Editor’s update: Kris Wilson died just weeks after this story was published on AGDAILY.com.
When the doctors opened the door to greet the waiting patient, a cowboy stood before them. He looked like he had ridden in off the New Mexico range — because he had. Imagine their surprise when he began citing published research.
Kris Wilson is a busy man. As the manager of the New Mexico division of Silver Spur Ranches, he manages both the historic Bell Ranch and the TO. These sprawling ranches are large-scale operations encompassing cattle production, farm ground, and a feed mill and one of the most revered reined cow horse programs in the nation. Cattle and cow horses aside, Wilson’s two young children keep him and his wife, Cara, on their toes.
Wilson, who is still in his 30s, is a stage-four kidney cancer patient and says he’s in it for the long haul. The ranch owners have been supportive, and Wilson said they’ve gone above and beyond to support him and his family.
“We really feel like we were ordered to come here before this happened because I don’t know anywhere else that would have been as supportive,” he said. “My family and our faith has been the core for me. It has been the thing that sustains us.”
Wilson earned his Ph.D. from Texas Tech University and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas A &M University. The son of a horse trainer, Wilson is originally from the Stephenville, Texas, area.
When the manager position became available for the Bell Ranch, Wilson knew the opportunity wasn’t one that came open frequently and he threw his name in the hat. It afforded his family the chance to grow in a more rural area and has proven to be a good decision.
Having a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition served Wilson well as he and his crew built a feed mill from the ground up, curtailing a tremendous expense annually. Perhaps where his education has best served him, though, is in the doctor’s office.
“The thing that really did help me was being able to read and understand research,” Wilson said. “In my master’s and Ph.D. programs, that’s what you do. So having the ability to read and really understand the research has been a tremendous help.”
Wilson travels to UT Southwestern in Dallas every three weeks for immunotherapy. He is managing his way through the side effects, and while there’s not a cure, per se, the goal is to be around to see where the research takes the treatment options.
“It’s made me realize it’s OK to slow down and put our family and our Lord first,” he said. “My career won’t suffer for it.”
Even as Wilson finds himself standing at the belly of the beast, he is a leader in his walk of faith and one others turn to, especially online, to glean words of encouragement and the stories he shares that cement his faith. He founded Western Faithbook and recently released a devotional available on Amazon titled “I’ll Drop You Off.”
The trip to Dallas is often physically difficult for Wilson, not to mention financially straining. Like many in agriculture, not wanting to appear to be requesting handouts, he’s been hesitant to accept help. This time, however, he realized his Lord didn’t want him to pass up a blessing that came in the form of a very small plane.
Pilots from Angel Flights have made the travel easier on Wilson and his wife, Cara, and he is thankful for the Christian volunteers who, he says, are spirit filled.
Wilson penned this following his flight to Dallas: “Folks, there are angels all around us. People who God has sent to make your life a little easier during our times of trial. Today has made me stop and reflect about how much we have been helped and how the Lord keeps ordering our steps and blessing us. I’ll be completely honest with you. This disease has not been fun, but we have our family who has helped us so much, as well as organizations like Superior Livestock, Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA) and Angel Flights, countless volunteers and friends. I also happen to work for the most caring individuals in the world. None of this is by chance, by the way. The Lord truly does order our steps. Yes, we are blessed because of the angels God has placed in our lives.”
When Wilson speaks of his battle with cancer, he is matter of fact and humble. It’s the same way he speaks of good horses, good cattle, and good cowboys. He doesn’t speak of chances and prognoses, and time. He speaks of faith, and he is encouraging and guiding others in their own walks while he’s walking through this uphill battle.
“We thank the Lord every day for ordering our steps,” he said.
While a professor at Texas Tech University, Wilson said he woke up one day and was driven to see what he could really accomplish. Though he enjoyed everything about teaching, he left Tech to work at the Matador Ranch. A year later, he was managing for Silver Spur and says he’s happy with what he’s been able to really do.
“You have to be dynamic as a manager,” he said. “If you open your calendar and decide you’re going to do everything this year like you did last year, you’re leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. We’re fluid and dynamic and have the capability to be flexible. Whatever’s going to be best for the cattle is what we can do.”
Being such a large-scale operation provides the advantage of being able to manage around challenges like drought without having to sell large numbers of cattle. It also affords the ranches resources that can be utilized to help across all aspects of the operation. Keeping the ball rolling tends to be the name of the game for Wilson who made the move to his management position prayerfully and deliberately.
The horse program, he said, is built out of necessity. There is an interest in cow horses and there were existing programs on the individual ranches that became the larger, successful program several years ago.
“We have a little over 50 mares and four stallions, including a son of Metallic Cat, a son of WR This Cats Smart, a son of Smart Chic Olena, and a son of Stoli, which is our outcross,” he said.
The Metallic Cat son was a Snaffle Bit Finalist and a derby finalist and the barn is home to numerous other, smaller futurity and derby winners.
“It’s on the up and up so we’re excited,” he said.
The interest in good horses is shared throughout the Silver Spur crew, a group that covers four states. The ranch owners ride and train cow horses, as do many of the crew members. Many also complete in ranch rodeos and other events.
“It’s really a group effort,” he said. “Matt Turner in Wyoming does quite a bit of the riding, Ellis McCluskey at the Bell (rides), and Kyle Trahern from southeastern Colorado rides the stallion we have going down the road.”
Wilson knew he had found something outrageously special when he found the Metallic Cat son.
“We kind of lucked into him,” he said. “He got him bought right. He had been injured as a colt and we took a chance on him. He was the first horse we took to the Snaffle Bit. We won the Open saddle and about $40,000. He was a real shot in the arm for our program.”
The Metallic Cat son continues to sire a consistent colt crop and, along with the WR This Cats Smart stallion, are the base of what is becoming one of the best known cow horse programs in the country. Wilson and the Silver Spur haven’t lost sight of the original purpose of the horse program, however. The horses are all used and tested on the ranches, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If they can’t work on the ranch, we don’t even give them a chance in the show pen,” he said.
The cattle operation is impressive in scale but is perhaps more marked by innovation. Wilson calls the operation multifaceted, and that it is. Stretching from New Mexico to Wyoming, it is the largest cow calf operation in the United States. Most of the cattle are Red Angus x Angus crosses, but most of the cattle in the northern part of the operation are a composite cross of Red Angus and Charolais, a cross with unparalleled performance on feed. This composite, known as the Range Fire, is the basis for what has become one of the largest all natural beef supplies in the country.
“We have our own feed yard in Nebraska where all of our calves go,” he said. “They’re then marketed as natural beef, something the company has done for at least 15 years. It’s a long standing natural program.”
The summer is wearing on in New Mexico and fall will usher in cooler weather and the cattle work that defines the season. Wilson will be at the helm of the ranch crew, keeping things rolling in the unassuming, polite manner he uses to get things done. After all, keeping things rolling is what good managers do.