Island-born cattle rancher continues 100-year family legacy
Imagine a herd of cattle driven along a stretch of sand from around what’s now Jamaica Beach, turning north at 37th Street, to the Port of Galveston, boarding a ship and sailing to ports in Florida or the Caribbean.
Sound far-fetched? Nope — it happened as recently as the 1930s.
John R.A. Sullivan was a cattle rancher on the West End of Galveston, and he regularly ran herds down this path.
Until sometime in the 1950s, most everything west of 59th Street was ranching, farming, hunting and fishing. Texans often sent their herds to winter pasture on the salt marshes where Sullivan worked as a cowboy and cared for them until it was time to drive them down the beach front. It was during this time that Sullivan also began leasing pastures on the West End and started his own herd.
Nearly 80 years later, his granddaughter, Kelley Sullivan, still ships cattle to Florida and the Caribbean, though she doesn’t drive them down 37th Street to the Port of Galveston. Everything eventually comes full circle for Sullivan.
Sullivan now is the co-owner of the Santa Rosa Ranch, with locations in Navasota and Crockett, where she continues the Sullivan family’s 100-year legacy of cattle ranching in Texas.
“My grandfather was the best cowboy I’ve ever known,” Sullivan said. “He had an innate instinct about cattle and he could anticipate everything they would do. He thought like a cow.”
Sullivan’s grandfather took her to cattle auctions in Alta Loma (now Santa Fe) and introduced her to the ranching life from a very young age.
“I grew up around cattle and always loved the business,” she said. “I was the first Sullivan grandchild, so he took me everywhere. I was his little partner.”
But she didn’t jump into it immediately.
After graduating from Texas A&M University, Sullivan worked in sales and marketing for Johnson & Johnson and then with her three brothers, Todd, Johnny and Billy.
“Leaving my brothers was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Sullivan said.
But the cows came calling. Her passion for ranching led her to Texas Christian University’s storied Ranch Management Program, and, after graduating, back to the ranch.
Santa Rosa utilizes reproductive technology that has helped make it the largest breeder of Brangus and Ultrablack cattle in Texas, and second largest in the United States.
Brangus is a cross of Angus and Brahman cattle. Angus is a breed from Scotland and for which the Texas climate can be a bit harsh. Brahmans originated in India, so a hybridization of the two makes a cow, or bull, that can withstand the Texas heat and drought. Sullivan calls it a “tropically adapted Angus.”
“It is important for producers to match the cattle to the environment,” she said. “We’ve created a cross of two wonderful breeds with ideal traits. For example, it is hard to find a better female than a Brangus cow — they have incredible maternal instincts and make great mothers.”
The Ultrablack cattle also are an Angus/Brahman cross, but with more Angus genes. This makes the breed more suitable for cooler climates, thus allowing the ranch to expand the geographic locations available to them for selling cattle.
While Santa Rosa is a large operation, many ranches in Texas today average 100 head of cattle or less. Sullivan appreciates that so many Texans still engage in the cattle business.
“People still have a tie to the land,” she said. “They have an appreciation for the heritage of our state.”
Sullivan is quite involved in the cattle industry and is now a member of the Texas Beef Council. She’s one of 10 on the council, responsible for promoting beef to Texans.
“People in our industry are hard-working and pay attention to their business. But, they don’t self-advocate,” she said. “We need to be proud of what we offer — we produce the most healthy, nutrient-dense form of protein that our families, friends and neighbors can consume.”
Last year, she helped organize a symposium, “Optimizing Protein Through the Healthspan,” at the University of Texas Medical Branch with Dr. Blake Rasmussen and the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism.
Scientists from across the United States and Canada were invited to present science-based findings about protein requirements for all ages that are needed for physical strength and development to heal sports injuries, assist with weight loss and other needs.
Sullivan is pleased that the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America might be returning to the island. Her grandfather started the 4-H Club in Galveston in the 1940s, and she’s excited to hear of its revival.
“Today, we’re two to three generations separated from the land,” she said. “I’m excited to see younger people becoming re-engaged.”