Managing Your Ranch as a Business First, Private Haven Second

In December, immediately after attending the Farm Forum Event in Saskatoon, I hit the air again, this time bound for Boise, Idaho. I was en route to Ranching for Profit, a course I signed up to attend with a few of my close family members.

The only cautionary tales I had heard were from people who had not taken the course, and somehow believed that all alumni let their cows starve by not managing them. “After all, the cows should work for you, not you for the cows,” they would scowl, mockingly. I wasn’t sure what to think. On one hand, it made complete sense  — a ranch is a business, and if the cows aren’t contributing, should they be there at all? On the other, for cowfolk with a tendency towards laziness, that way of thinking could be a recipe for nutrient deficiency disasters.

Those who took the course spoke fondly of it, and, many recommended I take it, alongside my immediate family (or as many as I could lasso into attending).

At first, I expected a typical conference, with new speakers every day, a whole lot of notes, and coffee so thick it encouraged horseshoes to float. Only one of those expectations was met (thankfully). We had one instructor for the entire week. I came home with pages and pages of notes, drawings and motivators.

The coffee was terrible.

When we arrived at the room, we noticed our assigned seating, and that each family member had been delegated to a different group. Four tables of six. It was like being back at school (only, with six times the number of students in my class…).

It was a pretty intense seven days that followed. We were expected to show up before 8:00 every morning, and generally hung around until 5:00. Then, we were often back in the classroom to complete extra, assigned work in the evenings. As I am a far better list-maker than writer (how did I land this job again?), I’ve decided to boil a few of my learnings down into points.

  1. If your hope is to make a living on the farm alone, and it is your job, not your haven, you must treat it like a business. Enterprises that aren’t making money, should be re-considered. The farm should have goals, a mission and a vision statement, and all employees/owners should have a clear understanding of their role in the business.
  2. People are important. Take time off. Ask yourself if you’re feeling fulfilled. Are your employees? Is your family? Is there room to change the structure, or is it time to ‘encourage’ an employee to find work elsewhere?
  3. Communicate with family members involved in the operation. Include them in professional development opportunities. Ask their opinions. Explain your thoughts and be willing to hear theirs.
  4. Parents do not owe their kids an inheritance.
  5. Pay yourself. Pay your employees fair wages. When evaluating profitability, suppose you paid for the commodities you’ve produced as though you were buying them from someone else.
  6. Know your environment. Weather plays a crucial role in a farm/ranch. How can you use the knowledge of seasons and temperatures to better your business? Could you be getting more money if you calved later? You might have smaller calves, but they’re often valued a little higher on the market. Plus, survivability could go up… Do you know your cool-season grasses from your warm-season? Could grazing be altered to hit paddocks when they are at peak production? Could you avoid paddocks at the times of the year when poisonous species are present?
  7. Assets should only be retained if they are earning money.
  8. Have regular, scheduled business meetings. Make an agenda ahead of time and stick to it.
  9. Don’t be afraid of change.

It would take a full week to get through all the epiphanies I had during this course, let alone the content I learned. I left with action items, including areas of the business to consider axing and steps to take to improve my own health and happiness. I also found myself leaving with a new sense of community. Believe me when I tell you, by the end of the week, you know the five other people at your table very well. You’ve shared laughs, disagreements and advice. You have people you can count on, should you need a place to stay or a shoulder to lean on.

Plus, even if the days were long, and the hotel food was terrible, it was still incredibly refreshing to get away from the farm for a while.

If you end up taking the course too, and head off to Boise, might I recommend a stroll to Chapala Mexican Restaurant? I’m still dreaming of enchiladas (besides better business management, of course).

 

Debra Murphy

Debra Murphy is a Field Editor based out of central Alberta, where she never misses a moment to capture with her camera the real beauty of agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @RealAg_Debra

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