Tuesday, December 21, 2010


AUTHOR'S NOTE - All of the premises presented in this series of posts are solely based on personal experience as a livestock producer and strictly as a cattleman (I have a basic understanding of farm commodities markets, but no real experience with such, and cannot speak with much authority from the farm side of things; Though I would think there are going to be some similarities). The information represents my opinion and is based on personal experiences. Any factual information may or may not be referenced, but be aware, the majority of the content is personal conjecture. Dialogue and comment are welcome.

A cattle baron is a man who possesses great power or influence in the activity of herding/caring/selling of cattle. - Unknown

 The Civil War devastated economies in the South and in particular Texas. However, Texas had a distinctly singular and bountiful resource. Millions of longhorn cattle roamed wild across the state. Due to the ravages of the war and the steady stream of immigrants, beef was in heavy but short supply across the nation. To complicate matters further, Texas had plentiful supplies of beef but, no distribution system (railroads)...Kansas (three states and hundreds of miles away) had the rail heads to get the beef to market. 

In the late 1800's, some daring and intrepid cattlemen rounded up longhorns by the millions and herded them north across Texas, Oklahoma, and into Kansas. In doing so they gave rise to two, distinctly American, icons: the Cowboy and the Cattle Drive.

"Driving Cattle circa 1887
(John Grabill)
In less than two decades, following the Civil War, great herds of these longhorn cattle were rounded up and driven north to the rail heads in Kansas. These wild and unpredictable bovines were only worth about a dollar a head in Texas, but upon arrival to the shipping points in Abilene, Dodge City and Wichita, a single longhorn could fetch as much as forty dollars. More than six million longhorns made the three-month trek north. Often referred to as the greatest migration of livestock in the history of the world, cattle drives and the cowboy became living legend. 

Ranch Brands on Marker
 Doan's Crossing, Texas
Learn More
The moving of several thousand wild head of cattle, at one time, over five hundred miles of rugged prairies, encounters with murderous outlaws, and hostile indians brought fame and fortune to a select few. Men such as Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, John T. Lytle, the Blocker brothers, and a host of others took enormous financial as well as personal risk (Loving was killed in an Indian attack while leading a cattle drive) to reap the considerable rewards. 

Legendary ranches were born as well. 

The Y.O., XIT, JA, King Ranch, 6666, Waggoner, and Matador Land and Cattle were among the largest providers of cattle at that time (Side Note: With the exception of the Matador, all of the above named are still active cattle ranches today). These men were literally "Barons of the U.S. Cattle Market" and wielded considerable influence in the pricing of beef.

That was then...This is now.  

The open range became fenced pasture land. Cattle are now "driven" to market in eighteen wheelers via a modern highway system. Charles Goodnight, Oliver Loving, the XIT, and 6666 no longer influence the pricing of beef. In fact they are now merely characters and entities of a romantic and colorful past...just "history"as they say.

"Driving Cattle" - Modern Day
Today there are only four "cattle barons". Their decidedly unromantic names are Swift, Cargill, National Beef, and Tyson. These conglomerates are well financed, ruthless buyers of beef "on-the-hoof". Together they control and process 69% of the beef produced in the United States. In doing so, these "Big Four" heavily influence the price of live cattle.

Many of the cattle drives were "staffed" by cowboys between the ages of 15 to 20. There was such a shortage of labor that many of the "cowboys" were actually...cowGIRLS. Many of whom cut their hair and made themselves appear as boys to get a job that was dirty, physically exhausting, and paid about a $1.00 per day. 

To learn more about the considerable influence and heroism of women in the American West visit the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.  Learn More Here

PART 3: A Living Wage From Commercial Cattle: What Goes Up...


  1. Smokey-- try not to burst our bubbles too much.
    The Ewings from the TV show Dallas persist in defining cattle barons in the public imagination.
    I'm still picturing big hats and big houses, string ties and hand-tooled boots.

    Great JFK quotation.

  2. Ugh!...Will the distorted perceptions created by that Melo-Dramatic, "over the top" TV show never go away...

    Tidbit: Larry Hagman (J.R.) is a native Texan and lives just west of Fort Worth (actually was born in Fort Worth). His passion for Texas history is unrivaled which makes his portrayal of a Texas Oilman even more outlandish. Also, his mother is Mary Martin...she played Peter Pan (yes, a boy) on Broadway and in the original TV version...