What Makes Texas, Texas? • Cattle Ranching

Cattle ranching has been a major Texas industry for nearly three centuries, and is a big part of our Texas legends.  But, to begin with, until 1493, North America had plenty of bison, but no cattle at all. The ancestors of modern-day Texas Longhorns arrived in the New World, courtesy of Christopher Columbus. 

They had large horns, often spanning six feet, but were quite lean compared to later generations. For the next 150 years or so, feral herds moved north and wandered across the frontier. They arrived in what would become Texas in the late 1600s, and eventually met sturdy, British-bred cattle moving west. By the 1800s, a new breed of stronger and disease-resistant Longhorn cattle roamed the Texas frontier by the millions. 

We are fortunate to have Jim Schwertner (pictured), owner of Capitol Land & Livestock, and the nation’s largest cattle trader in the United States, right here in Williamson County. To give you an idea of the scope of his operation, one out of every ten hamburgers in the nation comes from a cow that passed through his ranch. Jim and his sister Sherri are part of a generations-old family legacy, and he is one of those Texans who knows as much about cattle as there is to know. 

He tells us intentional ranching dates from the 1730s, when herds were loosely sent to or kept along the San Antonio River to feed missionaries, soldiers, and civilians in the area. A century later, colonists were streaming into Texas to farm, but soon realized the open land and lush pastures were enabling cattle to thrive with minimum care. Not surprisingly, many of those farmers became cattle ranchers. 

By mid-19th century, agriculture was the largest industry in the United States and folks in Texas were ideally suited for the job. “Being a rancher, you had to be hardy, independent, and a survivor; Texas people were like that. At the same time, the climate and grass just wasn’t right in other parts of the country. So, as the United States grew, beef was the protein of choice—you had to have cattle to eat.” 

He adds that even the U.S. government recognized the importance of the cattle industry and the need for agriculture education. Abraham Lincoln passed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, which allowed the use of federal money to purchase land for agriculture & mechanical schools, including Texas A&M. “We needed engineers to build the country, and agriculture to feed it.” 

Cattle Drives

The great Texas cattle drives began in the 1860s. Texas had most of the Longhorns, and the expertise to manage them, but the rest of the country wanted beef. Before the turn of the century, cattlemen and cowboys drove more than five million cattle from south Texas to Kansas, where the railroad could pick them up. 

One such legendary trail, the Chisholm, went through Georgetown for a time, until the railroad expanded in the 1870s, and brought faster transportation to the Austin area.  

It was about that time—despite what you see in the movies—without much law enforcement, ranchers developed their own Code, and the knowledge to raise cattle successfully, which has become so much a part of Texas culture. As people continued to move West, they took those skills with them, as well as the sense of loyalty that Texas had stirred in them. 

“There aren’t many industries that can say their culture came from Texas. Except maybe the Texas Rangers; they were founded in part to help ranchers. If you grew up here and you understand your roots, then you do what you say and your word is your bond. Today, we don’t string people up for not following the code but within a few days, everyone will know you’re not good for your word and you’ll never do business again.”

Modern Ranchers

At the turn of the century, Texas struck oil. Jim explains, “Much of the land where oil was found was ranch land. A lot of oilmen started out as cattle ranchers, which is why you see so many oilmen still wearing cowboy hats.” As the nation grew, so did the cattle industry. 

“Without much law enforcement,” Jim says, “ranchers took care of their own, and cattle rustling was one of the worst crimes of the time. Even today, all over Texas, once you’re outside Dallas, Houston, and Austin, it’s all about agriculture, and stealing cattle is stealing someone’s livelihood.” 

The Schwertners have been victims of cattle rustling within the past decade and it is no less serious today than it was in the ‘old west’. Jim has great esteem for Williamson County Law Enforcement and the Texas Rangers, specifically Lt. Matt Lindemann, for tracking down the guilty party and bringing him back to Texas personally. Jim adds, “While he may have been given a hug and probation down south, in Williamson County, he got about the same jail time as you might get for homicide.” 

The Future

Today, energy is #1 in Texas; agriculture is #2 and beef and cattle are the tops there. Jim adds, “Every county outside our metropolitan areas is still all about agriculture. Two percent of the population is feeding the rest of us and we have the safest food on the planet. I am very proud of our USDA food inspection for beef and other meat products. It is one thing our government does very well. This nation’s beef is fresh, wholesome, and safe.” 

As far as the future of cattle, ranching and beef, Jim says, “I tell my children, ‘Don’t get nervous until you go into a McDonald’s or a steak house and they are empty.’ As long as people are eating beef, we, and the cattle business will survive. We are feeding America. Anyone who tells you that beef is not sustainable, or that it’s not ‘natural,’ I remind those people that no rancher would let his children or grandchildren eat anything that wasn’t good for them. If you don’t believe me, have a read of Will Coggin in USAToday, and don’t ever let anyone ‘steak-shame’ you!”