By Colleen Schreiber
ROTAN, Texas When talk turns to cutting horses, the name Buster Welch isnt far behind. After all, Welch has won the National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity a mere five times. It might be assumed that for someone like Welch, working with cutting horses is his life.
Far from it.
Buster Welch doesnt hesitate when he says that ranching is really where his heart is.
"Id take ranching 10 to one over training cutting horses," he says. "Its just more fulfilling. Training cutting horses well, that would be like if you love to dance, but dancing wouldnt be your life.
"I love to ride a good horse," he continues, "and I love to work cattle, and I double love to work cattle on a good horse."
Welch has used his talents as a horseman as a means to the end to become the best rancher and cowman he could. Land and cattle, he admits, have made him money, but he adds: "Ive made a living with horses."
Ever since he can remember, all Welch ever wanted to do was ranch.
"When I was a little kid, I would play with corncobs as cows, and bottles as horses, and strings and sticks, and I would brand those corncobs," he recalls. "I couldnt figure out why my older brothers wouldnt play with me, and I remember thinking, I hope I never get too old that I dont enjoy this. I thought they were really being deprived."
Welch, born in 1928, basically grew up in a bunkhouse. His mother died three weeks after he was born, and an aunt and uncle raised him for a year before he went to live with his grandparents at Sterling City.
His dad had gone to work for Atlantic Richfield out of Midland. He started out riding the pipeline horseback and then moved up to tank boss. After his father remarried, he sent for his young son. Welch says he never quite fit in with his new family; he missed his grandparents stockfarm and he particularly didnt like school.
As was tradition back then, Welch started day working at a very young age.
"The war was coming on," he recalls, "and ranchers were all needing help. You could take your saddle and bedroll down to the Scarborough Hotel and hire out for the weekend. I made $5 a day. Kids back then were broke to work; we knew how to work," Welch says.
The youngster was particularly fond of broncs. He got his schooling, he says, while perched high up in a mesquite tree in the middle of the bronc pen at his grandfathers place. He watched his brothers and cousins break many a horse from that perch.
"They were pretty crude in their horse breaking," Welch recalls. "They just kind of eared them down, got a saddle on them and wore em down until they got them going."
Welch built a reputation as a bronc buster while he was in his early teens. He was hired by Frank Midkiff to ride a few colts and do the chores while Midkiff and his wife were on vacation one summer.
Midkiff had a horse, Handsome Harry, that he got out of Arizona. Welch had heard tales about the horse, that he was bad to buck, but he rode him. He traded work for the horse. Handsome Harry never completely quit pitching.
Welch had started back to school that fall when he heard that Foy and Leonard Proctor had some horses to break. One night around midnight, Welch saddled Handsome Harry, put everything he owned on his horse, and left home for good at the tender age of 14.
There was a cold, wet, south wind blowing, Welch recalls, and Handsome Harry went to pitching so bad that he tore all the buttons off his sheepskin coat. He rode all night holding his coat closed against that south wind. It was 45 miles to the Proctor ranch.
The Proctors were one of the largest outfits in the area at the time. "Foy and Leonard Proctor were probably the best and most successful cowmen that Midland ever produced," Welch opined. "There was a saying around Midland that the Proctors and bitterweed were taking everything south of the Texas and Pacific Railroad."
Foy and Leonard Proctor, Welch says, were mentors of sorts.
"Foy had the most phenomenal sense or vision for where things were going. I learned a lot just by listening to him talk and by observing. I didnt get it that good then," he recalls, "but then as I got older and more experienced, I would find myself saying, ah ... thats what they were talking about. Theres a saying that knowledge comes through studying and working hard, but wisdom comes from observing."
The Proctors, Welch says, were not only good cowmen, they were excellent horsemen as well.
"My job was to hold the cuts or jingle the horses. I got to noticing how Foy and Leonard worked cattle horseback. I noticed how Foy and Leonards cows would always come straight to me and they would keep a cow coming to me all the time. The other guys who were cutting did a lot of circling and running. I noticed that Foys and Leonards horses would run, stop straight and come back over themselves, and that cow would stay there. Thats how I started training my horses," Welch says.
Welch stayed on with the Proctors for about two years. He hired on with several other ranches and broke many a wild bronc. He worked for a time in far West Texas, at Kent, for Reynolds Cattle Company. They had 120 unbroke horses that he was hired to ride.
Welch says he could get eight horses staked by the middle of the evening. The next morning he hobbled them and then he would "sack them and wool them," and when he could get on and off without them getting upset, he would take the stake hackamore off and put his riding hackamore on. He would then let their foot down, unhobble them and climb in the saddle. Welch says for a while the horse would just stand there, but once he realized that he was no longer tied to the stake, he would take off.
"I would let them run, going off down towards Mescalero Flats. Very few ever bucked as long as you didnt pull on their head. Id try never to whip or spur them, and after about three or four saddles coming off the stake, they were ready to put in with the rest of the remuda."
He also spent some time in New Mexico breaking horses for various ranchers. The man who helped him get started more than anyone, Welch says, was Warren Shoemaker. He let Welch break some horses for him and then allowed him to start running a few cows. But it was his horse, Chickasha Mike, that really began providing him with some extra income. Welch bought Chickasha Mike range delivered off Homer Ingram.
"He never had a hand laid on him," Welch says. "I broke him in the fall, and by December he was the best cutting horse I had ever seen."
He began competing extensively in cutting competitions and was winning everything all around. That cash flow allowed Welch to really get started in the ranch business in a significant way.
He eventually moved back to the Midland area, where he continued riding outside horses, running leased country and competing in every cutting competition.
Welch won his first National Cutting Horse Association World Championship Futurity in 1954 on Marions Girl. The horse belonged to Gerald Nobles, and Buster Cole had helped start her.
Marions Girl was out of a King Ranch stud, Silver Wimpy. Her mother was a Tallwood mare, noted to be cow horses with a lot of speed.
"That mare was really natural," Welch says. "She taught me a whole lot more than I taught her."
From that point forward, cutting horse enthusiasts seldom talked about a cutting event without Buster Welchs name being mentioned. He continued to win, and with his earnings he grew in the ranch business. At one time he was running as many as 1400 mother cows, and at times as many as 5000 yearlings on wheat on leased and owned country all over Texas.
Much later, Welch was commissioned to ride Mr. San Peppy. At the time the horse was owned by G.B. Howell out of El Paso. His trainer, Bubba Casio, asked Welch to ride the horse for a couple of months. Welch and Mr. San Peppy took center stage again.
Welch knew that if and when Howell decided to sell Mr. San Peppy it would be for a substantial figure, but in the end it was a figure even he hadnt expected. Welch purchased him for $50,000, a sum likely considered more than a little substantial even by todays standards.
"Id wake up for several weeks after that, sit straight up in bed and say, $50,000!"
Welch leased the horse to the King Ranch with an option to buy in 1973. When he sold the horse, Welch took a job as a consultant on the King Ranch. He trained horses, and "did a whole lot of managing." The ranch had more than 2500 horses when he started there. Welch says he intended to stay only a year, but one year turned into 15. He finally decided to slow down after he had triple bypass surgery.
"It was one of the most challenging jobs and interesting places Id ever been, and when I left I still felt like a tourist."
There have been other horses. Little Peppy, Welch says, was the most famous. He won the Futurity and the Derby on him, and hes still the leading money-winning horse.
"He was just mercury," Welch says of Little Peppy. "He was so athletic and so smart and so cool-headed, and just a beautiful horse."
Welch says there are not many outstanding cutting horses, but there is a world of good ones.
When asked the difference between an outstanding cutting horse and a good one, Welch says, "I know it when I see it. Its really hard to describe, but its something that horse has in his heart and mind."
When Welch and his wife, Sheila, also a champion in the cutting horse arena, were really going strong, they might only be home for two weeks out of the year. The couple continues to train cutting horses and compete in various competitions, but theyve slowed their pace just a bit.
"Were still holding our own, even though were competing against a bunch of kids," Sheila says. "We dont get out and work at it like we used to. Its more for recreation today."
"Its so disruptive to ranching," Welch admits. "A good friend of mine, John Scott, says, You can train horses and do other things, but you cant do other things and train horses. Id say hes right."
Today Welch is in a three-way partnership on the 50,000 acre Double Mountain River Ranch near Rotan. It has been his headquarters operation for the past 12 years.
When they first moved here, Welch kept the wagon out for extended periods of time, in part to gather the wild cattle off the place, but also so that he could better learn his new country.
During the spring and fall work, Welch still does things the old fashioned way. The cattle are always handled horseback. He never tries to sook them with feed sacks or by horn. Instead, he gathers them without chousing and moves them in such a fashion that the calves stay mammied up. Calves are roped and dragged to the branding fire. Welch hires a camp cook for the gathering, and the entire crew camps at the wagon during that time.
Handling cattle in this manner, Welch says, makes for a gentler herd, and when the calves are shipped, sickness is kept at a minimum.
Welch says that after about three days of being out with the wagon, hes able to see things hes been overlooking for six months.
"With our size, we have to be real efficient, and I think in that situation its even more important to stay out and get to know your country," Welch says. "We have a one-way ticket to ranching. We have to make it work, and we cant wait three years before we figure out something isnt working."
Welch runs a fall and spring calving operation. This allows him to turn two paychecks rather than the traditional one, which Welch says allows him to be a better financial manager. It also allows him to use his bulls twice a year. Possibly more important is that it allows Welch to hit two different markets.
Welch says its cheaper to raise a spring calf, but a fall calf will outweigh the spring calf and will bring more money.
The cost to raise a calf in his country is highly variable, but his records indicate that it costs anywhere from $350 to $400, year in and year out.
For the past several years, hes run a Limousin-Angus cross cow, but now hes shifting more to Angus bloodlines. This year all his calves will be three-quarter Angus.
The bulls are left out for 45 days. Most recently, Welch has been using Gardiner Angus bulls, a family-owned outfit out of Ashland, Kansas.
"I want my bulls to have a good deal of scale and growth to them. I want a thick bull that has some good legs under him," Welch remarks.
EPDs, he says, are one of the best tools available, but Welch admits that he was against the technology when it first came out.
"I thought it was a marketing tool and a gimmick," Welch recalls. "I thought the eye was the best tool. You still have to have that eye," he continues, "because if they dont look right theyre not going to produce what you want."
Spring calves start coming the end of January and traditionally wean on average 600 pounds right off the cow. Fall calves start coming in September and are weaned sometime in June or July. Welch used to ship his fall calves the first of July, but he says the market keeps moving back. In addition, his calves are getting bigger, so now he ships more often in June. This past set of fall calves loaded on the trucks weighing 700 pounds and were sold to Bob Miller at Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Welch calves his heifers as coming twos. He runs a low-EPD Angus bull, but even with that, he says, calves out of those heifers weigh within 50 pounds of the older cows calves.
Hes also pleased that 80 to 85 percent of the heifers are bred in the first 45 days and he gets a 95 percent or better breed-back.
In selecting for replacements, Welch wants a "gentle, thin-shouldered heifer that has a good thick hip and a nice balanced udder."
Welch keeps a good set of records on all his cows. Each has her own identification number along with a year brand. For management purposes, the cows are separated according to age until theyre four.
His cows have been bred up to fit the country they live in. He contends that his Angus cross cattle will work his rough country better than a Brahman cow. The rougher country is where he runs his spring calvers.
Welch doesnt believe in pampering his cattle.
"These spring calving cows have their work clothes on right now," he explains. "Theyre making it on protein blocks, eating about two pounds per head per day. I dont want to pamper them, because then they wont go on grass as well."
His fall cows tend to stay in a little better shape, and he does supplement them through the winter months. He starts them out on about four pounds of cake and gradually works up to six pounds of 39 percent cake every other day.
Welch stocks his country rather conservatively at about 40 acres to the cow, but hes found that he makes more money that way.
"When these cattle use up the easy grass, they go into the rougher country," he explains. "I figure I can stay about a year longer than people who ranch in the flatter country, but you have to stock accordingly," Welch adds.
Hes been in a four or five year drouth, and yet he has plenty of grass. His best grass, of course, depends on the time of year.
"What cattle get fat on quicker is spring weeds," Welch remarks.
His cattle, he says, do really well on filaree. He also has wild rye, hooded windmill, sand dropseed and several of the good grama grasses, but one of his favorite grasses, he says, is plains bristle grass.
Welch doesnt rotate because of the roughness of his country. He does believe in resting pastures, however.
"This country wouldnt lend itself to rotation," Welch says. "You need to leave a set of cows in the same country, because its hard for them to learn how to work it. Younger cattle dont utilize rougher country as well as the older ones," he adds.
Brush, cedar as well as mesquite, is a big problem. Welch tries to do brush work on about 1000 acres a year.
"Were not hoping to up the carrying capacity, just hoping to maintain it," he explains.
Most often Welch ships his calves right off the cow. He has fed his calves a couple of times, and hes making good use of the feedback from feeder and packer.
For the last 10 or so years, Welch has had a deal working with Coleman Natural Beef out of Denver.
He quit implanting his calves before he started selling to Coleman. Implants, in his opinion, simply help the poorer quality cattle do better, which in the long run is bad for the industry.
"Were primarily interested in producing lean, high-yielding, marbled beef that will taste good to the consumer."
Welch gets a premium for his cattle when he follows the natural program, but feeding cattle in this program, he admits, costs about 13 cents a pound more. The obvious cost is the cost of not getting the gain from the implant. Another cost is that animals on this kind of program, Welch says, cant be fed as hot a ration as those on a generic feed program because their livers cant handle it.
Like most in the ranch business, Welch has had his share of ups and downs, and hes experienced the changes in the industry first-hand.
He ranched through the 1950s drouth and went broke three or four times. On the other hand, he says philosophically, "I started broke."
Welch says he never realized the changes that had taken place in the countryside until he read Elmer Keltons, The Time It Never Rained.
"I kept thinking that when the drouth broke, it would be just like before," he recalls. "It was changed 400 percent and forever."
Another big change hes experienced is the concentration of the big packers and commercial feedlots, but one of the worst changes, he opines, is the "mongrelization of the cattle."
"For instance, I have a set of yearlings running on wheat. Right now theyre all pretty uniform. I bought them weighing 325 pounds, but before I get them to weighing 800
pounds, there will be a dog from every town in them. Theyll be all sizes, all shapes, and none of them will feed alike."
His children and grandchildren all love to be involved in the ranch business. Work ethics, integrity, energy and intelligence, Welch says, are the things hes tried to pass on to them.
"If theyre going to be short on any of those, Id rather it be intelligence."
Welch says hes not surprised where he is today thankful, but not surprised.
"I expected to get here," he says. "I just got here different. Ive always been happy being around horses, cattle and the people who like to do that, and the better they are at it, the better I enjoy it."
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