By: T. C. Richardson and Harwood P. Hinton

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: April 30, 2019

The word ranch is derived from Mexican-Spanish rancho, which denotes the home (headquarters) of the ranchero. In Texas, the word initially denoted an establishment engaged in livestock production using unimproved range pastures as the primary resource, with or without plowland crops. From the beginning, ranching often included raising cattle, sheep and goats, and horses. Cattle ranching has been a major Texas industry for nearly three centuries. As early as the 1690s the Spaniards brought in stock with their entradas. Ranching as such dates from the 1730s, when herds were loosed along the San Antonio River to feed missionaries, soldiers, and civilians in the San Antonio and Goliad areas. As the Spanish missions declined, ranching shifted to private raisers, including Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, and Martín De Léon. Modern scholarship places the birth of the Texas ranching industry in the southeast Texas–southwestern Louisiana area, from where cattle raisers drove herds to market in New Orleans. The Spanish government also encouraged the cattle industry in the Coastal Bend, where liberal land grants often developed into feudal estates. Huge tracts were given to those who, like Tomás Sánchez at Laredo, owned seed stock of horses, cattle, and sheep and commanded a following to occupy the land and handle livestock. The Cavazos (San Juan de Carricitas) grant in Cameron County comprised fifty sitios (a sitio was 4,605 acres), and other grants were even larger. Though few are still owned by the descendants of the original grantees, many ranches in South Texas predate the American Revolution. Spanish and Mexican ranches were not usually called by the name of the owner or his brand, as was the American custom, but by such distinctive names as Ojo de Agua, Las Mesteñas, La Parra, and Santa Gertrudis; the last two survive under their Spanish names at the Kenedy Ranch and the King Ranch in Kleberg County.

At first, Spain severely restricted commerce, but during the brief Spanish rule of Louisiana (1763–1803), barriers to trade were relaxed, and Texas cattlemen found a wider outlet for their animals to the east. However, Indian raids in South Texas increased in scope and intensity, forcing many rancheros to leave their herds behind and flee to the settlements for protection. In Mexican Texas, beginning in 1821, conditions improved. Land policies of Mexico and the Republic of Texas were less liberal than those of Spain, but were still favorable to range husbandry. Individual citizens, until crowded out by settlement, had access to vast areas of public land for grazing. American colonists flooding into Texas during the 1830s were primarily farmers and not ranchers, but they quickly saw the significance of lush pastures where cattle could thrive with minimum care. Men who came to Texas to plow and plant became cattle raisers. Cattle raising remained a domestic industry during the republic and early statehood, supplying the small urban population, immigrants, and the bartering trade. In the 1840s and 1850s ranchers continued to drive small herds to New Orleans. A few hardy souls headed north, principally on the Shawnee Trail, seeking feeder areas in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa, where they could fatten their cattle and ship them to markets in Philadelphia and New York. In the 1850s Texas cattle were shipped from coastal ports by the Morgan Lines to New Orleans and the West Indies. Herds also were trailed west through hostile Indian country to the California goldfields. By 1860 Texas cattle ranching was shifting from Southeast and South Texas to the north central frontier. The core area lay west of Fort Worth, in Palo Pinto, Erath, and Comanche counties. For the first time cattle brought cash revenue to Texas, although the annual increase in herds far exceeded exports.

During the Civil War Texas furnished beef to the Confederacy until the summer of 1863, when federal armies closed the Mississippi River to traffic. Cattle multiplied until they were estimated at eight per capita of the population. Unbranded cattle by the thousands roamed the range (see MAVERICKS). At the end of the war, steaks and roasts were selling in eastern markets at twenty-five to thirty cents a pound, while a mature, fat Texas steer could be bought for six to ten dollars. The same steer was worth thirty or forty dollars at the end of the trail. Texas was cattle rich, but the way to market was through storms, across swollen rivers, and into hostile Indian country. In 1866 Texas trail herds began marching to Montana gold mines, New Mexico Indian reservations, and Kansas railheads. Within two decades more than five million head had been trailed to outside markets. In the late 1870s, after the Indian menace ended in Texas, the cattle industry leap-frogged to fresh pasturage in the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend, and on the plains of west Texas. Contrary to general views, the Texas cattle industry was not founded entirely on "free grass." Ranch enterprisers such as Thomas and Dennis M. O'Connor, Richard King, Mifflin Kenedy, and scores of other antebellum ranchers operated on their own land from the beginning. Other cattlemen who wisely bought land after the Civil War while their neighbors were scorning it included Charles Goodnight, William T. Waggoner, C. C. Slaughter, S. M. Swenson, and William D. and George T. Reynolds. Early Anglo-American ranches generally consisted of a primitive headquarters surrounded by open range. In the earlier-settled part of Texas, ranchers owned the land on which their improvements were built, but as the frontier advanced, stockmen set up quarters without benefit of title or surveyor's lines. When the real owner appeared, the squatter moved farther into the unsettled domain. Before the advent of barbed wire in 1874, few stockmen acquired land on which to graze cattle. Their primary need was a favorable site from which to work cattle and to control the water, which in turn controlled the range. Even foreign capitalists who invaded the range country in the cattle boom of the early 1880s bought only enough watered land to hold the range.

As markets could not absorb surplus Texas cattle, ranchers soon looked north to the unpopulated range that extended to the Canadian border and covered the entire Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains. While sending mature steers to slaughter markets, they moved breeding stock into New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Dakota, Colorado, the Cherokee Outlet, and western Kansas and Nebraska to start new herds. Methods of handling cattle, range terminology, and range practices developed in Texas spread with the herds across the western part of the United States. The Panic of 1873 momentarily crippled the cattle industry, but beef recovered rapidly and zoomed into an unprecedented boom that peaked ten years later. Pamphlets describing the "Beef Bonanza" flooded Great Britain, and English and Scottish money (at the Matador, Rocking Chair, and other ranches) competed with eastern capital in acquiring herds and range rights. The industry had grown up as individual enterprise, usually managed by the owner; now the corporation entered the field with all the advantages of mobilized capital but with the disadvantages of nonresidence and hired managers. In the late 1880s the change from open range to fenced pastures brought conflict between large and small ranchers, ranchers and farmers (see FENCE CUTTING), and employers and employees (see COWBOY STRIKE OF 1883).

By the end of the nineteenth century the transformation of ranching to the closed range was practically complete. Open-range drift fences were superseded by a complete enclosure of the ranch holdings. Railroads invaded ranch country, and corporations subdivided their holdings into smaller pastures for better range utilization, improved livestock management, and sale. Panic and drought in 1893 brought hard times, but the men who owned their grass and were free of debt were doing business when the upward tide returned. During World War I the cattle and horse market boomed, but the decade of the 1920s brought deflation and bankruptcies. The owner-operator who resisted the temptation to speculate came through safely. Price recovery from the slump was slow, however, and another setback followed the bursting of the stock-market bubble in 1929. Cattlemen and their financial backers were soon in deep water, and a desperate government, for the first time in history, extended aid to the cattle industry through agricultural credit agencies. Although the help was of some benefit, prices continued downhill, droughts plagued the land, ranges were overstocked, and grass was scarce. In 1934 the government intervened with a desperate remedy—a program to buy and kill cattle to buoy a depressed market. As the government generally destroyed the culls—sick, crippled, and scrub cattle—many ranchers used the payments to upgrade their herds. After the slaughter, the rains came again and the range grassed over. In addition to slaughter markets and outlets in corn-belt feedlots, a new cattle range developed. Farmers in the southern states suddenly saw cattle as a means of utilizing acreage taken out of cotton culture. Texas herds supplied much of the seed stock from East Texas to Georgia. By the 1950s beef cattle had returned to the major farming regions. Although much of the industry was conducted as a range enterprise, stock farming with small herds increased and became soundly based on a crop-livestock system.

While the Spanish breed provided the foundation for the Texas cattle industry, a liberal sprinkling of cattle came from the United States with Anglo-American colonists. Some stock may have been derived from British and Dutch breeds. The earliest record of importing purebred cattle to Texas dates to 1848, when Thomas J. Shannon shipped two cows and a bull from Queen Victoria's herd of Durham cattle to New Orleans and hauled them in wagons to North Texas. Livestock improvement in South Texas was handicapped by the prevalence of the cattle tick (see TEXAS FEVER), and despite persistent efforts by Richard King and others of his generation, little progress was made until artificial immunization was developed. The shipment of Texas cattle by railroad began in 1873, when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad shipped 120,000 cattle to market from Denison and brought in 200 carloads of breeding stock for Texas ranches. In 1876 W. D. and George Reynolds of Shackelford County brought Durham cattle from Colorado to their Clear Fork ranch. Charles Goodnight introduced the same blood in the Palo Duro Canyon that year. William S. Ikard saw Hereford cattle at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, bought ten in Illinois, and shipped them to Denison for his Clay County ranch. Though only two survived the trip, in a few years Ikard had developed the first fever-immune herd of registered Herefords in the state. Devon blood vied with the Durham in the early up-grading of native longhorn cattle. In the 1880s and 1890s ranchers introduced Galloways and Aberdeen Angus, but only the latter persisted. The XIT Ranch was among the first to use Angus bulls. The breed rapidly increased in popularity, and in the 1940s there were over 100 registered herds in Texas. C. C. Slaughter caused a sensation when he paid $5,000 for the prize-winning Hereford bull, Sir Bredwell, for his South Plains ranch. In the early 1900s, O. H. "Bull" Nelson sold more than 10,000 Hereford bulls in the state. In 1950 Texas stood at the head of Hereford producers both in quality and numbers, and the Texas Hereford Association was the strongest organization of its kind in the nation.

The first shorthorns (Durhams) were dual-purpose animals; Texans favored the Scottish type, bred primarily for beef. The Loving Ranch, in Jack County, maintained a large herd of shorthorns longer than any other range operator. This breed was popular among stock farmers. Between 1925 and 1945 the dual-purpose type known as milking shorthorns grew in popularity, especially in the Panhandle. Other centers were Kyle (Hays County), Wortham (Freestone County), and the area around industrial centers, especially Fort Worth and Dallas. By the 1950s Texas had more than 1,500,000 dairy cattle of various breeds and stood first in Jerseys (see DAIRYING). Through cross-breeding with beef bulls, surplus male calves were sold as veal; cows unprofitable for milk production went to slaughter. After 1925 Texas began exporting high-quality breeding stock to other states and abroad. South Africa and South America secured seed stock from Texas, as did Mexico. Texas-bred registered animals went to most of the states in the Union.

A modern ranch is a highly developed unit with miles of fencing, water supplies accessible to grazing land, permanent corrals, and loading chutes. Corrals have replaced roundup grounds, cutting gates are used instead of cutting horses, and loading chutes and trailer trucks substitute for the dusty trail to market. Ranching involves a heavy capital investment in land and improvements. It requires astute business management, a striking contrast to the 1870s and before, when a "ranch" might be nothing more than a dugout or picket shack as "headquarters" on the open range. There are Texas ranches devoted exclusively to cattle, exclusively to sheep or Angora goats, and solely to horses. Contrary to open-range misconceptions, sheep and cattle can be grazed successfully on the same range. On the Edwards Plateau, where browse is abundant, goat ranching thrives. The combination of cattle, sheep, and goats is not unusual. Horse ranches were numerous around the turn of the century, but by 1946 the industry was usually incidental to other ranch enterprises. Dude ranching has thrived better elsewhere than in Texas. Texas has long been the top-ranking state in cattle numbers. On January 1, 1968, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report, the state reached an all-time high of 10,972,000 head. In 1973 there were 15,350,000 cattle and calves in Texas, with an inventory value of $3.5 billion. Beef-cattle raising was the most widely distributed livestock enterprise in Texas. Dairy cow numbers had declined.

Cattle feeding rapidly developed in many areas of the state. The April 1968 USDA report showed 761,000 cattle and calves on feed in Texas. This figure represented a 250 percent increase over the 1958 figures. The principal reason for the change was the gain in commercial feedlots in the state. In April 1968, 275 feedlots were operating in Texas, with a minimum capacity of 1,000 head each; these accounted for 95 percent of the cattle being fattened for the slaughter market. Marketing from Texas feedlots during 1968 approached 1.8 million head, an increase of 508 percent over the 1958 level. In 1968 Texas was third in cattle feeding in the United States. By the mid-1980s Texas was marketing 4.8 million head annually and led the nation in cattle feeding. In 1990 the feedlot industry contributed $11.2 billion to the Texas economy. Custom yards handled from 2,000 to 50,000 head a year. The main feeding area in the state was the northern Panhandle. The expansion of slaughter facilities paralleled the increase of cattle feeding. From 1966 to 1968 the slaughter capacity of plants in the plains area increased more than 100 percent. There were 321 slaughter plants in Texas in 1984, when six million head were slaughtered; the number of slaughterhouses fell to 224 in 1994. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Swift and Company, Armour and Company, and two or three other slaughtering and meat-packing companies dominated Texas beef, pork, and poultry production. The 1980 drought saw several small packers close down in Brownsville, Garden City, Hereford, and elsewhere, while Iowa Beef Producers and other large facilities surged until by the end of the 1980s they controlled 80 percent of slaughtering. In 1991 IBP constructed one of the nation's largest tanneries in Amarillo, located next to the IBP beef-processing plant. In 1995 IBP increased its Texas holdings by acquiring several smaller plants. Meat packers contracted more and more calves at ranches and kept them in feedlots and slaughter facilities.

In recent years, Texas beef producers have adopted modern technology in their operations. They use electric branding irons and hire "helicopter cowboys" to round up and drive cattle to corrals. Ranchers employ computers to enhance management and to obtain information on prices and markets. Purebred producers, responding to consumer demands for leaner beef, have become interested in genetic engineering. Beef producers vigorously promote their industry. Threats of national boycotts in the 1970s prompted ranchers and processors to increase their voice in Austin and Washington. They have addressed such issues as adulterated imported meat, toxicants for predator control, and price fluctuations. Associations of beef producers include the Texas Beef Council, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas Cattle Women, and others. The ranching industry promotes Livestock Appreciation Day at the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show in Fort Worth, at the Fort Worth Farm and Ranch Club meetings, at meetings of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, and at many other venues. Some of these organizations give annual awards. The Texas Beef Council funds a traveling exhibit to encourage Texans to eat more beef. Texas cattlemen also serve on numerous national livestock boards.

Ranching has generally been a cyclical industry. Beef prices tumbled in 1979, and the cost of raising feeder calves rose 15 percent in 1980–81. Purchasing power in 1980 was the lowest in twenty-five years. Shortage of winter pastures, high grain prices, and drought caused worries. Ranchers applying for farm credit were encouraged to initiate "self-help" programs and introduce voluntary "check-offs" against cattle-sale receipts to support such programs. Texas attorney general Mark White ordered that all marks and brands be reregistered with the county clerks between August 1981 and February 1982. By 1988 the cattle market turned around, and seven bullish years followed. The cattle trade then plunged into a bear market; calf prices fell 40 percent by the fall of 1995 before stabilizing. Texas beef producers have been keenly interested in the export market, particularly Mexico, Japan, and Korea, and, more recently, Russia. The North American Free Trade Act (effective January 1, 1994) stimulated interest in upgrading breeding stock on Mexican ranges. The Texas Department of Agriculture operates a computer database to provide information on potential Mexican buyers, cattle imports, and problems of disease (especially brucellosis). The future depends on an improved Mexican economy.

In 1995 the Texas ranching industry enjoyed a grand fact sheet. The state led the nation in cattle and calves (15.1 million), beef cows (6.2 million), calves (5.75 million born in 1994), cattle on feed (2.38 million), total value of cattle and calves ($ 8.532 billion), and cash receipts—1993 sales ($6.353 billion). Texas also has been number one in number of farms and ranches (185,000) and total farm and ranch land (129.3 million acres). The Texas ranching industry has changed drastically from its early beginnings. The day of the longhorn and the sprawling King Ranch have been replaced by the rise of commercial feedlots, sophisticated slaughter and meat-packing industries, spreading use of computers, and an intensive search for export markets. On many ranches hunting leases have replaced cattle raising. King, Kenedy, and O'Connor would perhaps think it outlandish, as well as entrepeneurially interesting, that on some ranches, ostriches and zebras are now more plentiful than cattle.


James Cox, Historical and Biographical Record of the Cattle Industry (2 vols., St. Louis: Woodward and Tiernan Printing, 1894, 1895; rpt., with an introduction by J. Frank Dobie, New York: Antiquarian, 1959). Terry Jordan, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993). Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (Boston: Ginn, 1931).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Scots
Time Periods:
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

T. C. Richardson and Harwood P. Hinton, “Ranching,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ranching.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 30, 2019

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: