Secret Destination blends Huntsville history with modern science

The Gibbs Ranch has roped in success in Walker County for decades ever since it was first owned and managed by community leader and rancher W.S. Gibbs.

It was not until 1993, years after Gibbs death, that his widow Ruth Farrington gave Sam Houston State University the deed to 1459.95 acres of Gibbs’ property. The ranch was then put under the care of the Department of Agricultural Sciences.

The primary purpose of the Gibbs Ranch is to cater as a learning laboratory for students enrolled in agricultural sciences at SHSU, which is facilitated and maintained by agricultural resources manager Dennis Stepp.

“Just a few of my responsibilities as the ranch manager is to supervise the annual budget, care for all of the livestock and maintain the roads and pastures on the property,” Stepp said. “I’ve got two full time staff employees to help me, and we also supervise up to four student workers that work 16 hours a week and live out on the ranch on what we call a work exchange program. What that means is that the students don’t receive a direct salary but instead get compensated by being able to live in a house provided by the department.”

When finding the students to work and live on the ranch, Stepp selects a combination of students that he knows personally and who have found out about the program through Saturdays at Sam or through a meeting with Doug Ullrich, Agriculture Education and Industrial Technology and BAAS Coordinator. After receiving information, students go through a light interviewing process with Stepp and he and the staff decide if that particular student is a good fit for the program.

“In our line of work, we don’t know if the students we choose are a good fit until we are engaged,” Stepp said. “Of course it’s not on a temporary basis. Once we agree to have them on board a student will usually stay with us for about two years and then move on to something else rather quickly. Generally we give these student workers the opportunity to acquire knowledge in production agriculture. The manual work includes basic things like painting, weed eating and working with animals. We will also have some laboratories and/or research projects out on the ranch from time to time.”

One of the main purposes of the ranch is the laboratories that are held there for agricultural science students. According to Stepp, they have a small classroom at the ranch where students will typically sit through and hour to an hour and a half lecture with a graduate student or teaching assistant.

Directly following the lecture, students will be put to work at the goat barn or with cattle learning how to do things such as giving a shot, trimming feet or de-worming the animals. Students will also go through palpitation labs that will determine the pregnancy status of a cow or a nanny, which is a female goat.

Stepp said these interactions with the students are his favorite part about working at the ranch.

“During the laboratories, I get a real sense of personal gratification when I get direct feedback from students, and I know that they are interested, engaged and ready to learn,” Stepp said. “This is really something that I was hoping for when I got my master’s degree at SHSU twelve years ago. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I grew up in Iowa on a farm and have been involved in production agriculture all my life so I have experience and I’m glad that I get to share that with students because it makes me feel like I am contributing to something.”

When it comes to interesting facts about the ranch, what most people do not know is that the agricultural department has many unique ways to fund their facilities. According to Stepp, the university gives a specific budget each year to fund their operations, and in return the agriculture department pays it back dollar for dollar.

They do this through private treaty sales of the goats raised at the ranch and through public auctions in Navasota of the raised cattle. The agriculture department also started a program several years ago called “Bearkat beef,” where steers are raised on the ranch, harvested at the meat science lab in the agriculture center and privately sold to the university community as side orders.

Another unique aspect of the ranch is the variety of things it is used for. Through the permission of Stepp there are events such as a 5K mud run sponsored by the agriculture department as well mud volleyball in the outdoor arena and steer saddling in the indoor arena.

The ranch is also used to help the ROTC program with their practices as well as one of the oldest clubs on campus: the SHSU rodeo club.

The rodeo club has been active since 1950 and has produced more national champion rodeo teams than any other college or university in the nation. Led by rodeo coach Edward “Bubba” Miller, the club gives over $150,000 in scholarships each year and includes 60 percent of students who are majoring in agriculture and 40 percent that have entirely different majors all together.

“The SHSU rodeo club is very family oriented because of the amount of time that we spend together at the ranch arena,” Miller siad. “Our organization is always out at campus events looking to recruit people as well as participating in different ways to be involved in the community. The students that are in this club are often very successful in their class. Last semester our students had a 98.3 success rate with a combined GPA average of a 3.0 and an 80 percent graduation rate.”

For students who are confused as to what they want to study at SHSU and pursue as a career, Stepp encourages students to talk to the agricultural department chair Stanley Kelley. Stepp believes if students desire a challenge and want to maintain personal relationships during their time at SHSU and in the future, the door to the agricultural department is always open.

“If students are interested in agronomy or some form of agriculture or agriculture production and want to be in a field where there are several different options, then I would encourage them to consider looking into agriculture science,” Stepp said. “Students may not even have a background in this area but desire to know more about it whether it is from an environmental standpoint or a desire to serve their fellowman. The way I see it, you need a farmer three times a day, and we all have to eat. This is not just a career; it is a way of life.”

For students who would like more information on the Gibbs Ranch or the Department of Agricultural and Industrial Sciences, go to or like the “SHSU Agricultural and Industrial Sciences Department” on Facebook.

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