Life on the Ranch

Cattle ranches and ranchers dominate the public’s idea of Texas in literature, movies and imaginations.

It requires strong, smart men and women who make it happen day-in-day-out, year-end-year-out, generation after generation. It is their business, make no mistake, but it also is their life. We offer you a brief but beautiful tour of five famous ranches in West Texas and close to Fort Worth. Saddle up and enjoy the ride.

| by Gail Bennison | photography by  Jason Kindig |

The historical aspects of Moncrief Ranch are plentiful (as seen above). The Moncrief family has invested a lot of effort into restoration.
Today, Pete Bonds manages the ranch with Jo, his wife, who also runs her own dance studio business. Pete and Jo have three daughters: Missy Bonds, April Bonds and Bonnie Anderson.
Through a recent planned succession, Rob Brown and his wife Peggy turned the reins over to their four children and families: daughter Betsy and her husband, Jody Bellah; son Rob A. and his wife, Talley; daughter Marianne and her husband, Todd McCartney; and son Donnell and his wife, Kelli. All photos except portrait were taken by Kelli Brown.
Saunders Twin V Ranch in Weatherford is a family business, which is primarily a cow-calf and a yearling operation. Their family history began in 1902 when Thomas B. Saunders II became the first cattle dealer in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Today the Swenson Land and Cattle Company produces quality Hereford cross and black baldy cattle and horses. Some of the older mares' bloodlines go back to the 1870s.

Moncrief Ranch Parker County

Ranch headquarters for the Moncrief family is the historic Parker County ranch bought in 1954. The family, known for its oil and gas fortune, also runs ranch operations near Gunnison, Colo., and Lysite, Wyo.

The ranches are basically cow-calf operations, says Moncrief Ranch’s longtime ranch manager, Ted Harter. “The cattle numbers depend on available water,” he said. “We run a mixed herd of cows, and then when conditions are good, we expand with all our stocker cattle.”

Charlie Moncrief and his wife, Kit, run a Quarter horse operation at the Moncrief Ranch, which is home to NCHA Futurity Champion Royal Fletch and AQHA and NRCHA World Champion Mr Playinstylish. Both stallions are now standing at the 6666 Ranch. 

Also on the ranch, you will find Grevy’s Zebras, Nubian Asses and Scimitar Oryx, to name a few of the beautiful exotics being protected on this ranch. Some are currently endangered in the wild.

The historical aspects of Moncrief Ranch are plentiful and important to the family. What is sometimes called “The Rock House” was built in 1933 by former Texas Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who was famous for his enthusiasm for music, specifically, Bob Wills and also the Light Crust Doughboys. The restored house has become a sanctuary for Moncrief family gatherings for many years.

The Moncrief family has done a lot of restoration work on an old barn and the old Milburn cabin, which was built around 1880. Some of the Milburn descendants visited recently. The Martin Ranch is one of the divisions of the Moncrief Ranch. Broadway star Mary Martin’s family lived there. Cynthia Ann Parker’s uncle, John Parker, is buried in an unmarked grave near the old Baker Cemetery on the Martin division.

A marker on the ranch designates Parsons Station. The rail line was built through the area in the 1880s. The rail stop featured cattle pens for loading livestock. The train that made the trip from Weatherford to Cleburne was known as “Old Nancy Hanks.” The completion of what would become State Hwy. 171 led to the decline of Old Nancy’s route. A few relics remain.

A little pug-mix dog named Hope is also part of the history of Moncrief Ranch. Hope was found in July 2012 wandering the ranch with her muzzle taped shut, her tongue protruding and swollen. She had been stabbed multiple times. Hope’s abuse became an international story; and her spirit inspired Kit, their daughters, Gloria and Adelaide, and six other women to start a new foundation called Saving Hope. The little dog, now healthy and happy, enjoyed being a star in the ranch photo shoot.
“The most important thing about the ranch to us is that it’s a fully operational cattle ranch,” Charlie said. “We take a lot of pride in that. Also, we’re very conscious of the wildlife management end of it, not just inside the exotic game fence, but managing the entire property and overall habitat out here. Preserving the history is very important. Our job is being good stewards of the land and keeping the ranch as it has been for hundreds of years.”

Bonds Ranch Saginaw

Travel a few miles north of Fort Worth and you’ll find Bonds Ranch, a family ranching business in its third generation. Bonds run cattle in 13 states, 26 counties in Texas alone, and in Canada. At the headquarters ranch in Saginaw, the focus is on weaned calves from different ranches. They run anywhere from 150 to 200 Brangus and Angus crossbreds, depending on the drought situation.

P.R. (Bob) Bonds founded Bonds Ranch 80 years ago. In 1933, he purchased 5,000 acres of the Mary Hicks Ranch located in Hicks, Texas, and started what is now known as Bonds Ranch, as a 150 Hereford cow-calf operation. Bob Bonds died when his son Pete was only two years old, and Pete’s mother, Betty, and their ranch foreman, Pete Burnett, cousin to the famed rancher Samuel Burk Burnett, raised him and became his role model. 

Today, Pete Bonds manages the ranch with Jo, his wife, who also runs her own dance studio business. Pete and Jo have three daughters: Missy Bonds, April Bonds and Bonnie Anderson.

Missy works closely with her dad and has been the ranch’s assistant general manager and export program manager for almost a decade. She has developed and implemented a non-hormone treated cattle program, which allows the ranch to qualify its cattle for export and expand into markets in the European Union, South Korea and Japan. Missy continues to promote American beef and educate producers and consumers in the United States and worldwide. She is the youngest female to be elected to the board of directors for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Missy recently was honored with the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame’s Mitzi Lucas Award.

April is in charge of the ranch’s strategic planning.

Bonnie and her husband Clint Anderson, along with their daughters Kaycee and Larkin and son Ace, split their time between their yearling operations in Texas and Colorado.

The three sisters also run cattle together.

“The hardest part of the ranching business is Mother Nature,” Missy says. “She’s either working for you or working against you, and she seems to work against you more times than not. And finding employees who are willing to work as hard as you do is another problem,” she said. “One guy who works for us says that daddy’s the best boss he’s ever had, that he only makes you work half days and he doesn’t care which 12 hours of the day you work,” Missy said, laughing. “The half days aren’t the bad days. It’s when you have to put in full days. You have to love this business because it’s a lot of hard work.”

Pete Bonds is the current president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and well respected in this industry. “Ranching is a business and needs to be treated as a business,” Pete said. “Our daughters know they need to work hard and understand the business to make sure they take it past the third generation.” As to the current state of the cattle industry, Pete said that the stocker business is normally always good, but the cow-calf side is going to be in the driver’s seat for the next several years. “With the price of steers now, if you can’t make money raising calves, you’d better quit,” he said.

R.A. Brown Ranch Throckmorton 

A family ranching business since 1895, the R.A. Brown Ranch has prospered for four generations, with the fifth and sixth in the saddle to move it forward. Brown Ranch has consistently produced some of the most superior cattle and Quarter horses in the industry and is known best for its robust breeding bulls sold for almost 40 years in the annual second Wednesday of October production sales. Five breeds make up the cowherd: Angus, Red Angus, SimAngus, Simmental and Hotlander, a composite breed developed on the ranch in the late 1980s.

R.A. Brown Ranch developed through merging Brown, Thomas and Donnell family ranchland, some dating back to 1876. The Brown part was established by R.H. Brown, operator of a livestock commission company in the Fort Worth Stockyards in 1903. His son, R.A. “Rob” Brown Sr., managed the ranch and also helped organize the American Quarter Horse Association. He is a member of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame, and his son, R.A. “Rob” Brown Jr., served as AQHA president and also has been inducted into the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

Through a recent planned succession, Rob and his wife Peggy, both of whom are legends in the ranching industry, turned the reins over to their four children and families: daughter Betsy and her husband, Jody Bellah; son Rob A. and his wife, Talley; daughter Marianne and her husband, Todd McCartney; and son Donnell and his wife, Kelli. There are 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren coming along in the family operation. As part of the succession plan, the Browns divided the cattle through a complete dispersal sale in October. Buyers came from 40 states and two countries.

“What I’m most proud of on this ranch is my four children and their spouses,” says Rob Brown. “They all love agriculture, and they’ve done a great job learning about the cattle business. They did the land separation themselves and helped one another get what was best for their wants and needs. It’s been a real blessing for our family to be able to do this.” 

“Being able to hand the ranch down to the next generation in the way Mom and Dad have done keeps the ranch in the family and the family in the ranch,” Donnell says. “In this day and time in agriculture, it’s difficult enough to have your kids want to do this. What my parents have done is spend the last 20 years preparing for this time,” he said.  

The thing that sets Brown Ranch apart in terms of cattle breeding is cutting edge genetics, says Kelli Brown, Donnell’s wife. “We use the old and the new,” Kelli said. “We’re very proud of the fact that we use modern technology, whether it’s embryo transfer or genetic selection, to breed better beef and make a better steak for you to eat. But at the same time, we live in a part of the world that’s very rich in ranching heritage here in the heart of Texas. Cattle are still worked horseback. Our horses are a necessary tool.”

Though recognized as a working family ranch, the Brown family gives much recognition to their employees who work daily with them to reach the ranch’s goals.

Saunders Twin V Ranch  Weatherford

Six generations of Saunders men have raised cattle in Texas since 1850, beginning with Thomas B. Saunders I, who drove a herd of cattle from Mississippi and started the first Saunders cattle ranch near Gonzales. He and his wife raised 12 children and after the Civil War settled on a ranch in Bexar County, which later was known as Saunders, Bexar County.

Two of Tom B.’s sons, William David Harris Saunders and George Washington Saunders, were trail drivers. George helped organize the Union City Stockyards in San Antonio and operated a livestock commission company there.

The Fort Worth family history began in 1902 when William’s son, Thomas B. Saunders II, became the first cattle dealer on the Fort Worth Stockyards.

The fourth generation, Thomas B. Saunders III, worked on his father’s ranches and for the T.B. Saunders Commission Companies in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. In 1930, he reorganized the business into a cattle clearinghouse. He was one of the founders of the National Cutting Horse Association and was inducted into the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame. Tom B. III bought the Weatherford ranchland and established the Twin V livestock brand in 1934, the year that Tom B. IV was born. 

Tom B. IV was 12 when he went to work for his daddy at the Fort Worth Stockyards. It was there that he learned his work ethic, as well as tradition of service to the cattle industry. He and his wife, Ann, moved to the Twin V in 1958 and raised three children there.

Sixth generation Thomas B. V. is known as Thomas. He and his wife, Lynn Hay, have two daughters, Madalynn and Leslie. Both girls majored in agriculture in college.

Tom B. and Ann’s second child, Ann Catherine Williams, and her husband, Perry, have one son, Jordan, who graduated with an agriculture and equine degree.

The youngest, Amy Elizabeth Haydon, is married to Joel Haydon. They have two girls, Mamie Cate, who is in grade school, and Caroline, who is in junior high. 

All live on the ranch, and all contribute to the family business, which primarily is a cow-calf and a yearling operation.

“Raising cattle is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Tom B. says. “But the cattle business is hard. I think every Saunders’ generation has been broke at least once in his lifetime and had to rebuild.”

Tom B. IV has been a director of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association for decades and has served as a trustee of the TSCRA Foundation and on its board of trustees. He also served as a director of the Fort Worth Stock Show for 37 years and currently serves as an honorary vice president.

In addition to working cattle, Thomas has spent his life starting colts and finishing them as well-trained horses to use on the Saunders’ ranches. He supplied horses for the movie sets of The Alamo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Secondhand Lions, where he was a stand-in for actor Robert Duvall. He also trained Tommy Lee Jones’ polo ponies. Thomas serves on the Fort Worth Stock Show Ranch Rodeo Horse Committee and as ranch rodeo stock contractor for numerous ranch rodeos.

His greatest joy is working with his family at the Twin V. Ranch.

Saunders Park on Marine Creek in North Fort Worth was dedicated in 1981 to commemorate the contributions of the Saunders family.

Swenson Land & Cattle Company Stamford 

Swenson Ranches hold a significant place in Texas history, including a cattle and horse breeding program that has evolved over five generations and 150 years of development.

In 1854, Svante Magnus Swenson, the first Swedish immigrant to Texas and founder of Swenson Ranches, purchased large land tracts of unsettled wilderness in the rolling plains of West Texas. In 1882 when the government started imposing taxes, Svante enlisted his two sons Eric P. and Swen A. to find a way for the land to pay for itself. 

By the early 1900s, ranch operations compromised almost 500,000 acres in four separate units, referred to as Flat Top, Throckmorton, Tongue River, and Spur Ranches, the last two of which have been sold. The venture was incorporated under the name of Swenson Land and Cattle Co. Inc. in 1926.

Originally, the brothers ranched with native Texas Longhorns, which were branded with an SMS in honor of their father. The brand has become one of the most recognizable in the cattle industry. Later, purebred Hereford and Shorthorn cattle upgraded the native stock, and ultimately, selective breeding produced an entire herd of Herefords.

In 1930, Swenson Ranch initiated the Texas Cowboy Reunion, a part rodeo and part homecoming, which features a traditional rodeo with 700 to 800 contestants each July. Stamford is renowned for this annual event. 

In 1978, the company was partitioned into four separate family-owned corporations. Today’s SMS is owned by Bruce, Perry and Rod Swenson and their children, all direct descendants of Svante Magnus Swenson. The ranch consists of The Flat Top near Stamford and a portion of the Throckmorton units, with the ownership headed by fifth generation, Steve Swenson, president of Swenson Land & Cattle Co., and a family board.

Today, the ranch produces Hereford cross and black baldy cattle and horses that are bred for ranch work. About 60 head of saddle horses and 40 brood mares make up the ranch’s horse operation. Some of the older mares’ bloodlines go back to the 1870s when the ranch provided Army remount horses in World War I.

Mother Nature can be a big problem for ranchers. To handle the severe drought of 2011, Swenson sent two-thirds of the herd out of Texas. “We’re really lucky we found some pasture lands in Nebraska for our cows, even though it’s not a great place for people. And we’re very lucky to have a good cowboy group and a ranch manager like Dennis Braden, who is a TCU ranch management graduate, to handle these situations. We’re starting to move some of the herd back now,” he said.

Steve says they’re working on getting the sixth generation involved. Swenson and his wife have no children, but he does have two brothers, three sisters, and three cousins, all of whom are active owners and smart business people, he said.

“Ranching is a business, but it’s also a way of life. You won’t find better people than ranchers. They’re smart and they know their business. It’s not a hobby. We have to make money doing it,” Steve said.