Carrying It On
A young New Mexico horseman joins his parents and grandparents to continue the family legacy.
Story & Photography by Tim Keller
At first daylight, Landon Berry is gathering horses high atop Johnson Mesa for a branding of eight Hereford calves born too late for last June’s branding. It’s mid-November, cold but not yet snowed in. Soon it’ll take the highway department’s plows to get Landon close enough to ride in for horses. The Berry family’s 17 Quarter Horses like it up here: big open pasture with rich tall grass and a year-round spring. Just east of the Rockies, winter winds blow snow from the ridges, exposing the grass, although one winter the snow stacked so deep that Landon’s dad had to use a front loader to reach the horses and bring them down to headquarters. At 8600 feet, the mesa towers over the Colorado state line to the north while New Mexico sprawls south and west.
Landon gathers four horses and trailers them down to Berry Ranch headquarters, 11 miles below in Yankee Canyon, east of Raton. He and three other Berrys—Landon’s father, grandfather, and cousin—brand the calves. Landon ropes the heels and drags each calf near the hot irons where the other three pin each calf’s head and do the work the old way, on the ground, Landon’s rope holding taut to each calf’s heels.
Berrys have been doing this here, like this, for more than a hundred years. They don’t own a four-wheeler. Like many family outfits, they’ve built a successful horse and cattle operation over several generations. As family trees branch out, the number of descendents with claims to the land grows exponentially, yet today fewer and fewer young people are interested in carrying on the family ranching heritage. In moving on, they challenge the existence of their family ranches.
Landon Berry is the sixth generation of Berrys to ranch on this dramatically beautiful landscape in far northeastern New Mexico, but he’s the only one of his generation that’s sticking to the plan. At 22, he’s following the footsteps of his great grandfather who worked horseback across a lifetime of what he called “eight-hour days—eight hours before noon and eight hours after noon.”
Sipping hot coffee at his kitchen table a few steps from the branding corral, Landon watches the sun crest the top of Johnson Mesa. “My first horseback rides were before I can remember,” he says. “My mom says that my first word was ‘horse.’ I’ve been working horseback since I was four. My first horse was born the same year I was and he’s still going strong.”
Brothers John and Patrick Berry were Irish potato farmers hit hard by their country’s infamous potato famine. They journeyed to the American West for opportunities in Raton’s booming coal mines. When John was killed in the 1894 Dutchman mine explosion, Patrick fled mining and bought land on nearby Johnson Mesa. He soon shifted his crop from potatoes to cattle—the Berry brand was registered with New Mexico Territory in 1896. Eventually the headquarters, and winter grazing, moved down into better-sheltered Bear Canyon and Yankee Canyon—Landon’s house was moved down from the mesa in 1940.
Landon comes from a line of alternating Johns and Patricks. Landon’s parents, Patrick and Carmella, broke the mold when they named Landon after the father of their friend and neighbor, famed horse breeder Alice Moore. Landon K. Moore bred Thoroughbreds for the U.S. Cavalry; Alice has continued the operation just south of Raton, earning AQHA Legacy Breeder status.
Landon Berry’s dad, Patrick, has bred his mares, especially Falcon Cash, to Alice Moore’s studs, including Powder, a son of Mr. Blue Bar. Others have been bred at the nearby CS Ranch.
Landon has followed his father’s path through high school rodeo, ranch work, and mentorships with top horse trainers. Patrick was New Mexico high school state champion in saddle bronc riding. “We still have that prize saddle,” Landon says. “My mom rides it every day.” Patrick later developed his horsemanship skills working with Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Pat Parelli.
Landon says, “I did saddle broncs because that’s what my dad did, and my grandpa, too.” He competed in high school rodeo throughout the big state, qualifying in his senior year for the 2011 nationals at Gillette, Wyoming. “It’s expensive,” he says, “especially when you’re not that good at it.”
He was good enough to win an event at Las Cruces, catching the eye of the rodeo coach from New Mexico State University, earning a rodeo scholarship. “I majored in mechanical engineering, but I didn’t want to ever work in an office so I finally decided I was wasting my time on that degree.” After two years, he came home to devote his future to the family ranch.
“My grandpa, John, is 84 and I wanted to get all the time with him that I could. Now, I get to see my grandparents every day, my parents every day.” Last winter was the first to see John stay indoors much, but by spring he was back on horseback working most days.
After Landon came home in 2013, Patrick saw on RFD-TV that trainer Chris Cox was accepting audition tapes for a program called “Horsemanship Showdown,” where he’d work with ten young horsemen to select two for long-term apprenticeships at his training facility at Mineral Wells, Texas. Patrick suggested that Landon apply.
“The day before the deadline,” Landon says, “me and my mom and my dad went up on the mesa in a sleet storm—sideways sleet—to make the video. I caught my horse and rode him around while my mom shot a video from inside the truck.” He won a slot and his face is now pictured on the program’s DVD.
“Chris showed my mom’s video to a bunch of people, saying it was a good example of determination,” Landon says. “Chris and I have become friends and he’s invited me to come anytime.” Landon returned during his slack season last year, and this year he spent most of January and February working with Cox.
“Landon possesses one of the greatest attributes: he has a lot of try,” Cox says. “He’s gritty. He doesn’t have any back-up in him. Landon’s at a point in his life, his early 20s, where he wants to improve his horsemanship. It’s honorable of him to carry on the tradition and legacy that his family has laid out for him. Nowadays, fewer young people are choosing to continue these traditions. I respect Landon for that.”
“There aren’t any days off,” Landon says. “We’re out dawn to dark, seven days a week. The work changes every season, every day.” With his mom, dad, and grandpa, Landon spends long days moving cattle—from the rugged-but-protected canyons to the mesa top in the spring, then back to the canyons in the fall. In summer they rotate the cattle between pastures. June branding takes ten days including time spent moving cattle. They run 400 cow-calf pairs plus 200 yearling heifers. On his own, Landon tends 400 steers for distant cattle buyers who send their stock to graze all summer on Johnson Mesa’s nutritious high-altitude grasses. Altogether the cattle range over about 10,000 acres of Berry land and a similar amount of leased land.
Cousins, neighbors and friends pitch in when needed, working in trade or for day rates. Landon spent a recent week helping the nearby CS ranch with its spring branding. At home, endless ranch chores range from managing water to maintaining miles of fences. Landon’s just started another colt, and he delivered one of the Berrys’ two broodmares to Alice Moore for breeding.
Before sunrise in late March, with a hard frost still on the ground and a hundred wild turkeys looking on, Landon crosses a pasture on Cajun Bay, the five-year-old he started training with Cox in January. Landon and “Bay” gather a small herd of cattle and some horses, moving them a half mile up Yankee Canyon to headquarters for feeding. Landon ties Bay beside his grandparents’ house and goes in for coffee with his dad and grandparents, John and Mary Lee Berry. Mary Lee is Alice Moore’s first cousin—their moms were sisters.
“We’re real proud of Landon,” Mary Lee says. “Like his dad, he has a natural ability with horses that these trainers have recognized.”
Compared to when his dad was the same age, and grandpa John before him, how do Landon’s prospects look in committing to a ranching life now?
They all agree that it looks pretty good. “The price for beef is high, and there’s a lot less labor than there used to be,” Landon says. “Now we pound T-posts but they had to go cut a tree down first, then cut posts and dig a post hole.”
Mary Lee says, “We did all of our farming and work with a team of horses.” She and John bought the ranch’s first horse trailer in 1971; until then, they rode horses everywhere. Patrick says, “We still need the horses to get the work done.” They still use horses to reach the other horses pastured on the mesa in winter.
“My parents milked cows every morning and every night,” Patrick says. “Landon buys milk at the store.”
But Landon faces new challenges. “Land is too expensive now to buy for cattle,” his grandpa John says, “and it’s harder to inherit something because of the damned inheritance tax. A lot of people nowadays have oil money or other easier sources of money than the cattle business. My generation had it easier in that sense.”
A complex web of estate and capital-gains taxes varies from state to state but affects ranchers across the West. “Every generation has to pay the inheritance tax,” Landon says. “Grandpa figures he’s already paid for the ranch three times. It’s killed a lot of family ranches.”
Landon has a brother and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, but he’s the only one committing to the family legacy, working on horseback every day, working alongside his parents and grandparents.
“Grandpa and I were riding one day, working, and he said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to this place.’ I said, ‘I don’t know either but I’m gonna stick around and find out.’ There’s no place I’d rather be,” Landon says. His dad adds, “It beats a traffic jam.”
“The biggest challenges are drought and inheritance taxes,” says Landon, “but those are the problems: mostly it’s good. It’s not a get-rich-quick plan but it’s a great way to live, and as long as I can keep the land, and a lot of people keep eating beef, I should be okay.”
He smiles as he adds, “It’s not the easy way, it’s the cowboy way.”