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Ag aviation is new frontier for one family

By Jennifer Dorsett

Warren Cude follows the zigzag path of several feral hogs on the run, sights in, aims and fires. The helicopter he’s firing from swoops and dives, pursuing the invasive hogs.

This is no song and dance or a movie scene. It’s just another day of work for Warren and his son, Tanner, a helicopter pilot. They’re a new breed emerging in Far West Texas: aerial cowboys.

And these cowboys do more than hunt feral hogs.

Trans Pecos Aviation, the Cudes’ agricultural aviation venture, offers wildlife counts and livestock gathering in addition to predator control.

No day is ever the same. But the Cudes’ dedication is always there to help farmers and ranchers keep their crops and livestock safe and profitable.

Livestock gathering

Gathering livestock for vaccinations or to move them is challenging under any circumstances, but even more so in Far West Texas. The rocky, rugged landscape is beautiful to look at but extremely challenging to navigate.

With the Trans-Pecos area’s stocking rate at around one animal unit per 70 acres, most ranches are vast spreads stretching across varied terrain.

Horseback was traditionally the best way to work livestock in rough country. But time and money constraints paired with labor shortages have left many ranchers looking for other solutions.

“A man I work for was telling me right before they started using the helicopter, they were hiring 28 to 35 men to come out. There would be 400 cows in the pasture, and they’d get to the pen with eight of them,” Tanner said. “There’s just so many little nooks and crannies that they can get away from you in, or they’ll hide in the brush and you ride right past them.”

Using a helicopter for gathering changes all of that, cattle rancher DA Harral said. He recently hired Trans Pecos Aviation to bring in a herd of cows and calves for tagging and vaccinations.

“This is a lot different than the way we used to do it, but it’s a lot better,” Harral said. “What they’re rounding up are 10 and 20 square-mile pastures. And it’s hard to do that when you’re on horseback or four-wheelers. The number of cattle we brought in today in the short amount of time we did—it’s a lot more efficient and saves a whole lot of money.”

The Cudes gathered about 150 head of cattle in less than three hours. A task like that would usually take about four days using riders on horseback and all-terrain vehicles to gather a herd of that size. And that didn’t necessarily mean all the cattle were rounded up, either.

“Unquestionably, using the helicopter saved me money,” Harral said. “There were cattle we brought in today that hadn’t been in the pens in two years.”

Many new clients call specifically to ask about livestock herding.

Warren and Tanner are third- and fourth-generation ranchers from Fort Stockton. Warren said because Tanner grew up raising cattle and sheep, he innately knows how to handle the animals.

“I credit a lot of that to his reputation,” Warren said. “Because almost of all the new customers have said they were told from a prior customer how well he works livestock.”

Tanner said although there are many helicopter pilots in the U.S. offering similar services, many of them didn’t grow up in agriculture and don’t understand the herding behavior of cattle.

“It’s all about pressure, when to apply it and when to not apply it,” he explained. “A lot of times, what will end up happening is a pilot will start pushing on the livestock. They don’t know when to not push. If you start pushing on them hard, they get too hot. They’ll shrink (lose weight from heat and stress). Sometimes they might even die on you. And that’s just something growing up, doing it your whole life, you have that understanding for.”

Predator control

Not only do the Cudes know how to gather animals, but they know firsthand what predators can do to livestock. Warren said coyotes don’t get as much publicity as feral hogs, but they’re just as much of an issue for farmers and ranchers in Pecos County and the surrounding area.

Both predators can be deadly to smaller animals like sheep, goats, newborn calves and deer fawns.

“Back in the early 1900s and up to probably 20 years ago, this was primarily all sheep and goat country. As predators kept growing in numbers, people made a transition from sheep and hair goats and meat goats into cattle,” Warren said. “There was a misconception or a mindset there for a while like, ‘If we raise cattle, predators are not going to be a problem for us.’ And now we’re seeing a lot of cattle producers calling because they’re seeing without any type of depredation work done on the ranch, they’re starting to lose cattle.”

In addition to fatalities, coyotes and feral hogs can maim or seriously injure livestock.

“I’ve seen a lot of bobtailed calves, so it’s affecting them,” Warren said. “And most of those ranchers also do a commercial hunting operation, whether it’s mule deer, white tail or elk. And they’re seeing a decrease in wildlife numbers, too.”

Feral hogs and coyotes also wreak havoc on farms across the Trans-Pecos area, where peppers, melons, pecans, alfalfa and corn are commonly grown. Both species are omnivorous and will eat pretty much anything they can find—alive or dead, meat or vegetable.

Wild hogs will root up entire corn fields searching for food. Alfalfa fields, irrigated by sprinkler pivots, are susceptible to large wallows as the hogs seek to cool off by rolling and trampling in the mud.

In the pecan orchards, hog rooting damages costly irrigation systems and even knocks down or destroys young trees.

And both coyotes and hogs will decimate a melon crop if given the chance.

Wildlife population counts

Wildlife management is also a priority for landowners in Far West Texas. Many offer hunting leases or guided wildlife hunts as another source of income. In addition to a potential revenue stream, wildlife populations must be managed so there’s enough forage for livestock and wildlife.

Wildlife counts are a useful tool for both determining domestic stocking rates and making population management decisions. Tanner said aerial surveying is a quick and low-stress way to count animals.

Watching the livestock gathering opened Harral’s eyes to the benefits of using helicopters for predator control and wildlife management.

“It dawned on me while he was flying that it’s a lot more selective type of predator control. Sometimes, with other measures, you’re getting a broad cross-section of wildlife,” Harral said. “And with this, you know exactly what you’re on top of, and it’s very helpful as far as deer management. You can get a good, clear count on what is out there, as far as breeding purposes, and where you need to take your biggest harvest, and so forth.”

Warren said he’s proud of his family’s efforts to help others and to be at the forefront of a new wave of agricultural innovation.

“When people tell you hogs have gotten into their watermelons and cantaloupes, and those guys are supplying Walmart and Sams, it’s devastating to them,” he said. “You can hear it in their voice when they’re talking to you. Then you talk to your neighbor that’s lost 50 or 60 head of sheep, or another neighbor’s losing a bunch of deer. You want to be able to go in and help and do whatever you can. It’s something we deal with personally. We live it every day, too, so we understand where they’re coming from. And we take great pride in being able to go out and help them. We’re just cowboys working for cowboys.”

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