When I graduated from South Dakota State University in 2009, I thought I knew it all. With my expensive college degree in agriculture communications in hand, I moved home and immediately had some suggestions for “improvements” around our ranch.
However, when my ideas fell on deaf ears, I was flummoxed and frustrated. Even though I was now an adult, I learned that I had some stripes to earn around the place. I always say that my first year out of college was my most educational, as I experienced a few of the hard knocks of youthful enthusiasm in trying to make my place in our family business.
It was just a short year later that I married my husband Tyler and introduced a whole new dynamic to our operation -- a son-in-law. There were a few awkward moments as Tyler learned “Dad’s way” of doing things, and Dad got used to having someone new helping out around the ranch. Soon enough, however, Dad realized that he finally had another guy to hang out with on the ranch. After all, a wife and three daughters had him outnumbered most of his life; he finally had an ally and partner-in-crime to tinker with machinery and do more of the heavy lifting around the place than us girls could do.
In addition to my parents and my husband and myself, I have two younger sisters who are still active on the ranch, and a set of grandparents from whom we rent land. With so many individuals in the picture, you can bet that there are occasional disagreements.
When it comes to working alongside your family, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. I’m not saying that my family has got this down pat yet, but we are learning. So, here are my top five pieces of advice for anyone involved in a family business:
1. Respect each other. Without a doubt, different family members have different life experiences, expectations, plans, goals and ideas. Whether you’re the founding member or the newbie, it’s important to always put yourself in someone else’s shoes before criticizing or trying to change things.
2. Communicate. Whether it’s deciding who will take the 2 a.m. check during calving season, or sitting down and developing a will and a trust, no decision is too big or too small to discuss. If the lines of communication are open, there’s less potential for confusion and wrong assumptions. Talk to each other. Listen to each other’s plans, ideas and thoughts for the future. Write them down, and work together toward common goals.
3. Resolve conflicts. There are some days when things aren’t going to go as planned. Cows are going to get out; machinery is going to break; an anniversary or birthday will be forgotten; the markets crash; the weather doesn’t cooperate; the list goes on and on. To get along, it’s important to think before you react. It is so easy to blame someone else when something goes wrong and to get mad, but if you just buck up and deal with the tasks at hand together, suddenly the problems don’t seem so bad anymore.
So, let off some steam by putting in a solid day’s work. I confess, I scoop out the barn when I’m mad; pitching manure the old-fashioned way is my stress-reliever, as odd as that may seem. Be sure to share your feelings. Don’t let a grudge build up and drive a wedge between family members. Talk it out and move forward.
4. Recognize each other’s strengths. My mom is great at financial planning, tax preparation, record-keeping, and keeping us organized. Dad is our genetics man. He can tell you the bloodlines of any cow on the place just by looking at her, and he loves planning his next genetic pairings when breeding season comes along. He’s also pretty good at putting together a feed ration; feeding cattle is something he takes pride in. I have a long winning streak of rate-of-gain champion steers at the county fair to prove it, too.
I’m kind of falling into the position of marketing and advertising, and this is something my sisters help with, too. Of course, we also help with the cattle, but we really thrive on promoting our cattle during bull sale season. Tyler is our fix-it-man. If it’s broken, take it to his shop; he will have it up and going again pretty quick. He’s very detailed-oriented and loves to resurrect old equipment and make it new again.
By acknowledging what each individual member of the family is good at, each person feels more valuable to the ranch and appreciated by the group as a whole. Make sure to compliment one another from time to time, too. A few kind words really go a long way toward boosting morale.
5. Have fun. Is it worth it if you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing? We love raising cattle. There’s nothing better than taking a pasture tour during the summer and seeing those calves grow. Outside of ranch work, we enjoy having game nights or going to basketball games. We enjoy working together and playing together, and that makes our jobs as beef producers pretty fun.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of tips, but it gets the ball rolling. How about adding some of your thoughts on the subject to the discussion? This article from Colorado State University Extension offers more advice on the topic.
What advice do you have for family farming or ranching operations? What things have you learned over the years to make it easier to work with family? List your best ideas in the comments section below.