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Moving cattle

Why are we in this business anyway?

Improving the land is great, but the financial aspects of ranching can’t be ignored.

Lately I have thought a lot about the reasons people give for being in the ranching or farming business. Then sometimes I wonder is it really a business or a hobby or an unpleasant job that someone happened to land in. We often hear of farm or ranch families that discourage their children from considering it as a career—long hours, hard work, poor financial return, no time off and more.

On the other hand, when I ask those who seem to enjoy farming or ranching, I get a lot of answers like this:  I love the lifestyle, great way to raise kids, we enjoy the outdoors, I love the animals, I like the challenge of improving the soil and raising better crops or producing more pasture, we hope our management is reducing erosion and improving water quality, we like to work together as a family, etc.

Rarely do you hear someone put financial gain or security or wealth accumulation on the list and certainly not at the top of the list. Passionately I fit right in with this group—all the reasons sound great. However, the realistic and financial side of me says there is a wonderful, challenging and absolutely critical and indispensable need for financial and economic excellence.

I am so thankful for parents, grandparents and a few early-life school and career mentors who led me to understand that the care of land and animals is a combination of art and science and that ranching is a business and needs to be conducted as such. In my childhood and youth, I truly enjoyed my horses and the cattle on our ranch. As a teenager I worked on some range “improvement” projects—that maybe were or weren’t. 

But, with a little urging and some curiosity of my own, as I entered college, I was looking through the university catalogue of course offerings and stumbled onto this major called agricultural economics that had an ag business option. Was it that I was raised in a very small country town that kept me from knowing that such a university course of study existed? In high school I was in FFA and took vocational agriculture classes, but those classes mainly dealt with animals, crops and mechanics.

The discovery of ag economics opened up a new world of looking at ranching as a business. I got two degrees in ag economics and took way more economics courses than any practical person ever needs. 

However, the accounting, statistics, finance, marketing, business management along with soils, animal breeding and nutrition became foundational for many of the things that I have learned since. It is amazing how much more and how much faster you are able to learn after the foundation or basic principles of a subject have been put in place and you can now talk intelligently with an expert on the subject.

Let’s go back to the question of “Why?” I wanted to ranch more than anything else because of my love of land and cattle.

In addition, I had watched my dad run a very small hay crew consisting mostly of his own school-age children and some nephews and put up a tremendous amount of hay each day. Or, he could take some of that same crew and build a lot of new fence. He was a master of efficient operations and time and motion efficiency.

The challenge of being able to do that inspired me. Later on, I become very intrigued with the idea that we could use, not abuse, and in fact improve the land and build soil with our livestock. I then discovered that cattle had to fit their environment to truly be low cost and profitable. Somewhere along the line this guy named Bud Williams started to show us that there were much better ways to handle our animals.

Through some luck or blessing from heaven, I became a general manager of a fairly large operation in my early 30s. The owners of the business let me know that it was a business. 

They treated their employees well and worked to ensure a good quality of life and a mentally stimulating workplace. But, we were all assured that neither our jobs nor our part of the company would continue to exist in the absence of a good profit. I am glad that happened early in my career.

Look at the previously mentioned challenges:

  • Operational efficiency and excellence.
  • Well-managed grazing to improve productivity of the land by building healthy soil.
  • Breeding cattle to fit their environment so that they are truly low cost and high profit.
  • Using great livestock handling techniques so that cattle respond better to their handlers and have better health, growth and reproduction.

Then bundling all of that in a systems approach to achieve good profits, while achieving many of your esthetic and quality of life goals at the same time, is a wonderful reason for “Why?” we do this.

Our non-economic motives for ranching are all still valid, but most ranches won’t exist very long without making a profit. And, making a profit helps make this job a lot of fun.

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