Bad days in the ranching business just happen. The calf that bloats, the horse that goes lame, the chain that breaks on the feed truck, the new four-wheeler that burns up in the pasture. I’m sure you could add 10 more things to the list without really trying. That’s because ranching forces you to deal with daily problems. I’m sure every business has similar tales of woe, but in ranching, almost every bobble costs you thousands and while bad days are inevitable, in a narrow margin business, they are painful.
Then, of course, there are those really bad days. We had one of those on our ranch last week; we were weaning a set of calves using fence line weaning, and everything seemed to be going great. The calves had shown no signs of sickness; they had stopped bawling and seemed content. The cows were in good rig and grazing on lush pasture that hadn’t been grazed all summer. We worked them the day before, taking body condition scores, mature weights and disposition scores and all looked good.
Then it happened. I walked out of the house that morning, planning to move the cows. I glanced their way and could see all the cows were gathered around something. Then I saw four legs in the air, a sight we have all come to dread, one that brings a sick feeling that creeps over you. That would have been a devastating start to any day, but as I drove out to the cows, it got worse. Much worse. It wasn’t just one cow but numerous cows.
Panic, confusion, anger—it all sweeps over you in a rush. Turns out that one draw, where we get drainage off an irrigated circle, had turned deadly. The nitrates from the runoff, combined with perfect timing and conditions, had turned the lush little drainage poisonous.
At first, it is all about identifying the problem and preventing any further damage. Then it becomes determining how the wreck could have been prevented and how to prevent it in the future. Then the reality of what happened sinks in and there is the grief and mourning.
Second guessing doesn’t happen very often with me, because I feel in my core that ranching is what I was meant to do. I can’t really see myself in other roles, but I found myself asking two things—why me, and whether or not this life is the right one. With one in college and two heading that way relatively soon, that was the cost of an entire year at a prestigious college gone, three-fourths of the year’s salary for an employee, perhaps our annual profits. You feel like you let your cows down, your family, your banker, and of course, yourself.
If there was any solace in this disaster, it’s that it was the worst day we have experienced in over 25 years, and that we weren’t alone. They say misery loves company, and it was almost therapeutic to talk about the disaster with a few others. The therapy came in the form of everyone sharing their disaster stories. Thankfully they are rare, but the droughts, blizzards, fires and unforeseen market crashes make us stronger if we are able to survive them.
In ranching, you are occasionally going to get knocked to your knees. The only thing to do is say a prayer and get back up. What choice do we have? Who’d want to live any other way?