5 ranching lessons I learned from my employee and mentor

5 ranching lessons I learned from my employee and mentor

My good friend, co-worker and mentor, Harry Younkin, was born on April 1, 1950. He passed from this life too soon, on Oct. 31, 2013. His 65th birthday would have been April 1 of this year.

We used to joke about his birthday being on April Fools’ Day. When AgReserves, Inc. (better known as Deseret in some places) started operating ranches in Nebraska about 25 years ago, I arrived on the scene to become the general manager, and Harry was one of three full-time employees. We hired Harry’s wife, Jean, as our part-time office manager. Jean used to joke that they were part of the ranch purchase. “It was a package deal,” she said.

Though I was nominally the manager and Harry the ranch hand, a great and treasured relationship began to develop. I asked Harry and the other two employees to keep running the place as it had been run, at least until I could get well acquainted with the Rex Ranch and ranching practices in the Sand Hills. The ranch had been operated profitably, so why should I start making changes that could mess it up?

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Harry showed no sign of jealousy as he began to get me acquainted with the ranch and introduce me to other good operators in the area. He ensured I understood how the ranch had been run in the recent past. He showed me every pasture and windmill, pointing out how they had been used. And he introduced me to Sand Hills brandings (the best I’ve ever seen), as well as ranch calving, breeding, weaning and marketing practices.

The ultimate cowboy

Harry was the ultimate cowboy or, I would rather say, stockman. He knew how to “let” cattle do what he wanted them to do. There was no “whoop and holler” or forcing of animals. With a little patience coupled with a lot of skill, the cattle did just what Harry wanted.

For the first two or three years, Harry and I calved a fairly sizeable number of first-calf heifers together. We split night shifts in the middle of the night and worked most of the day. We sorted heavies and paired out together. Then, Harry did most of the cow work, checking for sick calves, feeding, etc.; and I went to my office. Our styles of sorting were different, but we adapted to each other without difficulty.

When we bought a second ranch, Harry became our first foreman responsible for operations on the entire Rex Ranch unit, which was the original Rex Ranch. He had supervisory responsibility for two other people with cow herds, plus a large herd of his own to care for.

By that time, Jean had become a full-time office manager, which included being an accounting clerk, office housekeeper, receptionist, and cook for crew-up days and for ranch guests, etc. Her work enabled me to be a much more effective manager.

Our entire team was always armed with good financial and production data. Every full-time employee knew the production metrics and the financial performance of each of our herds – his and his co-workers’.

Sometime after Harry became a foreman, I inquired about his long-term career desires. He said he didn’t care to move to a management level higher than his current position. He said he would have to “burn his saddle,” and he didn’t want to do that. Harry loved the day-to-day operations of a cattle ranch and became very good at all of it.

I have the greatest respect for people who know themselves well enough to know where they best fit and can be very well satisfied and extremely happy doing what they love to do without having title and more money. I have known too many who sought more title and more money but didn’t really want the higher-level job and its responsibilities and problems.

Harry knew what he loved and what he could become very good at. He became comfortable in that position and performed at an excellent level.

As I became acquainted with the ranch and our people, we began to make changes in our calving season, our breeding program, our marketing strategies and our grazing methods. The latter included a lot of electric fencing and pumping stock water with solar pumps. With each new idea Harry was an energetic student and a valuable critic. He was all for finding a better way, and was excellent at seeing potential pitfalls which he helped us avoid.

By the time we began to operate in a third location, I asked Harry to move and start the new operation. I knew he understood how to move it quickly to the operating level of the other units. His ability to learn a new ranch and adapt new ideas to fit the resource was excellent. Some years later, I asked Harry to start one more, even larger, unit. He did that with the same enthusiasm as the others.

Harry retired a little early after 20 years with the company. He looked forward to living and riding in the mountains of Wyoming, which he was able to do for a couple of years before being diagnosed with cancer.

5 things I learned from Harry

Here are five important lessons that I learned from Harry:

  1. As someone’s employee, the traits of loyalty, dedication, high-quality work, timeliness, and ability to show and teach others make you extremely valuable.
     
  2. It’s important to know where you fit. Happiness in life for you and your family doesn’t necessarily come from more salary, higher position or more prestige. Finding your place and exceling at it can make a satisfying and wonderful life.
     
  3. You don’t have to force or coerce animals, or people, to get them to do what you want.
     
  4. A happy countenance is contagious. People will work harder and better if they’re happy. When job applicants would ask about the nature of the work, Harry would always have to interject that, “You will always get plenty of fresh air and exercise.”
     
  5. Harry learned well from the old adage, “Why do we always have time to do things over, but never time to do it right the first time?” Harry just did it right the first time.

Friends, heroes and mentors come in all ages and stages of life. Those who help us learn life’s important lessons don’t necessarily rank above us in age, title or responsibility. It’s important to be open to help, innovation and inspiration from all levels. Harry Younkin was that sort of person, and a very good and close friend as well.

Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager with AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached at [email protected]

 

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