pens where they are weaned for a few days. This is a rough time for the calves, since they still want their mothers initially. During this time, they are given a second round of vaccines for a respiratory illness that is a common affliction in feedlots. Then they are moved to a field of winter wheat for a period of time. Unlike the native grasses here that grow mostly in the summer, wheat grows in the winter, allowing the calves to keep gaining weight. And then - off to the feedlot.

All of the steers go to the feedlot, but only 75-80% of the heifers go, because the rest stay on the ranch to breed and raise their own calves. A cow's gestation period is nine months, so the ranch will try to get the cows pregnant in June and July each year. They want the calves to come in March so that as the calves have their greatest milk needs, the pastures provide the most amount of food to the cows.

If, in any year, a cow does not get pregnant, she goes to the slaughterhouse to become ground beef. Cows don't go to the feedlot. The manager of the ranch told us he'll often select heifers of older cows to keep on the ranch for breeding, because if he's got a 10 year old cow, that means she's calved every year since her second birthday, and she's very fertile. Hopefully, her offspring will be very fertile as well.

Aside from the vaccines, the cows at the ranch get no antibiotics, no hormones, and no feed aside from what they graze. If an animal gets sick, it is treated with antibiotics but then it's tracked individually and sold without a claim of "no antibiotics." Those who remain healthy and never require antibiotics can be sold with a claim of no antibiotics.

West Texas receives little rainfall, but the native grasses are very healthy cattle feed. The rugged, hilly land cannot be used to grow crops, but it can grow cattle. A few grasses that the cattle eat are buffalo grass and blue grama:

Buffalo grass

Blue Grama

There are also some plants out there that are not so good. Some plants like broomweed are toxic to the cattle if eaten in high enough quantities. Others, like the mesquite trees, simply take up space and scarce water but don't provide food for the cattle. The ranch manages the mesquite by removing it. (This is what George W. Bush meant when he said he was clearing brush on his ranch.)

Honey Mesquite


To manage the cattle, they operate on a "take half, leave half" philosophy. That means, they put the cattle on a pasture with the goal of the cattle eating half of the grass that's there. Then they move the cattle somewhere else and let that first pasture recover. They don't move the cattle frequently though - maybe once a year. The pastures are each enormous and it's a major effort to round up the cattle. The cowboys do this on horseback.

Another way they manage the cattle is by making sure that water is well-distributed around the ranch so that the cattle don't overgraze one area and neglect others.

A wind-powered well. They also have solar powered wells.

The headquarters of the ranch

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256 square miles... (4.00 / 1)
That's 10% larger than the entire land area of the City of Chicago, and just a few more square miles than two Philadelphias put together.  That's over 11 times the size of Manhattan, which has 1.6 million people.

That's over 20% the land area of Rhode Island!

Just trying to picture how large that really is.  It's larger than many northeastern counties.  Even driving out there and taking the train cross-country four times through the emptiest-seeming areas of the West, it's still kind of hard to imagine vast areas like that.  Or at least, to my northeastern mind it's hard...

Oops, 258. (4.00 / 1)
Maybe it's time to go for glasses, Jay, or increase the font size... ;)

[ Parent ]
and I spent last Sat at a sustainanable (4.00 / 2)
farm that raises grass fed beef The farm hosted a contest for the best grass fed beef and a friend was a judge I got to watch the judges eat because I didn't want to pay 13.00 for a hamburger. Yea I was pissed

Most grass fed beef is tasteless. Temple Grandin ( who my friend interviewed ) told her its the breed of the cows here in addition to the meat not being marbled enough.

Yea I eat meat. But not very much and looking at the above pictures can't help thinking what else could be raised there.  

No doubt (4.00 / 1)
buffalo would do well on that ranch.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
do buffalo require less resources (4.00 / 1)
than cattle

[ Parent ]
Almost Home (4.00 / 1)
I live 106 miles west of Lubbock. Portales, NM

This area, West Texas and most all of New Mexico is no
place for large stock operations.  And just about the
ag that happens IS cattle.  Beef or dairy it is all
the same.  The good thing is that they will soon have
pumped out all the water and then we will have no use for
this land.  Well, good place for solar/wind farms.

The soil is almost dust and for some reason no-till
farming is not used.  The land is worked until it is so
loose that our daily 10 to 15 winds with gusts to
ridiculous just takes away all the "topsoil".  If there
was any truth about the stories from the Dust Bowl era
the lesson has been forgotten here.  

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