Under the stone archway entrance to Renderbrook Spade Ranch, south of Colorado City, Texas

Under the Spade Brand

  • Sumo

By Jesse Mullins, editor and publisher, Something Solid

Entrance to Renderbrook Spade Ranch

At the entrance to the Renderbrook Spade Ranch. PHOTO BY SKEETER HAGLER.

[Editor’s Note: As my May cover story on the Spade Ranch for Texas Co-op Power Magazine hits their readers (1.2 million strong), I am posting some Spade Ranch coverage of my own. Further below I will share a link to take you to the TCP article. What you’ll find here, meanwhile, is material that won’t be found there. I’ve obtained some fresh material and am supplying some fascinating background on this historic Texas spread, famous as “The Ranch That Barbed Wire Built.”]


When you handle more than 3,000 cattle that are spread out over 190 square miles, things can get a little bit like the Wild West.

But that is life on the Renderbrook Spade Ranch, a 190-square-mile (122,000-acre) outfit south of Colorado City, Texas. It acquired its nickname of “The Ranch That Barbed Wire Built” because its founder, I.L. Ellwood, was one of the original patent holders for barbed wire. He acquired the spread in 1889, and it became one of the first of the great West Texas ranches to be fenced.

My partner on this story was Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Skeeter Hagler. He shot all of the images published and e-published by Texas Co-op Power, and the two images of me displayed here. To order photos from his Spade Ranch shoot or any of his outstanding works, visit his site at www.skeeterhagler.net.

Here, they still do things as they were done in the old days. Asked if cattle raised on an outfit like this can be wilder than cattle raised in closer proximity to human beings, Renderbrook ranch manager Steve White smiled and said yes.

On this particular day, at his early hour, he and his crew are headed out to work some calves that are six months old and somewhat older. “These are fresh-weaned calves,” he said. “You gotta handle them easy. They are looking for stuff to tear up.”

“They are not used to seeing anybody afoot,” he added. In hearing his words, one is reminded of the tales handed down by 19th century trail drovers. Here’s how one author put it: “Especially must no man dismount in front of the herd, for this phenomenon would have been regarded by the cattle as so contrary to nature that they would have been filled with an insane urge to vamoose toward the far horizon.” That’s from Paul Iselin Wellman’s 1939 book entitled (this is no joke) The Trampling Herd: The Story of the Cattle Range in America.

White and his team—Renderbrook cowboys Marty Daniel, Kaleb Jackson, and Wichita Falcon—saddle up beside their horse trailer, out of sight of the weaner calves. The herd is contained in a trap pasture next to the working pens. Though the calves are out of sight, they are not out of earshot. They are a noisy bunch.

Under the stone archway entrance to Renderbrook Spade Ranch, south of Colorado City, Texas

Beyond this stone archway one must still drive for four miles before reaching ranch headquarters. To go all the way across the ranch, on its caliche roads, takes an hour! PHOTO BY SKEETER HAGLER.

The weaner calves—there are well over 100 of them—have bunched up at the near fence, drawn by curiosity and maybe appetite.

Soon White and the other riders, already mounted, are inside the pasture, headed for its far corner, to bring up stragglers. The calf herd at the near fence-line parts for them. Some stand and watch. Hardly a stir.

But when two magazine-assignment types, seeking a closer look, arrive on the scene on foot and emerge from the brush (and into view), the calves roll back and away in a bawling, trampling sprint to the far side of the trap. Oops.

All of which only makes more work for the riders, who need another half-hour, now, to get the bodies back together and settled and pushed into the working pens, where they will be channeled down a chute to be vaccinated, dehorned (as necessary), tagged, and treated for control of disease and parasites. And turned out. And it’s all finished before lots of folks have even had breakfast.

The Best Little Ranch Horse Herd in Texas

In the midst of a drive across the ranch, Spades Ranches CEO John Welch spots something off to his right—200 yards away, just inside a fringe of trees. It is the ranch’s brood mare herd. At the request of his passengers, he stops the truck so all can look.

The mares, seeing the truck at a halt, test the air and, satisfied, amble truck-ward, heads bobbing, tails swishing. Welch shakes a feed bag to add to the draw.

For the passengers, it’s the next thing to seeing a wild horse band. These mares go for weeks at a time, even much longer, out of sight of humans. This ranch is that big—spacious enough for herds to disappear in.

Sleek and supple-limbed, they snuffle the ground as they collect beside the trailer. No foals are to be seen, the mares’ offspring having been weaned already, and the next generation still forming inside their wombs.

The mares seem perfectly tame. But are they?

“Well, we ride the mares just enough… we get them broke… just enough to see if they’re gonna be good,” Welch said. “But as far as training them [for cow work], no.”

Welch said that after their bare-bones training early in life, they are turned out on the range and this is where they live out their lives, delivering and mothering foals.

Could these mares be ridden, then?

Welch smiled. “They’re not real… user friendly.” In other words, “They would kick the slobbers out of ya,” he said, perhaps only half-jokingly.

These mares, and the two ranch stallions (one of them a son of the renowned Peptoboonsmal), plus the “using” horses that get ridden regularly, comprise the Renderbrook portion of the Spade Ranches “remuda,” or horse herd. That equine contingent won the prestigious American Quarter Horse Association / Pfiser Animal Health “Remuda of the Year” Award for 2011.

The Forage-vs.-Foliage issue

Twenty-two years ago, on the centennial of Renderbrook Spade, author Steve Kelton (son of novelist Elmer Kelton) penned Renderbrook: A Century under the Spade Brand. The photos in Kelton’s fine book are few, but in every historical photo of the ranch that is 50 years old or older, the range that is visible is sweeping grasslands. Today, no vista is free of the mesquite and cedar, and in most the scrub is all but dominant.

Later, at the headquarters, Welch would elaborate. “The fact is, it is just not economically feasible to control the brush. If your cattle operation is a stand-alone operation, it doesn’t generate enough income to be able to keep the brush cleared or even keep it controlled. So that worries me, because the brush control has got to come from outside sources of income, or you just get further and further behind. And I don’t see that as real sustainable, to have to be putting more and more outside income into it.”

Welch said the climate has changed, and the flora has changed with it. On a horseback amble through some of the Renderbrook range, he remarked that the climate has changed, and the flora has changed with it. He said that there are vegetative species growing on the ranch that until now had not been seen outside of the Chihuahuan Desert.

But there is hope, too. He points to a clump of prickly pear that is yellow and rotten-looking. “There is a fungus that is doing that,” he said. He suggests that maybe there will arise other environmental factors that will hinder the undesirable ones.

One consequence of the increased brushiness is the fact that Renderbrook requires more “old-time” (traditional/horseback) cowboying skills than most ranches require. But that attracts a breed of cowboy who derives satisfaction from long hours in the saddle.

White said he and his crew try to “keep those pickups parked.” By that, he means that they saddle a horse as often as they can. “Every time you crank that pickup up, it costs you money. And maintenance and tires, on these old rocky roads,” he said. “You run through tires. The guys who work here, they like to do stuff the old-timey way. Me included.

“We still gather the cattle the way it was done a hundred years ago,” he said. “Still brand our calves with a rope. And we prowl through them, check fence, and do all that stuff horseback, instead of cranking up a pickup, motorcycle, or four-wheeler.”

Welch concurred. “What we have found—what generation after generation [here] has found—is really that some of the traditional methods are still the most efficient,” Welch said. “This country is too rough and too brushy to gather any other way but horseback. It just works better. It is faster. So it is really about the only way to do it.

And that has been good for recruitment—and retention.

“We have a lot of cowboys who have been here lots of years,” Welch said. He smiled and added: “As a matter of fact, somebody once asked Dub Waldrip, my predecessor here, if it is hard to hire good help at the Spades. He said, ‘No, it is hard to get rid of them.’”

Steve White, manager of Renderbrook, has been with the company 24 years. Others have put in decades of service, for this and other Spade operations. Cowhand Wichita Falcon is himself the son of a long-time Spade Ranch cowboy, Andy Falcon.

Keeping the Wheels of Industry Turning

Any piece of ground as big as Renderbrook Ranch has to keep turning a profit to satisfy its owners and the tax man. So how does Renderbrook stay in the black?

Three sources of income comprise most of its revenue. First there is the cattle business itself. Next come hunting leases. A third is horse sales—the ranch conducts its own breeding program for ranch horses—in their case, American Quarter Horses with proven, reliable bloodlines.

A fourth possibility for some ranches is oil and gas production. And here at Renderbrook there is some energy production, but that income stream flows straight to the ranch’s owners—not to the bottom line of the cattle operation itself.

Renderbrook does derive benefits from oil and gas revenues, but these come indirectly. All Spades Ranches mineral royalties go into a pool, and the pool is held jointly by the six heirs who control the company. Each is a great-great-grandchild of the founder, I.L. Ellwood.

When the six individuals (the board of directors) elect to infuse the operation with direct injections of their energy earnings, it is then that the “above-ground” operations (ranching/hunting) “benefit” from oil and gas. But this financial help is strictly volunteer, and when it is applied, the funds typically go toward brush control—not to cover shortfalls in the ranching end of things.

To maintain an operation that is consistent with market realities elsewhere, the ranching interest at Renderbrook Spade pays lease payments to the ranch’s owners. The owners have been reinvesting these funds into brush control also. But by making lease payments, the ranching operation keeps itself on the same footing as any outfit that is obliged to support a lease or maintain a mortgage.

Thus, the above-ground operation prides itself on being self-sustaining.

And in that regard, hunting revenues play a bigger role than ever before.

“Hunting got to be worth so much money that the ranch had to utilize that [income],” White said. “Basically for four months out of the year—November through February. Deer and quail. It’s pretty important to our bottom line.

“You have to do everything you can do to make a dollar,” White continued. “You count costs. You can’t control what the cow market is going to do. You can’t control the rainfall. There is a lot of stuff that is out of our hands. So you gotta control what you can. And manage what you can. Like the fertility of your cows. And weaning weights. And marketing your cattle—trying to get the best possible price and the most money for them. After that, the main thing we can do something about is cutting costs. And that is why we do things the old-timey way around here. By that, I mean using a horse as much as we can.”

Putting miles on a horse helps in another way. The horse herd itself is a source of revenue. Each cowhand is assigned a string of horses that are his responsibility. Some horses are sold off periodically, as new, “green” horses are added to strings. This system keeps good horseflesh in service constantly for the ranch, and adds value to each animal. Well-broke, well-trained cowhorses make money for the ranch.


With my Texas Co-op Power article going out to readers, I contacted John Welch for an update of conditions at Spade Ranches since that article was composed earlier this year.

Welch was in his truck driving to Colorado (from his Lubbock headquarters) when I reached him by phone.

“I’m going there to find some pastures to move some cows to,” he said.

The ongoing drought in West Texas has been taking its toll on Spade Ranches and all other cattle operations in that region.

Fortunately, Welch said, the Spade ranches had been spared, thus far, from the range fires that have consumed more than one million acres this spring.

“There was one fire in the ranges south of Renderbrook Spade that had seemed a potential threat,” he said. But that fire, which had started somewhere in the vicinity of San Angelo, had been stopped.

Meanwhile, though, there is the matter of the drought.

“Some of our ranches are running out of water,” Welch said. “Surface water, that is. In the [stock] tanks and such. [The ranch can still water the stock with well water, but restriction to well water sites means that parts of the range cannot be foraged.] And so we’re going to have to move cows off of them more for lack of water than lack of feed.

“On the positive side, I will say this, however. Prices [for cattle] are as good as they have ever been.”

With cattle prices remaining solid, those ranchers who do not have other options can sell off portions of their herds at market – a tactic that can help many survive the current harsh conditions.

For my cover story on the Renderbrook Spade, published by Texas Co-op Magazine, go here.

The Spade Ranches maintain a website at www.spaderanches.com.



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