Skip to content
Quick Start for:

Texas cowboys nurture billion-dollar industry
Still Ridin' the Range

With the 21st Century well under way, it may seem that the cowboy is a thing of the past. But this particular symbol of Texas isn't hanging up his spurs just yet.

The first cowboys in Texas were vaqueros--Spanish and Mexican cowboys. Vaqueros were horsemen and stock-handlers on the frontiers of Mexico. When the Spanish brought livestock into South Texas in 1687 and 1690, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site, vaqueros followed. By 1775, vast herds of wild cattle roamed the region between San Antonio and Laredo.

The Handbook of Texas Online, an online encyclopedia sponsored by the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas, says that when Anglo cowboys eventually made their way to Texas, they embraced many vaquero methods for handling livestock. Anglos also adopted Hispanic cowboy tools and dress, such the vaquero saddle, chaps, bandana, lasso and spurs, until many of these items became identified with Texas.

Today's cowboys still work millions of head of livestock on ranches across Texas. Texas is first in the nation in its number of cattle and calves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The service reported in January 2003 that Texas was home to 14 million head of cattle, or 15 percent of the total U.S. inventory. That number was up 3 percent from January 2002's inventory of 13.6 million head, and 2 percent higher than January 2001's total.

In 2002, those cows resided on 151,000 ranches or "operations" throughout the state. NASS defines an operation as any place having one or more head of cattle on hand at any time during the year. So, Texas has a lot of cows. But how many cowboys are there?

By definition
"It's all a matter of opinion," said Robin Roark, director for the Texas office of NASS. Roark said there is no labor code classification for "cowboy," so defining what a cowboy is becomes difficult.

He said a cowboy can be a ranch hand, who makes his living taking care of cattle every day, or a rodeo cowboy, who may or may not work on a ranch when he's not on bucking broncos, or a lawyer who likes to wear boots, listen to country music and ride horses on the weekends.

Matt Brockman of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has a much more narrow definition.

"A cowboy is someone who earns his living on a ranch, most of the time sitting in a saddle and all the time caring for animals," said Brockman.

Mike Gibson, manager for the 6666 Ranch's Cattle Division in Guthrie, Texas, agrees.

"It's a man who's horseback and working cattle," he said. "A lot of people think it's an attitude. It's not. It's a job."

Limiting the definition doesn't provide concrete numbers, though.

"We have 151,000 operations with cattle," Roark said. "There's at least one person involved with each one of those operations. But I don't have any statistics that say how many people are involved in each of those operations."

Roark said the number of employees working the state's ranches can vary day to day, depending on the activities the ranch is performing that day. He said the state's cattle operations employ anywhere from one person to a couple of hundred, depending on the size of the operation, and many are worked by family members who don't draw salaries or show up on labor reports.

Brockman said that on large ranches, employees are divided into crews.

"There may be a farming crew," he said. "They'll produce the food the cattle are going to eat. Or there may be a crew to control brush."

On the larger operations, Brockman said cowboys do only cowboy work, such as helping deliver calves or administering vaccines. The specified work means only a small number of cowboys, as opposed to other types of employees, such as farming workers, are needed.

"The largest ranches probably don't have [cowboy] crews larger than 20," Brockman said. "One cowboy needs to oversee a minimum of 600-800 head of cows [to make it profitable for the ranch owner to hire a cowboy]."

Gibson said the 600-800 threshold is a minimum.

"[6666 Ranch is] one of the bigger operations, but the economics of it is we do more with less," he said. "I only have seven full-time cowboys." Gibson declined to give the number of cattle on the ranch, but 6666's Web site says the ranch has about 10,000 mother cows.

"During really busy times, like branding and weaning, we might have 15 [cowboys]," Gibson said. He said that number includes day help--cowboys that work at different ranches in the area as needed.

On smaller operations, Brockman said cowboys may do other jobs besides caring for animals. The blending of jobs can further muddy the waters regarding labor numbers.

"The cowboy may drive the tractor--he may be a jack of all trades," said Brockman.

NASS produces labor reports twice per year, but those numbers report only the number of paid workers on farms and ranches in Texas and Oklahoma for a specific week. The February 2003 Farm and Ranch Labor Report indicates 50,000 people were paid to work farms and ranches in those states the week of January 5-11.

Roark said that since the reports include both crop and livestock workers and do not include the many unpaid workers on the state's ranches, and ranch employment can vary dramatically week to week, the report's numbers are not representative of the number of people who work cattle during the year in Texas. In addition, Roark said NASS does not provide state-specific numbers--only regional statistics.

NASS does give Texas statistics on the value of livestock, though, and the state's cowboys care for precious cargo. In March 2003, NASS reported that Texas cattle were worth $8.4 billion in January 2003, up from nearly $8.3 billion in January 2002.

Ride 'em, cowboy
Texas also has rodeo cowboys. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) counts 1,554 Texas members, 843 of which compete as rodeo contestants.

Ann Bleiker, PRCA's public relations coordinator, said the association's membership does not include people who compete in rodeos as amateurs, and the association does not know how many of its members work jobs outside the sport. She said many of those who compete are also working cowboys.

"Many of the rodeo contestants live on some type of ranch, and many either raise cattle or some raise bucking animals for rodeo," she said. "However, the ones that only rodeo on weekends might be doctors, lawyers, teachers, bankers, etc., and they may or may not own horses and cattle."

Bleiker said many rodeo cowboys grew up on ranches with families who participated in the sport, but many other contestants were introduced to the sport by television. The association reports that in 2002, 40 million fans watched rodeo on television.

Chuteside with laptops
Back on the ranch, cowboys keep up with the times, said Brockman.

"[Cowboys] spend some time inside with computers, but they also spend some time chuteside with laptops," Brockman said. He said medical advances also have had a big impact.

"They administer vaccines and health treatments that 20 years ago, or especially 100 years ago, a cowboy would never fathom in their wildest imagination," he said.

Gibson said the greatest impact of technology is that it's made cowboys more mobile, but he agrees that medical advances are significant.

"Doing away with screw worms--that had one of the biggest impacts on the industry that you can imagine," he said.

And unlike some industries, technology has not made cowboys obsolete.

"It really hasn't reduced the need for the numbers [of cowboys]; it's made them more efficient," Brockman said. "As long as there are cattle roaming our ranges...there's going to be a need for the working cowboy."

Suzanne Staton

Grab a lasso

There's a good chance that most Texans played cowboys and Indians when they were kids--or at least heard of the game. But real cowboys spend time caring for animals, not battling natives, said Matt Brockman of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

"Their world centers around animals," he said.

Brockman said most cowboys learned their skills by growing up on a ranch and watching other cowboys.

"Some are born to it," he said.

But hope is not lost for city slickers who want to live the cowboy life.

"If it's someone who has never worked on a ranch before, they can do it," Brockman said. "They'll have to locate themselves some place like Crockett or Cotulla, and they're going to have to be very humble."

He said the formula is simple.

"You go to a ranch and get a job," he said. "The job you may be doing at first may not be doing cowboy work."

Brockman said cowboys are a fun-loving bunch, and a greenhorn will probably have to endure some teasing and kidding, but with some patience and hard work, as well as a strong love of animals, a city dweller could learn the trade.