Texas Heritage, Fall 1984

RANCHING
HERITAGE

Grass is at the heart of it; oh, sure, cows will eat a lot of
other things. They'll even fill their mouths and stomachs
full of prickly pear spines to get at the succulent cactus
pads. But without the great virgin stands of grass that
once covered the state there would be no cattle ranching
in Texas, and grass is the root of its survival. Our vision
of Texas before the cattle came is obscured by the
changes they have made on the land. Before their unbridled
expansion over the southern and eastern parts of
the state, the native grasses formed a protective mantle
over vast areas. It was ripe ground for the Spanish cattle,
which were introduced in the 16th century. Their numbers
and range expanded rapidly. No one knows exactly
when or where they were introduced. Perhaps they
escaped from Spanish missions, or perhaps the native
Indians, who had never been herdsmen, let them find
their own niche as the great herds of bison had on the
plains to the north.
It was open country, with little competition for the large
grass-lovers, and few predators were hardy enough to
take on a wild bull, or even to take a calf from its
furiously protective cow. Their numbers grew, and as
they did, the landscape changed. River bottoms heavy
with wild cane were favored feeding grounds, and now
only a few scattered strands of the native phragmites
survive, their tender shoots easy forage for the cattle.
On the coastal plain, where some of the largest native
prairies persist, the cattle had free and open range, but
their feeding pressure, and later farming and ranching,
have reduced the stands of virgin grassland. And in the
south and west, where the urgent factor is water, the
pressure from grazing has been greatest and the changes
most pronounced. Blue grama and sideoats grama, like
bluestem and buffalograss, are still the dominant
grasses, but their present cover is a sparse reminder of
our land before cattle. Take a drive now through the hill
country, or south to the Guadalupe, or west through the
valleys of the Frio and the Medina, or into the Davis
mountains. There are more mesquites and juniper and
prickly pear, depending on where you look, than
grassland, and the grasses that persist are more likely
those less favored by foraging cattle. Johnsongrass, the
miracle ground cover first sown in the last century, has
filled in the holes of the native pasture, and fast-growing
exotics from Asia and the near East, like King Ranch
Bluestem, have been introduced to engineer a recovery
of the overgrazed landscape.
Of course, it's not just the cattle that have altered the
grasslands. Even the wild cattle, millions of which were

by: John Peterson

Courtesy of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Austin, Texas

harvested from their range and driven east and west, and
finally, north, to the rail heads of Ellsworth and Salina
and Abilene, could not solely have effected so much
change. Pressures from human immigrants to the grasslands
played a large role. Fencing disrupted the dispersal
of cattle in dry times, and the restriction of prairie fire
contributed to the cycle of impoverishment. The Texas
Legislature audaciously outlawed fire in the 1870s in the
hill country, because it was a hazard to ranchsteads and
communities. Fire is an instrument of conservation in
the environment. For thousands of years it had blackened
the ground, promoting faster growth of grasses and
destroying woody plants that shade out the sun and rob
water. Without fire, the land changes, and the grass
cover dwindles; without ample water, the ground is
further impoverished. Add to this the cloven imprint
of cattle to the land, and you've got the kind of marginal
conditions that ranching clings to in vast areas of
the state.

In good years the picture is not bleak. It is, in fact, excellent
country for running cattle. And there is ground
where, if it won't grow cows, it'll grow sheep; it it won't
grow sheep, it'll grow goats. Ranching is more than just
cattle. Texas ranks as one of the largest producers in the
world of mohair from angora goats, and despite the
range wars of the last century, sheep are now the favored
grazer in a large part of the state. But common to all
ranching is grass, and the successful rancher is a manager
of grass. It's essential to know the swings of the
marketplace, and to keep up on breeding practices, veterinary
skills, and feeding supplements, but without
grass there is no ranching and the good rancher takes that
to heart. Sometimes a fence row defines the difference.
On one side, even in a dry year the ground cover is even
and alive, and the cattle amazingly sleek with a vitality
lacking in well fed stockyard cows. The neighbor's
ground is bare, stony, hard, and yields mostly cactus and
mesquite and the effects of too many cattle.

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Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Fall 1984. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45447/. Accessed November 23, 2014.