By Randi Miller February 14, 2013

Change is hard, but it is inevitable. For a rancher knowing what to change and when requires knowing the operation, what its goals and priorities are, along with its capabilities. Understanding what drives the industry and changes requires the rancher to be informed, and recognizing the obstacles to implementing change helps ease transition. If opportunities are capitalized on, both individuals and the industry, as a whole, benefit.

Knowing Thyself

Change comes and it is necessary if an operation is going to thrive. Knowing what to change and when to change is vital. To make the right changes at the right time, a producer must determine the role the ranch is going to play in the industry, the goals they are trying to accomplish, and their priorities. Making a map is the quickest and easiest way to get somewhere, especially when in new territory. One must use the resources available to them to keep up with new information and be aware of changes in the industry.

Knowing What

There are a great number of resources for ranchers to educate themselves: television (RFD-TV and Rural Network channels are agriculture specific), magazines, the Internet, other producers, etc. So much is out there that one could spend months or years trying to take it all in. Of course, by then it will have changed. One needs to pick and choose, using their goals and priorities as a guide, what they take time to find out about in depth. Use all the tools available! Great leaps in technology are out there; use them to your advantage!

Knowing Why

Change in the beef industry—like most everything in this world—is driven by the almighty dollar. Basic economics of supply and demand (with perhaps some help from a few government regulations) determine what price will be paid. This is obviously very basic and real life isn’t always so simple (as evidenced by the huge increase in prices for cattle on the hoof, losses being incurred by the feedlots and packers, and the not-so-relative price increase in the store. Different factors affect the price consumers are willing to pay and producers need to recognize those factors—they affect a producers product, whether that producer concentrates on it or not. Consumers are a fickle bunch; and their priorities and resources are varied.

The Mind(set) Is the First To Go

Before a change can be implemented, the mentality of the producer must change. If a goal is to be profitable, or to be more profitable, then the practices that are eating profits must be slowed or halted completely—some habits are really hard to break, as anyone who has or had a “bad” habit can attest to. Ever notice it is never said to break a “good” habit?

It can be hard to stop doing something, or doing it a certain way, when one has been taught—especially from an early age, by people held in high regard—to do it, or do it a certain way. Most are taught by someone (parent or grandparent) from a past generation and the teachers teach what they know—generally what worked for them in the past. The difficulty is that this is not the 1940s or 50s (which was a time of big change in the industry, and when most of the teachers were taught). This is not your parents’ or grandparents’ ranching anymore.

Change Is Still Slow

Even after mentality changes, implementation is slow. In this world of instant gratification, waiting for just one weaned calf is a long time (nine months gestation, plus six months to wean, total 15 months). It takes three years for a heifer to produce an income (nine months gestation wean at six months, breed at 12 months, gestate 9 months, wean marketable calf at six months). That is a lot of risk and a long time to assume it for! Be brave! If it were easy, everyone would do it!

Change can be expensive, too. Most times it is cost prohibitive to make a change in one big swoop. This can discourage a producer, knowing the change will put them in a better position, but being frustrated that the initial cost is so high. Take heart. Know that small steps of needed change are better than no change at all.

Opportunities For Change

Sometimes things just work out. Sometimes bad things end up being blessings. The 2011 and 2012 droughts in the south and Midwest were devastating to many ranchers. Cattle were liquidated—whole herds—driving down the cattle inventories in the US to numbers lower than the 1950s. What a lemon to be handed. Let’s make lemonade!

This is an opportunity for ranchers to drastically improve their herds, to make them more productive and profitable, to learn from the mistakes of the past. The slate is clean. Ranchers can choose to rebuild the herds with cattle that make sense for the environment they are in. Hopefully ranchers will take the time to educate themselves on the type of cow that will be sustainable and profitable today and in the future.