Are you cowed out?

helping ranchers deal with midlife transitions over the age of 50

Many ranchers, when they hit middle age, reach a point where they can hardly stand to look after cattle another day. I've heard it referred to as being "cowed out." Some friends told me about a ranching couple in Montana who sometimes talked about divorce when they had a fight. They don't anymore, however, because neither is willing to take the cows!

Suddenly being sick of your job or business is a common symptom among midlife men, prompting some to quit their jobs, sell the ranch or otherwise "kick over the traces." Once in their 60s and looking back, these folks sometimes realize they acted too hastily; all they really needed was some time away — a sabbatical. A few weeks might have done the trick, but a few months would have been better.

I am indispensible
The problem, though, is most men don't think their businesses can run without them.

If you are your business — for example, an actor, professional speaker or maybe a concert pianist — you may not be able to have someone else run it for you. But if you are producing things, such as a ranching business does, you can take a break, and you may find it very worthwhile.

Business owners who get away for a significant period often come back with renewed energy and a new perspective. It allows them to run their operations with more creativity and less physical work.

Less physical work is critical because we men begin to lose stamina, libido and energy in our late 40s and early 50s. There's nothing wrong with this — it's a normal part of life. The mistake is in pretending it isn't happening and trying to carry on as usual. It's much better to adapt to the changes.

When Blake Holtman, who owns Shipwheel Feeders at Taber, Alberta, hit his early 50s, he began to lose energy. He keeps 6,000 cattle on feed and typically runs 700 yearlings on grass in the summer. His workdays used to start at 6 a.m., and end sometime in the evening. He's worked six and seven days/week for years, but he was getting so he could hardly keep up.

He wanted a sabbatical, but didn't see how he could get away from his business. Then he noticed how his friends — who owned several auction markets — would buy a business, hire someone to run it and move on. He reasoned that if they could have other people run their businesses, he could, too.

He realized he already had an employee who could probably manage his business well. He talked to her about it, put her in charge and prepared for his getaway.

Blake and his partner Bev bought a used motor home, had it wired for telephone and Internet hook-up and headed for Mexico.

If a telephone line was available where they stopped, he'd link in his laptop and keep track of the cattle market, buy and sell animals and hedge his dollars over the Internet, plus stay in touch with his office by phone or e-mail.

If no landline was available, he used a digital cell phone, which connected to his computer to access the Internet. In areas where his cell phone didn't work, he found a payphone to check in with his manager.

They spent three months in Mexico the first winter, and have returned every year since. Blake says he's far more relaxed and easy-going than he used to be, and he doesn't get so uptight about little things. He still doesn't have as much physical energy as he used to, so he's willing to let the younger people run the business.

He says his manager doesn't always do things the way he would, but it hasn't affected his business. In fact, it's running as well as when he was working six to seven days/week.

Pay now or later?
Do you want to take a sabbatical but feel you can't? Chances are one in five you'll have to. After all, statistics show 20% of North American men have heart attacks. That will definitely take you out of commission for a while.

Whether you actually have a heart attack or not, it's simply wise planning to prepare your business to run without you. Once the plan is made, just put it in motion, take a sabbatical, and get rid of that "cowed out" feeling!

Edmonton-based Noel McNaughton lectures to groups on “Farming/Ranching at Midlife - Strategies for a Successful Second Age.” For more information, call 780/432-5492; e-mail [email protected]; or visit