Times have changed, but ranch life has not

Rye Druzin By Rye Druzin

May 1, 2016 at midnight
Updated May 2, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.

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With a mixture of "yips" and "heys," Steve Kolle and his son, Will, shuttled their cattle down a run and into the trailer.

A mixture of low moos and the rumble of hooves filled the air along with dust and the scent of manure.

Steve Kolle quipped that the most important thing about moving cattle is "you've got to be at least as smart as the cow."

"You know what the psychology of cow working is? When there's a gate like that, say, 'Oh my god, don't go through that gate,'" he joked as the cattle scurried into the run toward the trailer.

For nearly 150 years, the Kolle family has ranched in the Victoria area. While society and technology has changed, the ranch life has remained full of long days and hard work.

Victoria County was estimated to have 52,000 head of cattle, including 33,000 beef cattle, in January 2015, according to figures from the Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Services Southern Plains Regional Field Office.

Kolle, 65, would not divulge how many of those cattle were his - saying "that's like me asking you how much money you have in the bank" - but said during the recently broken drought, he had reduced his herd by 30 percent.

"The thing about ranching is you never do the same year twice because the economics are different every year," he said. "The quickest way to go broke is to do the same thing all the time. It's like I always tell people: My theory of success is I do what everybody else ain't doing."

The drought that rippled across Texas between 2010 and 2013 appears to have cut cattle and calf numbers in Victoria from 59,000 in 2007 to 48,700 in 2012, according to the USDA 2012 Census.

Trey Ruschhaupt, 68, Kolle's cousin and a fellow rancher who runs cattle off North U.S. 77, said his herd is now around 1,600 head of cattle and is recovering from the drought.

"People were wringing their hands saying, 'What're we gonna do? What're we gonna do?' You know, it's out of your control," he said. "Worry about something you can do something about, not something that's out of your hands. You just adjust and adapt, and if you gotta get rid of cows, you get rid of cows. If you've got to buy feed, you buy feed."

The most recent cattle figures signal a slight rebound in the local industry, possibly because of improved rainfalls in the area over the last few years.

Will Kolle, 34, said he believes the drought became a proving ground for cattle operations.

"I think the drought galvanized operations or it put them under," he said. "You either survived it and you were stronger because of it, which is the way we came through, or you sold out and you're out of it. Iron sharpens iron, that saying goes."

While nature is unpredictable, the changing economic landscape for ranchers is another challenge to keep up with. Ruschhaupt runs his cattle on 14,000 acres, of which he owns 3,500.

He pointed to developments around Victoria of ranchland during the last few years, including the 200-acre site by Pioneer Natural Resources south of some of the land he grazes, as examples of how urban growth and the oil boom have encroached on ranchland. The Pioneer site was recently closed.

"Who is (the ranchland) important to? Is it important to the guy who just bought an acre and built a house on it? No, it's not important to him," Ruschhaupt said. "Is it important to someone that's worked it their whole life and their parents and great-grandparents worked the land? Yeah, if they're that type of person, it's important to them."

But while land pressures have made the future uncertain for leased land that Ruschhaupt and the Kolles graze cattle on, technological advances have allowed them to do more with less.

In the course of three hours, Ruschhaupt was able to feed between 300 and 400 head of cattle with eight round bales of hay - a job that in the past would have taken at least two people throwing 200 hay bales off the back of a truck.

Now, with the flip of a switch, Ruschhaupt lowers specialized arms off the back of his Ford extended cab dually - what he called his office - loading two of the 500 pound round bales on the flat bed to take out to the grazing grounds.

None of this would be possible if he had fewer head of cattle. He would not be able to afford the equipment.

"You have to have the economy of scale," he said. "For example, if I had 20 cows, I couldn't afford a truck like this. But because I've got a lot more than that, then I can afford. four of them running today feeding cows."

But while economics of scale allows ranchers to afford better technology and equipment, some days it all comes down to a rancher, his horse and a knowledge nurtured by years of experience.

"Even though this ain't rocket science, unless somebody shows you, you'll be doing it the wrong way your whole life. Loading cattle, how to cut them - that's not in any book, anywhere," the senior Kolle said.

That's what his son is now doing. Will Kolle spent seven years in Houston as a personnel manager, saying he saw the move as a test of his own ability to make his own way.

When he learned that he had a child on the way, he said he had no idea how he would raise them in the city and decided he had proved his mettle and moved back home with his wife. But the switch came with its own nervousness.

"It was scary," he said, laughing. "It was a leap of faith because I like to have a plan, and there was no plan. It was just kinda 'do it.'"

Steve Kolle said when he looks at those around him who are not involved in working the land, he feels sorry for them because they lack the heritage and the common struggle to maintain and profit from the land.

"(Our ancestors) did whatever they had to do," he said. "In other words, now people would say, 'I'm not going to do that.' That wasn't in their vocabulary."

That attitude is something Will Kolle holds onto. He said he looks to his father and his forefathers as examples of why they continue rather than selling the land.

"Why or how I'm in this position, I'm here, and I feel it's my responsibility not only as my family heritage as a rancher but just as a human being to take care of what we have," he said.

His father replied matter-of-factly, "I think you don't wanna be the one that drops the ball."

Soon after that, one of the tires on the trailer, which was loaded with more than a dozen head of cattle, blew out. The men looked in the rearview mirror and pulled over, checking to make sure the axle did not drag.

When they returned to the ranch, they unloaded the cattle and put the trailer up on blocks. The son quickly changed the shredded tire while his dad stood by.

As the trailer dropped off the block, the younger Kolle turned and gestured toward the rubber remnants.

"There's so much I could worry about with regulations coming, global markets," he said. "But I've gotta worry about stuff like that. I've gotta fix that tire."


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