ERA, Texas —
Daniel Bowles is bucking a trend.
He’s a young rancher trying to grow a cattle operation while many producers are hanging up their spurs or Craigslisting their all-terrain vehicles.
It seems that many Texas mamas listened intently to Willie Nelson and didn’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys.
But in Era, an unincorporated community in Cooke County just south of Gainesville, Bowles is following a dream he’s had so long he can’t remember ever not having it. A self-assured, snuff-dipping 28-year-old, Bowles believes he’s the right kind of cattle producer at the right time.
“He may never own 10,000 acres but Bowles finds every opportunity he can to build his empire,” said Stan Bevers, an agricultural economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Vernon.
Bowles is not unique, but there just aren’t that many young producers like him replacing older retiring ranchers, Bevers said.
Texas cattle country is in crisis.
Prolonged drought, expensive feed and other factors reduced the state’s beef herd by 13 percent last year, leaving the nation’s biggest beef cattle state with the fewest breeding animals in more than half a century.
It’s been a two-decade slide, with the decline sharply accelerating last year, said Ron Gill, an extension service cattle expert. That’s when 660,000 head disappeared from Texas, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. They included carefully bred seed stock shipped as far north as Montana in search of literally greener pastures. Many more were sold to out-of-state producers or sent to slaughter, their owners no longer able to provide water or forage.
Spring rains have helped some pastures, but not all. And ranchers like Bowles, whose fields are full of fresh-baled hay, say seasonal grasses that should be appearing now may be failing.
As a result, some producers are no longer willing, or able, to restock. Some fields might take two years to recover.
About 15 percent of ranchers surveyed last summer by the Fort Worth-based Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association said they were closing their operations despite high prices paid by feedlots and packinghouses. Another estimate put the figure at 25 percent.
“Some of the smaller guys sold completely out,” said Rocky Vinson, an extension agent based in the West Texas town of Albany.
The lucky ones convert their acreage to leased hunting operations or, if their land is accessible to a city, sell to a housing developer.
Kevin Good, senior market analyst with Denver-based CattleFax, which collects and interprets industry data, believes that continued good cattle prices will eventually provide enough incentive to restock in Texas. Asked whether there could be a recovery in two years, he said, “Probably not.”
“Will it ever be as big as it once was, say, in five or 10 years? No, but not anywhere,” he added.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture put the average age of Texas ranchers and farmers at 59, while 6 percent were under 35. And many of the older cattlemen no longer want to weather the risky environment.
“It was so devastating that a lot indicated that they are not going to fight it again,” Gill said.
The latest census, state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said, “shows young farmers are becoming an endangered species. As today’s farmers and ranchers near retirement, we must find ways to support a younger generation that will be tasked with feeding a growing population.”
Meanwhile, the high cost of land, cattle and feed, compounded by tight credit, create a formidable barrier to younger would-be ranchers building their first herds — if they don’t have family land or hadn’t already left for urban careers like their siblings and classmates. The Texas Agriculture Department offers matching grants to young farmers and ranchers, which Staples said can help them get started or become more firmly established, but the grants are capped at $10,000,
“With the cow herd at such a critically low level, Texas will start to lose infrastructure if cow numbers do not increase soon,” said Gill, who organized a series of daylong seminars around the state to attract new people to the industry as a way to reverse the trend. He was hoping to encourage innovative partnerships between retiring ranchers or landowners and a young generation of producers starting out.
But the event planned for Graham was canceled for lack of interest and another in Abilene attracted people already in the industry, eager to hear how to safeguard their investment and livelihood.
Bevers said the extension service had hoped to attract young Texans starting out with similar ambitions to Bowles’.
A graduate of Texas Christian University’s ranch management program, Bowles in a few years has built a herd of 1,000 yearlings — mainly heifers, or young females, kept for six months, then sold — and a smaller cow-calf operation with 50 breeding cows of unknown bloodlines — “Heinz 57 kinds” — and a spotted Charolais bull. The French breed is known to produce good crosses. His calving rate is an enviable 90 percent, meaning 9 in 10 cows produce an offspring yearly. “If not, they’re out.”
He also works auction barns three days a week, both as an hourly ring hand and as an independent livestock buyer for other producers. His ability to spot less-than-fit cattle earned him the nickname “the ring doctor.” And he hires out to do a range of cattle chores for other producers.
The various revenue streams translated last year into a six-figure income, with about 40 percent coming from his own cattle, said Bowles, dressed one day last week in plaid shirt and black Stetson, with a pie-plate-size TCU ranch program belt buckle glowing off his Cinch jeans as he “doctored” six freshly bought calves with various medications.
“Hey little lady,” Bowles coaxed as a heifer squirmed with violent head twists when he aimed his oversize syringe, then fastened a bright green ear tag declaring her brucellosis protected. “Wish all of them were black. Black is beautiful.”
Bowles is not a scion of a Texas cattle baron dynasty. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked at the Peterbilt truck plant in Denton, taking needed parts to the assembly line. The family rarely had more than 30 cows.
But he learned cattle raising from his father and a local farmer, Jack House, for whom he worked as a teenager.
His operation is called Three Cattle Co. because, he explained, “I started with three.”
That refers to a trio of registered Hereford heifers he bought in Wolfe City with $1,000 he got by winning a Houston rodeo calf scramble. He remembers the day. “Feb. 16, 2001.”
“I had the ’want to’ and the ’will,’ but I didn’t have all the knowledge,” he said. He took ag courses for three years at North Central Texas College in Gainesville and hoped to attend the TCU program but didn’t have the money. A wealthy Dallasite, whose horses Bowles exercised and cared for, offered him a zero-interest loan of $10,000 toward tuition and expenses, to be repaid in five years.
“I paid him back in three years.”
The management course, he said, “reprogrammed my mind,” allowing him to delete outdated theories while adding record-keeping skills on spreadsheets, and tips that abetted his native market savvy.
Afterward, he lived in what he described as a shanty, which broiled in summer and froze in winter. A gap below the door was big enough to allow a snowdrift to form inside one day. He lived there five years.
While he was working at a cattle auction, two ex-dairy farmers recognized Bowles’ ability to judge livestock and asked him to buy 400 as a custom-order buyer. “I must have thrown enough gab at them,” he said with a laugh. It was his first custom-buying assignment. (Such work pays about $3 a head, and he can earn $200 or more a day.)
Bowles agreed — with one condition: They had to allow him to graze his own animals on their land. He bought 74 calves, weighing an average 522 pounds. He sold them at 750 pounds, at no cost to him for the weight gain — in return for minding the landowners’ herd for six months. The deal netted him nearly $16,000 on a $39,400 original investment for the cattle, aside from his buying commission.
“That was a big step for me,” he said.
Generally, Bowles uses his ring job to keep an eye out for good value. Often it can come from market mistiming by city folks who might keep cattle as ranchette ornaments. “I make a lot of money out of the weekend warriors.”
After shots and tagging, he keeps the calves a month, then places them with a cutting horse operation, which prefers heifers for training or competition. The operation pays Bowles nothing but takes good care of the cattle, which put on about 80 pounds apiece.
Afterward, he hands the calves over to cattle people with proven abilities and ample pasture. They receive 65 cents for every pound of weight gained. That way Bowles doesn’t have to invest in more land—he owns 40 acres and leases 850. And the people who take in the calves don’t have to invest savings or borrow money to acquire their own livestock, or gamble on market gyrations.
Among his mentors, Bowles cites Van Baize of Wellington State Bank, who saw early promise in the young rancher and occasionally second-guesses some of his cattle-buying strategies.
Not all work out.
“I got greedy,” Bowles said of a recent decision to hold onto a load of calves even though prices were historically very high. He thought they’d go even higher. They didn’t. In fact, prices dropped $15 a hundredweight.
Things are looking up. He weathered the drought thanks to his varied jobs in the cattle industry and an ability to stock a pasture conservatively. He moved into a new home with air conditioning. And he plans to marry a nursing student in June.
What’s more, Daniel Bowles is waiting to buy a good number of cattle at the right price—say, $1.60 a pound for an animal 300 pounds or more. Healthy ones are fetching $1.90 now.
“Right now,” he said, “I think we’re fixing to buy a whole lot of fat, bawling, sucking calves.”
ERA, Texas —
Daniel Bowles is bucking a trend.
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