Equus

THE END OF THE OPEN RANGE

Over the past two centuries, the cattle industry in America has undergone profound change. While farmers in Colonial times commonly kept a few steers to slaughter for meat and hides, as settlers crossed the Mississippi the raising of beef became a full-time occupation. Particularly in Texas, ranchers accumulated huge acreages stocked with thousands of head of cattle. Large numbers of tough yet tractable horses were needed for vaqueros and cowboys to ride---and it helped if those same horses had at least a lick of “cow sense.”

During the cattle-drive decades immediately after the Civil War, Texas ranches drove thousands of steers north to railheads in Abilene, Dodge City and Baxter Springs in Kansas. For about 30 years, this was a hugely profitable enterprise. Already by the mid-1880s, however, cattle-drive days were numbered as railroads began to cross Texas. As the network of tracks grew, much of what had been open range was fenced, making long drives impossible.

Then came something few people anticipated: the complete takeover of agriculture by gasoline- and diesel-fueled machinery. In the 50 years between 1920 and 1970, cattle-handling activities on most ranches, including gathering, sorting, penning, doctoring, dehorning, castrating and branding, stopped being carried out from horseback. Some mega-ranches quit breeding horses and cattle as the properties were sold to wealthy entrepreneurs who wanted private hunting preserves or even testing grounds for airplanes or spaceships.

Sometimes big ranches in Texas were owned by people who really weren’t ranchers. One such was Swante Magnus Swenson, who arrived in Austin, Texas, in 1850. There, he set up business as an overland merchant, but he was always a farmer at heart. Texas law at the time permitted anyone who held railroad certificates to file on unclaimed acreage, and Swenson bought railroad rights that by 1860 allowed him to gobble up over 128,000 acres around Austin in addition to his West Texas holdings, which came to an additional half-million acres. Such large claims could not be managed by Swenson and his two sons alone, so he arranged for the overseas passage of hundreds of other Swedish families in exchange for work. Though Swenson raised longhorns and his cowboys rode Cayuses and part-Thoroughbreds, his ranch never became known for maintaining a fine remuda. The same may be said for the huge XIT, which once controlled 3 million acres (4,687.5 square miles---more land than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined). The European corporation that owned the XIT, which once spanned 200 miles along the border between Texas and New Mexico in 10 Texas counties, bought it for the express purpose of developing the land into farms. Although they ran large herds of cattle, corporation managers considered this as merely a temporary way to keep their books in the black. The XIT liquidated its assets more than 100 years ago, selling off the land to ranchers, railroads and town developers.

The Y.O. Ranch in central Texas, which once had a half million acres, has shown itself to be by far the most environmentally conscious and sustainable of the old ranches that no longer make most of their living from cattle and horses. Founded in 1880 and run by the Schreiner family, the Y.O. was a traditional ranch that bred Quarter Horses and longhorn cattle until the 1950s. In 1960, however, to generate income, Charles Schreiner III and his family decided to shift into exotic animal breeding and make the ranch into a huge nature preserve.

The Y.O. lies smack in the middle of the main migrational route used by hundreds of species of North American birds, and the climate, terrain, vegetational cover and soil resemble the African savanna. A lodge was built, a professional wildlife manager was hired, university-level research began, and visitors who wanted to birdwatch, learn about prairie ecosystems or participate in supervised hunts were welcomed. When Charles Schreiner III died in 2001, the Los Angeles Times lauded him as “a bona-fide cowboy who had the business savvy of Bernard Baruch, the showmanship of P. T. Barnum, and the Texas pride of Sam Houston.”

Many Texas ranches have tried to continue in the traditional manner even though, by the 1970s, raising cattle became largely unprofitable.

Schreiner is credited

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