The summer of 2001—year 10 of the seven-year drought—on a backdrop of ranch land the color of manila folders and burlap sacks, I watched cattle trailer after cattle trailer coming off neighboring ranches to go to the sale barn for slaughter or to a single buyer putting together a larger buy for the feed lot. The size of the trailers differentiated the bigger outfits from the mom-and-pop cow-calf operators like us, who statistically are the backbone of the beef industry in America.
The nano-pause of those trucks changing gears to make the rise in the road gave way to the mournful bawls of cattle hurtling along the blacktop, a chorus that likely echoed the heartbreak of the ranchers down the road who sold off herds they had spent at least a decade or two building.
Each load moving past our ranch was unnerving, posing the same question—had the time come to get out of a business that, despite the muscle and care you put into it, rarely showed a profit? Two centuries of family history are fastened to this part of the Vasquez Borrego grant and before that, we were ranchers in Mexico, settlers of Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas. My father’s eternal optimism kept doubts at bay, but that summer, the sequía and poor cattle prices hammered at my resolve.
For as long as I can remember, the price at the market—present price excepted—has not ever been commensurate to what goes into good land stewardship and production—feed, fuel, fences, labor, replacing a submersible pump that pulls brackish salt water from the earth, rotating stock from one pasture to the next, the daunting chore of chaparreando brush from fences and senderos, and keeping up with miles of PVC waterlines.
It’s ranching at the margins, the bottom line today not too different from the ledgers my uncles kept over decades as they hung on to the enterprise by the straps of their chaps.
In the 18 years that I’ve lived on this ranch and have had a hand in managing it, first with my father and now with my sisters and my son, it’s only in the last two years that we sell into a market that can return what we have invested in our cattle. I was one of the girl cousins relegated at roundups to watch the work from outside the corrals while the male cousins learned branding, de-horning, and medicating, skills the uncles thought the boys would need later. Fortunately, I was paying attention, and a buckle in the family history allowed me the opportunity to manage the ranch, the only woman since my grandmother María Dionicia Benavides de Gutiérrez to take on the day-to-day work.
My abuela María, though she had merry moments of wry levity, was pretty much all business. The young widow made certain her children knew that the land was always a separate proposition from the cattle, one left intact and never collateralized to a bank or jeopardized by bad financial decisions.
Unable to say “Mamagrande” when we were toddlers, we called her “Malande.” Inspired by an apparition of the Virgen María as she milked a cow in the corrales, Malande changed the name of the ranch after World War II to Santa María. Her vehicle of choice for ranch tours was a canvas-topped war surplus Chrysler Commando driven by one of my uncles.
The story of the family rosary recited to break the severe drought of the early 1950s colors in the scope of my grandmother’s character. With her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, and a priest, my grandmother organized a walking rosary down each of the perimeter fences of the ranch so that the prayer ended where it began. My father remembered the long walk south and then east, south and east again, and then north, and finally west into the ranch compound. He remembered the deluge began when they turned north and that they slogged home through slippery red mud, children wailing, and the tears of grown men and women indistinguishable from the rivulets of cool, sweet rain on their faces.
In the best of times, the carrying capacity of land in Zapata County is about 25 acres to one head. In drought, it takes more acres to sustain that one cow. The attrition of matriarchs and patriarchs and the subsequent division of large parcels into smaller tracts has reduced the size of ranches all over South Texas and made the already difficult proposition a little harder on less land.
Sam Rodriguez, who owns the R.Y. sale barn at Río Grande City, recalls that in the summer of 2001, the ranchers—older men and women—who picked up handsome checks for the sale of their entire herds accepted the money with tears in their eyes. The emotionally complicated transaction was a mix of pained pride that on their watch the long family history in cattle had come to an end, that no longer would they work cattle on the land the bisabuelos and tatabuelos had held onto through the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and the eternal drought.
I can’t tell you precisely what those old ranchers felt as they sold out, but this much I do know. There is a way you live a life when you care for cattle and land, a life of honest work that takes into account the wildness of the monte and the look of a sky that portends moisture; a life with a pulse set to daybreak, dewfall, and sunset. There is a familiar way cattle smell and congregate and a way they let you walk among them, because over years they know you and you know them. You’ve given them names as you’ve culled and refined the herd to the mothers who have easy births and drop good calves, and who even on a distant hill, as much a part of the landscape as the nopalero or ebanos, you can pick them out individually. There is a way that the sight of a newborn calf on wobbly legs inspires joy and the hope that you could wait out yet another drought.
We didn’t bail in 2001, though it seemed more than once a prudent route. I never could find the courage to suggest to my father or my mother that we stop running cattle, though I had talked plenty of the contingency plan to diversify by developing high-dollar deer hunts, wildlife resources, and eco-tourism. The eco-tourism conversation with my parents didn’t go too far, probably as far as it might have gone with my querida abuela. People with binoculars want to pay us to look at birds in the brush. Though my parents understood the concept, they took exception to “opening the gate to strangers.”
My son has great ideas for developing the eco-tourism aspect of ranching and he’ll probably turn the white tail hunting enterprise into something viable. He will likely explore the market for organically raised range-fed beef, since we long ago halted the use of chemical applications on the ranch.
Though ranching has changed over a century, much of the work of ranching has remained the same. Water is still the number one priority, along with good fences. PVC pipe and steel T-posts have improved both of those propositions. Our propane chamuscadoras might be a little more high-tech than the ones my uncles used, but we still sear the thorns off prickly pear for the cattle in winter.
My Uncle Filiberto told me a few years ago that as a boy he made the trip from San Ygnacio to the ranch by ox-pulled cart. Electricity came to the ranch lands in 1948; telephone service in 1991. We’re waiting for potable water. Though we’re getting wi-fi Internet this year, we still pray for rain.
María Eugenia (Meg) Guerra is a rancher in San Ygnacio, Texas, and the publisher of LareDOS, A Journal of the Borderlands.