Historic Crutch Ranch
It is branding time in the Texas Panhandle and family and friends gathered at the historic Crutch Ranch east of Borger, Texas, for a couple of days of branding.
Branding on the Crutch Ranch is done the old fashioned way – on horseback and “rope and drag.” There is another tradition at play here and that is the concept of “neighboring.” Neighboring is the time honored practice of exchanging labor with other ranches to make a big job a little less onerous. Cattle ranches are, for the most part, family owned and many can not justify the cost of hiring full-time workers. So the solution is a combination of day workers and neighboring.
We have all heard the saying that “everything is bigger in Texas,” and in a state that once had a ranch that boasted 6,000 miles of fence, the Crutch Ranch is not one of the biggest in Texas, but, at over 12,000 mostly contiguous acres, it could hardly be considered small.
The Crutch Ranch is owned by Mark Mitchell and his two sisters. Mark manages the ranch and he takes care of the day to day operation. Mark and his wife LeAnn have two grown children, Jake and Shawna. Jake currently works on the ranch and Shawna picked up a couple of top hand awards on her way to becoming a mother and school teacher. Shawna and her husband, Hagen Lamb, work and live on the ranch. Except for the occasional day-worker, that is the staff of the Crutch Ranch.
Branding needs to be done as quickly as possible as stress takes weight off of a calf and in the cattle business weight equals money. Branding time is a good time to see your neighbors after the winter. There is also a lot of work that has to be done. The mother cows and their calves have to be gathered up and moved to the pens. The topography of the Crutch Ranch is not flat. It is hilly and has plenty of erosion ditches big enough for a cow to hide in. There is also plenty of mesquite with its abundant 4-inch thorns.
Once the calves are separated from the mother cows, a rider moves in to heel a calf and drag it to the flankers. Both rear legs is the goal because it cuts down on the jumping and kicking – the flankers appreciate it because it makes their job easier and the ranch manager appreciates it because of the stress, weight, money, equation. After the flankers have the calf on the ground, a team of cowboys descends on the calf to give inoculations, notch an ear, brand and castrate bulls. In less than a minute the calf is up and looking for mama.
The Crutch Ranch has been in Mark Mitchell’s family for a long time. “My Great Grand Dad had a small percentage of the ranch early on, but basically the day we use is May 5th, 1945,” said Mitchell, “That was the day that my Grand Dad bought the majority of the ranch, and that was the first day that we received cattle.” The crutch brand, which Mitchell describes as a “U” with a tail on it, was a New Mexico horse brand that was given to the ranch. It is representative of the old style crutch that was used when a cowboy had a leg injury.
Ranching can be a tough business. Even though Colorado grows a lot of hay, it was not easy to find last year. Because of the drought in Oklahoma and Texas, a large percentage of Colorado hay went to those states to keep cattle from starving. In order to save their investment, a lot of ranches put their entire cattle herds into trucks and hauled them to pastures outside the drought area like Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and even as far away as Canada.
The Crutch Ranch did not have to go to that extreme, but did have to sell off some of their herd. “Some of the neighbors let us have some land up north to lease. And then we ended up selling some stock – we didn’t keep any replacement heifers last year and normally we would have kept 50. We sold 40 cows in the fall and normally we sell about 20. And we fed for 18 months straight,” said Mitchell.
The drought last year was really severe in the Texas Panhandle. In an area that averages about 25-inches of rain a year, only 5-inches fell in 2011. That left the Crutch Ranch tinder-dry and susceptible to the rancher’s worst nightmare – a grass fire. “We have had two bad fires here – one in ’06 and on February 27th 2011. The one in 2011 burned over 4,000 acres, a little over 40 percent of the ranch,” said Mitchell, “Thirteen head of heifers burned up in it and it came within half a mile of the house.”
Grass fires are different than forest fires. “The fires that you have in Colorado last longer, but burn less acres,” said Mitchell, “The ’06 fire we had, burned nearly half a million acres. It started right over here on the Sixes (Dixon Creek) – about a mile from here – and burned to Canadian, nearly 70 miles away. It did that in three days!”
The Crutch Ranch was founded 67 years ago – and that is a very long time for a family ranch. “It’s hard for a ranch to make a living for everybody, so we all have different things we do on the side to help each other out. But we all still want to be here.” said Mark Mitchell, “I think anybody that has a ranch wants it to go on from generation to generation and actually my Great Grandfather at one time was involved with the ranch, my Grandfather was very involved, and now I’m sitting here looking at my grand kids. I guess your hope and wish is that it continues forever and ever.”