Beef Magazine is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

The King Ranch: A 150-Year-Old American icon

The King Ranch: A 150-Year-Old American icon
The King Ranch, one of America's most storied ranches, has a 150-year history of shaping the beef industry. It continues to change, grow and thrive thanks to dedication, innovation, vision and a people-first philosophy. Located at Kingsville, TX, the King Ranch raises Santa Gertrudis and Santa Cruz cattle.  

Yesterday is important, but the focus is also tomorrow,” says Paul Genho, vice president and general manager of the sprawling and storied King Ranch, headquartered in Kingsville, TX.

That statement underscores the driving philosophy that enabled Capt. Richard King — indentured by his Irish immigrant parents to a jeweler at the age of 9 — to carve out a vast cattle empire that's remained in the same family for 150 years.

“We feel like we have an obligation to make things better,” says Genho. “We don't walk away from our legacy or deny our heritage, but part of that heritage is being progressive.”

Many historians consider the King Ranch as the cradle of American cattle ranching. King was among the first to systematically propagate cattle, rather than merely gather the native strays and send them to market.

He started with the Longhorns he found on both sides of the border along the Gulf Coast. By 1920 his family had blended Brahman and Shorthorn cattle to forge the foundation for Santa Gertrudis, the first beef breed developed in the U.S. Today, it's the leading composite in Australia.

Along the way, the King Ranch is credited with inventing a number of industry standards. These include the dipping vat in 1891 to rid cattle of the Texas fever tick, net wire fencing in 1933 and the root plow in 1935, which continues to be an integral brush management tool.

At the same time, the King Ranch has worked on its own and funded an untold number of industry studies that have led to modern micro-nutrition, wildlife management, range management, genetic selection, coordinated production and marketing, and the list goes on.

They also are among the founders of the quarter horse breed and that breed's association.

How It All Began

Imagine being indentured by your parents to a jeweler as a child. This is New York City in 1833. Within a couple of years, your ambition and spirit of adventure lead you to stow away on a ship anchored in the harbor and bound for Mobile Bay, AL.

You're discovered, but the ship's captain likes something about you and puts you to work. You prove yourself and ultimately obtain a license to pilot steam ships. Then, you and a partner go into the steamship business and make a small fortune.

Such is the track of King, who along with partner Mifflin Kenedy built a thriving steamboat business serving consumers and merchants up and down the Rio Grande River. At the time, there wasn't much but country in the Nueces Strip between Corpus Christi and Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley. This parched, open country was known both as Wild Horse Desert, because of the wild bands of mustangs that ran there, and as el Desierto del Muerto (the Desert of the Dead) because of how tough it was to live there.

Genho, who's managed the ranch for five years, can attest to the area's challenges. In those five years, he says, there have been four droughts and one hurricane.

“The country is harsh, which is one reason the commitment to quality is so unique,” he adds.

In rough country like this, rather than simply try to raise as many pounds as possible in a given year and then market it, Genho says the focus has always been on producing quality as defined by durability. That barometer is applied to everything from the range and wildlife they manage, to the cattle and horses they build, and to the leather goods and horse tack they market internationally through King Ranch Saddle Shop.

But, when King rode through this hard environment on his way to a meeting in Corpus Christi, he saw opportunity. There was lots of land, an abundance of vaqueros south of the border already ranching cattle, and an untapped national market for beef.

While he saw the opportunity, King also realized his limitations. That's where the Kineños — King's people — came in.

King was buying cattle in Las Cruillas, Mexico, a village forced to sell all its stock due to severe drought. As he rode away, it dawned on him that he'd just purchased that village's sole livelihood. He rode back and invited them to come to work for him on the ranch. They did, and history was born.

Thicker Than Water

“It's a badge of honor,” says Genho, who himself is not a Kineño, nor will ever be. To be a true Kineño, one must be born, raised and work on the ranch — for generations. Genho figures that if his son were to spend the rest of his life on the ranch, then have kids that are raised and then work there, either those kids or their kids might finally qualify as Kineños.

“About half of my people here are descended from those original Kineño families. The seventh generation of some of those families are working here,” says Genho. “There was a bond between the King family and the Kineños from the beginning. That bond and the Kineños are an integral part of the ranch's history and its future.”

The mutual respect that brought them together in the first place grew, remains today and has significantly influenced the culture of King Ranch.

In earlier times, wages for Mexican vaqueros were lower than those for other cowboys, except on the King Ranch. While other cowboys were seasonal workers and were fired when they weren't needed, the vaqueros on the King Ranch had year-round jobs. And unlike other old cowboys who were on their own, old Kineños moved on to less demanding jobs on the King Ranch.

Today, the ranch has 401(k)s, retirement plans and medical insurance for its employees, and it remains a community that takes care of its own in unique ways. Many of the Kineños live in homes on the ranch, and the ranch has its own school district with a K-8 school right on the ranch. Kineño children go to their own high school at Texas A&M in Kingsville.

Learning From The Past

The ranch still maintains a small herd of Texas Longhorn cattle. Genho says it's in honor of those who paved the path and a reminder of how you must change and adapt to survive.

And there's plenty of history to recount. Take, for instance, the time Union forces held a pregnant Henrietta (King's wife), her family and the Kineños hostage while trying to find the captain, an ardent Confederate who was then in Mexico retrieving stolen cattle.

King and his boat crews were very successful in running the Union blockades to get supplies to Confederate troops. General Robert E. Lee was King's close friend and chose the location of the original ranch home because it would be easy to defend. Henrietta named the child she was carrying at the time Robert E. in honor of the rebel commander.

Henrietta was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and she was tough. After King passed away, she doubled the size of the ranch with the help of her family and the Kineños.

Pancho Villa and his bandits also raided the place, killing one of the Kineños.

The list of King Ranch family members and Kineños who made their marks in government and high-ranking public service reads like a Who's Who. Books upon books are filled with ranch history, not to mention a fair-sized building in Kingsville crammed to the rafters with ranch archives.

The King Ranch seems to have always had a knack for learning from the past and then moving on, rather than dwelling on the past or wishing the future away.

The King Ranch Today

“We're vertically integrated all the way through,” says Genho. Besides seedstock, cow-calf, stocker and feeding enterprises, King Ranch is also a founder of Rancher's Renaissance. They're one of three groups supplying cattle to Excel for the Cattleman's Collection brand being marketed exclusively through Kroger stores.

Currently, the King Ranch itself occupies some 825,000 acres in south Texas among four different divisions. There are 1,000 registered Santa Gertrudis cattle in the seedstock operation and another 23,000 commercial cows. In all, using stocker cattle for drought flexibility, King Ranch is running about 32,000 animal units. It also includes 15, 150-acre preconditioning traps and a 15,000-head feedyard.

For anyone wondering how managing a ranch this vast differs from riding herd over one a fraction of that size, Genho says, “You do the same things, you just add more zeros to everything.” For instance, instead of five bulls you need 500, rather than a couple of hired hands you need lots more.

About 400 folks are employed by King Ranch — roughly a quarter of them in the cattle portion of the business. There are five full-time wildlife biologists alone.

The cattle business is as straight-forward as it is vertically integrated. Along with marketing some of their Santa Gertrudis seedstock, it's the genetic stream they use to fuel their Santa Cruz commercial composite program. The results are market cattle that are half Santa Gertrudis, one quarter Gelbvieh and one quarter Red Angus. Genho emphasizes the Santa Cruz represent their crossbreeding system, not a separate breed of cattle.

As for cattle feeding, they buy calves from South Texas and Southeast for their yard because the market for their home-raised cattle tends to be higher farther north, he says. The cattle fed in the King yard — about 20% are custom cattle — end up going either into the Nolan Ryan beef brand or to Publix in Florida. Conversely, the Santa Cruz cattle they raise and feed in custom yards are marketed through Rancher's Renaissance.

And then there are the horses.

“King Ranch has always been dedicated to keeping its men well-mounted,” says Genho. That's a little like saying Johnny Unitas once threw a football. The fact is King Ranch is home to volumes of American horse history.

Wimpy, the first quarter horse registered by the American Quarter Horse Association, was theirs. Peppy San Badger (Little Peppy), the all-time leading sire of National Cutting Horse Association stock, and his sire, San Peppy, are King Ranch legends. They had the 1946 Triple Crown champion with Assault — yes, that Triple Crown. Today the ranch has a band of 80 brood mares and about 300 using horses.

King Ranch is a hunter's heaven with world-class hunting for quail, deer, turkey and Nilgai (pronounced Nil-guy) antelope. If you've never seen Nilgai, their coarse, angular head and mature weight of about 700 lbs. can make them appear in the dusk like some otherworldly creature.

“People ask whether cattle or wildlife are more important to the sustainability of the operation,” says Genho. “The answer is it takes both.”

Actually, Genho says, it takes all. “We'll continue to grow in agriculture where we see profitable opportunities,” he adds.

As evidence of that, King Ranch expanded its ag holdings in 1998 and eventually became the largest U.S. citrus producer. Genho says continued growth and diversification has to do both with massaging a business for the times and the simple fact that the more family you have relying on the ranch for income, the harder one must work at figuring out how to make the resources return more.

Consequently, ranch history represents the dynamic nature of the business. For instance, King Ranch once encompassed more land, with ranches in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Morocco, Spain, Venezuela, Florida, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Genho explains that it had to do with expanding the presence of Santa Gertrudis and King Ranch quarter horses, upgrading their own stock, along with teaching and learning in each unique environment. Times change, though, so those ranches were sold.

“You can't buy a ranch today in the U.S. and pay for it with cattle. We are, to a great extent, land managers, and cattle is one of the enterprises we use to manage the land in our care,” says Genho. “King Ranch Inc. is an agricultural company. We're involved in citrus, sugar cane, sod, cotton, grain, wildlife and cattle.”

More importantly, Genho emphasizes King Ranch remains profitable because it focuses on more than just profit.

“Profits follow excellence, not the other way around. You're profitable only if you have a clear mission that is meaningful. The goal can't just be profit,” he says. “There is and has always been here a commitment to resources and making them better rather than just focusing on profit. The King Ranch has always taken the long-term perspective, rather than looking at the short-term fix.”

One thing Genho and others are willing to bet on, though, is that this south Texas land pioneered by an indentured servant from New York will remain intact, even while shifting to meet changing demands.

“This ranch is the essence of who we are — the people of King Ranch, the family and the Kineños. It will be here when Hell freezes over,” Genho says. Consider their legacy. You can't bet against it.

The Running W

The meaning behind the “Running W” remains a mystery.

Perhaps it represents one of the ranch's many diamondback rattlesnakes, the winding Santa Gertrudis Creek, or the Longhorn's sweeping horns. Whatever the concept, as a brand the Running W is handsome and practical, designed to heal quickly, thwart rustlers and grow with the animal that bears it — just as King Ranch has evolved over time. Today the Running W appears on both prize-winning cattle and top quality leather goods as an icon of the American ranching industry.

King Ranch Timeline

1824: Captain Richard King is born in New York.

1853: King Ranch is founded.

1869-1884: King revolutionizes the cattle industry, shipping more than 100,000 head of cattle north to feed the country's expansion and spur the development of ranching interest throughout the West.

1916: King Ranch begins a highly successful quarter horse and thoroughbred program that eventually produces countless stakes winners and a Triple Crown champion.

1920: Years of experimentation in cross-breeding culminate with the birth of Monkey, a deep red bull calf who became the foundation for the Santa Gertrudis line of cattle.

1953: Ranch acquires 50% interest in Running W Citrus Growers Limited partnership, which controls 13,000 acres of Minute Maid Citrus Groves in south Florida.

1997: Rancher's Renaissance is founded.