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Keeping the legacy taught by our father

By Donnie Lunsford, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist  ♦ February 2021

Some people say you can never go home again. That isn’t the case for Rickey Hightower – he never left.  The West Texas rancher and his family live at the same ranch headquarters where he was raised.  But with the help of his wife, Shelly, they don’t farm and ranch the same way their parents did. After years of trials and tribulations, the Hightowers continue to look for ways to increase their holdings and improve their land while raising quality cattle. And those around them are taking notice. In 2019, the Hightowers were selected as Andrews County Conservation Rancher of the Year by the Andrews Soil and Water Conservation Board (SWCD).

Read more about the Hightowers in the ArcGIS Story maps or in the text-only version below.

While growing up on his family ranch in Martin County his entire life, Rickey met a girl from the neighboring county on a blind date and they fell in love and began a family. Today, they still work hand-in-hand raising quality beef and get along great even in high pressure situations like working cattle in the pens. Rickey jokingly says that Shelly is his number one cowboy and he is blessed to work with her every day. They work together or independently, depending on what the tasks are needed that day to care for the land and livestock.

In 2012, the Hightowers leased a very large ranch in Andrews County from the UT Lands properties, which carries with it a lifetime lease. This lease, which they call the L7 Ranch, and their homeplace will be the legacy they plan to keep for generations. Farming and ranching began with Rickey’s father and Shelly’s father was a research scientist focusing on grasses of West Texas.  

“I am a well-travelled man because my entire life I lived at either the house I was raised in or the older house just a quarter mile down the road,” joked Rickey. “I’ve always farmed but my true love is ranching, and that is what we are really getting to do with the L4 Ranch in Andrews.”

Drought stricken from the start

When the Hightowers were awarded their bid from University of Texas System (UT Lands) for the L7 Ranch lease, Texas was still in the drought of 2011 and there wasn’t much forage available for cattle on such a large ranch. They drove the ranch and then went horseback to really get to know the place. As they rode, they recall thinking that they hoped they hadn’t made a huge mistake. The severe drought eventually broke, and they were very blessed as the rains came to give relief to the land and the wildlife that reside there.

“Life in West Texas is living in a drought, and some years it actually rains,” explained Shelly, “More often than not, drought and burn bans is commonplace with a few wet years where we are able to breathe and sleep a bit more.”

One of the first things they did when they began to manage the newly acquired ranch was setting up a grazing plan that included a drought plan on the new ranch. They utilized the knowledge and expertise of the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to develop a conservation plan to encompass all aspects of managing the property. They began to work on repairing water resources, including replacing windmills with solar pumping plants to increase water distribution throughout the ranch. The new conservation plan also called for cross fencing that allowed cattle to rotate throughout pastures to help improve plant communities, soil health, and wildlife habitat. Balancing available forage and livestock demand is always one of their stewardship goals.

“It didn’t really rain until 2013 so for the first year we were just juggling to try to keep the cow herd together by moving them to brushy areas where there was still some grass,” remembered Rickey. “We had just leased this big ranch but were at the lowest numbers and were close to having to sell all of our cattle.”

Finding the balance

As the rains began to fall again, the land started to heal, and their hope started building as plans began to come to fruition. After discussing registered cattle with neighbor, local rancher and friend, Jimmy Sterling, the Hightowers bought their first Akaushi bulls that they began to breed with their black Angus cattle. They then used Heart Brand Beef to direct market their beef. The Akaushi beef is premium quality beef due to better marbling than commercial beef typically.  They brought in these new Akaushi bulls from the eastern part of Texas to the desert. Rickey recalled that the cattle didn’t even know what had happened since they went from lush green grass of East Texas to the brushy part of the Chihuahuan desert.

“I leaned on NRCS District Conservationist Clint LeMay who helped us get through some of the hoops in the programs but more importantly getting our ducks in a row with our conservation plan,” Rickey said. “We are glad to be out of the drought of 2011, but we have to be ready for the next one because the rain you just got might be the last for a long time.”

The Hightowers were able to build miles of cross fencing to help their rotational grazing system, develop and repair water sources, balance the forage and cattle stocking rate, and clear brush in areas that it had overtaken to help move their plant communities to a healthy, functioning system. Conservation and stewardship are synonymous in the management of the Hightowers’ ranches.

“We move our cattle around by making sure our numbers are balanced with the amount of forage that is left,” said Rickey. “We usually can’t tell if you have too many or not enough. You must start looking at things based on the next F-word which is Fire. We had a few fires come through and we get so dry and it gets dangerous when we have high fuel loads.”

Part of their grazing management is making sure the cows are safe from wildfire and keeping grazing controlled. Wildfire mitigation is a big concern with constant oil field traffic, welding, natural gas flares, and other hazards that can cause a fire. Most people remember the devastating wildfires of 2011 after having a decent rain the prior year and then turning dry. It was a recipe for a wildfire disaster across the state, including Andrews County’s Frying Pan Ranch Fire burning more than 300,000 acres with hundreds of cattle dying in the blaze. This is the “Art and Science” of grazing management and the juggling act that often occurs.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have that ranch when the devastating fire hit however it came a half mile from our house jumping highways and burned more than 87,000 acres in one afternoon with more than 300K acres that day,” explained Ricky. “It just ran too fast with the high winds and losing cattle in a fire hurts your soul so it’s always on your mind and needs to be in your management plan.”

Getting the homeplace back in the family

Back in the 1980s, Rickey’s father lost his ranch due to drought, hard economic times with prices of crops plummeting, and high interest rates. The ranch he grew up on was lost. This always weighed heavy on Rickey’s heart. He watched the man that taught him how to farm and ranch lose almost everything.

“Before my father passed, our dream was to get the ranch back that was busted out from under him and we were able to get some of the land back and that filled his soul,” explained Rickey.

Ranching and farming are in both Rickey and Shelly’s bones. When they saw the opportunity to get the L4 Ranch, they saw this as an opportunity to expand their legacy to their children, grandchildren, and hopefully great grandchildren. The bond of family and marriage keeps the ranch going and fulfills Shelly’s dream.

“When I was a little girl, I told my momma I was going to marry me a rancher, so dreams take a while to happen, but I did it,” said Shelley. “Working on the ranch is like vacation especially with your husband and family; it delights our souls.”

Tragedy strikes but the ranching legacy remains

On February 16, 2020, tragedy struck when Rickey passed away unexpectedly. Losing the patriarch of any family is tough and a void is left. In this case, Rickey’s number one cowboy is filling those boots with their children stepping in to help to continue to move this legacy forward and in the ranching philosophy Rickey spoke about before his passing. Shelly remains the decision maker with her sons and daughter stepping up to help with management and day-to-day operations of the ranches.

“Four months before Rickey passed, our youngest son, Ross, came to work with us at the ranch leaving his oil field career which in hindsight was a blessing from God,” said Shelly. “He was able to work with us and learn the ropes to see where Rickey was steering our management and day-to-day operations. He even brought some things to our attention that Rickey and I hadn’t really thought about.”

Shelly has moved a house to the L7 Ranch allowing her son to take over the homeplace house just like Rickey and she had done. Her other son, Cody Hightower, and daughter, Ami Lowder, have their own careers but still help with the ranching when they can. All six grandchildren come and help too so they know what to do when it is their turn to take the reins.

“We try to start our kids and now grandchildren young when raising livestock through 4-H and FFA as show animals. It gives them responsibility and to know how to treat God’s creatures with love and integrity. Plus, I like to spend time with them going to goat camp and can’t wait to see them in the arena with the animal they have raised.”

Shelly continued, “I know Rickey is looking down at us proud with that big smile knowing we are keeping things going in the correct direction. We have big boots to fill, and we are proud to step in them and saddle up to keep on ranching.”

Shelly looks fondly at Rickey as they discuss their installation of more than 5 miles of fence to assist with their rotational grazing system.Shelly looks fondly at Rickey as they discuss their installation of more than 5 miles of fence to assist with their rotational grazing system.