Strategic Planning For The Ranch

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

I simply aspire to be a good, complete rancher. And if I don’t have some of the necessary skills, I will work to find someone for my team who can compensate for that.

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 burketei@comcast.net.

 

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Discuss this Blog Entry 8

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

I'm a grassfarmer first. if an enterprise is losing money we'll shift to something else, cows, sheep, stockers or dairy replacement heifers. You can't be wed to the harvester of grass.

North of the Medicine Line (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

I prefer not to define myself in any of these categories, but take great pride in doing all of them to the best of my abilities.

David Lalman (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

Excellent perspective, as usual Burke. As a youth, my "experience" was from small farming and ranching operations, with emphasis on the farming part. My dad and uncles had to be generalists and the family was the work force. My love was for the cattle and anything I could do on a horse...and believe me, the opportunities to work "glued to the saddle" were far too limited as far as I was concerned! I would have been one of Burke's unimpressive interviews for sure. Now that I am employed by the ivory tower (University) and hire students for our commercial cow/calf research operation, I interview quite a few for part time work. You just can't imagine how many want to impress you with their big hat (worn in my office during the interview), roping, riding and breaking colt skills. In their cowboy enthusiasm, they will often ask if they can bring a roping horse and sometimes, a two-year-old colt with them. What impresses me is a young person that is respectful, humble, and unassuming regardless of the particular set of skills that they have acquired up to this point in their brief careers. Kids that seem bright and eager to learn. Lately, if the student claims to have a lot of ranching experience, I will ask "Do you like to build fence?". Reactions have been all over the board. From sheer terror to confusion and stuttering to "NO" to eyes lighting up and a confident smile with "yes, my family takes pride in a well built fence, and I am good at it". I have learned a lot by observing their responses.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

The best cure for overly aggressive cowboys that need to learn to move animals gently and quietly is having them rebuild the fence they ran the animals through.

W.E. (not verified)
on Oct 7, 2013

Thank you again, Burke, for seeing things as they really are and communicating well with those of us who have made a lifelong commitment to the demands of raising cattle on grass. Our "ranch" is actually a couple of intensively managed small farms a mile apart, with pastures fenced into semi-permanent and temporary paddocks. When I was a small child (55 years or more ago), I told grownups I wanted to be a cowboy. You have identified what I have ended up being: a stockman and a grass farmer. I didn't grow up on a farm, but all four of my grandparents were active diversified farmers who had a way with livestock. In my youth, I loved to ride horses, but a broken back and other severe injuries put an end to that. My spouse and I now do most of our livestock and pasture work on foot, having trained the cattle in the rewards of following their herdsmen to better pasture. Needless to say, we don't carry extra weight around the middle, and those old injuries don't bother me much anymore. We'll keep doing this work for as long as we can. It would be nice, though, to find some young folks to help who don't mind doing work that demands being on foot. We can hire plenty of folks to drive tractors, especially if they have cabs and air conditioners. Finding someone willing to dig post holes and water lines, drive fenceposts, move polywires and water tanks isn't so easy. Any tips on how to locate a worker like that?

Burke (not verified)
on Oct 8, 2013

From my experience with young people I would say there are still a good number that recognize what it takes to be good. They also understand that they don't yet "have it all." I would suggest that you might find a good, practical professor at an Agricultural College and have him/her help you find someone who would like to be mentored and learn the art and practice of the grazing and stockmanship you are using. The prospective student needs work ethic, aptitude and passion for the work.

Frank Schlichting (not verified)
on Oct 8, 2013

Yes instead of of spending all of our time fixing flat tires we could start our day by picking up the nails in the yard!

avatar (not verified)
on Oct 14, 2013

Cowboying was a vital trade during the open range and cattle drive eras. Nowdays it can be more of a hindrance than a help. Like a hotshot, a horse should be used only when necessary.

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What's Strategic Planning For The Ranch?

Burke Teichert provides readers with his practical take on efficient and cost-effective livestock production and ranch management.

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Burke Teichert

Burke Teichert was born and raised on a family ranch in western Wyoming and earned a B.S. in ag business from Brigham Young University and M.S. in ag economics from University of Wyoming. His work...

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