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Veteran Sailor cuts hair and stocking rates to survive drought

By Donnie Lunsford, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist  ♦ January 2021

The year was 1969 when a baby-faced Guy Phillips joined the U.S. Navy so he could see the world. He didn’t care that it was the height of Vietnam; he just wanted to see and experience the world. While serving his country, he was trained to serve as a barber.

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

Philips cut hair on Navy ships during the Vietnam Era and continues to sharpen his skills today, providing people with the classic barber style haircut for more than 40 years. After his tour of duty ended in August of 1973, he returned to his hometown of Brady, Texas with his high school sweetheart bride and new son to begin a life on land.

When his father passed away unexpectedly in 1987, Phillips took over the farm that he grew up on. From that moment, he decided he didn’t want to farm but rather to raise cattle by planting the farm to grasses.

White male standing next to an ATV outside.





Phillips trims the pasture with his tools while working on the ranch. A bottle of herbicide is his first tool to keep any unwanted brush saplings from taking over pastures.                                                         

“My father was a great farmer, but he ruined me as a child through plowing, so I decided I didn’t want to plow anymore,” Phillips said then chuckled. “I don’t mind spending time in a tractor haying and spraying for weeds to keep my cows fed and healthy year-round, especially when we turn dry like we do more often than not.”

And although Phillips proved himself to be diligent in his duties, whether on land or at sea, Mother Nature continued to challenge him to make tough decisions.

“Drought is on every farmer and rancher’s mind no matter what, and we will experience drought that comes without warning,” Phillips said. “It’s just like my Navy days as a barber, I still had to know how to be a sailor first especially when things went sideways.”

Living through a drought

The drought of 2011 was the worst many had seen in their lifetime. According to the National Weather Service, 2011 was Texas' driest year on record as well as its second hottest. Not knowing if the rain you just received will be your last for a while, a farmer or rancher must learn to keep this in mind when developing a management strategy.

“As a grass farmer, which all ranchers truly are, we have to make sure our pastures are healthy by grazing properly by watching grazing heights. At four to six inches of most of my grasses is when I to decide to move my cattle,” Phillips said. “I am guilty of probably culling my herd too quickly, but I know that if I abuse my land, it will take me years to get it back to where it is today.”

Phillips prioritizes grazing management by using a rotational grazing system. This management system allows perennial grasses rest as much possible after each grazing period. Resting lets the plant recover, replenishing root storages needed for plant growth and vigor.  His drought plan is strictly followed to ensure his management goals and objectives are achieved. 

Phillips credits the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in assisting him with a conservation plan that is evaluated annually to help him stay on the right path. NRCS has been helping Phillips since he first took over the ranch. It started with planning and installing a pond. From there, a valuable relationship was forged.

“In 2011, receiving no measurable rain and the pond drying up quickly, I had to sell off my herd of 60 to just a handful which is a hard decision because you grow fond of your good mommas but you must always remember you can harm the land quickly by overgrazing,” Phillips said. “If I don’t have water and feed, the cattle need their groceries and it is going to take years to get my ranch and the plant community that I have worked so hard for many years to get back to where it was. That is what I think stewardship is all about.”

Cutting out the brush

An epic battle ranchers fight is brush. It is one that is fought everyday with many different tools at different times of the year. Sometimes, ranchers can feel like brush management is a losing battle and others might feel like they are just staying slightly ahead working to keep the brush where it needs to be.

“Finding the happy medium of brush management and open pastures for grazing is my goal, especially for both cattle and my wildlife,” Phillips said. “I try to keep plenty of shelter for not just deer, but my upland birds like quail and turkey. I won’t let anyone hunt my quail or turkey because their populations fluctuate year to year.”

Phillips knows a thing or two about keeping things trimmed up both as a barber and a rancher.

He drives through his pastures and decides if the little saplings get to stay or go. He will use both mechanical and chemical treatment based on what the plant or pasture needs. Sometimes he will give them a cut to create shelter for his quail, shade for cattle and just a little bit of other cover too.

“I keep a spray bottle of herbicide in my UTV at all times so I can spray when I see something is needed to be cut out of the pasture,” explained Phillips. “I find it is the best way to fight brush. Keeping the brush down and all new invasive saplings sprayed, it won’t be such a big problem in the future for my son and granddaughter.”

This is a battle he wants to win.

He has teamed up with Texas A&M AgriLife and a chemical manufacturer and allowed them to run test plots in some areas to test the effectiveness rates of some herbicides. He knows this will help others learn how to keep the fight going on their ranch. He even invited the Texas AgriLife Extension agent to host a workshop on his ranch to feature some of the management practices that are working for him. Spraying equipment, chemical types, and actual application gets discussed so area ranchers can effectively deal with brush.

“I am happy to have everyone at my ranch to see what is working for me and see my watering system, new high tensile fencing installation, and equipment needed to fight the brush,” Phillips explains. “We have some really good resources available to us as farmers and ranchers like the Texas A&M Extension and the NRCS because they know what works and when it works.”

Phillips continues, “I always ask successful ranchers, NRCS, AgriLife, and other specialists to make sure I do the right thing. When someone comes and sits in my chair for a haircut, often I will discuss what is working for them on their ranch and they see if I have any tricks up my sleeve that have been working too. It’s weird to think that I am one of the old timers giving my advice when it seems like yesterday, I was taking over the ranch.”

Water for wildlife

With drought, everything suffers -- cattle, deer, quail, and insects. Every living thing needs water to survive. Fortunately, Phillips only has one well and some surface water including an earthen tank wildlife and livestock can utilize.

“One of the first things we did with the NRCS was building a reservoir to get my water resources in control,” said Philips. “Later, I was able to get a good well, and now I have expanded using roof runoff with World War II water tanks my father had kept around and old plow disks to make wildlife waterers using drip emitters.”

After a little research, Philips met with Billy Kniffen, a rainwater specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service to discuss how he could catch water for quail and some of the other smaller wildlife species. He used old 650-gallon scrap tanks and built some roof structures. These structures double as shade for cattle while catching the rainwater to provide drinking water for livestock and wildlife in areas where water sources are scarce.

“Keeping everything on my ranch healthy is a priority, which includes all of my wildlife, not just the deer,” said Phillips. “With a little bit of recycling old equipment, I am able to increase my water sources without drilling more wells and really focusing on a long-term plan.”

Size does matter

For more than 50 years, cattle have increased in size from an average of 1,000 pounds to 1,400 pounds or more according to a study by Texas AgriLife Research.  Selecting smaller cattle and weaning weights are part of a management strategy that Phillips continues to follow when selecting bulls and keeping replacement heifers.

“If you’re ranching, you have a responsibility to take care of your animals to make sure they are healthy and productive,” Phillips explained. “I choose to run smaller cattle since we calve in the fall and don’t want to draw down the mommas health too much to keep her productive and her calf healthy too.”

Phillips looks at their body condition to judge the health of his cattle. While driving around the pasture, he looks for ribs, spine, or hip bones showing being his key determination in animal health.

“I will supplement feed during the dormant season with range cubes and I keep mineral and salt out year-round to make sure they are getting everything they need to stay healthy,” Phillips said. “I keep my eye on my animals, plants, wildlife and rainfall to make an informed decision on rotation and implementing our drought plan.”

Family is the tie that binds

The Phillips Ranch is a family legacy. It’s a place where the family gathers for holidays, vacations, work weekends, and getaways. It’s a place where you can hear the birds, feel the sun on your face, forget the sounds of the city and get your mind right when it needs it.

“I try to take care of this ranch to leave it better than the way I received it, and my father did the same thing,” said Philips. “My son and granddaughter will be well prepared and continue our family tradition of taking care of our land and our resources just like their fathers’ father before them.”

“Guy Phillips is conscientious in all of the actions he takes in his operation while not being afraid to try something new and thinking out of the box,” said Rode Mills, NRCS rangeland management specialist. “He continues to keep his brush maintained, water sources dispersed for both wildlife and livestock, rotates his cattle to improve his grasses and uses a diverse seed mix to reestablish areas that were covered in brush.”

The Phillips family helps on the ranch even though his son has his own career. Phillips consults his family when making decisions and is passing down his knowledge, so they understand how everything on the ranch works.

“My goal is to help my son or granddaughter know why I do certain things the way I do them and know where everything is because when I quickly had to take over the ranch when my father passed unexpectedly, I didn’t even know where the waterlines were so I don’t want to leave them that.”

Phillips continued, “I joined the Navy to see the world and I came back to the family ranch to pass on a legacy of stewardship.”