Git Along, Lonesome Ranchers: Soaring Land Prices, Drought Has Kicked the Legs Out From Underneath Texas’ Most Iconic Business
I am standing in a cattle pen on the JA Ranch, near Amarillo, a place of almost mythical dimensions. The outfit’s 130,000 acres sprawl over one of the most dramatic landscapes in the American West: the colorful cliffs, canyons, draws, hoodoos, and bottomlands of Palo Duro, the nation’s second-largest canyon. The history of the ranch is just as impressive. Founded in 1877, the JA was an era-defining enterprise and one of the first big, successful cattle ranches in America. It was born as a partnership between Irish financier John Adair and legendary cowman Charles Goodnight, the first white settler in the Panhandle and one of the pioneers of both the cattle drive and barbpred-wire fencing. But the most remarkable thing about the JA is not its fascinating history, its size, or its physical beauty: it is that, more than a century since it began, the same family still owns it. John Adair’s great-granddaughter by marriage, Cornelia “Ninia” Ritchie, is the current owner, and she has an efficient, profitable operation. On the day of my visit, I’m treated to an example of this. In an upland pasture, amid a small storm of flying mud and manure and saliva, dozens of bellowing cows are waiting to be inserted into a hydraulic squeeze chute in order to be “palpated.” Palpation is an age-old technique to determine if a cow is pregnant. It works like this: a man, who is literally covered with cow manure from head to toe and wearing a lubricated transparent plastic glove, inserts his arm to shoulder depth into the cow’s rectum and feels for the presence of a fetus in the uterus. The process is fast and methodical. The palpater on this particular day is a friendly fellow named Laban Tubbs, who is also the director of the Ranch and Feedlot Operations Program at nearby Clarendon College. He knows what he is doing. I ask him how much money he charges to do this. “Three dollars a cow,” he says with a broad grin, then returns to his messy work. The cows in the pen this morning are almost all bred up, which makes everyone happy; a high rate of fertility is one of the most important components of a ranch’s success.