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Are You A Cowboy, A Stockman Or A Grass Farmer?

how to pick good employees

I’ve thought a lot over the years about what makes the ideal ranch employee.  I know many of you reading this are self-employed, so you’re both ranch employees and owners. I might ask, “Do you like your boss?” or “Do you like your employee?”

On smaller ranches, each person needs a larger set of skills because generally there is no one else to compensate for your lack of skills. In this column, I want to mention a few items of strategy and then deal with the day-to-day aspects of running a ranch.

Regular readers of this column know I place good grazing management at the top of my strategic list of things to be good at.  You also know that I want to graze as many days of the year as possible – hopefully all year long. To do this, you need cows that fit their environment. You also need cows that require very little or none of your time individually for doctoring, calving, etc.

Therefore, the question arises, “Should we be cowboys, stockmen or grass farmers?” If you have cows that can calve unassisted out in a pasture rather than in a calving lot, if your livestock seldom or never need to be doctored, and if you’ve learned good livestock handling skills so that cattle moves, gathers, corralling, sorting and working are easy, you don’t need to spend very much time being a cowboy.

If the cattle are right and your handling skills are good, your main job is to make sure cattle are where they belong and that they have a good drink of water whenever they want it. Being “where they belong” means that you have a well thought out grazing plan that offers plenty of grazable feed and controls where a herd grazes and for how long.

To do this, fencing and stock water are required. I’ve found that “cowboys” typically don’t like to fence, set water tanks or fix water lines. It’s much more fun to get on your horse, go to the pasture and hope that something is sick so you can rope and doctor. Or hope that some of the neighbor’s cows got in, or that some of yours are in the neighbor’s pasture. This, of course, justifies your riding and checking cattle rather than building or repairing fence or further developing stock water so you can manage grazing a little better.

A good stockman is able and willing to do both – take care of the cattle, make sure the fences are good enough to hold them, and that they are bred to fit their environment so sickness is only occasionally a problem. He also loves the challenge of good grazing and reducing the amount of feeding, so he will think of ways to improve grazing with fence and water and improved time control. You can see that this good employee is also a grass farmer.

There are times that I’ve thought I should quit hiring cowboys and just hire a good fence and water person. But in reality, we need the complete set of skills, plus a willingness to use them. We need to prioritize by need and by the best economic use of our time. Quite often, that does not mean riding a horse.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people for ranch jobs. Too many of them have touted their ability to start a green colt and to rope and doctor sick cattle. Neither of those was very high on my priority list.

Many also talked about being ranch-raised. However, I learned that too many were raised in the house that was on the ranch, but somehow escaped the opportunity to learn how to ranch.

There was also the flip side. I have worked with over 100 student interns over the years. Over half were quite good and showed the kind of attitude and ability required to be a good employee. And there were a few that showed outstanding abilities – in their work ethic, previously learned skills, ability to learn, attitude, questions, and suggestions.

I’ve followed the career of several of them who are doing very well in ranching or in closely related agricultural professions. Two are managing large ranches, and one has a consulting business while farming and ranching with family. Another is an Extension educator and one is a department head in a very good college of agriculture.

It seems like those who were well prepared at a young age and have work ethic, willingness to be lifelong learners, and a passion for what they do will continue to rise. I’m sure, and have seen, that some starting later in life can also become very well qualified and make important contributions.

So, on larger expansive ranches, a good set of cowboy skills can be very helpful. But if the cowboy insists on being glued to his saddle, he doesn’t have nearly as much value as one who will become a complete stockman by learning good handling techniques and an ability to see the range or pasture and the cattle condition. To become really valuable, the employee will also learn to manage grazing and increase carrying capacity.

I really don’t care what you want to call yourself or your employees – cowboy, stockman, grass farmer or rancher. Personally, I would simply like to be a good, complete rancher. If I don’t have some of the necessary skills, I will work to find someone for my team who can compensate for my lack of skills.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at [email protected].


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