February 6th, 2014 under West Texas Talk
A six-generation ranching story
By LONN TAYLOR
David K. Langford used to make his living photographing other people’s livestock. If you wanted a gorgeous photo of your prize bull or your quarter horse for an ad in Western Horseman or The Western Livestock Journal, Langford was your man. Over the years he widened the scope of his photography to include Western wildlife and landscapes, and his work has appeared in national magazines such as Smithsonian, Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield. He is one of Texas’s best-known wildlife photographers.
Lorie Woodward Cantu is a professional agricultural writer who was once the editor of a journal that I remember from childhood as the Brahman Breeder-Feeder, subscribed to by my Brahman-raising great-uncles, now the Brahman Journal, the official publication of the American Brahman Breeders Association. More recently, she was the official spokesperson for the Texas Department of Agriculture. She has a remarkable talent for distilling raw data and statistics into compelling stories and for translating specialists’ jargon into ordinary English.
Langford and Cantu have recently combined their talents to produce a beautiful book, Hillingdon Ranch: Four Seasons, Six Generations (Texas A&M Press, $35), about land stewardship over six generations on a Texas Hill Country ranch. The 13,000-acre ranch near Comfort was founded by Langford’s great-grandfather, the English-born San Antonio architect Alfred Giles, who purchased his first land there in 1885. At one time Giles commuted from the ranch to San Antonio by railroad, being driven to the station in Comfort by buggy. He took two homing pigeons with him, releasing one when he got to San Antonio so that his family would know that he had arrived safely and the other when he started home so that the buggy would be at the Comfort station when he arrived.
The ranch is now managed by Langford’s cousins, Alfred Giles’s grandson Robin Giles and his wife, Carol, and their son Grant and his wife, Misty. Portions are now owned by other family members, but Robin and Grant Giles, through a series of annual agreements with 40-odd cousins, manage the acreage as a unit, raising cattle, sheep, and goats and showing a profit most years. They do most of the ranch work themselves, living in the stone house that Alfred Giles built. The house is not air-conditioned. Robin Giles told Lorie Cantu that “air conditioning makes it too hard to get back outside and do what needs to be done.”
The key to the Gileses’ successful management is careful stewardship of the ranch’s natural resources. Their animals, says Robin Giles, are not raised for the show ring but bred to fit into the environment without unduly stressing it or them. “We select the ones that are most efficient, most healthy, produce the most with the least input, and we live with them,” he told Cantu. “We don’t chase after someone else’s vision of the ‘perfect’ animal.”
Hillindgon Ranch is organized around life on the ranch during the four seasons, with each section illustrated with Langford’s photographs. Most Texas photographic books are just that, books of pretty photographs, but I learned something I didn’t know in each section from both Langford’s photograph’s and Cantu’s prose. For instance, in the “Spring” section, which deals with lambing, kidding, and calving, I learned that nannies are careless mothers and ewes are not. Cantu quotes Robin Giles as saying, “In the first twenty-four hours, nannies pay close attention to their kids, but then they’re ready to go sight-seeing. Goats have a big agenda, and in a big pasture they have to go and see and do everything . . . they can have trouble finding their kids again.” Ewes, on the other hand, “have a one track mind. They think of nothing but their lambs.” The “Summer” section is full of information about grazing; the “Fall” section about feeding. Cantu describes how the Gileses use a feed truck to manage their livestock, pointing out that a feed truck can gather all of the cattle in a 1,000-acre pasture in 90 minutes, a job that it would take several men on horseback two days to accomplish with dogs. Langford’s photographs illustrate both processes, the November afternoon sun turning the pasture grass gold in his shot of a cowboy moving cattle on horseback with a dog. Part of the “Winter “ section deals with the wool clip and the Gileses’ success at achieving a balance between wool production and lamb production, reducing the wool clip per sheep to increase the number of lambs born but then increasing the fineness of the wool by selective breeding to keep the wool profit up. If I were going to give someone a book to explain how a modern ranch is run, this is the book I would give them.
If Hillindgon Ranch has an underlying theme it is balance. Robin Giles says, “Ranching comes down to managing relationships. You’ve got to maintain the relationship between family and friends, you’ve got to sustain the relationship between you and the land, you’ve got to recognize the relationship between all of the natural resources, you’ve got to balance the successes of the past with the challenges of the future.” Maintaining balance requires constant flexibility. The most astonishing example in the book is the case of a cousin who is a mountain bike enthusiast and has criss-crossed his section of the ranch with biking trails. He and his wife host organized biking events that involve as many as 1,500 people coming on the ranch as participants and spectators, but gates with automatic closing devices, carefully explained rules, and superb people management skills keep the crowds compatible with the livestock. One of the rules is, “If you touch a new-born kid you have to take it home and raise it.” Langford himself conducts wildlife photography workshops on the property, which attract participants from all over the world.
When I asked David Langford why he thought the Giles family had been such careful stewards of the land for so long, he said, “I think it has to do with continuity of ownership. When you’ve been the recipient of a great gift like this ranch you want to pass it on intact.” With Hillingdon Ranch:Four Seasons, Six Generations Langford and Cantu have passed that gift on to the public, and at a bargain price, too.
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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.