It’s spring roundup time here on Texas’s Spade ranch, when calves are branded and castrated and given their shots. In a time of big ranch conglomerates using drones and helicopters to move herds from above, the Spade cowboys pride themselves on being an old breed. They still gather their cattle by horseback, and they rope and drag their calves with tight, practiced loops. Their branding irons are still heated over a mesquite fire dug out of the red sand.
And when it comes to their horses, each man can ride like a bandit.
But the past year had been particularly harsh. In March, wildfires spread by heavy winds ravaged over a million acres across five states. Here in the Texas panhandle, it wiped out ranches and farms and overtook four people, along with thousands of cattle.
Before taking office, Donald Trump also raised anxieties by threatening to terminate Nafta, which would jeopardize trade with two of America’s biggest beef importers, Mexico and Canada. Trump had already rankled cattlemen by cancelling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the industry’s lobbyist, said is costing American ranchers around $400,000 a day in lost revenue in Japan (Hillary Clinton had promised to do the same). The only encouragement came in mid-May, when Trump announced a preliminary trade deal with China that could allow increased export of American beef, although the details are murky.
But on this first night of the roundup, as the sun sank low over the Canadian river breaks, the cowboys discussed a more pressing topic as they finished their chuck wagon supper.
“I tell you, it’s hard finding a good hand these days,” said Josh Ownbey, as he tucked into peach cobbler scooped from a Dutch oven.
The oil and gas boom had lured away many a skilled cowboy and sent him threading drill pipe or pushing buttons on a frac truck. The money was fast and furious for small-town boys and vanished on Super Duty pickups, Easley trailers and diamond engagement rings. Many sold off their horse tack, convinced they’d never punch calves again. And when the boom busted two years ago, like booms always do, the men had returned to the ranches with borrowed kit and rusty mounts, heavily in debt and soft in the rear. Now they lived in town with their wives and demanded to go home after lunch.
Truth was, the demands of family and the modern world eventually weeded most men out of the life, since cowboy work was generally done on a freelance basis with little pay and no benefits.
Out of the eight cowhands assembled near the chuckwagon fire, only four have the pleasure of doing it full time. The Spade operate six divisions across the state, totaling nearly 300,000 acres, and the men live and work on its biggest ranch near Colorado City. The rest had found other jobs close to the trade and took day work to keep their skills sharp.
The person who’d hired them for the annual “spring works” is an old archetype, a cowboy they all admired. Jason Pelham is six foot, 200 pounds, and wears a standard bushy mustache. As foreman of the Panhandle Spade, his job is to oversee 22,000 acres of mostly rough terrain and care for the 600 cows who call it home.
At 52 years old, Pelham had been cowboying for most of his adult life. He’s divorced with three grown daughters and lives alone in a small cabin on the ranch, removed from civilization by 30 miles of bone white caliche road. His only companions most days are his horses and a tank full of live rattlesnakes that live on his porch, which he catches along the roads and pastures to show visitors from the city. Come winter, when temperatures plunge below zero, he shelters calves in his living room under a framed portrait of John Wayne clutching his pistols.
As a cowboy, Pelham is widely known around these parts. Last February, he and his trusty roan Ninety (named for the brand along his hindquarters) had astonished the neighbors by chasing down and roping one of the wild Barbary sheep that live along the steep canyon walls – an accomplishment akin to lassoing a hummingbird. Pelham had taken video on his phone as proof.
He’s also fearless in the rodeo arena, particularly at wild cow milking. For many years, he’s served as the Spade team’s “mugger”, manhandling the thrashing, 1,400lb animals while a teammate squeezed milk into a beer bottle then legged it for the finish line. And Pelham was probably the only cowboy anyone could think of who’d been struck by lightning – while on horseback – and lived to tell about it. “I watched the fireball leave me and roll down the county road,” he recalls.
The cowboys sleep in teepees around the cabin, while a few spread their canvas bedrolls along the porch, mindful of the rattlers. After a 5.30am breakfast, they gather outside in their spurs and shotgun chaps. Pelham sips a Henry’s Hard Soda, his morning aperitif, and lays out the day’s directive.
“We’ll hit the creek bottoms and hill tops and push ’em against the Caprock,” he tells them.
They drive to a high place near the north end of the pasture. Down below the valley yawned wild from recent rains, colored with Indian blanket, blackfoot daisy and green clusters of juniper and sage. The cowboys mount their horses and ride off in single file, becoming tiny specs against the country.
Pelham divides the men into two teams and points them south. Riding at a steady clip, one crew combs the chaparral and creek bottom, flushing mama cows and their calves, while the more experienced horsemen climb the ridge tops to scan for hideaways and strays. After about a mile, a dark mass emerges along the valley floor spewing a long cloud of dust, and riding behind it are the cowboys.
The bawling of the animals is so loud it echoes through the valley and the cowboys have to shout to be heard, screaming through their scarves that kept out the blowing dust. About 50 yards away, Pelham and the others pour diesel onto a pile of mesquite and set it ablaze, then nestle the Spade brands into the flames. They fill inoculation guns with Bovi-Shield Gold, a vaccine against respiratory disease, and another for blackleg.
Pelham motions for the branding to begin.
The first cowboy dips into the herd and throws his loop at the hind legs of a calf, then cinches it tight. He and his horse drag the calf through the soft buffalograss and deliver it to a pair of flankers, who hold it down while the others go to work.
In rapid succession, one man brands while another administers shots. Pelham used his knife to remove a chunk from their ears – right side for bulls and left side for heifers – ensuring that months later, when a cowboy faced them head on, he could identify and sort them into pens. On the bull calves, he lobbed off the scrotum to reveal the bright, egg-shaped testicles, which he pulls tightly between his bloody fingers and severs the cords. He then tosses the delicacies into a blue plastic bucket to distribute to friends.
“They remember eating them as kids and appreciate them,” he said, sharpening his blade on a long leather string.
After two hours, all the calves are branded and are back with their mothers in the shade of the canyon wall. The cowboys check their phones and call their wives and sip bottles of beer. Pelham takes a fresh plug of Levi-Garrett chewing tobacco, which he spikes with peppermint extract, and sorts through the pile of scrotums and ear tags to get a precise count on the morning’s brand. He scribbles the number onto his palm, then leaves the heap of flesh in the dirt.
Time for lunch.
Back at camp, the cook serves a meal of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and fat buttermilk biscuits. The cowboys eat heartily in the sun and relive highlights from the morning’s work.
One of the Spade hands, Marty Daniel, had displayed dazzling horsemanship, yet he lets the others brag on him while keeping his head toward his plate. After dessert, the cowboys step out of their boots and spurs, don their soft slippers and retire to their teepees to catch an afternoon nap.
Over the next two days, they brand another 500 calves and vaccinate 100 cows that thrash in the chute and spray them with excrement. Come fall, the steers will be sold to a feed yard in Dalhart or Colorado for $1,000 a head, if prices remain steady. From there, they’ll likely end up as T-bones and briskets in stores and restaurants across America and Canada.
Other parts will be shipped around the globe: shoulder clods and tripe to Mexico, short ribs and chuck roll to South Korea, livers to Egypt, tongues to Japan. Last year, Canada and Mexico imported nearly $2bn in American beef, or about 28% of total export value.
The White House, after receiving an earful for its threat to terminate Nafta, has since backpedaled in favor of perhaps renegotiating its terms. But even that makes Wesley Welch, the president and CEO of the Spade, nervous.
“If we’re not able to trade normally with Mexico and Canada, it means we’d have to make up those sales domestically,” Welch says as he helps work calves one morning. “That would drive down prices, which obviously would put a strain on ranchers.”
When asked what he thought about Trump and Nafta and how it might affect his livelihood, Pelham seems as dismissive as the cowboys seated around him. “What matters most down here is grass and water,” Pelham says. “And that’ll never change.”
He thinks a little more about it, then declares what the 2% of Americans who grow and raise our food already know in their bones: “When it comes down to it, nobody really cares about us anyway.”
Just that morning, the men had driven 200 head into a set of pens just yards from the Canadian river banks. The wildfires in March had stopped at the water’s edge – the property line of the ranch – and spared the Spade’s grass and cows. Everything on the other side had been ravaged, including 500 of the neighbor’s cattle. Family ranch homes, stables and barns had gone up like kindling.
In the hours and days that followed, it wasn’t Washington that had flocked in to help, but other farmers and ranchers from across the high plains, who donated bales of hay that continued to come in long convoys down the highway. They sent money, food and clothes, along with boxes of expensive handmade spurs and tack to replace those that had been burned.
Mother Nature and her fits of destruction had not changed in the centuries men had moved stock across the prairies. But neither had the people.
“We’re the ones out here doing this every day,” Pelham says. “All we’ve really got is each other.”
Standing near the pens, he points across the river to where the fire-blackened ground was no longer visible. In its place now was a new carpet of green grass, just waiting for the next herd.
Bryan Mealer is a journalist and author living in Austin. His fourth book, The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream, will be published in February 2018.