By Carol Wilson, special to QCS
(Reprinted from New Mexico Stockman , November, 2007 with permission from the publisher.)
By Carol Wilson
Special to the QCS
The lightening dances across the night sky, tearing at the darkness with jagged fingers. As the first drops of rain begin to fall, Phillip Howard Bidegain leaves the sheltering house and steps into the storm. The wind buffets the tall cowboy as he turns his face skyward, greeting the first welcome drops.
Phil Bidegain is at home on the T4 ranch. The man and the ranch have grown up together. The name Phil Bidegain is rarely mentioned without reference to the T4, and vise versa. The high mesa country, the mesquite-covered valley, and Hereford and black baldy cows are all etched in his psyche and have become so much a part of him that one is incomplete without the other.
Yet the tall, affable cowboy leaves the ranch often. Though he’d rather be watching the calves play in the Montoya Valley, he spends a lot of time representing agriculture to people who wouldn’t know a cow from a steer. He leaves to protect the ranch for future generations. His efforts are for all who love the land and the livestock.
For Phil H. Bidegain’s outstanding leadership and stewardship, he has received the highest honor bestowed by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, that of 2006 Cattleman of the Year.
Among peers, Phil H. is known as a rider, roper and an extremely good stockman, a leader, an efficient manager, a man who will always lend a helping hand…and a mischevious personality. In the New Mexico legislature and on Capitol Hill, he is known as a tough adversary and tenacious fighter for agriculture. As a leader in New Mexico, he is a fair man who isn’t afraid of any issue, and a man who can put his personal interests aside to speak for the entire industry.
“Phil H. is passionate about God and then family, then the ranch,” noted Laurie, Phil H.’s bride of 35 years. “We always tell each other that we are number two in each other’s lives, because God is number one.”
Laurie and Phil H.’s affection for each other is palpable. This is a couple that has fun together and enjoys each other’s company. They are also each other’s top business partners.
“Laurie married me for my horses,” Phil H. commented. “Now she has all of the horses on the T4.”
All joking aside, however, the bond between the tall cowman and his petite wife is strong. They approach everything as a team, talking things through and coming to a decision together. Laurie knows agriculture issues and adds to strategic discussions with wit and humor.
The two sons raised by Phil H. and Laurie have both come home to make their mark at the historic ranch.
Scott is Assistant Manager and Donnie runs the T4 Farm. Scott and his wife, Brooke, have a six month old daughter named Addison Tate. Donnie and Lacey, appropriately for a farmer, named their daughter Haylie.
Phil H. and Laurie openly admit that they are crazy about their grandbabies.
“Dad is driven by a love of the land and the industry and he does what he does for family,” explained Donnie. “Dad has a sense of obligation to care for the land and cattle for the next generation. He protects the ranch for the next generation by lobbying for the industry in Santa Fe and in Washington, D.C.
When he takes the time from his work schedule to do this, he isn’t just doing it for our family or even for ranchers in New Mexico, but for ranchers across the nation.”
Shoulders of giants
Scientist Albert Einstein once said, “If I can see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Phillip Howard Bidegain has several giants in his family tree.
His paternal grandparents, Bernardo and Jesusa Bidegain, immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Both spoke the Basque language, worked hard and were good businessmen. They worked hard to build a sheep company then parlayed their share into a cattle ranch on the San Pedro river north of Benson, Ariz.
They raised their son, Phillip, to work hard, know stock, and care for what was entrusted to him.
Phil H’s maternal grandparents, Howard L. and Clara McGowen Kohn, homesteaded near Montoya back in the days that every 160 acres had a homestead filed. Mr. Kohn ran the general store and extended credit to other land owners.
When drought forced many homesteaders to quit their land in the 1920s, they turned the deeds back to Mr. Kohn to pay their debts. Kohn left a sizeable ranch upon his death in 1933.
Clara wasn’t a cowgirl, but she knew her cattle and how to ranch. In 1947, when a portion of the old Pablo Montoya land grant was divided into six smaller ranches, Clara and her husband, physician Thomas Hoover, paid $7 an acre for the Mesa Rica country, a big chunk of land totaling 117,000 acres.
Phillip wasn’t a part of the family yet, but he remembers Clara’s purchase. “It sounded like so much money to me that I didn’t think there was any way they could pay it off,” he recalls. “But I was wrong. It was a 20-year loan and we paid the whole thing off in 10 years.”
The purchase elevated the T4 to the status of one of the larger ranches in the nation. The T4 runs from Tucumcari to Montoya to Conchas in one contiguous unit.
There are four permanent camps on the ranch and four more living quarters at headquarters. The ranch covers more than 300 sections and is home to 3,000 cows.
Phillip Bidegain and Yetta Kohn Hoover were married in 1948 and moved back to the T4 in 1952. Both were driven by a genuine love of the land and the livestock.
They piled and burned brush long before it was recognized as good management practice by government agencies and acquired a reputation for good cattle and good horses.
Like father, like son
Phillip Howard Bidegain (Phil H.) was named for his father and maternal grandfather. He grew up on the T4, learning the hidden cattle trails up to the mesa and old ways of the cowboy from his father and the ranch foreman, Domingo Gonzales. Like Phillip, he could also swing a rope and dog a steer with the best of them. In fact, rodeoing has been passed from father to son in the Bidegain family. Phillip was named the All Around Cowboy of the Intercollegiate rodeo in 1947, calling himself the first champion cowboy ever to call a sheep camp home.
Twenty years later, in 1967, Phil H. was the New Mexico High School All-Around Cowboy. Thirty years later, his son, Scott, was the recipient of the same honor.
Phil H. chose Phillip’s alma mater, the University of Arizona, for his schooling. Like Phillip, Phil H. rodeoed through college. He was presiding at a Rodeo Club meeting when Laurie, a freshman, walked into his life.
Laurie was a surfer, water skier and horsewoman from southern California. She and Phil H. rodeoed together and ended up roping in each other’s hearts. They were married in 1972, and after a half-hour honeymoon at the Grand Canyon, returned to the T4 to set up housekeeping. Phil H. flashed a grin as he remarked,
“New Mexico wasn’t so different for Laurie. The wind and dust here are just like the ocean of southern California; they just keep coming, wave after wave.”
“Phil H. was just a cowboy at first,” Laurie remembers. “They told him what to do and he did it. Domingo Gonzales was the foreman of the ranch, and he and Phillip pretty much taught Phil H. how to do things and do them right. Finish what you start was one of the lessons. Domingo was also known to work, work, work until a job was done. He was a great guy.”
But it wasn’t all work and no play. Phil H. and Laurie hauled horses to every arena in New Mexico and quite a few in West Texas. After Donnie and
Scott got big enough to rope, their parents hauled them. Many weekends would find the family heading home to Montoya at two or three in the morning. They would pull into ranch headquarters late, with Laurie driving, because Phil H. had to work the next day.
Phil H. and Laurie have always been active in the Quay County 4-H Rodeo and the New Mexico Horse Show, where Laurie is Horse Show Superintendent and Phil H. is the Arena Director. They have also been on the state 4-H Rodeo Board and put on the finals for several years, as well as being founding members of the New Mexico Rodeo Association and board members of the New Mexico High School Rodeo.
Though the arena was a showcase for speed and skill, the Bidegains didn’t let the passion for roping spill into their working days on the ranch.
“Scott and I weren’t allowed to carry ropes on shipping day because our parents suspected we might rope the steers,” related Donnie. “We were the only two that weren’t allowed to carry a rope on the gather. That made us feel real special.”
It didn’t affect the boy’s psyche, though. Like their parents, both boys continued roping in college, Donnie at New Mexico State University and Scott at West Texas A&M at Canyon.
Back at the ranch
Those who know Phil H. well all agree that he always enjoys a good joke. Once when he was in high school, he beat the rest of the cowboys back to the working pens at headquarters. He stuck his head into an old slicker and crawled out from under the fence just as the cowboys jogged in. The headless slicker buggered the horses, and they bucked a few cowboys off. Phil H. hid out for a couple of days until sore backs and attitudes healed.
When Phillip and Yetta retired 10 years ago, Phil H. took on more management of the T4. He spends more time handling government regulations, reports and financial aspects of the ranch than he once did, yet he still visits each camp at least once a month, spending a day looking at the grass and water and condition of the cattle. “He believes you have to be out there and be hands-on,” Laurie said. “He does that for each of the camps so he doesn’t get behind.”
Old ways are important to Phil H.. He knows that if Phillip brought the cattle through a pasture and to a gate in a certain way, he probably did it because the cattle understand how to get from one gate to another in that manner. So he does it the same way.
“I’m getting to be an old-timer,” he noted. “I know the old trails up to the high mesa country and can remember when we used to take the wagon out and spend a month or two branding each year.”
Each pasture now has its own set of corrals. The cows and calves are gathered, calves are stripped off, and a 10-man crew brands with ropers catching the cattle and flankers holding them. “It is the old way,” Phil H. acknowledged, “but it is also the most efficient way to brand. We can brand 80 calves an hour when we do it this way.”
Phil H. breeds the heifers to calve at two and a half years of age. “We sit them out of the spring rotation and plan for them to calve in the fall,” he explained.
“This gives them another six months to grow before they have to start producing a baby. Because of this, they last longer. I’m culling 13- and 14- year-old cows this year.”
“Of course, when you start this fall calving for the heifers, you lose a calf crop at the front end, but after that everything is in the pipeline. When you strip the fall calves off the heifers in the summer and give them an extra six months to develop and heal up before they go back into the spring rotation, they will make great cows for a long time.”
“This isn’t the gospel according to Phil H.,” he said, issuing a disclaimer. “It is just something that works for our ranch and our environment.”
Scott and Donnie learned most of what they know about cows from tagging along as their father and grandfather fixed windmills, and fences, fed and moved cattle.
“He taught us how to approach cattle and work gently around them,” Donnie said.
“Little things like that will pay off in the long run. If you work them gently today, they won’t try to run over you later.”
Donnie continued, “We mostly learned by watching Dad do it. He doesn’t chouse us, he lets us do things ourselves. After we learned from our own mistakes, and asked for help, then he’d help us.
“Dad could have a bunch of five and throw them into a herd of 200 and still pick out each of the original bunch when we got to the corral,” Donnie said.
Some would say that kind of skill is a mark of an observant cowman. Others would argue that is genetic. Maybe in Phil H.’s case, it is both. Both of his grandfathers were known as stockman.
“Dad could look a lamb in the eye and tell who her mother was,” Phillip recounted. “When I was growing up we’d put about 99 heavy ewes in a pen at night, knowing they would all have lambed the next morning. Twelve hours later we’d walk into the pen with ewes and lambs everywhere; singles, twins and triplets.
“Dad would pick up a lone lamb and walk a ways through the pen, then put her down by a ewe, saying, ‘oh, there you are!’ It didn’t matter if the ewe had one white-faced lamb and one black-faced lamb, he never had any trouble pairing them up. In 20 minutes, he’d have them all mated up and sucking.”
Howard Kohn could do the same thing with calves. When he first opened the store, a neighbor showed Howard a newborn calf and Howard agreed to accept the weaned calf for the interest owed him. Six months later, the debtor showed up with a different calf, a twin to the calf he had offered Howard. Howard objected that the animal wasn’t the calf he had agreed to accept and the man finally admitted that he had switched the calves.
Intangibles are taught along the way, also. “Dad taught us all we know about roping and the ranching side, but he also taught us how to be men,” noted Scott.
“We learned lessons by watching him step up when the time comes to step up to something. When times get hard, for instance, he goes harder. And he taught by example how to own up to our mistakes.”
“Phil H. sure knows his stuff,” noted Jimmie Watson, owner of Tucumcari Ranch Supply.
“Phil H. keeps up the traditions of the T4 and makes it a profitable operation, and he won’t ever ask a hired hand to do something that he won’t do or hasn’t done. He’ll still shimmy up those windmills or lay out a fence line.”
“Phil H. figures out how to do things with the least amount of hassle and the most output,” Laurie summarized. “He does things efficiently and doesn’t stress the cattle or run the pounds off of them.”
Most of the time, he doesn’t stress them. As Donnie recalls, “Mom trained a lot of barrel horses when we were little, and sometimes she’d ask Dad to ride them if she didn’t have time to exercise them all.
“Once we were moving yearlings and Dad was riding a goofy barrel horse. He got up into the gate to count the yearlings, and the old horse relaxed so much that he crossed his back legs and dropped his old head down. He was about asleep when Dad spurred him to move forward. The horse responded but forgot to uncross his back legs, so he fell right in front of the calves. Of course, that spooked the yearlings and we had a big time re-gathering them. We all wanted to laugh because that goofy horse had fallen, but Phil H. just got back on him and re-counted those yearlings through the gate.”
The T4 does a great deal of range improvement each year. “My way to gain country is to improve it,” Phil H. noted. “Our favorite is brush control. We push the pinon and juniper and let it sit for a year, then burn it. It opens everything up to grasslands and is a marked improvement.”
The T4 doesn’t participate in government programs, preferring to fund, control and perform the work themselves.
Phil H. also enjoys sending a dozer up the side of the mesa, trying to get more water up on the mesa. There is enough cover in each pasture on the T4 that the cows can run in any pasture year round. Phil H. and Laurie have increased weaning weights and maintain a 92 or 93 percent calf crop, which relates totally to management.
The T4 calves stay on the ranch until they are yearlings, which gives Phil H. flexibility during a drought, allowing him to sell calves early and spread the cows out if the need arises. The ranch is conservatively stocked and hasn’t had to sell off cows in recent dry spells.
The ranch raises the Hereford bulls they need and only buy Angus bulls. The 50 head remuda is kept stocked by Laurie’s brood mare band. “We sell the older horses as kid horses because they are so solid and have so many miles on them by that time,” she explained. “That way, we don’t let the horses the cowboys are riding get too old. We just keep cycling them.”
Phil H. and Laurie are both builders, according to Yetta Bidegain.
They have worked hard to upgrade the houses on the T4, keep things in good shape, and meet the needs of the cowboys and their families.
Step up and be a doer
Phil H. grew up going to Cattle Growers meetings with his parents. He watched Phillip and Yetta volunteer their time and efforts for others, which is something that he and Laurie have always done as well.
The Cattleman of the Year has served as chairman of the board of trustees for his church and served on the Interstate Stream Commission as well as on the Governor’s Task Force for Pit Rules. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors for the Canadian Soil and Water Conservation District and has served the New Mexico Cattle Growers in numerous positions over the years, including two years as first vice president and two years as president.
No one can serve as president of Cattle Growers without a lot of family backing and an exceptional commitment of time. “We talked about it and he felt that there had to be people in the industry willing to step up and lead,” Laurie noted. “Of course, many people benefit, but basically Phil H. did it because we would like for the ranch to be a family ranch for a long time, and unless people step up and protect the industry, it just won’t happen.”
Laurie, Yetta and Philip all took on additional duties which would allow Phil H. the time to serve Cattle Growers. Additionally, foreman Nasario Naranjo kept the ranch running smoothly with Phil H. gone a great deal of the time.
“We couldn’t have done it without Nasario,” Laurie noted with a smile. “He was the best.”
Phil H. stayed true to the style that has worked so well on the T4 and was a hands-on first vice president and president. The first vice presidents head up the Cattle Growers lobbying effort. Phil H. remembers checking on one particular bill daily when he was in Santa Fe, only to discover that the bill had been passed without going through the preliminary hearings. “I met a secretary in the hall who knew I’d asked about that bill every day, and she told me it had passed,” Phil H. recalls.
“We got Senator Tim Jennings to kill the bill, but it was a good example of being in the right place at the right time. If you want to do any good, you just have to be there.”
Donnie stated, “He is always on the phone talking about current issues and legislature issues with others. Everyone in this community knows that he is over there keeping his finger on the pulse of legislative affairs, and if they are concerned with an issue they just have to talk to him about it and he’ll pay attention.”
Bill Humphries, past president of NMCGA, knows the enormous demands that the presidency places on an individual. “There is hardly a day goes by that you aren’t dealing with some problems,” Humphries said. “The redeeming thing is that they are issues and people that you care about. I think the dedication, persistence and dependability of Phil H. stand out. He goes and represents everyone to the best of his ability, and he has done it all very selflessly.”
“Phil H. gives more time and more thought and more effort than almost anyone I know,” agreed Caren Cowan, executive vice president of Cattle Growers. “Given that we have a lot of contributors, that is saying a whole lot. In addition, in time and money the whole Bidegain family are strong contributors to the association.”
Phil H. is quick to point out that the men get the honor while it is their ladies who do the work at home, put up with the cranky men, and watch the men’s backs. “There really is no ‘I’,” he noted. “Everything is really ‘we’.”
Cowan said that in the two years of being president elect and the two years of presidency, Phil H. became a strong federal lands champion. “He understood the fight and was as vehement as any of the federal lands guys about protecting their ability to ranch,” she said. “We’d go to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Phil H. could take on the Forest Service or anyone else.”
“Phil H. told me once that the difficulty about being president was that you had to try to figure out which threat would put you out of business first,” Humphries said.
“He was always real serous about trying to find a balance for the issues and make the best decision on behalf of everyone.”
Phil H. was as efficient with the Cattle Growers as he was the ranch. He ran short meetings and said what needed to be said with the least amount of words and the most amount of emphasis.
When criticized, Phil H. would stand up to the criticism, but also analyze it and make sure that he wasn’t doing the wrong thing. “That trait made me appreciate and have a lot of respect for him,” Humphries said.
Phil H. noted that he handled criticism by inviting people to do something different if they didn’t like what he was doing. “Sitting back and doing nothing isn’t going to do any good either,” he stated. “There are some who will participate, and some that won’t. But the ones that gripe don’t count to me, if they won’t participate in the process.”
Phil H. also stayed grounded by remembering why he was serving.
“It is tempting to stay here,” he said. “It is almost depressing to face issues, but you can’t just stay on the ranch with your head in the sand. Being on the ranch is a kind of heaven, and a family ranch is becoming more and more unique all the time, and if we want to keep it in the family and be able to pass it along as a ranch, we have to protect it from regulations, laws, endangered species, estate taxes, and 120 acre ranchettes. I feel that the Lord put us here to take care of the land, and protecting it legislatively is part of that mandate.”
The gift keeps giving
When the local high school agriculture teacher wanted to teach his kids about windmills, he called in an expert … a man with 100 windmills to maintain. Phil H. gathered his tools and a windmill motor and spent hours teaching another generation about something that is basic and simple, yet engineered in such a way that the technology has remained in use for decades.
In many ways, a windmill could be a symbol for Phil H.’s life. The windmill was designed many years ago but is still being used because it works. In most of the West, it is still the most efficient way of bringing life-giving water to the surface of a dry country.
In the same manner, the New Mexico Cattle Growers 2006 Cattleman of the Year honors and uses time-proven cowboy ways on the historic T4 ranch, while simultaneously searching for the most efficient way to produce cattle and keep another generation of Bidegains on the land that they have stewarded for the last three generations.
And Phil H.’s gift of time to the high school agriculture class exemplifies a basic practice of the Bidegain family…that of giving to the industry and its people.
Jimmy Watson and Phil H. were partners for years at the Tucumcari Ranch Supply.
“As an individual, he has to be one of the most honest men I know,” Watson stated.
“He’ll call you if you undercharged by ten cents on the invoice. He was easy to partner with.”
But Watson learned that Phil H. also has a prankster side. “We had to keep our eyes open when he comes into the store. He’ll staple the drawer shut or leave the phone off the hook, and play a prank on you with a smile on his face. He is full of life.”
Donnie introduced his girlfriend, who later became his wife, to Phil H. and Laurie at a steakhouse. Lacey ordered chicken, and Phil H. told her he wouldn’t pay for the meal if she didn’t eat beef. “It is pretty bad to be scared out of eating chicken,” Donnie laughed. “Of course, we order it now just to get at him.”
When Phil H. is at a 4-H or high school rodeo, kids are always asking for his help or opinion on something. But they also learned to watch themselves and their personal effects.
“Dad would walk past Mom and a group of her friends or a cowboy who was dozing in the stands and grab a boot and throw it out into the arena,” Scott said. “He’d never break his stride, and there that boot would be in the arena with the bull riding going on.”
At Cattle Growers meetings, he takes the time to visit with the sons or daughters who show up with their parents.
“Children can sense that he likes them and will talk to them,” Humphries said. “When little kids and dogs like you, it is probably a pretty admirable thing.”
Around the state, Phil H. is known as a fair man who never tries to back anyone into a corner where they have no recourse. He is known for his humor, and for being the type of person who will be the first to show up at work and the last to leave. He is also a man who takes care of small things so they don’t become big things later.
Ranches shouldn’t turn into ghost towns
The town of Montoya once bustled with the energy of 900 people and up to nine saloons. Now, the T4 Ranch headquarters provides the only life in the once thriving town.
Phil H. surveys the Montoya Valley and Mesa Rica from the back lot of the corrals at headquarters. “This is God’s country,” he breathes.
His life is tied to the land and the rhythms of life and death, birth and renewal. Though he leaves to protect it, his heart stays here to be rejuvenated by the wind and the rain, grass and mesquite.