Four Seasons, Six Generations
By David K. Langford, Lorie Woodward Cantu
Texas A&M University Press Copyright © 2013 David K. Langford and Lorie Woodward Cantu
All rights reserved.
Whether or not a ranch remains profitable and in production hinges on a million ever-changing factors, ranging from livestock genetics and international markets to local weather and the national economy. Decisions made in Austin and Washington play out in the pasture, and ranch families must manage it all if they are going to continue living the life they love. —David K. Langford
The orange-red of a robin's breast is a harbinger of spring in many parts of the nation; however, in the Hill Country, a blur of iridescence marks spring's arrival as migratory birds return to their breeding and nesting grounds. First, a few purple martins and black-chinned hummingbirds arrive to scout out the prospects. They are soon followed by painted buntings, with the males' rainbow-hued feathers not only attracting females, but birders too. Soon many other migratory songbirds fill the skies, trees, and brush with activity. Migrants and residents don their breeding plumage, begin calling, and busy themselves building nests. As they flit among the foliage, the sun catches flashes of colors that sparkle in a landscape just beginning to awaken.
Whether or not the land transforms into a highly anticipated sea of color in the spring depends on autumn rains. Unlike garden-variety annuals, bluebonnets and other wildflower seeds germinate in the fall, and adequate moisture is necessary to jump-start the process.
Adequate winter rains also help the seedlings push through their tough seed coats and develop significant root systems during the cool, damp weather of winter. When the weather warms up, the plants grow and mature quickly if the rains continue to fall, allowing for the famous early spring bloom. Depending on temperature and rainfall, the wildflowers begin emerging in late March, led by bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and Engelmann daisies and followed closely by Indian blankets or firewheels, coreopsis, and black-eyed Susans. The world's largest flower show usually reaches its peak in April. If the rains fall at the wrong time or do not fall at all, Mother Nature cancels the wildflower show and points the spotlight to the more-subtle flowers that decorate native brush species. Naked limbs begin to clothe themselves. Texas redbuds burst into hot pink flowers. Pale and Mexican buckeye both show off blooms ranging from yellow to pink to red. As their leaves emerge, nonflowering brush species and trees add lime, chartreuse, and yellow-green to the landscape.
As the temperatures rise and the sun positions itself higher in the sky, shadows are shorter and the light begins casting a warmer glow. Just as the air warms up, so does the soil, encouraging early season grasses like Neally grama, Lindheimer's muhly, and tall dropseed to push their way through the seemingly lifeless remnants of last year's growth, creating a carpet rich in texture and color.
When the world is green, babies are born. For herbivores like cattle, sheep, and goats, fresh green growth provides the ultimate feed, just what mothers need to produce the rich milk that sustains their young. Careful husbandry helps ensure that the young livestock are born in the early spring when the plants are lush and nutrient-rich.
Precision timing is especially crucial for the newborn kids and lambs. Recognizing that golden eagles, migratory birds of prey, pose a threat to the young kids and lambs, the Gileses have timed their lambing and kidding season to begin after the birds leave the region.
"We pay attention to what is going on around us and try to work with nature's rhythms instead of against them," Grant said. Through careful observation, the family determined that the eagles leave their wintering grounds around March 10. If the kids and lambs arrive before then, the eagles will not leave. The birds recognize easy prey and will remain another month to feast on the young stock. To give the golden eagles adequate time to depart, the family times kidding for April 1.
The additional time not only provides a buffer against potential predation by the eagles, but gives the nannies and ewes, that are in the last stages of gestation, a chance to put on weight during the spring green-up, which begins in earnest in mid-March. Females who are on a high nutritional plane with adequate flesh are better prepared to meet the physical demands of raising their young. If a pregnant female is not getting enough to eat, her body is stressed, and nature steps in to protect the mother by aborting the baby. Angora goats are particularly susceptible.
"If you try to kid in March, the fetuses are getting really big in February, which is our worst month for plant availability," Robin said. "If a nanny stresses—and those big fetuses will cause stress—she will just abort that kid. If we time the kids to arrive later when the nannies have more to eat, we reduce the number of abortions and increase our kid crop." The family also reduces stress on the goats by limiting the amount of hair each goat produces through selective breeding. Producing hair takes a lot of energy, which will be diverted from the basic nutritional needs of the mother and the developing kid, creating an increased chance of abortion.
"Everything we do is a balancing act," Robin said. "Our goal is to get to the highest percentage kid crop with the largest clip of fine hair possible without sacrificing the nannies' health and productivity."
Before the kids and lambs begin to hit the ground, the ewes and nannies are put in small birthing pastures near the Hillingdon headquarters, offering some protection from predators, making it easy for the Giles family to check on the newborns, and strengthening the bond between the nannies and kids. "In the first twenty-four hours, nannies pay close attention to their kids, but then they're ready to go sight-seeing," Robin said. "Goats have a big agenda, they have to go see and do everything. If they're in a big pasture, they can travel so far and so wide that they can have trouble finding their kids again. We keep the nannies from rambling until the kids are big enough to tag along and keep up with their mommas."
When it comes to mothering, the ewes' behavior is the polar opposite of the nannies. "Ewes have a one-track mind," Robin said. "The minute they give birth, they think of nothing else but their lambs. They aren't going anywhere without those little ones." While sheep have well-deserved reputations for being "dumb," the Giles family recognizes the animal's single-mindedness and takes that into consideration for its management.
"Ewes are better mothers than nannies because they're a little bit single-minded," Robin stated. "Their only agenda is raising a lamb, which from both animal husbandry and economic standpoints is really a good thing." Ewes, which very often have twins, often raise 150 percent of their body weight. By comparison, cows have one calf per year and raise about 50 percent of their body weight.
Because predators like golden eagles and coyotes do not pose a serious threat to the newborn calves, which hit the ground weighing about 65 pounds, calving is timed so that they are the first arrivals each spring, making their appearance in early March. While the majority of the calf crop is born in March, limited calving continues through April and May. Each calf crop is a fresh expression of genetics that can be traced back to the three original Angus cows Alfred Giles imported in the late 1800s. Successive generations of stockmen and women have selected traits that allow the cattle to survive in the environment and meet the demands of an ever-changing consumer market.
The goal for each cow is to produce one calf every twelve months. The average bovine gestation period is 285 days, twenty-five days longer than humans. To ensure that the calves arrive on schedule and when plant nutrition is at its peak, the bulls are allowed to run with the cows from May to March. The bulls are separated from the cows about March 1 and not put back until sometime in late May, to prevent the cows from breeding back too soon after calving.
Prior to the breeding season, the Giles family sorts the cows into groups that share similar characteristics, and then they are matched with bulls whose strengths overcome the cow's weaknesses and vice versa. For instance, if a group of cows are known to be fractious, they are paired with docile bulls, or if a group of cows are very muscular, they are bred to bulls that have higher levels of intramuscular fat to increase the offspring's tenderness. "We strive to produce the highest-quality beef as efficiently as possible using animals that are well-adapted to our natural environment," Grant explained.
Bulls breed approximately thirty cows each season, so their genetic impact multiplies exponentially and cannot be ignored. To remain as breeding stock on the Hillingdon, the bulls must produce calves that grow well, have good carcass quality, and sire daughters that are as good as the bull's mother. The family keeps the top young bulls as replacement stock and sells the remainder to other ranchers. The same holds true for the heifers. If young animals fail to meet the quality standards, they are culled.
Deciding which animals to keep, which animals to sell to other ranchers, and which animals to put into the meat animal marketing chain, is based on records. The record-keeping system is built around numbered ear tags assigned to each individual. The numbers identify the individual and can be used to trace its lineage through its parents, grandparents, and beyond. While knowing how an individual performs is important, the ultimate measure of a breeding animal's worth is whether or not it passes along desirable characteristics to its offspring; therefore, it is imperative that the family be able to correlate the performance of the offspring with its parents. Currently, the family uses a notebook and a pencil to collect information. With the addition of Misty, who is technologically savvy, to their family and their management team, the Gileses are planning to convert from paper records to computer records.
"Computerizing our records hasn't been a top priority because we haven't had the time or the knowledge base to make an efficient transition," Robin said. "Frankly, records don't do you any good if you don't use them, and, while my record-keeping system isn't high-tech, it has always worked for me. I can find the information I need when I need it—and that is more important than whether it's handwritten on paper or digitized on a screen."
The first piece of data that the family collects is a calf's approximate birth date. The birth date tells the family whether or not the cow is producing a calf each year, and it provides the baseline for growth measures on the calf. The goal is raising a calf that weighs about 500 pounds when it is weaned at seven months. In addition to weaning weights, the family collects disposition and body conformation scores. Heifers also are evaluated using their mother's production record because certain maternal characteristics such as fertility and mothering ability are highly heritable.
When bull calves reach their weaning age of seven months, they are enrolled in gain tests to measure how efficiently they convert grain-based feed to beef. "When we put stock in gain tests, whether they're bulls or rams, we don't change our breeding program to win the test," Robin said. "For us, it's not about bragging rights, but raising efficient animals that will survive in our environment." To that end, the Giles family picks up their bulls and rams at the conclusion of the gain test and puts them out on native pasture. Any animals that cannot withstand the drastic change from eating free-choice grain in a feed lot to hustling grass in the rugged terrain of the Hill Country either die or are sold through the auction market into the meat animal food chain, so their genes are not passed along. Survivability is tantamount.
While many breeding animals go to Hill Country ranchers who recognize value of the stock's adaptations to the local environment, customers come from as far away as Colorado and Wyoming to purchase the high-quality bulls and heifers. There is a waiting list for the bulls and the heifers as well as the rams, billies, nannies, and ewes. Any animals sold to individuals through private treaty meet the same stringent standards as those animals kept for breeding stock on the Hillingdon.
The Gileses not only deliver tested, genetically strong breeding stock, they also provide outstanding customer service that keeps their fellow ranchers coming back for more. The Gileses guarantee the animals' fertility and physical soundness at the time they leave the ranch.
Standing behind their products often requires them to go above and beyond. Once, a grizzled Hill Country old-timer showed up at the Hillingdon wanting to purchase a bull. Bulls were shown. Price negotiated. Deal done. Everything went smoothly until the old gentlemen pulled his trailer around to the pen. It was a homemade antique with rotting floorboards. If the bull was loaded into the trailer, it was unlikely he would make it to his new home unscathed. Creating an excuse so as not to embarrass the client, Robin volunteered to deliver the bull to the man's ranch.
"We try to do whatever it takes to ensure that people are pleased with the animals they buy from us," Grant said. "If they have a good experience, they will come back." It works. Approximately, 90 percent of the Hillingdon's business comes from repeat customers.
When people come to Hillingdon to purchase stock, it is an interactive experience. The family members question potential customers about their breeding program's objectives because the Gileses want to provide seed stock that will move the customer's herd toward that goal. "We don't want to sell them just any animal," Robin said. "We want to sell them animals that meet their needs and will move their breeding programs forward."
Undoubtedly, the Giles family is in the livestock business, but they are also in the people business. Wrangling people offers as many, if not more, challenges than wrangling cattle, sheep, and goats.
As the land was passed from generation to generation, each holding became smaller and more heirs became landowners. Today, Robin and his immediate family own approximately 1,600 acres. Almost forty other family members own and control the remaining acreage. The majority of the landowners lease their land to the Giles family. Some holdings are directed by individuals, while others are operated on behalf of family units. Every year, Robin negotiates a new lease with each landowner, whether it is an individual or the representative of a family unit. Being bound by family ties does not mean that they have identical goals for the land.
"The lease agreements change every year because the family's ideas change," Robin said. "We have to feel out what each person's agenda is and do our best to fit it." Carol added, "It's the damnedest juggling act ever."
Some family members are extremely knowledgeable about the land, while others simply enjoy owning the land and being part of a family with historic connections to the Hill Country and Texas. "Not everybody sees things the same way as we do," Grant admitted. "They don't all agree exactly with how we manage the land, but they love the land, too. They just love it differently than we do."
Even though each lease must be renewed annually, the Giles family approaches each negotiation with a long-term commitment. "We go into each lease agreement, whether it's here on Hillingdon or on places that lie outside our fence lines, with the idea that we're going to be there for a long time—and we treat the land that way," Robin said. "It's kind of like a marriage. If you go into a marriage with the idea that you're only going to try it for a year, then chances are it's not going to last much beyond that year. We have a responsibility to the land, whether we own it or not."
Of course, the Giles family is not the only one with responsibilities. Members of the extended family have to maintain ownership of the land, meaning that, in many cases, they have to generate income beyond the lease payments. To accomplish this, they, like agricultural producers, have to diversify. Some operate hunts. One family branch offers nature tourism experiences and hosts nature photography workshops. And, then there is the mountain biking.
In the late 1990s, a cousin, prompted by the results of a medical check-up, began exploring the sport of mountain biking as a way to improve his health and reduce his stress. He quickly advanced from a curious novice to an enthusiastic participant, and in the process, noticed that the number of challenging, accessible mountain bike trails near San Antonio was limited. The lack of mountain bike trails impacted the number of races that could be held. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Hillingdon Ranch by David K. Langford, Lorie Woodward Cantu. Copyright © 2013 David K. Langford and Lorie Woodward Cantu. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.