Family Fortitude

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The T4 Cattle Company, a family-owned and -operated cattle ranch in New Mexico, has outlasted recessions, fires, death and countless droughts through sheer deter- mination and a close connection to the land.






 


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The T4 Cattle Company, a family-owned and -operated cattle ranch in New Mexico, has outlasted recessions, fires, death and countless droughts through sheer deter- mination and a close connection to the land.

Phil Bidegain stops his horse to watch his Hereford and black baldy cow-calf pairs weave through the chollo and juniper. Pushed on by cowboys and a driving October cold front, the herd plods south toward the edge of Mesa Rica, from which they will descend 1,000 feet in elevation, down a narrow, winding dirt road.

For most of his 59 years, Bidegain has herded cattle down this steep route in the fall, when calves are ready to be weaned. His family’s T4 Cattle Company, located in eastern New Mexico, runs about 600 of its mother cows on the mesa. Today, he and his men are

trailing 300 about 20 miles to corrals near headquarters.

Bidegain makes mental notes of everything—the weight of the calves; condition of the cows; how the new, young cowboy is handling the herd; water levels in the livestock tanks; the encroaching juniper; and the abundance of the land’s hardy gramma grasses.

Maintaining a balance in this environment is crucial because, ultimately, the Bidegains make their livelihood on grass. With no pumping oil or gas wells, spinning-turbine wind farms or fortunes made in other industries, the T4 operates as a straight-up cow-calf outfit.

Established in 1902 by Bidegain’s great grandmother, the ranch has survived thanks to its owners’ consistency, discipline and determination.
“It’s range management,” Bidegain says. “We’re basically just marketing grass, and the cows are a way to market the grass. My family believes in taking care of the land.”

With around 180,000 deeded acres, the Bidegains are one of the nation’s largest landowners. And their cattle have plenty room to roam. They run about 2,500 mother cows, and typically don’t sell their calves until sometime during their yearling year, depending on the market and availability of grass.

“We stock pretty conservative, so we don’t have to adjust our numbers in drought years,” Bidegain explains. “That’s why we keep our calves until they’re yearlings. It gives us some flexibility.

“We have a feeling for the land, and that offsets getting greedy. In the long run, stocking conservative averages things out.”

In the “long run,” a period that has spanned 106 years, the T4 Ranch has survived for reasons beyond good range management and experienced knowledge of the cattle business. The operation has endured fires that killed livestock and family members, recessions that crippled the cattle industry, and persistent drought that turned the local community into a ghost town.

Through it all, the family has continued plodding ahead, sticking with methods that work and adjusting areas that need improvement. The horse program serves as one example. From the early 20th century to the early 21st century, the T4 has relied on hard-working cow horses, using them to drag calves to the fire, sort pairs and round up cattle in the fall. At the same time, the Bidegains continue working to modernize their bloodlines, purchasing a stallion that competed in the National Reined Cow Horse Association’s Snaffle Bit Futurity.

Semi trucks blow past the remains of Montoya, New Mexico. A few crumbling buildings stand like gravestones off Interstate 40 and alongside the now-abandoned Route 66.

During the 1910s, Montoya was a thriving town, with a railroad depot, several hotels, restaurants, mercantile stores, saloons and close to 1,000 residents living in the vicinity. The community was largely supported by farmers and ranchers who had homesteaded the area.

In 1902, a widow named Yetta Kohn purchased land and a mercantile in Montoya, moving there from Kansas with her three boys and daughter. The family found success at their new home.

But in 1916, the youngest son died while on his honeymoon. A bad tooth sent him to the dentist’s office, where he contracted blood poisoning. His older brother died from a heart attack shortly afterward. Then, a year later, Yetta passed away.

Yetta’s eldest son, Howard Kohn, took over the mercantile and the family ranch.

“Howard was more interested in the livestock production,” notes his daughter, Yetta Bidegain.

Coincidentally, the tragedies of the Kohn family took place about the same time that Montoya was beginning to falter. Due to a severe drought, local farmers and ranchers had gone broke and began moving out of the area. Many of those in debt or looking to sell out turned over their property to Howard Kohn. Soon, he owned a considerable amount of land around the town and decided to remain there. In 1923, he married his bookkeeper, Clara McGowan, who later proved a sharp businesswoman and rancher in her own right.

By the 1930s, the couple found themselves in the midst of another drought and the Great Depression. Yetta remembers the government buying starving cattle from ranchers at $14 a head, driving them into creek beds and shooting them.

In 1933, a prairie fire scorched the Kohn ranch. Howard fought the blaze, and the following day the effects of intense smoke and flames took his life.
Clara, like her mother-in-law, wasn’t deterred by being widowed. For the next few years, she sent her skinny cows to graze on leased pasture in Mexico. Later, she hired capable managers, all the while keeping the books on the entire operation.

“My mother knew how things operated when Howard passed away,” says Yetta. “She was a Southern lady, very lady-like. She hired managers to run the ranch, but she would ride and stayed heavily involved.”

In 1938, Clara married a doctor from Texas, who had moved to the area. But the ranch remained under her direction, and in 1947 she more than doubled its size. Portions of the legendary Bell Ranch had gone up for sale. By selling some acreage south of Route 66 and taking out a huge loan, Clara purchased nearly 117,000 acres of the Bell’s Mesa Rica, which bordered her ranch. Suddenly, her family ranch encompassed 180,000 contiguous acres.

By then, the ranch was called the T4, named after the brand used on its cattle (the origin of the brand is unknown). Around the time Clara made her landmark purchase, her only child, Yetta, returned from the University of Arizona with her new husband, Phillip Bidegain, a classmate who was raised on a ranch in Arizona. Within a few years, Phillip and Yetta began managing the T4.

In the 1960s, the couple introduced Black Angus bulls to the traditionally straight-Hereford herd. (“Mother was crushed,” Yetta recalls. “She didn’t like the black bulls.”) They also worked to conserve the land, spraying the mesquite bushes, knocking down the chollo cacti, cleaning the livestock water tanks and setting controlled burns. They also dedicated themselves to paying off the ranch’s hefty debt and gaining title to the Mesa Rica. And during a period of good rainfall, increasing calf weights and a favorable beef market, the Bidegains accomplished their goal.

“I think we just lucked out,” Yetta says. “Everything just worked right. The cattle prices were going up. We benefited from good management of the ranch, as well.”

Today, Phillip and Yetta’s son, Phil, manages the T4.

ImageCows and calves begin spilling down the steep, dusty road. Phil falls in behind, working the drags with three of his men. They give the cattle enough room to walk at an easy pace. Every so often, the men rein their horses off-road in pursuit of cows that have wandered from the trail, but most of the seasoned mother cows know the way.

Following an established route makes things flow more smoothly. That’s how Phil characterizes his current stint as the T4 manager.

“When I took over, it was running pretty smooth,” he says. “I’ve just fine-tuned some things.”

Phil, who is tall in stature but short with his words, downplays his impact. Nevertheless, the ranch has greatly benefited from his knowledge of the land and the cattle business. After growing up working on the T4, Phil, like his parents, attended the University of Arizona. He competed on the rodeo team in calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling, and majored in range management.

“You need a college education these days,” Phil says. “And it’s not because of the knowledge you gain. It’s the thought processes that you learn in college. The problem solving.

“Ranching is a lot more complicated than it used to be. There are so many regulations. And you’ve got to change with the world or you’ll get left behind.”
While at college, Phil met his wife, Laurie, a California-raised horsewoman who loved to rope. They married in 1972 and soon began working on the T4. Phil started out as just a cowboy, and during the course of 20-plus years worked his way into management.

“When I came back, I was happy just to be back at the ranch,” he says.

Phil and Laurie raised two boys, both now married and actively working on the T4. Donnie, with wife Lacey and their 2-year-old daughter, Haylie, operates the farming division of the ranch. The division raises alfalfa and wheat hay.

Scott, with wife Brooke and their 1-year-old daughter, Addison, works as the assistant manager of cattle operations.

Laurie has also remained heavily involved. Much of her contribution lies in the ranch’s improving horse program.

“She married me for my horses, and now she has all of them,” Phil jokes.

The T4 ranch has been breeding Quarter Horses continuously since 1942. Its broodmare band consists of 12 mares by either Cardinals Hired Hand or Young Gun. Its stallion, Shorty Mio, is by Shorty Lena and out of Little Tassa Mia, by Freckles Playboy.

The Bidegains purchased “Mio” as a yearling from Jim and Mary Jo Reno of Texas. A few years later, they sent him to reined cow horse trainer Ted Robinson, who showed the horse at the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity in 2004. It was the T4’s first venture into promoting a stallion at a premier event.
During the Snaffle Bit preliminaries, Mio scored a 218 in the herd work and a 214 in the reining, but tough luck in the fence work kept him from advancing to the final round. After his brief show career, the stallion returned to New Mexico to handle herd sire duties.

“Our horse program doesn’t really have a budget because it’s such a small part of the ranch,” Laurie says. “So going to Teddy was a huge expense for us. But we thought Mio was pretty special when we bought him. We wanted to see if he really was, and to see if we’re going the right way with our breeding.”

The Bidegains believe the 7-year-old stallion’s foals will possess the ability, cow sense and durability to handle all kinds of ranch work. The outfit keeps a remuda of 45 to 50 horses and regularly employs eight to 10 full-time cowboys, who use horses for nearly everything they do.

With today’s fuel prices, working horseback has become all the more crucial. Phil says one key to successful ranching is avoiding too much overhead. It’s also understanding that owning a large ranch doesn’t translate to lavish living.

“You have to keep expenses down,” he says. “You can’t spend a lot of money or travel a lot.”

Laurie adds that they spend what they make on the cows, because it is the cattle that generate the ranch’s income.

Today, the T4 is caught in the midst of yet another drought. It’s just something that seasoned ranchers learn to deal with.

“I’ve gotten to be like an old cow,” Yetta says. “I don’t remember how much rain we got last year. I just take what we got and go on with it.”

Phillip, Yetta, Phil and Laurie all hope the T4 can endure for many more years. It’s difficult to predict what factors will contribute to success, but Phil believes that owning and managing such a place requires uncommon fortitude and a true connection to the land.

“You can make a lot more money doing something else besides ranching,” Phil says. “It takes a certain kind of person even to work on a ranch, much less manage one. You got to have an instinct—the common sense and understanding of the most efficient way to do things.

“It takes a while to learn the land,” he continues. “Each ranch is a different environment, so you have to adapt to the environment. It’s not something they can teach you in school. It comes from hands-on experience.”


Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.