LIVING OFF THE LAND
November 25, 1997
Russ Slaughter does things differently
By GREG HARMAN
PYOTE, Nov. 25, 1997 - There aren't a lot of ranchers who use cattle dogs these days. Most insist the dogs create too much stress on the animals and are difficult to control. But then, there aren't many people who have given Javalina pups to their children as gifts or driven cattle with country super-star Charley Daniels. All of this makes Russ Slaughter a unique fixture on the West Texas landscape.
Slaughter, who lives and works on a ranch in Pyote, poured the coffee (nix on the sugar and cream) and started talking about his ranch. It quickly became obvious that no matter how much he loved ranching his children came first.
Both of his older kids are into high school sports, and "all four ride and rope," Slaughter said with evident pride. Coby, the oldest, plays football for Wink. The next, Casey, plays just about everything the school offers: volleyball, basketball, track.
"She made All-State Honorable Mention in volleyball, and is looking for a scholarship." He watched to make sure it all got written into the notepad. Then, he said, there's a 10-year-old (Cayla) and a 4-year-old (Tate).
"We raise horses, cattle and kids," he joked. Slaughter, who has been around horses all of his life, made sure to keep it in the family. Herding cattle, more often than not, becomes a family outing.
"My 9-year-old told me the other day," he said, forgetting to figure in a recent birthday, "Daddy, I'm not going (out riding with the family) unless I can ride Scrap Iron." Scrap Iron is a massive (1,375 pound) stud horse. Combine Slaughter's love of horses with his tendency to be a dawdling father it's plain who won. Scrap Iron babysat that day.
Russ recalls fondly the day when, about the age of 13, he rode his horse over to see Jim Tom Kelton, who ran the Anderson ranch at the time ("and his father before him"), to ask for a job. "He was a real quiet man," Slaughter said.
Slaughter told Kelton that he had heard that they were going out to work cattle that weekend. Kelton replied by spitting on the ground. "I said, `I sure could use a job on the weekends,' and he said that he'd pick me up at 4 on Saturday morning." That was the end of the interview and the start of Slaughter's first job.
Now, several years older and with a bit more experience under his belt, Slaughter tries to follow a more traditional line in what he does, even if it is a little unconventional, than most of his fellow ranchers. "I really try to take care of the country," he said. Allowing the land to provide for his cattle, rather than purchasing exorbitant quantities of feed, Slaughter follows the conservative ranching model that he picked up from his father-in-law, Bluford Thornton.
This model of stewardship means limiting the number of cattle to five or six per section (roughly 640 acres) so that the land may remain healthy throughout the year. "I won't let 'em starve to death, but it's got to get pretty bad," he said. Only the bulls benefit from handouts here, munching store-bought grains from January to March every year.
Slaughter said he doesn't believe in "pulling money from my back pocket" to make a living and is proud of the fact that he has never taken government hand-outs or subsidies. "The government will not have a say in how I run my ranch," he said. "I never drawed a dime from the government."
This self-reliant attitude even influences the way he sees his animals. Most of the dogs on Slaughter's land are there to work cattle, but there are two that live up by the house as pets. Slaughter, with a dry tone, calls these his "welfare dogs."
After he got laid off about 10 years ago, several of his friends asked him why he didn't get on welfare. "Because I'm capable," was his response. Instead, Slaughter took his savings and spent the time traveling and playing with his family.
Riding in his '81 model Mack truck through the oil fields down washboard roads seemed almost as bad as a military exercise--heads bobbing and bodies jerking as the sound of the metal frame shook the air around us.
Slaughter, who has day-worked ranches from here to Big Bend, took the job running his own salt water disposal company to supplement the family income. All those years of ranching up and down West Texas had barely been enough to put beans on the table, he said.
To provide for his larger family, he now services about a 30 mile area -- collecting the residual waste water and disposing of it 3,000 feet under the ground -- and relishes the fact that he is his own boss. But there is a regretful pause as he reaches for the cellular phone, as if he resents the phone's intrusion into the conversation.
"I wouldn't have (the phone) if not for this job," he said. In fact, he never even had a telephone until he was 21.
While riding in this rough metal beast, on the way to service an oil storage tank, I recall something Slaughter's wife had said: "If it doesn't have hair and four legs he couldn't care less." But when we arrive at the destination, he goes through the motions of draining the test well as he tells me more about his family.
Both of his parents had been schoolteachers (One of his father's claims to fame is having shared the stage with Roy Orbison when the legend breezed through town many years ago). They bought him his first horse at 2 years of age.
"I've had one under me ever since," Slaughter said while disconnecting the hose from the tank. "I probably will until I'm six foot under."
Dogs didn't enter the picture until much later for Slaughter. Even though they have been used for centuries, guarding flocks and working herds, many still don't trust them. As Slaughter tells it now, "A lot of ranchers don't like dogs. They say that they get under foot too much, or they stress out the cattle. But the stress of having to rope, tie and run back to get the truck (to transport them to the pens). . .that seems like a lot more stress."
Slaughter related several stories where the stress of this rope-tie-transport method did prove too much for the cattle. "I saw five killed one day and seven another (following that method)," he said.
But his personal switch to dogs came later in his life. Slaughter had day-worked on ranches for years before he ever considered using dogs to do his work. But in the end, a life-threatening accident changed his mind.
He had just roped a particularly stubborn steer, and in the struggle got hung up in the stirrup.
And looking down at his lace-up boots (the primary reason he got hooked in the stirrup) that he wears because of one odd-sized foot, he said, "I could have very easily been dragged to death.
"I realized that there had to be an easier way for doing things. I wasn't as young as I used to be."
It was his friend Shot Pascal of Pecos, who had himself been working with dogs for years and had tried to sell Slaughter on the idea before, who finally got him started on dogs. "(Shot) is a great person," Slaughter said, "him and his wife."
So in an attempt to minimize labor, he has turned to cow dogs. "I'm always looking for an easier way of doing things," he said. So, the price of 300 pounds of dog food the Slaughters go through every month feeding eight black-mouth curr and catahula mix cattle dogs is quickly made up by the efficiency of the dogs. "I can get by with half the horses," said Slaughter.
Swinging around on seldom traveled roads -- the land still belongs to his parents, who have since settled in New Mexico -- with a trailerful of horses and seven anxious dogs hanging all over the truck bed, Russ's wife Debbie spots the missing cows.
Russ leaves the truck in Debbie's charge and gets Scrap Iron out of the trailer. Meanwhile, the dogs are already working the cattle. By the time that Russ reaches the dogs, they've already worked the four into a tidy little bundle.
Then something unusual happens, even for the Slaughters. Russ has roped one of the ranker cows, who had been taking random swipes at the dogs with her horns, and pulled it to the trailer that Debbie has moved into position. Then along come the others. We were all amazed when the dogs actually began herding the cattle directly into the trailer.
"People would never believe me if I told them about this," he laughs, wiping rain from his face. Thirty minutes scouting the area from the comfort of the truck, 15 spent working in the light rain, and another 20 to the pens to unload the cows with the handsome benefit of hot coffee, seems almost like cheating. But none of the cattle are hurt, and the dogs (as well as the Slaughters) are ready for another go around.
On the way back to the house, Debbie teases her husband a bit about his history, "Where he came from I haven't got a clue--both his parent's were schoolteachers!"
But wherever he came from, Russ like the old ways the best, and laments the fact that family farms are increasingly turning into corporations and so many lose their farms because of inheritance tax laws.
The Slaughters still breed and raise their own horses even though it costs a bit more than buying. Slaughter explained that buying horses "is just not near as much fun (as raising them)."
As to the Javelina, it ran away. And should you run into Charley Daniels on a cattle drive, Slaughter's only advice is to treat him just like one of the boys and you'd be in for some great guitar playing out under the stars.
Fed cattle on upswing
AUSTIN - Cattle and calves on feed for slaughter market in Texas feedlots with capacity - of 1,000 head or more totaled a record 2.84 million head on November 1, up 14 percent from a year ago. According to the monthly report released by the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service, the estimate was up 11 percent from the October 1 level. Producers placed a record 810 thousand head in commercial feedlots during October, up 1 percent from a year ago and up 16 percent from the September, 1997 total.
Texas commercial feeders marketed 520,000 head during October, up 5 percent from a year ago. Monthly marketings were up 2 from the September, 1997 total.
On November 1 there were 2.29 million head of cattle and calves on feed in the Northern High Plains, 81 percent of the state's total. The number on feed across the area increased 15 percent from last year and was up 12 percent from the October total.
October placements in the Northern High Plains totaled 671,000 head, up 21 percent ~from the September total. Marketings were unchanged from last month at 414,000 head.
Cattle and calves on feed for slaughter market in the United States in feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 head or more totaled 10.99 million head on November 1, 1997. The inventory was 9 percent above November 1, 1996.
Placements in feedlots during October totaled 2.90 million, 4 percent below 1996. During October, placements of cattle and calves weighing less than 600 pounds were 816,000; 600-699 pounds were 715,000; 700-799 pounds were 745,000; 800 pounds and greater were 620,000. Marketings of fed cattle during October totaled 1.78 million, 5 percent above 1996.
Feeders in the historical seven monthly states, with feedlots having a capacity of 1,000 head or more reported 9.39 million head on feed November 1, up 10 percent from test year and up 12 percent from November 1, 1995.
October placements totaled 2.43 million head, 4 percent below last year but 7 percent above 1995. Marketings during October, at 1.53 million head, were up 7 percent from last year but slightly below 1995.
Dickson, Cardenas top the list at Pecan Show
Foods with nuts (pecans that is) were judged last Friday with the following results. Peggy Dickson won Adult Grand Champion of Show and Barbara Cardenas took Youth Grand Champion of Show in the 15th Reeves-Loving Counties Pecan Food Show held Friday at the First National Bank of Pecos.
Dickson took the Adult Grand Champion prize with her first place Pecos Pecan Cake. Cardenas won Youth Grand Champion with her first place Pecan Spice Cake.
Adult Reserve Champion of Show went to M.A. (Al) Cale with his first place Divinity candy, Adult Best Use of Pecans was won by Deb Armstrong with her first place Pecan Stuffed Jalapenos in the miscellaneous category and Adult Best of Show went to Peggy Dickson.
Youth Reserve Champion of Show was taken by Salem Mitchell with first place brownies in the miscellaneous category.
In the adult cakes category, Marie Cardenas took second with a Coconut Spice Cake and Melissa Box placed third with her Praline Cake.
Zelma Canon won Adult Cookies with The State Cookie of Texas.
In Adult Breads; Grace Box took first place with her Banana Nut Bread, Barbara Flores placed second with her Crockpot Banana Nut Bread and Dot Stafford took third with her Pecan Pie Mini Muffins.
Cale also took second place in Adult Candies with his Southern Pralines.
In the Youth Cookies division Conner Armstrong's Pecan Balls took first place.
Armstrong also won first in Youth Candies with Candy Pecan Pretzels.
Katherine Lipton took second in Youth Miscellaneous with Pecan Pretzels
Bill Oglesby Champion of Pecan Show
When it comes down to just plain nuts, several area folk had the opportunity to display their attractive shelled and unshelled varieties. The 1997 Reeves-Loving Counties Pecan Show had eleven entrants this year.
Bill Oglesby won Grand Champion and Champion Classic Pecan awards for his Cheyene Pecans, and Miguel Castillo took Reserve Champion for his Western Pecans. The Champion Seedling Award went to Carmella Gomez.
First Place was awarded to Jim Blanchard, Bill Cole, Al Cate, John Griffis; second place went to Carmella Gomez, John Griffis, and third place fell to Lela Nance.
Safe venison through proper care
November brings the opening of hunting season in Texas for quail, turkey and white-tailed deer. Texans enjoy their deer hunting and the many ways of preparing venison, but a report in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association identified a black-tailed deer contaminated with Escherichia coli 0157:H7 as the source of infection in humans.
Eleven cases were reported in Oregon during 1995, and the common thread between each case was the consumption of home-prepared jerky made from venison. Upon investigation, E. coli was cultured from the jerky, the uncooked frozen meat and the hide of the deer in question.
A foodborne disease such as E. coli has been reported to infect humans worldwide and has been known to contaminate all types of raw meats. The most recent and widely publicized outbreak of E. coli occured in 1993 when hundreds of people in several western states became infected after eating undercooked hamburgers.
Studies have shown that deer experimentally infected with E. coli did not develop diarrhea or other signs of the disease, but bacteria was detected in deer feces up to 4 weeks after contamination. The results indicated that ruminants such as deer can carry and shed the bacteria via their feces.
The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study based in Athens, Georgia, reported, "Human E. coli infections only rarely have been associated with venison consumption despite the fact that millions of deers are harvested, processed and consumed annually in the United States. These numbers suggest that the direct risk to human health is low."
Proper care of your harvested animal should begin in the feild with the immediate evisceration or gutting, making sure not to taint the meat, skinning the carcass to allow cooling, wrapping the meat to protect it from insects or dirt and processing as soon as possible.
Further investigation is needed to determine what role deer may have in the natural history of this bacterium. For more information contact Gilbert Guzman, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, at 729-3440.
National Park is closed to hunting
With the rifle hunting season approaching, area hunters are reminded that Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a wildlife preserve which is closed to hunting.
Possession of a loaded or uncased weapon within the park is prohibited, and violations could result in a $500 fine and/or six months in jail, as well as confiscation of hunting equipment.
To avoid penalties, hunters should be aware of the park boundary lines which are marked with small white and green signs on fences or metal posts. Topographic maps showing boundaries can also be purchased at several local area locations.
It should also be noted that the Ridge Road between Lowe Ranch and the park's western boundary near Putnam cabin will also be closed during the muzzle loader and rifle hunting seasons. Some washouts on this road have occurred during recent rains.
Rangers will be patrolling during hunting season, and violators will be cited.
If an animal is wounded outside the park and runs into the park, a ranger should be contacted before attempting to retrieve the animal. Questions can be directed to the Chief Ranger's Office at (505) 785-2232, Ext. 372 or 379.
Cloning yields hope for potato crop
COLLEGE STATION - Sometime just before Thanksgiving 1999, the ultimate Texas sweet potato may be pulled from the ground and shipped to market - it and tens of thousands just like it.
One of the best sweet potatoes produced in 1996 was successfully cloned this year making about 16,000 copies of it - and field trials indicate that the test tube tubers held true to the quality of the sweet potato from which they were made. Cloning and growing of those offspring in numbers enough to produce seedstock for the East Texas farmers is likely next spring for planting of a commercial crop of the clones in 1999.
The cloning shaves about 10 years off of traditional variety breeding methods, according to Dr. Leonard Pike, horticulturist and director of the Vegetable Improvement Center at Texas A&M University where the sweet potato was cloned.
"The procedure that he did proved that it is possible to reproduce a very good yield producing plant through cloning," said Richard Stewart, a grower from Van Zandt County.
Production problems heightened last year when the harvest dig turned up an abundance of mar-formed, oversized sweet potatoes unfit for the fresh market. Farmers in Van Zandt, Rains and Wood counties where the bulk of the crop is grown saw quality concerns and urban encroachment from Dallas just 50 miles away shadowing their livelihood and decided science might yield some answers to keep the $11 million-a-year industry alive.
They found Pike, creator of the famous 1015 onion and widely anticipated maroon carrot, who admits that sweet potatoes were not a crop with which he had much experience. And he's not alone. In fact, to the chagrin of the growers, virtually no research has been done on the 50-year-old-plus Texas sweet potato industry, which ranks fifth nationally.
But Pike, curious whether environmental conditions or genetic changes were causing the problem, decided to take a stab at finding an answer. He adapted his onion cloning techniques in his College Station lab. The result was that from March until October, one sweet potato turned into 16,000 identical sweet potato slips that were planted, harvested and critiqued from plots at College Station and Overton. From the College Station harvest, Pike determined that environmental issues were not to blame. Three of the best individuals from that field were chosen for cloning, which will begin in February.
"I was somewhat impressed with the works he's done," said Dale Smith, a grower from Fruitvale, about Pike's experiment. "The jury is still out on whether we will see a lot of improvement, but we are headed in the right direction."
Smith said growers next will have to decide on how to fund the cost of cloning sweet potatoes slips on an annual basis. Until now, Texas growers have been saving some of their own produce as the seedstock from year to year, or going to Louisiana to get what was left by farmers there, Pike said. While more cost effective, that possibly is what led to the genetic degradation of the crop.
Stewart said some legalities may need to be addressed as sweet potato seedstock must be produced in a certified sweet potato weevil-free area, which College Station is not. That may be averted, Pike said, if the slips are transported from the lab in test tubes to the field for planting, but such a ruling has not been broached with the Texas Department of Agriculture at this time because the experiment only recently was completed.
"When I get to talking about sweet potatoes, I get a little hyper," Smith said. "I'm supportive of the research, and I'd be willing to do whatever is necessary to continue the work."
Smith and Stewart agreed that growers of the nearly 6,000 acres in Texas most likely will decide individually rather than as a united group whether to pursue cloned sweet potatoes for future plantings.
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