Observation is the key to being a good ranch manager

Observation can be the key to truly understanding how to run a ranch. Noticing the little things can help take care of the big things.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

August 18, 2016

5 Min Read
Observation is the key to being a good ranch manager

Years ago, Dan E. Gary asked a question to a man he considered a great ranch manager: What separates the great ranch managers from the average ranch managers? He thought for just a few seconds and responded, “observation.”

Here’s an example of what he means. “Over 25 years ago, my wife, Rhonne, and I were watching the evening news. It seemed a bunch of rouge elephants were terrorizing villages somewhere in Rhodesia or Zimbabwe. It was so bad that the government hired hunters to shoot them,” says Gary, a ranch consultant and owner of Adobe Walls Nutrition in Amarillo, Texas.

“After they were shot, these elephants were aged and it was learned that all the elephants were juveniles. Poachers had killed all the adult elephants. The problem was that no one observed this fact, nor did any one understand why the elephants went rouge, until it was too late. These juveniles needed leadership and role models in order to learn how to be elephants.”

Some years back, Gary presented a program to a group of ranchers and talked about this experience. “After the program, an older gentleman told me that I had the story all wrong. ‘It was not 25 years ago, it was only about five years ago,’ he said. He also added that they didn’t shoot the elephants, they captured an old bull, brought him into the rogue herd and he whipped them into shape. He taught them how to be elephants.”

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The bottom line is that both stories are true, Gary says. The government learned a very valuable lesson after shooting all the rogue elephants some 25 years ago. They observed the fact that both instances happened because there was no leadership in the herds of elephants and leadership was provided the second time around by bringing in an old bull. “Observation was the key.”

How, then, can we use observation in a cowherd? “Have you watched the deer and antelope herds very closely? When the doe fawns are weaned, they stay with the family groups and the buck fawns are kicked off and form bachelor groups. God created leadership for the wildlife; the older females provide leadership for the doe fawns and the older bucks provide leadership for the buck fawns,” he says. “I pointed this out to a ranch manager in mid July, while watching a bachelor group of antelope. There was one old buck, nearly trophy size, and eight younger bucks of various ages.”

According to Gary, the Bible even tells us about leadership and role models. “Titus 2:4 talks about ‘Women train up the young women.’ Also, Proverbs 11:14 speaks to the fact that where there is no leadership, people fall. But in the abundance of counselors, there is safety. Leadership and role models are all around us if we are observant.”

So, Gary asks, do we provide leadership and role models for our cattle? “Generally not. I believe it’s something we just have not observed and we haven’t figured it’s very important. However, I believe God makes it very clear that He wants us to become better stewards of His land and His cattle. I believe that we can increase net profit by giving each class of cattle what they need, when they need it, provide leadership for our cattle and be better stewards at the same time.”

In a nutshell, here are Gary’s thoughts on how to do that:

  • Put the oldest cows (15 to 17 years old) with the first-calf heifers. They both need about the same amount of supplemental feed and the heifers need leadership.

  • Put old cows (11 to 14 years old) with the second-calf heifers. They both need about the same amount of supplemental feed and the heifers need leadership.

  • Put one or two mammacita (really gentle cows) out in every pasture with the calves that are being weaned, maybe even with fence line weaning. “I believe in every pasture, every cow knows every calf, and vice versa. They are like a big family.”

  • Observe the lack of stress on the calves when this is done. If you don’t have any really old cows, you may want to put your oldest cows with the first-calf heifers and your second oldest cows with your second-calf heifers. Over time, you’ll have some really old cows, he says.

According to Gary, we all have a tendency to complicate things and make things more difficult than they really need to be. If we are observant, use common sense and have some practical experience, we can do a better job and become more profitable, while becoming better stewards. The following examples apply:

  • By observing cow-pie-ology, you can give cows what they need, when they need it. Breed-up will increase, weaning percentage and weaning weights will increase and the percentage of calves hitting the ground in the first 30 days of calving will increase.

    “I work with clients whose keeper heifers breed along with their running age cows and whose first calf heifers re-breed along with their running age cows, without excess feed. By observation, cow size can be reduced. Selecting replacement heifers on the cow, not in the sorting alley, will allow us to keep replacement heifers based on the moderate-size cows we like.”

  • By observation, longevity can be greatly increased. Selecting replacement heifers on the cow will allow you to keep replacement heifers based on the oldest of the cows you like. These old cows tell you which ones fit the country, because they wouldn’t still be around if they had ever showed up open.


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About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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