Through my work I have gotten to know and become friends with Sam & Vicki Shurtleff of Lampasas, Texas. I’ve been to their ranch many times, but this was the first time I had been able to take Francie. Fran had asked for a tour of the ranch and Sam was only too happy to oblige.
Sam has been with me on many, many of my photo trips to some of the places shown on this website. Vicki, Sam’s wife, has been along for a few of these trips also. One of my best photos is Moon & Mountain on the road to Hope, Alaska from the February 18th post of this year. Sam was driving the car for that one.
Fran and I arrived at their ranch about 2 in the afternoon and we all had a nice reunion. A mutual friend, Tex Hall, was visiting at the ranch also. Tex likes to tell people he is from Oklahoma. That could be, but I have a feeling he is thinking about moving to Texas.
Sam has an 800 acre spread where he raises cattle, a few horses, and some crops, wheat I think. That’s about 324 hectares for the few of you who prefer the metric system. Look at it another way, those acres equal about 1.25 square miles or about 3.25 square kilometers.
Over the years I have driven through most of western Texas. The one thing Texas has is lot and lots of land. Much of it is flat or nearly so. Texas has small urban size homes on small urban size lots. Austin & Dallas resemble California in this respect. There are spots in those places that could be the same. If dropped there it might take a while to figure out where you are.
If you get further out of the city the lot sizes grow, they can be from 1-10 acres. That’s a lot of room, but you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet! Once you get out into the rural parts of Texas the land becomes immense. Out there 1000 acre and 5000 acre spreads are not uncommon. The largest ranch in Texas (and probably the whole United States), the King Ranch, founded in 1853, tops out at about 825,000 acres. That’s about 1290 square miles or 3840 square kilometers.
If you want some acreage in Lampasas County the price per acre is not too bad, plus or minus $2000 or so. The problem is the lot sizes are often no smaller than 500-1000 acres. Buying one of those becomes a serious economic decision.
The availability of acreage changes personal and cultural outlooks in many ways. For instance, Sam tells me it is possible to get by on a small plot like his [Did you get that? 800 Acres is small!]. He also says someone with 5000 acres or more will be more industrialized, more efficient, and therefore more likely to be successful in good times or bad.
Making it can be a real problem. The last 5 years began with 3 years of below average rainfall followed by 2 years of severe drought. A drought means the grass doesn’t grow. If the grass doesn’t grow the cattle don’t eat. The land can only support so many cattle per acre and this number changes depending on the amount of rainfall. Also, the cattle must be rotated to a different field once the grass is eaten down. That means the owner needs a few pastures for grazing, not just one. As the cattle are moved the other fields begin to regenerate their grass.
During the few years I’ve known him, Sam has been able to support as many as 50 head at one time, these being cows, bulls, and calves. One of our mutual friends tells me he had as many as 80 head in the wet years. He dropped below 20 head when the drought was in full force. I know other Texans who sold their entire herd so the animals wouldn’t drop dead in front of them.
Last year the drought was so severe it forced a real change on the small cattle farmer. It almost wiped this sub culture off the face of central & west Texas.
Because many small farmers couldn’t feed their stock they were forced to sell it at the prevailing market rates. This was strangely perverse. The price for live cattle was about $1.35 a pound last year. The year before when there was a “below average” rain season the price was about a dollar a pound.
You might say “Great! “ they made 35% more in bad times. Yes, that’s true, but it didn’t buy any real time for the cattlemen who were forced to sell their entire stock.
This year it is still a drought, but there is a little more rain, more grass, and of course buying a replacement for that cow, calf or bull you sold last year costs more this year. That 35% narrowed the loss for the Cattleman who wants to keep his hat in the ring, but only if he didn’t spend the money. While sitting on the sidelines all a cattleman could do was watch the decimation of his industry and the waste of his long years of work all the while hoping he could get another chance to participate.
When this was explained to me I asked about commercial feedstuffs. These are actually too expensive to buy for regular feed, although they are affordable enough as a supplement to the grass diet. You could probably afford to buy them as regular or full time feed, but the transportation cost from out of state makes it prohibitive. In other words, the price of cattle at market won’t bring back the money you spent.
Sam and I have had many a long talk about the upside and the pit falls of ranching. It just amazes him that a ‘city boy’ like me is so interested in that way of life, but I’ve always found our talks and his knowledge about ranching to be fascinating. I still do.
After relaxing, visiting, and plain old yakking in the Ranch House living room Sam, Tex and I walked around the ranch house area. Of course I had my camera in hand.
Lampasas County & Burnet County where most of my friends and acquaintances live is west of the 30” rain line. East of the 30″ rain line there is more rain and the country is green or greener. In Texas west of the line it is dry or drier. As I said it is currently afflicted with drought. Drive the 630 miles from El Paso to Dallas and you will see how more rain makes the land more green. The same is true if you drive from El Paso to San Antonio.
Fortunately this last winter & spring had been wet enough to allow a lot of different plants to show their colors. The Blue Bonnets were gone, but it was still early enough to see some wildflowers in bloom. The area was colorful in patches and I got what I could.
These are Prickly Pear cactus blossoms. Some of the buds promise to be red or orange, but almost all of the open blossoms were yellow.
Way on the backside of the ranch house is this old shed. It hasn’t been in use for years and seems close to collapse.
Near the shed is this old Chevy pick up truck with a GMC grill. It is a ’62 model and will still start if it has a charged battery (some Texans say bat’ry). Fortunately it still has some photogenic lines left.
After our walk the five of us climbed in Sam’s 4WD truck for the tour. On another part of the ranch is this old windmill. It made a very good subject even as its blades were spinning.
I got kind of excited once I changed the second one to monochrome, but it did nothing for Francie. She is a very good artist, and I’ve learned if she isn’t impressed with one of my photos I’d better be careful. Right now it has 2 votes, 1 for and 1 against plus I made it the featured image. Let me know what you think.
Another photo of cactus blossoms.
There are a lot of plants and animals in this part of Central Texas. On my various visits I’ve seen buzzards, javelina, deer, and lots more. This trip we saw a lot of deer, but they were always too far away and too shy for a good photo.
The buzzards and javelina can be very destructive to a cattleman’s way of life. If a group of buzzards finds a new born calf they will peck its eyes out then feast on the rest of the animal.
The javelina often roam in groups or packs. They can cause lots of damage to crops, fences, and buildings. They are also very aggressive and have been known to attack humans. If you are on foot in this area it is best to carry a gun for self-defense, or be with someone who is carrying a gun.
One plant we did see was wild grape. The grapes can be harvested to make a jelly, but first they have to be sweet enough. Vicki said that was a little hard because sometimes they are just too sour to be any good.
For you photographic types I shot this at f/6.3, ISO 640, 75mm focal length on the 24-105mm f/4 lens, 1/1000th of a second. I wanted to get a little depth of field and to make the vine pop out from the background greenery. I think it worked just fine.
Sam & Vicki also have an old barn on part of the property. This was of endless fascination to me because of the textures, forms, diagonals, intersecting lines & shadows of the old wood. The old barn was a photographer’s heaven. Here are a few.
This black & white is a grain chute under the south facing overhang. The overhang is shown above at right. Francie liked this one.
This next one is a squeeze chute & it is shot by Francie. In the UK & New Zealand it is called a Cattle Crush. An animal is led into the chute. Once inside 5 or even 6 sides of the chute can be moved to pin the animal to make it totally immobile. The sides can be moved again to release the animal.
Once pinned an examination, medical procedures, or other attention can be given to the animal before it is released. The chute has the virtue of allowing the handler to work on the animal safely and keeps the animal from getting harmed.
This is an example of a more simple squeeze chute as all the controls are manually activated by a cowboy at the chute itself. More automated chutes exist where larger volume applications are found. Of course variants of these are also used in the meat industry.
Out on the road I was able to get this shot of a tree and some wildflowers inside the property. I’ve learned I’m pretty good with landscape photos, but not so good with wildflower shots. Hopefully, this and the others here are acceptable.
From the road there we moved to one of the Shurtleff’s more southern pastures to visit the cows.
They know when Sam’s truck comes along they will often get something tasty to supplement their grass diet so when we stopped we were surrounded by very large cows, bulls, & their calves looking for a handout.
Pebbles stood still long enough for a portrait. In a year or so Pebbles will weigh 600 pounds.
One of the calves stopped for a snack.
After our tour we all went back to the ranch house to barbeque some steaks. Sam & Vicki have some cats living on the back porch. A few of them are kittens. Here are some snapshots.
This was a particularly cute kitten & didn’t mind being handled.
I called this one The Orange Fuzz Ball. Sam & Vicki named it Orange Bomb. Orange Bomb has a wander lust. Sam tells me he or she has since disappeared.
Orange Bomb had shown up that same day. Sam found it inside the engine compartment of his truck curled against the washer fluid tank. We think it climbed inside in Waco and made the 80 mile trip back to the ranch when Sam had been out earlier that day. Orange Bomb got a little beat up by the trip as you can see.
I think the kitten was very close to a newborn & had not imprinted on a mother. Unlike the other kittens, where ever we walked it followed. If we stood still it stopped next to someone’s feet. Sometimes one of us would move and not expecting a kitten close by, would step on it.
Final photo of this post. This is one of the full grown cats Sam & Vicki keep to help keep the rodent population under control.
I have no promises on when the next post will be. I have a trip scheduled to Phoenix & the Navajo Indian Reservation at the end of June. If the trip doesn’t fall through then you’ll see some photos then.