As modern technology and environmental regulations modify ranching in the Great Basin, the Spanish Ranch remains tied to its buckaroo traditions.
Ira Wines stands in the middle of a rope corral,his big loop waiting for 58 frosty, wall-eyed geldings to settle in on the ropes. Will Neal has just wrangled the cavvy from its snow-coated pasture, and the horses’ nostrils blow steam that crystalizes in the sub-zero air. They know the drill, shuffling and slipping in the corral until each finds his spot around the perimeter—noses out and hindquarters pointed at Ira.
The buckaroo boss’s tall frame helps him lift his houlihan loop high into the morning air, twirling it twice then tossing it over the ears of a leggy blaze-faced bay. The gelding initially bolts, then calmly walks toward the middle of the corral, ears perked as Will approaches with a halter.
Ira catches two more, then he, Will and Eric Sligar saddle up and trot to a nearby pasture holding 560 yearlings in need of doctoring.
It’s February 1 on the Spanish Ranch. Below-zero mornings like this are normal in the mountains of northeast Nevada, so Ira and his crew generally ride in heavy coats, insulated rubber boots and wool caps with ear flaps.
“Sometimes we’ll stop and build a fire,” Ira says. “A guy that came to work here once asked me what we wear in the winter. I said, ‘Sometimes I’ll wear everything I own.’ ”
The horses charge across the snow, chasing down sick cattle that the three men head, heel and doctor. Although they’re older geldings, they pack ring snaffles because a bit with shanks can tear up a horse’s mouth should he slip on the ice and fall.
It takes a certain kind of horse to earn his keep on the Spanish Ranch. In high-desert country, they have to perform in both the frigid winter and the dry, hot summer. During spring branding, cattle are gathered out of pastures measuring 20 or 30 square miles, meaning horses regularly cover 30, and sometimes 50, miles in a day. So, if a horse is a little fresh and wants to buck in the morning, it doesn’t bother Ira.
“I think horses that demand more respect from the rider are tougher,” he says, flashing a grin beneath his icicled beard. “I like sensitive horses. It seems like they travel better and got more heart. And you can get a lot of respect from them if you channel it right.”
Spanish Ranch horses have carried a broncy reputation for decades, going back to the days before four-wheelers, stock trailers and smaller pastures. Ira should know. His family has ranched in Nevada for six generations, and his father worked at the Squaw Valley division when it was owned by the Spanish Ranch. About four years ago, Ira hired on as buckaroo boss.
While most of the ranching world continues to evolve, Ira says that in many ways the Spanish Ranch remains in a bygone era.
“We’ll use a truck and a trailer a little more now,” says Ira, now in his late 30s. “But the way we do things now and the way they did things 50 years ago hasn’t changed all that much.”
During branding, buckaroos stay out in the desert with the wagon for six to eight weeks. And they keep a cavvy of 60 to 70 horses with them so each man can have seven or eight horses in his string.
Still, in other areas of the business, modernization has been inevitable. The beef market, employee insurance benefits, government regulations and environmental considerations have changed some of the ways the ranch operates. And with those issues come restrictions, litigation and sometimes bad publicity—struggles that buckaroo outfits didn’t face a generation ago.
Pedro and Bernardo Altube, both born in the Basque region of Spain, founded the Spanish Ranch. The brothers had migrated to California, and in 1871 trailed 3,000 cows from Old Mexico to Independence Valley in northeastern Nevada. There, they established a ranch that by the 1880s was one of the largest and most prosperous in the area.
Despite the devastating winter of 1889–1890, in which the Altubes lost most of their cattle, the Spanish Ranch continued to thrive into the 20th century. When the brothers sold their ranch in 1907 to H. G. Humphrey, William Moffat, Peter Garat and Lewis Bradley, their holdings included 400,000 acres, 20,000 cattle, 20,000 sheep and 2,000 horses.
In 1913, the Union Land and Cattle Company purchased the Spanish Ranch. Twelve years later, the company went bankrupt and the ranch was purchased by E. P. Ellison. Ownership of the ranch has remained in the Ellison family to this day, under the name Ellison Ranching Company.
Today, Ellison Ranching Company includes more than 100,000 deeded acres and nearly 900,000 acres in Bureau of Land Management allotments. It runs approximately 5,500 mother cows and a fluctuating number of yearlings, depending on the amount of grass available on a given year. The company also owns about 7,500 sheep, handles its own trucking and raises all of the hay for its cattle.
The Spanish Ranch division, consisting of approximately 76,000 deeded acres, runs 3,400 of the operation’s mother cows.
Bill Hall was hired as Ellison Ranching Company general manager in 2002. Since then, he’s been working to improve the genetics of the company’s cattle herd and figuring ways to better market its beef.
When it comes to ranch operations, Hall believes in mixing some of the old with some of the new. He knows that tractors do a better job of feeding cattle in winter, but horses handle gathering and branding better than any man-made invention. He describes the Spanish Ranch as a “desert operation with modern technology.”
Sometimes that technology makes perfect sense.
“When you have this many people working for you, you’ve got to think about insurance,” Hall says. “That’s the reason we have satellite phones. We’ve got seven or eight guys out there in Ira’s crew, and somebody could get thrown off a horse. We’re 70 miles just from the nearest 7-11.”
Accidents happen, unfortunately. And plenty of other unforeseen events make ranching a difficult business. In August 2006, a lightning bolt sparked a grass fire that torched nearly 300,000 acres of BLM land. It was a key Spanish Ranch grazing allotment.
“We feel very lucky that we didn’t lose a lot of cattle,” Hall says. “A lot of the fires were running 25 miles an hour. There were flames right on our tails. Horses, cowboys, four-wheelers and pickups were all out there chasing cattle. It was pretty wild and Western.
“It made a big impact. We had to gather cattle early, wean early. Conception rates were down. We had to find other sources of grass.”
To allow grasses in the burn area to come back strong, the BLM won’t allow Spanish Ranch to graze that allotment for at least a couple of years. That has meant that Hall had to lease land from a nearby ranch for the cattle. Factoring in leasing fees, supplies for fencing and water improvements, equipment and labor, he estimates that losing the allotment will cost the company $450,000 for this past year and $300,000 for next year.
In addition, returning cattle to the BLM allotment isn’t guaranteed. Hall anticipates that environmental groups will try to use the media and the court system to block the cattle from returning to the allotment. Even though managing grasslands properly, without overgrazing, is in the best interests of any cattle rancher, some environmentalists constantly protest grazing rights.
“Environmental agencies fight us tooth and nail,” Hall says. “We’ve had to take reductions in our grazing land because of litigations and environmental issues. But if the land was grazed properly, we could help control those wildfires and keep a habitat for livestock and wildlife alike. Until the agencies and the government come up with a solution to control these burns, we’re going to burn this country up.”
Strangely enough, restrictions on government grazing allotments are part of the reason the Spanish Ranch is one of the few cattle outfits that still runs a wagon. Building fences is not only costly, but it is met with staunch opposition from groups who view barbed wire as an unnatural barrier that inhibits wildlife migration. So, the Spanish Ranch gathers pastures that measure 20 sections or more.
“When branding, they take the wagon out, camp at different places and brand in that area,” Hall says. “They make circles every day, gather that morning, brand shortly before lunch, and then get ready for the next day in a different area.”
Many a young, adventuresome cowboy who fancied himself to be quite the hand has wandered onto the Spanish Ranch, only to quit the job in short order. And who knows how many other aspiring cowboys steered clear of the renowned outfit.
No doubt, when a newcomer saddled up for his first day of work, he didn’t swing his leg over a numb, plodding old trail horse. It’s likely he was immediately grabbing for the saddle horn.
“They had a lot of big, powerful horses that would buck,” recalls Bryan Neubert, who worked on the Spanish Ranch for about five years during the 1970s, starting horses under saddle and working cattle.
During his first year, he was handed 8- and 9-year-old horses that had yet to be halter broke.
“Pretty much every day in the spring, somebody was going to get bucked off,” he recalls. “The horses were not gentle at all.
“It was a good place for a young man to educate himself, but a lot of people didn’t stick around there very long. Nobody hardly ever came back the next year.”
Rank horses alone didn’t chase off scores of young cowboys. It’s likely that the majority of them were turned off by hard work and long hours in the saddle.
Bill Kane worked on the Spanish Ranch as cow boss for 27 years, and his legend there remains even 13 years after he left. He and his wife, Marie, a member of the Ellison family, raise Quarter Horses in Eagle Point, Oregon.
“I don’t know that [the Spanish Ranch] was a rough outfit,” Kane says. “It was just a cowboy outfit, an old-time cowboy outfit. That was the way it was with my father-in-law and the guys way back in the early years. They had respect for everybody, and they did things the old way. You slept in tents, not in the bunkhouse all the time. When you cowboyed, you stayed out there seven days a week. Nowadays, Saturday afternoons and Sundays they’re off work.”
Neubert remembers how Kane, due to a combination of dust and miles, usually wore out a saddle every two years. He says Kane’s work ethic was hard to match.
“He was pretty durable,” Neubert says. “He could darn sure get the work done, and get any job done on any kind of horse. He wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything that he wasn’t ready to do himself. He had everybody’s respect.”
Ira shares the same sentiments. Leaning against his saddle horn and squinting in the bright snow, Ira talks about how Kane ran his crew, commanding respect and expecting hard work. Hot shots often found themselves paired with a bona fide bronc. Slackers didn’t last very long.
What has endured are many of Kane’s perspectives, including those toward horses. In fact, the Spanish Ranch recently purchased a stallion from Kane. The horse, DW John Stockton, is by Peppys Badger Bee and out of a Mr San Peppy mare, and his first crop of 16 for the ranch were foaled earlier this year.
Ira likes the way they’re built and hopes they can handle big circles. And if they’re prone to buck, no big deal.
“If a horse wants to hump up a little bit, I don’t hold that against him if he’s a good horse,” Ira says. “Sometimes I need one when I’ve got a cowboy that thinks he knows more than he does. It can sure put a guy in his place.”
In the end, what a buckaroo boss wants from his men is respect—respect for the horses, the cattle, the land, the men. Respect for traditions that have withstood all kinds of modern advancements, regulations and political agendas.
For Ira and Hall, it’s fulfilling to know that some traditional ranching methods are still practical in a time when so many struggles don’t seem to make much sense.