By Dan Leahy
America’s need for the generational ranch family will not diminish and the very best examples of dedication, resilience and productivity will always come from the collective leadership of fiercely independent ranching families.
However, the profile of today’s ranch owner is slowly changing. The demands and constraints upon generational farmers and ranchers is leading to the consolidation and transfer of ownership to others with the capital necessary to operate under today’s economic and political realities.
In addition, there are families, anticipating generational turnover of the ranch as Mom and Dad or Grandpa and Grandma retire and wanting to keep the ranch in the family, but don’t have a family member who wants to manage the operation.
Whether the ranch is sold or stays in the family, with this change comes a renewed demand for the professional ranch manager. The need for experienced, well-rounded individuals prepared to provide services in ranching, farming, recreation, conservation, development, construction, and regulatory compliance has never been absent … and now is growing.
Furthermore, today’s ranch manager often finds himself a key point person in the intricate business of owners with many and varied economic and lifestyle interests. Add private professional assistant to the list of roles many ranch managers will fill.
This does not exclude those independent ranchers who have successfully adapted to current challenges or upcoming generations who wish to remain on the land and continue running the family ranch. Thankfully, with continued vigilance, these hardy types will be a permanent feature in the new landscape.
The new capitalist-conservationist rancher knows full well his need for a sophisticated manager who is equally capable running the ranch as they are caring for whatever business, family or personal issues require competent, confidential attention.
It is no stretch to refer to this owner/manager relationship as a partnership. This works best when both parties view it that way. With so much at stake, it serves neither to diminish the importance of the other.
This brief ‘how to’ is not meant to address every aspect of ranch management or hiring employees. It is intended to help an absentee ranch owner begin the hiring process with the end in mind: a truly rewarding relationship with your manager, maybe even one for the generations.
What is a ranch manager?
For absentee owners unfamiliar with day-to-day ranch work, it’s helpful to first know the duties of various ranch employees. Consider this list of roles that might be found on a ranch:
Ranch hand. The hand is the least skilled in overall management, yet often highly skilled at the duties that require a cowboy. They typically have a collection of duties, such as checking herds, fence building, some equipment operation, hand irrigation, mucking out stalls and landscaping. This is a task level worker.
Herdsman. This is a specific skill that is only acquired with years of learning and doing. Purebred stock operations benefit most from a dedicated herdsman. Some smaller or commercial cattle operations will not require a dedicated herdsman. Because of the specialized nature of the herdsman’s skillset, they might not be qualified or available for overall management duties.
Mechanic. Ranches require electricians, equipment maintenance and repair, plumbers, welder- fabricators, even ‘chemists’ who are responsible for the use of herbicides, which are regulated. A busy and productive operation will require all of these skills. If subcontractors are not available (or are too costly), a ranch mechanic must be employed.
It is possible, but not always likely, that one individual can be found who has basic or better skills in each of these specialties. The true jack-of-all-trades is much less common in the current generation. Mechanics are also task level employees who might or might not be able to work as a general ranch hand or with livestock. Remember that a good mechanic is best with his hands and tools; general management is probably not his strongest suit.
Farmer. Let’s not confuse farming with ranching. They often go together, but they are distinctly different activities. Can a cow hand drive a swather? Of, course. But will he also know what crops to plant and when? When to harvest or market them? Again, the best combination of skills and abilities in one person is wherever you might find them. For planning purposes, farming and farmers need to be considered for their own peculiar requirements.
Landscapers, carpenters, foresters, etc. There are endless possible needs for these tasks, great and small. This list is dictated by the way a property is put together, what it includes, and how it is organized to operate. Specialty trades are needed on this basis. Consider that wildlife and environmental stewardship require additional knowledge and experience in order to reach those goals set by the owner or by regulatory agencies with an expressed interest in your land and operation.
Foreman. We now come to a key distinction – that between a foreman and a manager. One question (and this might be most key): are you the ranch manager? Two things define your need for a ranch manager over a foreman.
First, if you as the owner wish to direct the annual, monthly or daily activities on the property, then you might be the real manager. If you do not look to your key employee to understand and formulate comprehensive planning ideas and proposals for the property, you might be relegating him to foreman status. This is OK; simply keep this in mind when you initiate your search.
A foreman excels a one thing: getting things done. He is an effective supervisor of all worker types discussed above. A quote by a stereotypical foreman aptly put it this way “I don’t make the orders, but when I give ‘em, that’s the end of it.”
If that seems like so much machismo, it isn’t. Provided the foreman also possesses common sense and respect for his workers, this clarity of purpose will suffice. Workers need leadership and direction. A good foreman can provide this. And, the effective foreman works right alongside his ranch team and will readily do any work that needs done.
Secondly, a smaller or less complex property simply might not warrant a manager. If it makes you feel better to refer to your foreman as your ranch manager, that’s fine. Just don’t let the use of the term cause a mistake in hiring the wrong individual for a job they are either under- or over-qualified for.
The ranch manager. One test is this: if you were only present on the ranch four weeks each year and, in your absence, the operation was a success in every way – a manager was responsible.
A manager has the unique ability to comprehend the needs of the land in their care and implement the vision of the owner. A manager assesses, plans and designs, then executes. He, along with the approval of the owner, establishes policies and carries out those plans and policies. This is possible because of the experience and reputation he brings with him.
Success is not the absence of challenges a property presents, rather the manager’s approach to those challenges. Wishing that a certain individual would “rise to the challenge,” without the clear evidence that he has done it before, is not a good bet in any profession.
So, the goal is to not hire a foreman when it is a manager that is needed. The other side of the same coin is: don’t hire a manager when all that is required is a decent foreman.
In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to qualify a ranch manager who will fit your operation.
Leahy operates DL Resource Management, LLC, based in the High Desert of Oregon. He has managed properties from Texas to Alaska as an independent resource manager. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org