Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What is the future of the Texas cowboy?

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...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. Everyone agreed, especially here in Texas.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. 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 6ft, 200lbs, 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.

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