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Ranching still way of life on Katy Prairie despite urban sprawl

Ranching still way of life on Katy Prairie despite urban sprawl

Story by Beverly Moseley

Located west of Houston, the Katy Prairie has been home to Raymond Dollins� family ranch for decades. The prairie soil nourishes the ranch�s crops, forages and cattle that provide his living.

He knows first-hand the challenges farmers and ranchers face � drought, floods and swings in commodity prices. He has stayed the course. It�s in his blood. It�s a way of life.

Today, his way of life is slowly being threatened as housing subdivisions encroach on the ranch�s borders where he farms his rice, raises his cattle and works to be a steward of the land leaving it better off than he found it.

�All my life I�ve just enjoyed reaching total production of this land. Whether it�s beef, crops, whatever,� said Dollins. �We have to watch the economics of it real, real close because that�s the way we make our living - feeding people.�

Trey Bethke, a district conservationist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is familiar with Dollins� respect for the land. Bethke has worked with him over the years through Farm Bill programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

�He�s interested in the productive capabilities of the piece of property, but he�s also interested in the quality of the place and more than just the ability to raise cows on it. He wants to see a good thing for the wildlife, he wants to see good soil quality, water quality � all those things,� Bethke said.

Resources and rice

Dollins passion for the land can be heard in his voice as he drives across rice levees with two-story houses rising in the distance. A smile crosses his face as he talks about what he enjoys most � �watching things grow.�
Some of the fields are holding water and have rice growing. Cattle are grazing fallow rice fields.

�The Katy Prairie is the best for rice farming and cattle,� Dollins said.

Water is a valued commodity on the ranch. Pumped water is used on rice fields, which can be costly. Canal water is not available. In the 1990s, to conserve water and reduce input costs, Dollins laser-leveled his rice fields for more uniform water distribution.

�It saves 20 to 25 percent (costs) by lasering our ground and then we�ll save another 20 percent by zero grade,� he noted.

The 18 to 24 inch topsoil and clay base under the fields also help hold water.

�Water cost is something we�ve had to watch real, real close,� Dollins said.

He said optimizing production yields, along with working closely with Texas A&M University plant breeders, while keeping a close eye on production costs, has kept the family in business.

�What�s kept us in business here is our yield, our production. We have some of the highest producing land around. But, we have to because our costs are higher,� he said.

Along with precision leveling a rice field through the EQIP program, Dollins has participated in other conservation program practices such as cross-fencing and brush control on grazing pastures. He also generally rotates a field one year in rice and two years in cattle.

�I think range management and what that entails for the cattle operation has helped us as much as anything with NRCS,� he said.

Cattle and wildlife

Cattle and wildlife share the Katy Pairie landscape with the Dollins family. Wildlife such as deer, Bobwhite quail, jack rabbits, ducks and geese utilize the ranch�s habitat.

�Now that�s one thing we lease this country for, hunting, but they can�t shoot a quail and they can�t shoot a jack rabbit,� Dollins said.

His commercial and purebred cattle can be found grazing in the long shadow of urbanization.

�Whenever you raised a 400-pound calf on this Katy Prairie years ago, that was unbelievable,� Dollins said. �Now we�re raising 600-to 700-pound calves.�

By crossing F1 tiger strips and Brangus females with Charolais bulls, he has seen increased weaning weights of 75 to 100 pounds.

�Tiger strips and Brangus cattle on the prairie are the best cross with Charolais bulls and we use that to raise more pounds per acre,� he said.

He likes to have at least 50 percent Brahman influence in his cattle, because of the prairie�s heat, humidity and insects.

�That�s why our Braford cows and our Brangus cows do so well bred back to Charolais bulls,� he added.

When buying a bull, Dollins does utilize Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs). Traits he looks for on an EPD include calf size at birth and weaning weight. He also looks at the paternity and the milking ability on the female side.

�I�d always been taught that the bull is the cheapest way to improve your herd, so we watch performance testing in all our bulls that we purchase,� he said.

They also raise a lot of their own replacement females. He uses Hereford or Brahman bulls on his Brahman females.

�You can�t beat an F1, not for our country,� he said.

Purebred Brahman cattle also provide fond memories for the family. The Dollins� kids showed Brahman cattle from Texas to Florida growing up.

�My wife and daughter are the ones that love the Brahman cattle,� said Dollins.

All in the family

Dollins said he and his wife Elizabeth, who he met during high school in Katy, have been blessed to have been able to raise their family on the ranch. The Dollins� have two daughters, a son and six grandchildren.
�We�ve been very fortunate to be able to raise our family here,� he said.

Their daughter, Polly Barker, lives in Katy with her family and works fulltime on the ranch. She can be found working in the office or out in the field during planting and harvest.

It�s just a handful of people that do all the work on the ranch. Albert Breaux, originally from Louisiana, has worked alongside Dollins for 27 years. He lives on the ranch.

�He�s a good hand. We�ve worked together so long we nearly think alike,� Dollins said.

Dollins said he realizes that farming and ranching on the Katy Prairie in the years to come will present more challenges as urbanization continues its spread.

�I will tell you this. I�ll be in agriculture in some way the rest of my life. I know it. I love it. I feel it,� he said.

The Katy Prairie lies west of Houston and has been home to Raymond Dollins� family ranch for decades.

Urban sprawl has encroached on the ranch�s borders where he farms his rice, raises his cattle and works to be a steward of the land leaving it better off than he found it. Trey Bethke (left) a NRCS district conservationist visits with Dollins as they assess a fallow rice field now being used for grazing cattle.
The Katy Prairie lies west of Houston and has been home to Raymond Dollins� family ranch for decades. Urban sprawl has encroached on the ranch�s borders where he farms his rice, raises his cattle and works to be a steward of the land leaving it better off than he found it. Trey Bethke (left) a NRCS district conservationist visits with Dollins as they assess a fallow rice field now being used for grazing cattle.
 
Raymond Dollins (left) has worked closely over the years with Trey Bethke, a NRCS district conservationist on conservation practices such as precision leveling of rice fields, cross-fencing and brush control. A housing subdivision can be seen on the horizon of a fallow rice field being used for grazing.
Raymond Dollins (left) has worked closely over the years with Trey Bethke, a NRCS district conservationist on conservation practices such as precision leveling of rice fields, cross-fencing and brush control. A housing subdivision can be seen on the horizon of a fallow rice field being used for grazing.
 
Raymond Dollins wades into one of his rice fields.  
Raymond Dollins wades into one of his rice fields.