Spend time to examine operation, look for areas of improvement | Livestock

The lingering drought of the past two years has had a ripple effect felt far and wide across the whole western United States. Cattle producers are looking out their windows at overgrazed fields, marginal hay crops, and diminished water supplies. To accommodate, most western cattle producers have been forced to reduce herd numbers. It is no secret that a mindset of defeat is percolating in the local sale barns.

While this hard time absolutely cannot be overlooked, Dr. Rachel Frost, program lead for Montana State University’s Dan Scott Ranch Management Program, points out that right now presents as an excellent time to really examine your land, your business, and your livestock to see if what you have is really working for your situation.

“A lot of rain can cover up a lot of problems on an operation. Good rainfall makes us all look like exceptional managers because it masks a lot of our other issues. It’s when we get down to times of limited rainfall that it really becomes apparent what our true bottlenecks are on the operation,” Frost articulated.

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Doing an in-depth audit of one’s operation is a lot to unpack, Frost admits, but she recommends honing in on some key questions to get the discussion and internal examination going.

The first major question that needs to be asked is: how do you measure success and what metric are you using to quantify it? Is success to your operation heavy calves? Is it total livestock sales? Is your personal measure of success really that or is it more of a justification?

“It is really getting at profitability more than just overall income,” Frost prompted.

Over the decades the cattle industry has evolved to a point that profitability on a per head basis really is about as efficient as it is going to get. Now, Frost says, it is best to look at profitability per acre. Using this time to take a hard look at grazing plans, stocking rates, needs for water development and the possibility of diversification will benefit an operation in the long run.

While this drought has been crippling, it certainly will not be the last one an operation encounters. To that point, Frost encourages producers to look at making operational adjustments now that will make the ranch more resilient in the future. Now is a time for creative thinking, she says, not a time to resign to defeat.

“Instead of just beating our heads against the wall, let’s try and find a way to make this work,” she stated.

The most important question to ask oneself during this process, Frost articulated, is whether what you are doing is a limitation or a habit? Is your operation doing something because it works, or are you doing it because your grandfather did it that way?

An operational examination of this breadth is bound to elicit emotions, especially if multiple generations are involved in the ranch. Frost suggests approaching the conversation by focusing on the “what” not the “how.” Directing the conversation around the common goal of “what” is best for the sustainability of the ranch. “How” exactly that will be achieved will be more likely to develop organically as the discussion progresses.

An outside perspective can offer valuable insight during a time like this, as well. Be it through continuing education, employing the help of a consultant/industry professional, or having open discussions with a neighbor or confidant. Be open-minded and considerate of a different viewpoint. Being intimately associated with the situation can often lead an individual to have blinders that only an outside set of eyes can see the past.

“It’s so easy to look at the same thing and be caught in those habits or paradigms that don’t allow you to see things from a different perspective. Pulling someone that can bring in a completely different viewpoint can really be an investment in yourself,” she said.

In conclusion, Frost noted the key to all of this is to be intentional about your plan to execute your operational changes. In struggle there is opportunity. Take this time to examine yourself and your operation with the goal of making the family ranch more resilient for generations to come.


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