What It's Like To Be...

A Cattle Rancher

March 26, 2024 Dan Heath Season 1 Episode 15
What It's Like To Be...
A Cattle Rancher
Show Notes Transcript

Raising cattle in the high desert, hauling calves to auction, and protecting the herd from mountain lions with Chachi Hawkins, a cattle rancher in southwest Texas. How did she go from selling clothes to selling cattle? And does she ever get attached to particular calves?

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Dan Heath: People have sentimental ideas about life out West on a ranch.

Chachi Hawkins: There always is, you know, a man and a woman, and they fall in love, and they're on a ranch, and they make a cattle drive. And you know, it's just a romantic thing.

Dan Heath: That's Chachi Hawkins. She's a cattle rancher in Southwest Texas. And she says the reality is less romantic than that.

Chachi Hawkins: The bottom line is it's a lot of work, and you're tired. You know, you get up at daylight and you know, you go to bed, you know, when it's dark, and you work your off in the interim. And I think people really don't realize that that work, you know, when they're branding, and when they're riding their horse, and they're roping a calf, and all that stuff, that's hard.

Dan Heath: As a rancher, there are a lot of things that are simply out of your control, like the weather.

Chachi Hawkins: You know, you don't see the drought situations and, you know, the windmill busted, and you'd have to fix it. And pulling a windmill, and getting all of the pot out of the well so that you can fix it, that's hard. Ranching life is not easy, but it's great. It's really great.

Dan Heath: I am Dan Heath and this is "What It's Like to Be." In every episode we walk in the shoes of somebody from a different profession, a high school principal, a couple's therapist, a forensic accountant. We wanna know about the highs of their jobs, the lows, the stress points. Today, we ask Chachi Hawkins what it's like to be a cattle rancher. We'll talk about how she went from selling clothes to selling cattle, what it's like to carry on a family legacy, and whether she gets attached to any of her calves. Stay with us.

Chachi Hawkins grew up in the city of Odessa in West Texas. As a kid, she often visited the family ranch, south of Alpine, Texas, where three generations of her family had lived and worked, dating back to the early 1900s.

Chachi Hawkins: And so we always came here and always loved it. And when I was a kid, I always knew that ultimately I wanted to be at the ranch, but I knew that my income had to be secure, so I had to go work for a while before I could, you know, come here and operate the ranch.

Dan Heath: So she went to fashion merchandising school in Dallas and started working her way up the career ladder.

Chachi Hawkins: And you know, 35 years later I was, you know, a vice president at Sears. I lived in Chicago. I moved here from Chicago working for Sears.

Dan Heath: You were on that well-blazed fashion merchandising to cattle ranching career path.

Chachi Hawkins: Yes. But you know, I tried to arrange my vacation time around when we'd be working cattle.

Dan Heath: There's a lot of people who dream about leaving their corporate jobs to do the thing that they really want to do. And most of those people never do. But Chachi made the leap.

Chachi Hawkins: God loves Sears. They bring people in because they think you have a brain and they want you to run things the way you know how, and then they don't let you do it. So I was ready.

Dan Heath: Sounds like a lot of corporate America.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah. Well, and you can already tell I have a big mouth and I say what I think and which always isn't welcome.

Dan Heath: She lost her job in 2001, and not too long after moved back to Texas.

Chachi Hawkins: I packed up my stuff, sold my house. They had to pay me 'cause I had a contract, so they had to pay me for a while. And so I came, got settled and my nephew and I bought some cows and we started in the cattle business. That was in 2000, well, by the time I sold my house, 2002.

Dan Heath: Tell me about the rhythms of the year for a cattle rancher, because from the little bit I understand there, there's a real kind of seasonal flow to things, right?

Chachi Hawkins: Yes, we'll start in January. The March before January, you put your bulls out. Now, everybody's got a different calendar, but out here, this is a pretty typical thing. You put your bulls out in March, so that they calve from January to March roughly. So we start having babies in January. So that's what we're doing right now is having babies. And the bulls have been separate because you put 'em out in March, and then you pick 'em up in July. So they're only out 90 days. And there's some people who leave their bulls out year round, which means that you have calves all the time. We just think it's better and it's easier for us to have calves in the same three-month period. We work 'em all, and then they end up being very uniform. Cattle buyers like uniform calves.

Dan Heath: Uniform, just in terms of size or?

Chachi Hawkins: In terms of size, yes.

Dan Heath: Okay.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah. They're easier to grade, and to feed out, and to sell. Cattle buyers just like everything looking the same.

Dan Heath: And where do the bulls go when they're off season?

Chachi Hawkins: Oh, we put 'em in another pasture on our ranch, you know, but they're all with themselves, not with any cows.

Dan Heath: Okay.

Chachi Hawkins: So then the cows are out having their babies and taking care of their babies. And then theoretically, if all works right, the bulls don't see the cows again until the calves are off of them and sold. And so then the next March, the bulls and the cows get back together. And they're together April, May, June, July roughly.

Dan Heath: And then the babies come around the first of the year. And then how long do you keep the calves before you sell them?

Chachi Hawkins: We sell 'em usually the end of September, middle of October. So they're about eight months old.

Dan Heath: And why that age? Why not younger or older?

Chachi Hawkins: It's kind of what the market wants. You know, you get 'em up, you know, past being a baby, and that's when you sell 'em. That's when whoever buys them is wanting to put pounds on them, and feed 'em out to whatever weight they wanna. Then, either butcher 'em themselves or sell 'em to the next step. Different cattle operations have different steps of, you know, you get 'em to this point, and you sell 'em, then you feed 'em some more and get 'em to another point and sell 'em. Or you know, the next person you sell 'em to may actually butcher 'em and process 'em. It kind of depends on the kind of business people have. Sometimes we sell at a sale barn, sometimes we sell to a private buyer. It kind of is, you know, where you get the best deal.

Dan Heath: What's a sale barn?

Chachi Hawkins: It's an auction house.

Dan Heath: Okay.

Chachi Hawkins: You know, like they have an auction every Thursday or you know, whatever day of the week.

Dan Heath: And so what are the mechanics of an auction? Like do you have to sort of load up all your calves in a trailer and like cart them out there? Is that the way it works?

Chachi Hawkins: Oh yeah. You gotta haul 'em to the sale barn, and then once you drop 'em off at the sale barn, then it's their responsibility to get 'em sold. So they feed them, you know, everything, and you usually get 'em there the day before the sale, and then the sale is the next morning. And then whoever buys them, it's their responsibility to take 'em that day.

Dan Heath: What does a calf cost? I don't even know like what order of magnitude we're in.

Chachi Hawkins: Well, right now, and I'm gonna kind of make this up, but from last week's auction in San Angelo at a place called Producers, calves are sold by weight. And so, I always look at in Livestock Weekly, which is, you know, a livestock newspaper that comes out on Friday. It's a week behind the sales, but the Thursday auction at Producers from the week before will be in that Friday's newspaper. And you can see, you know, what things sold for. And a 600-pound calf, and I'm making this up 'cause I don't really remember from last week, but sold for like $2.30 a pound. Something like that. Cattle prices right now are real good.

Dan Heath: So $1,500 wouldn't be an uncommon price for a calf.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah.

Dan Heath: But you think about it more on like a per-pound basis, it sounds like.

Chachi Hawkins: Exactly, a per-pound basis.

Dan Heath: Yeah.

Chachi Hawkins: Yes.

Dan Heath: Okay.

Chachi Hawkins: And then they also, you know, they'll sell all the calves first and then, you know, they sell though whatever anybody brings them. And so if somebody's got some old cows, they'll, you know, sell those. The major part of what they do is sell calves, but sometimes people are clearing out their inventory, and will sell entire lot. But usually when that's the case, if they have a bunch of nice cows, they'll sell 'em to a private individual.

Dan Heath: Tell me a little bit about your ranch. Like paint us a picture of the kind of land that you have.

Chachi Hawkins: Okay. Out here, this area is called the high desert, so it's desert country, but I'd say the average height at our place is about 4,900 feet, which is pretty high.

Dan Heath: Wow.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, it's pretty high.

Dan Heath: Yeah.

Chachi Hawkins: And, you know, we've got pinyon trees and oak trees, and you know, all that kind of thing. It's not what is typically desert, but we also have plenty of cactus and plenty of all that desert stuff too. And so it's beautiful. We're in the mountains. We've got two of the largest, tallest mountains in Texas are on our land, and it's good country. But you know, of course we always need a rain. Anytime you talk to a rancher, they always need a rain.

Dan Heath: You know, just as an outsider, when I think mountains and desert, I don't think cattle. Like what do you need to be able to raise cattle? Like what are the properties of land that's good for that?

Chachi Hawkins: Well, the land has to be fertile. We grow something called, and this is natural, we don't plant it or anything like that, but we grow grandma grass, and that is the best natural cattle feed. You know, all ranchers want good old grandma grass. Then there's several kinds of it. There's blue grandma, black grandma, side oats grandma. There's a lot of different kinds, and we happen to have all of those, which is a good thing. But our average rainfall is somewhere between 13 and 15 inches of rain a year, which is depending on where you're from, that's basically nothing. But it comes at the right time of year, usually our growing time is from May to September, and that's when it rains, and that's when we grow grass. And that grass will last all the way or should last all the way from the end of September to the next growing time in May.

Dan Heath: Oh really? So it last all the way through the winter.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah. Now, you have to be careful about not overgrazing your country. Out here, a typical ratio of cows to acres is one cow to ever 50 acres.

Dan Heath: One cow per 50 acres?

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, so you gotta have a lot of acres to be able to have any kind of business.

Dan Heath: Just by way of comparison, the lot for my home is like a fifth of an acre. So I could have 1/250th of a cow on my personal plot of land.

Chachi Hawkins: And you know, over in the Hill Country, I don't know if you know Texas very well, but the Texas Hill Country is around Austin, San Antonio, San Marcus, around in their, New Braunfels. It's very fertile, you know, it rains a lot, and so when we say one cow to every 50 acres, they look at us like, you gotta be kidding because they probably run, you know, 50 cows to an acre. I mean, and I'm exaggerating there, but there's a huge difference there.

Dan Heath: Okay, I'm with you.

Chachi Hawkins: You have to be careful, and you can't over graze because if you over graze, then that grass isn't gonna come back. There's a very fine line between having too many cows, having enough cows, you know, having enough grass for 'em.

Dan Heath: Chachi doesn't live on the ranch, but she says she visits four or five times a week, just to look at the land and keep tabs on what's going on. I asked her to describe one of those visits.

Chachi Hawkins: Okay, I was there on Saturday and I fed on Saturday. And so first thing I do is go to... I drive a Kawasaki that has a trip hopper on the back of it. You've probably seen those on pickup trucks. It's where you fill up a big container, and then it's electronically hooked to a knob by your steering wheel that you can pull. You know, if you wanna feed four cows, it's set at how much you wanna feed a cow, and then you pull the clicker, and it'll do that from the back end of your vehicle, so you can drive along and feed. And those cows know what that Kawasaki and that trip hopper on the back of it, they know what happens with that. And so they're gonna follow it anywhere, and they hear it coming, and they know what the deal is.

Dan Heath: So, they'll come to you?

Chachi Hawkins: They come to me, yeah.

Dan Heath: And just to ask a dumb question, I mean, you've got a huge plot of land, I mean, tens of thousands of acres, right?

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, well, not tens. We have several thousand, you know. I'm not gonna tell you how much, but several thousand. Yes. And you know, those cows are conditioned. I learned a long time ago that, you know, you always hear about, you know, ranchers, you know, get out there early in the morning and, you know, well I learned that cows don't care when you come, as long as you're consistent.

Dan Heath: So are they confined to a certain subset of the property? I'm just thinking like thousands of acres. Like it seems like you could drive around and never see a cow.

Chachi Hawkins: We do have it broken up into pastures.

Dan Heath: Okay.

Chachi Hawkins: You know, fortunately, my grandfather is who, you know, set all of that up, all of the, you know, how each pasture is laid out and where we have water wells and working pens. And so everything is fenced off. So we have, you know, perimeter fence that goes around all the boundaries. And then inside that, we've got fencing that goes around each pasture that separates the ranch into, I'm gonna say we have eight different pastures maybe.

Dan Heath: Do you still brand cattle?

Chachi Hawkins: We do. Yeah, we do. And your brand is whatever you want it to be. You register it with the county, and so no one else can use that brand except you. And so we use a bar H which is just, you know, a straight bar with an H next to it. And it's easy to brand. You don't ever wanna get a brand that's so complicated. It puts a big burn on the hip of your calf. You don't wanna do that.

Dan Heath: And is there tech for any of this stuff these days? Like are there people who track their cows with Bluetooth or, you know, have remote water monitoring levels or any of that stuff?

Chachi Hawkins: There absolutely is. You know, we have game cameras at all of our waters, mainly because my brother likes to see what's coming and getting water, and you know, we have elk, and deer, and aoudad, and, you know, all that stuff. And so you see all that, and a couple of his game cameras he has remote access to, and he can look it all up on his cell phone.

Dan Heath: That is so cool. It's like a Ring camera for the ranch.

Chachi Hawkins: For the ranch, exactly.

Dan Heath: Are there predators you have to worry about?

Chachi Hawkins: We do. Yeah, we have mountain lions. In fact, on the game camera right now, we're seeing a male mountain lion. We see 'em every time on the one that's in our furthest pasture to the south. And we have bears. I mean, you know, we got the gamut of stuff, coyotes. I mean there's all kinds of stuff.

Dan Heath: And so what will you do about the mountain lion? I mean it's just like an all you can eat buffet for the mountain lion.

Chachi Hawkins: Well, right. We have a lion hunter that we pay.

Dan Heath: A lion hunter!

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, yeah. That's on our expense sheet is the lion hunter.

Dan Heath: I just found the next person for the episode next time.

Chachi Hawkins: Oh yeah. You know, he and his dad and his brothers, they have a very extensive hunting situation, and it all centers around lions.

Dan Heath: Unbelievable.

(MUSIC)

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The ranch is a family owned and operated business. It's mostly just Chachi, and her nephew, TC.

Chachi Hawkins: And so we've been in the cattle business, TC and I have for, you know, for all this time. And we kind of know who does what, and now that his kids are old enough, you know, really all we need is our family and we get it done.

Dan Heath: That's pretty amazing. It must feel good to just know the operation so well from top to bottom that, you know, just you and your family members can kind of make it run

Chachi Hawkins: Well, you know, it's pretty wonderful actually. I think we're the luckiest people on earth.

Dan Heath: What are some of your favorite memories as you look back on the last 20 years or so of ranching? Like, are there certain moments that just kind of stand out above the rest for you?

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, I remember the first year that we had bred cows that were, you know, about to have babies. He and I are out there every day looking, you know, driving around, looking at 'em and you know, oh, I think she's gonna, you know, and I'll never forget. You probably don't know what a prolapsed cow is, but that's when their uterus comes out, comes out, you know, their anus. And so we see this, and I'm like, "Holy , what is that?" And so I have a satellite phone 'cause of course there's no cell service down there. So I have a satellite phone, and I'm on the phone with a vet in town. And I'm describing it to him, and he goes, "Well, Chachi that cow's prolapsed." And I said, "Well hell, what do you do with that?" So that's the first time that something like that happened and we're both like, "Oh my God, what the hell is this?"

Dan Heath: And what happened next?

Chachi Hawkins: Well, he told us what to do, and basically there isn't anything you can do. You hope that it goes back in naturally, which fortunately this one did. If it didn't go back in naturally, then we would've had to get her to the headquarters where we have, you know, a barn and a set of pens, and we could, you know, put her up and try to push it back in with your hand. Now, I'll tell you, you learn all kinds of things out doing this. And I'm like, "Oh my god, I don't know if I can do that."

Dan Heath: That wasn't something you practiced at Sears?

Chachi Hawkins: Not really. But you know, it's times like that, that you look at it, and you think, "Well, yeah, we'll figure out how to do it." I mean, you just figure out how to, and sometimes you need guidance from the vet. You know, vets, they don't really make house calls. I've hauled cows to the vet before, so that means you gotta get 'em to the headquarters, pen 'em up, load 'em in the trailer, drive into town, and unload them at his place. You know, it is sort of an ordeal. You can't just, like, you take yourself to the doctor. It's a little bit harder with a cow.

Dan Heath: I had never thought about that. So, effectively just because of the logistics involved, like you end up being the onsite vet

Chachi Hawkins: Yes, with him on the phone. And you know, like when we work every spring after all the calves are born, you vaccinate 'em, castrate 'em, brand them, you know, whatever. And you do all of those things yourself. The vet's not there doing it. You're there doing it. And you know, when you get to where you've done it a lot and your crew is pretty good, then it takes less than a minute for each calf because it's very quick. And so it, you know, they're up and back with their mama and everything is fine. But you know, it does take you a little while to learn that.

Dan Heath: What are the most frustrating parts of the job?

Chachi Hawkins: No rain. No rain. No rain. That's the hardest thing. We used to get our rain starting in May. Now, we've worked that back to July and you know, it's just, it gets to be awful. And that's the most depressing thing. And the last two years we've grown a weed called loco weed. It's a terrible weed. You hope that your cattle don't eat it because it's poisonous. Now, until last year I kept it cut out. And you have what you call a loco hoe, and it lives in the Kawasaki with me. Whenever I see one, I chop it out. But last year, I mean, we just had a bumper crop of it, and it was everywhere. And it's that way this year. But cows who've grown up around it, they know not to eat it because they know it's bad, and they teach their babies that. But if a cow gets on it, yeah, if a cow gets on it though, it's gonna kill 'em.

Dan Heath: Oh my gosh.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, so, you know, it's an awful thing. And so you drive through every day, and you look at all that stuff out there and it just makes you sick. It's just awful. So there are good things and bad things, and fortunately so far, the good things outweigh the bad things.

Dan Heath: This is such a suburban host question thing to ask, I realize, but do you ever get really attached to any particular calves? Like do you have a hard time parting with them when the time comes?

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, of course. You know, some of them, you know, they're particularly cute, or their ear is some funny thing, or they carry their tail different or you know, whatever. So you give 'em a name and we do that. And so, you know, every time you see 'em you say, "Well, hey, Lucky" or hey, you know, whoever. So it is, but you know what I learned that this is their job. They're born. My job is to take care of them and nurture them, and make sure that they grow into a nice calf, and then their job is to go, you know, go be beef, which sounds kind of corny, but that's their job.

Dan Heath: Well, Chachi, we always end the show with a lightning round of questions. Let me fire away here.

Chachi Hawkins: Okay.

Dan Heath: So what is a word or phrase that only somebody from your profession would know, and what does it mean?

Chachi Hawkins: Okay, a black baldy. That's a Hereford Angus cross calf. The bull is a Hereford. The cow is an Angus. And together they make a black cow calf with a white face. So that's what we call a black baldy.

Dan Heath: And is that a coveted breed?

Chachi Hawkins: You know, for a long, long time, Herefords and Angus, they're old English breeds, and that was the top of the food chain of breeds in the United States. And it's kind of changed a little bit, and not so much anymore, but they're still up there. A Hereford, or an Angus, or a black baldy that's a pretty good stake.

Dan Heath: What phrase or sentence strikes fear in the heart of a rancher

Chachi Hawkins: Is that smoke over there? Like, is that a fire over there? Back in 2011, in like February or March, we started having fires and the first one out here started on our neighbor. They were doing a prescribed burn, and it got away from 'em. And I was out feeding, and I saw it come on to us. And I'm like, "Oh , what do I do now?" And so I knew that I couldn't do anything about the fire, but I knew I needed to get the cows out of that pasture. And so, like I told you before, they'll follow me anywhere because they know I have food. And so I found them all. They followed me. I got 'em to a safe place. And by the time I got back to our headquarters, I bet you there were 50 volunteer fire people. And this group of firefighters from the Big Bend National Park called Los Diablos, and it's a group of Mexican men who came up on a bus, and they came to fight the fire. And so for the next four or five days, they slept in our main house in our bunkhouse. And I just told them all, you know, "We got pillows, we got sheets, comforters, you know, beds. So, you know, make the most out of it." And we have some amount of groceries there in the houses. And so I cooked for 'em and, you know, I tell you, I will never in a million years be able to repay how wonderful those people were. It was great.

Dan Heath: Wow.

Chachi Hawkins: Yeah, it was great.

Dan Heath: I'm so struck by the fact that you are 120 years into a family legacy. Like, I don't think many of the people listening will have that experience or that link to the past. Like, what does it feel like to inherit that? And what do you wanna leave for for the next generation?

Chachi Hawkins: You know, it's a huge sense of responsibility. And I often think, you know, when I've done something stupid, I look up at the sky and I think, "Oh my God, Uncle King is looking down at me thinking, 'Chachi, what have you done?'" But I think also that he probably has a lot of respect for, you know, the world I came from and now the world that I'm in now. And I chose to do this. And I think that's a big deal too. You see so many big old family ranches out here that have sold because people didn't wanna mess with it anymore. They just wanted to take the money and go. And I feel real bad for situations when that's happened. And, you know, for now ours will be fine, and I think for the next generation it will be. But then after that, you know what, they have to figure out how to live their own lives. And maybe that includes their ranch and maybe it doesn't. I don't know that. But I think that it's a wonderful way of life, and I wouldn't take anything for having the opportunity to be able to do it.

Dan Heath: Chachi Hawkins is a cattle rancher in Southwest Texas. After talking to Chachi, I kept thinking about how larger than life her job seemed, like moving from her role as an executive at Sears to the ranch somehow seems like moving from a black and white movie to a color one. But why is that exactly? I mean, she probably had more power and certainly made more money at Sears. I think it has something to do with the connection on the ranch to bigger forces, like man versus nature. In school, we learned, that's one of the classic conflicts in literature. You've gotta keep the loco weed at bay. You've gotta protect your calves from mountain lions and coyotes. And there's the connection to the cycle of life. Every year, animals are bred, calves are born, they're raised, and ultimately you say goodbye to them, and start the cycle again. Not to mention the connection to history and family, to spend your days on land that's looked the same for centuries and land that your great grandparents walked, practicing the very same trade that you do. There's a lot that's not glamorous about the work as we heard. It's part handyman, part veterinarian, part gardener, part fence repair person, part long haul driver. But it's elevated somehow by those connections to the broader themes of nature and history. And folks, that's what it's like to be a cattle rancher. Thanks to my friend Julie Balovich for introducing me to Chachi. Appreciate that, Julie. If you've got a suggestion for a guest, reach out at jobs@whatitslike.com. You can find that email on the show notes. I'm Dan Heath. This episode was produced by Matt Purdy. Thanks for listening.