Daveís Summer Adventure,
I guess you have to start a story at the
beginning. So, in the beginning I opined on a horse message
board that while I knew nothing about ranching or riding horses
on public lands, I did know that a lot of the ranchers and horse
riders where I live donít understand how it is fair for private
folks to rent grazing rights from the government for $1.50 per
AUM and we as horse folk were only allowed to ride public lands
in specific areas.
sure hit a raw nerve and a few folks told me how ignorant I
am. That was no news to me because I plainly stated I
did not understand the phenomenon.
There was one reply to my post though that
was quite a bit different. It was from a professional
ranch manager/cowboy/NH devotee who replied with not only some
understanding that I was not attacking anybody but just stating
that I, nor the people associate with, understand the concept.
Here is Texas there are no public lands that are rented to local
ranchers. Oh, perhaps in a National forest over in East
Texas, but you canít run enough cows there to fill a good sized
gooseneck trailer. Duane Coombs (aka Fred Coombstone),
replied that perhaps all was not as it may seem to me and that
perhaps I should come and just see for myself. Well, I
took that to be a ĎPut up or shut up.í Challenge so I decided
to just go and see for myself and I replied with one sentence,
ĎDo I bring my saddle?í! Anyway, things went on,
and on August 21, 2003 I got on the airplane and headed to Reno,
Nevada, via Phoenix. On arriving in Reno I rented a car
and lit a shuck for Fallon, NV where I turned off of the main
road and drove in a most welcomed rain to the Smith Creek Ranch
where Duane Coombs lives with his cute little barrel racing
wife Heather, a pack of border collies, a cavvy of horses, a
cowboy or two and greets each day to scenery that will take
your breath. This is high mountain desert country.
The flat desert is huge, and the mountains are bigger yet.
They even have a playa lake there that is bigger than most of
the lakes that are used for supplying Dallas or Ft. Worth with
water. The only thing is that this lake has no water in
it. You wonít believe it until you go down to it but it
is as dry as a powder house and flat as a griddle. Duane
even says it is designated as an emergency landing site for
the space shuttle.
Trees are at a premium in this part
of the world. They have a few junipers and some pinyon
pines but no big timber trees and not much of anything that
makes good scenery or a good shade until you get up in the canyons.
The ranch headquarters must be 12 to 15 miles from a paved road
and that is not real strange to me but the mail box is on the
paved road. On most of the ranches I am familiar with
it is sort of customary to ride horses up to the mail box to
fetch the mail in the course of a days cowboy riding.
Couldnít do that at the Smith Creek Ranch.
The SCR is a working cattle ranch.
They run pretty much commercial cattle and the cattle are on
range 12 months of the year. Very little supplemental
feeding is done on the ranch I am told. I can see why,
if you got all their cattle assembled at one time the land is
so fragile the cows would destroy it to the point it would be
the next ice age before the desert could recover. SCR
just doesnít have much in warm weather grasses. After
all this desert and getting only 6Ē of rain a year not much
warm weather grasses canít survive in that environment.
The cool season grasses mature and provide standing forage for
summer grazing. This and the grasses in the canyons where
there is a supply of spring water and some forbs seem to provide
for the cattle pretty well. SCR doesnít produce a calf
ready for the feed lot, they are happy to send a 400 lb. calf
to Fallon, NV where it is preconditioned on alfalfa and corn
silage prior to going to the feed lot. Seems pretty efficient
to me though I donít understand harvesting forage to be fed
to cattle since my ranch is devoted to send the same kind of
cattle SCR produces out to harvest growing forages and being
preconditioned on pasture.
I really worried about riding the SCR horses
since Duane had told me many of their horses were Ďstraight
upí bridle horses and they rode with spade bits.
I just couldnít imagine putting something
like that in a horses mouth. The reality of the matter
though is that my mount was soft, slow and yielding and I rode
the 2 days and only took the slack out of one rein one time
in the 2 days of riding. While some may think I am prone
to use poetic license and exaggerate at times, Duane put me
on a QH that was tall as a giraffe and weighed at least 1,400
lb. That big Dunn dude could sure push and pull that big body
around some mighty tight places and would jump a little ditch
or stream and give you a better ride than when he would trot.
Heck that old boy even went into a pace with me. I didnít
know what in the world he was doing. I had never in my
63 years ever ridden a horse that paced but this QH not only
could, he could do it well.
On one of our rides we drove through the
desert a while and continued to the foot of the mountains where
we unloaded our horses and began a ride back into the mountains.
Most of their cows are bred and when that event takes place
in a multi bull herd, it seems there is always a bull or two
that goes off by himself and just lays around and pretty much
stays by himself. In my experience it is pretty much futile
to try to do anything with them. After they have meditated
a while or whatever, they will either start to roam again or
come to the headquarters. I donít guess that is
possible though when you have quarter of a million acres to
see after and Duane wanted his bachelor bulls to rejoin the
We rode up through one little canyon that
didnít seem to me could carry much water and I guess it canít
but I swear when it opened up into the mountains you could stand
on a little rise and see 10,000 acres of pasture land on the
side of those mountains. Every drop of water that fell
on those mountains either soaked in or ran out in that little
bitty canyon. It was sure deep but not at all wide and
there was no sign of any active erosion so it is evident to
me that water just doesnít run down it much. Duane was
wanting his cows to stay out of the canyons and up on the mountains
to harvest that grass before they came down for the winter where
they would spend the winter. It is quite a
site to see that much land and little bunches of cows spread
out on the side of a mountain. The cows were pretty much
in small bunches of 10 to 15 in a bunch. The cows were
all healthy but not quite as fat as we try to keep cows here
in the Heart of Texas. Of course our guys try to wean
a calf somewhere around 650 lb. and this country just couldnít
provide enough energy to do that with the cows having to walk
so far each in the course of grazing. The temperatures
on SCR were wonderful for this Texas cowboy who left his car
parked in 100+ degrees of heat to go where it barely got to
the 80ís. I love to wear a vest and it felt mighty good
to have one on in August. The mornings and evenings were
I guess my final summary of the situation
is that there is no way in heaven or hell I would turn anything
loose in that much country and try to find it once I thought
it might have a calf big enough to sell. The environment
there is awfully fragile but from my limited knowledge of desert
agriculture, I would say the folks at SCR were doing a good
job and being good stewards of Uncle Samís land. They are leaving
a healthy amount of stubble and the grasslands have enough trash
on them to give some protection. Years over grazing is
not producing nearly as much problems for them as it is for
folks I see and know on a daily basis. I guess the main
thing that was evident to me was that if the grazing of government
land was no longer permitted, the local economy would suffer
as cowboys, ranch managers spend about all the money they coax
out of that country. They buy a lot of fuel, trucks and
other supplies in an area where there arenít many people any
way. There are a few old Ďdesert ratsí out there too.
They are the folks that just seem to be out there. No
particular reason, they just live there because they like to
live in the desert. I stopped at one of their watering
holes I guess. I, at 63, was the youngest person in there
other than the gal tending bar and waiting tables. Quite
a place Iíd bet and I would have spent some time there if I
had had more time. I even saw one of Nevadaís legal brothelís
there. Now that is a place that I would not spend ANY
time, money or any thing else. I think it was called Salt
Wells and I can tell you any gal that would work there and any
guy that would be a customer would have to be tough. It
made me itch just driving by on the highway.
The one and only thing I regret about my
trip is that my senses were so bombarded with so much information
and so many things that were new and different to me, I did
not write any poetry on the trip. Boredom seems to put
my poetic juices to flowing and I simply didnít have any time
to be bored.
A big thanks to Duane Coombs, (aka Fred Coombstone)
the SCR and staff and the ttlt board for making this trip possible
for me. It was a wonderful adventure. I for one,
no longer feel these guys grazing public lands are getting a
free ride. If my operation never makes a dime, I will
still profit from the increase in the value of the land.
These public lands ranchers simply must make a profit or perish.
I donít see how they can under present weather conditions but
they are sure out there trying.