Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

The business brought them home

Quenna Terry for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2018
Michael Wilson and Dan and Tom Griffin

Ranching is deep-rooted in some folks and, for the Griffin family in west Texas, it goes back five generations with their hope of a sixth generation growing the passion they have for living on the land.

In 1926, Thomas Louis Griffin began the family ranching operation in the Great Plains region where the Llano Estacado encompasses the far northwestern portion of Borden County and western half of Howard County.

Generations followed and, today, Thomas Lane Griffin and his three sons, Tom, Dan and Ben, operate and manage their successful ranching businesses on an estimated 43 sections in Howard, Borden, Oldham and Hartley counties.

Although the thought of it carries a sentiment for the future of the ranch, it’s more than a tradition and heritage for this family: It’s what they choose to do.

Younger generation fills a gap

Tom, Dan and Ben made their way back to the ranches after each of them earned degrees from Texas Tech University. One by one, they graduated from college and returned to the life they knew growing up. Tom and Dan manage the land in the southern counties, and Ben manages the family land in the northern Panhandle region near Channing.

According to the Texas Land Trends demographic data highlights for 2017, over the next decade, Texas will experience the largest intergenerational land transfer and potential change in land use to date. Aging rural landowners in Texas will soon transfer working lands to younger generations and first-time landowners. The Griffin family is fortunate this younger generation has been learning the business firsthand from an early age.

While Tom, Dan and Ben have begun their ranching career, their dad and other family members are still involved in the day-to-day workings of the ranches.

Tom says, “We all own the operations of the ranches and work together.” They each agree their dad’s experience is invaluable, and he is open to ideas.

“We want his opinion, and we value it,” says Ben. “Ultimately, Dad still makes the final decisions, and it’s nice because he has a bank of knowledge.”

When asked if working with family in a ranching business has its challenges, Ben says, “You can trust everybody, and you start to appreciate your brothers when you get a little older.” Dan adds with a smile, “We all make it work because you can’t fire anyone.”

Making more with conservation

With ranching in their blood, each of them have an interest in taking care of the land and the environment. Applying conservation practices is a natural piece of their management, so it makes sense they reached out to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

In the ’80s and ’90s, Thomas Lane Griffin Sr. first worked through the NRCS to install different practices such as cross fencing and brush control measures with retired NRCS district conservationist Kevin Wright on the portion of their operation near Snyder. Tom says his dad was always interested in pursuing conservation programs when they were needed.

Wright knew the family well and was aware of their conservation ethics after helping them with multiple conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. He was sure they would be a good candidate for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

Angus cattle

CSP is unique for its comprehensive approach to conservation assistance where producers enroll their operation and are rewarded both for actively managing conservation activities and maintaining high stewardship levels, as well as for implementing additional conservation activities over the course of the agreement.

Since Wright’s retirement several years ago, NRCS district conservationists Michael Willson in Snyder and Kendall Tidwell in Vega have worked with the Griffin brothers for their technical and financial assistance needs.

By performing at a high level of land stewardship and using a conservation-minded approach, the Griffins were awarded CSP contracts by NRCS in 2013.

The operations are unique since they work their own land, yet they help each other and confer with their dad, Griffin Sr. Each of the brothers are participating in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and CSP, including being identified as a beginning farmer and rancher through NRCS. Maps created by NRCS have also helped provide them the ease of documenting for their enhancements in the CSP program.

Technology is also a big part of their operation, and they admit it has changed their world. They are equipped with advancements in technology to communicate at almost any time and any place on the ranch, as well as pinpointing locations for mapping on demand.

“They use text messaging and smartphone apps to discuss various practice applications, and their ability and willingness to use this technology saves time on both ends. I think we communicate more using technology,” says Willson.

Stewardship is a lifestyle

Conservation stewardship isn’t something the Griffin brothers had to learn; it is something they have lived. It’s a motivation and desire of wanting to make the land better than it was before.

They have each put forth a lot of effort into learning more about grazing management, including quantity and quality for plant structure and composition for wildlife, prescribed fire options and other conservation practices.

Matt Coffman, NRCS rangeland management specialist in Snyder, worked directly with Tom and Dan to provide technical assistance in developing three prescribed fire burn plans in 2015 and 2016.

“The prescribed fire helped to extend the results of their grubbing in 2006 and improve forage quality of the grasses already established,” says Coffman. “The fire also got rid of the undergrowth and brush they didn’t want in some of the other pastures they didn’t grub.”

Coffman is currently working on additional prescribed burn plans as part of the work they are doing in the CSP program. It’s another voluntary conservation practice they want to use to better their land.

Additionally, Tom and Dan have built more than 3 miles of cross fences and improved the livestock watering system through farm bill program assistance with three 5,000-gallon water storage tanks and a gravity flow system set up with an estimated 25,000 feet of livestock pipeline.

Water storage tanks

Ben opted for the wildlife-friendly fencing practice and applied 12,000 feet of cross fences with reflectors. He applied PVC pipe beneath the bottom wire where wildlife could safely pass under the fence.

Tidwell says, “Ben keeps current and well-documented records, and he is always willing to do what we recommend to benefit his operation and meet the requirements.”

Drought conditions came first

Tom says starting out in the business in 2006, the management wasn’t as easy as he imagined it would be leading up to the worst drought in history. Ben felt the same and says he wasn’t sure he had made the right decision coming to the ranch right out of college.

Regardless, the men started planning and trying to implement conservation practices for rotational grazing, brush clearing, aerial spraying, cross fencing, water development for better distribution, addressing wildlife practices and more.

Drought wasn’t anything new to Griffin Sr.; he had his experiences in the past, and he let his sons know it wouldn’t be easy, but they would get through it.

Ben says, “We mainly make sure we are not overstocked; we never stock over 80 percent of our land.”

While the challenges seemed endless after they had to destock almost half of their entire herd due to the drought, Tom says, “I think we held our own as best we could.”

“We are more conscious about drought conditions now, and we are continually preparing and planning for it in the future. It was an experience we won’t forget,” Dan says.

Growing the business

The brothers each bring their own entrepreneurial interests to try new things to improve their operations.

Tom and Dan have a unique interest in raising Akaushi cattle that began almost three years ago – a Japanese cattle breed they now run with their established Black Angus herd and market through HeartBrand Beef.

Ben has interest in business management he studied in college. He looks for ways to supplement his ranching income through real estate and guided hunts.

These young ranchers are involved in their communities and serve in various industry organizations to promote stewardship and conservation. Tom is currently serving on a committee for outstanding rangeland stewardship awards for the Texas Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Challenges for the future

Tom, Dan and Ben have a bright future in ranching, but they know challenges will come. They keep a close watch on world economics, find land to expand their operation, pray for more rain and manage resources for future generations.

Groundwater is a limiting factor for them as well, and they believe the biggest challenge to come for future generations is an even larger decline in groundwater.

Day in and day out, this trio works hard at everything they do. When asked what they think they contribute to society, they agreed they are helping to feed the world, providing a home for wildlife and taking care of the land and resources available to them.

Dan sums it up when he says, “We are free, and we get to live out here. It’s like the American Dream.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: From left, Michael Wilson of NRCS, Dan Griffin and Tom Griffin discuss the condition and resources of the ranch.

PHOTO 2: Angus cattle.

PHOTO 3: Water is transported from 5,000-gallon storage tanks through a gravity-flow livestock pipeline to watering troughs to meet the livestock watering resource need. Photos by Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS.

Quenna Terry is a public affairs specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lubbock, Texas. Email Quenna Terry.