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HomeNotes From KathyStarting a Ranch From Scratch - An On Pasture Reader Asks, "What...

Starting a Ranch From Scratch – An On Pasture Reader Asks, “What Would You Do?”

We recently got this email from a reader who’s getting his new ranch up and running in northeastern New Mexico:

I have an opportunity to start a cattle operation from basically scratch (wells are drilled, some drinkers put in, very large pastures that will need to be made into smaller paddocks); is there an article or two, or something, that will give me a decent list of topics to think over, equipment/materials I’ll need, etc? This is my first time starting something like this, and I desperately don’t want to forget an obvious piece somewhere, somehow.
Thank you,
Grant G. 
Here's what a ranch start up used to look like. Thinks have changed since this picture was taken!
Here’s what a ranch start up used to look like. Thinks have changed since this picture was taken!

We’ve got lots of On Pasture articles that would help. But we also thought, “We have a whole On Pasture community to draw on with decades and decades of experience. Why not ask them too?” So we’re sending Grant’s question out to you.

Bring your imagination and year’s of experience to give some advice to a new rancher. Maybe finish these sentences, and then post it in the comments below, or  send it as an email to us and we’ll forward it on to Grant and prepare it to share with others.

“If I was starting a ranch I would…..”

or “I would NOT….”

or “If I was starting over I would …..”

or “These are the questions I would find answers for…”

If you have a question you’d like to open up to the On Pasture community, send it along to us. We’ll work on sharing questions and compiling answers.

Thanks to all for extending a hand to Grant and to each other!

Rachel and Kathy

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. These are great. Thank you all for taking the time and effort to communicate what will hopefully help me to be successful. I have a lot of information to run down, and more is always better.

  2. In a similar vein, I have friends converting conventional corn fields into permanent pasture for rotational grazing. We’re in northern NY. What would folks recommend planting this spring to jump start their grazing potential?

    • Ashlee – a good place to start would be to get in touch with your state Agricultural Extension Service. In most states, they have forage specialists – that is all they do and most of them are very good. I think that in New York, it is associated with Cornell Univ and is called Cornell Cooperative Extension. The local county agent may or may not know a lot about forages but he can get you in touch with the forage specialist. I’m almost certain there are some extension forage publications online that can help them get started in the right direction.

  3. NE New Mexico can be a good and bad place to ranch, so be prepared for good and bad times. Drought will probably be your biggest challenge in the long run.

    First, I would ask myself honestly – do I have a deep abiding personal land ethic; If you are not sure what that term means, read Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac. Without a land ethic the likelihood of successful long term ranching will be questionable.

    Next, I would ask around to find the names of the most successful ranchers within 100 miles. Give them a call and ask if you can come out and visit them and ride around with them for a day. Pick their brain. Most will be generous and gracious in giving advice based on their years of experience. It will be priceless – stuff that is not in any book or any seminar.

    If you pursue ranching, start with what you already have. Don’t immediately put tons of money in new fencing and other infrastructure. First, learn the land (grasses, soil, water resources, wildlife); it will be a lifelong process. Find folks who will help you learn the land, especially those with many years of experience. Shy away from those who think they know it all.

    You will get lots of conflicting advice on how to manage a ranch – you will have to be discerning on which ideas to adopt and which to reject and which to try out on a small scale and evaluate.

    In addition to income from livestock, there can be a lot of money made from wildlife. Try to learn this aspect of ranching – it can be a great buffer.

    Successful ranching is both very challenging and very rewarding. You will make a lot of mistakes and learn a lot of lessons the hard way.

    If you eventually decide to adopt some of the intensive grazing management strategies, be prepared for a very intensive life style requiring a great deal of skill.

    Good luck

  4. I have about 50 years experience in ranching. My initial thoughts are that this is a great time to be getting started in ranching, assuming you are passionate about running a successful business and in having ecological and social impact. This assumes you recognize that your ranching operation will not look a whole lot like whatever has been taking place there for the last 50 or 100 years.

    “If I was starting a ranch….. I would immediately sign up for Ranching For Profit School.

    “I would NOT…… start spending money on infrastructure or livestock until you have a clear business model.

    “If I was starting over I would….. be very cautious about trying to actually own land. There is a huge disconnect between land value and productive value.

    “These are the questions I would find answers for”:

    • What does the current land owner want to achieve?

    • How will progress toward these goals be measured?

    • What do I (and my family) want to achieve?

    Some final points: having a limited background in ranching is not necessarily a handicap to starting up a ranch. Having no business plan in place will doom you to a tortured existence. Put together a proposal and show it to some successful business people. Please note: this does not include extension agents, feed salesmen, etc. Approach this project the same way you would a dry cleaner shop or a pizza joint. Do not immediately go out and buy a dually and a gooseneck.

  5. “If I was starting… ” First get clear about your expectations. Starting a farm for what reason? How much money can you afford to invest? How much of your life are you willing to pour into the ranch? Where you are in life…what changes can you expect in your life apart from the ranch? Take your timeline and multiply it by 5 and then hope that you haven’t underestimated. Understand that in farming the only thing that happens quickly is a disaster or catastrophe. Be patient more than you ever thought that patience was possible. Read everything and try to understand what part of it you can use, don’t believe in, will try, and are willing to apply to your land. How much time have you spent on the land? Do you really know the land? For how long? All land is not created equal, nor is every season, nor is anything about the living system that exists. It all is dynamic and can be improved or destroyed.

    “I would NOT….” rush into buying anything. Presume that because there are wells there will always be water. Stock the land immediately with a “profitable” herd size. Spend lots of money on infrastructure and equipment and all of the ‘trappings’ of ranching.

    “These are the questions I would find answers for….”
    Do everything you can to learn the land. Look at historical weather records, try to understand the history of the land itself. If you are just the latest in a line of ranchers who have not thrived you may not thrive either. Do every bit of homework that you can think of. Look at what the neighbors are doing and before you adopt or ignore it try to understand how they came to do what they do the way that they do it. I don’t know that I would immediately stock a property, especially range, until I learned what animal populations are already on it. Water? Do you feel lucky? How much of this venture will depend upon ‘good luck’?

  6. Keep in mind the 3 very important key factors.
    #1 Proper Grazing = planned high stock density
    #2 Proper Stockmanship = Understanding livestock
    #3 Proper Marketing = Sell/buy not buy/sell

    Hand in hand livestock solutions is a good place to start

  7. I would:
    • Understand that the livestock business and the land business are two separate businesses. Just because you are in one, doesn’t mean you need to be in the other.
    • Surround yourself with progressive operators – this doesn’t mean people who are using every gizmo or gadget or have the “best” cattle – but rather people who are challenging conventional wisdom and showing positive results.
    • Focus on soil health first, plant health second, and then the animals.
    • Only spend money on things that produce 100% return on investment in the first year – it is too easy to think that running a ranch requires lots of stuff. Gordon Hazard said something like “ranching requires a wheelbarrow and fencing pliers, and that is only if you really like equipment.”
    • Invest in yourself – find some top notch educational programs for ranchers and go!
    • Define my vision – Where do I want to be in 5 years, 10 years. Then start plotting the course to get there.

    I would not:
    • Do what the neighbors do – most ranches are really expensive hobbies.
    • Follow the status quo rule book for ranching
    • Buy machines and create a system that requires lots of overhead expenses to run it.
    • Buy cows for long term breeding stock – focus on investing in animals that produce cash flow and create turnover in the business
    • Buy land – unless you have capital to invest. Land is usually a good investment but it often isn’t good at producing cash flow.

  8. Go to a grazing school for a good foundation. Up here in Linneus, MO at FSRC where Jim Gerrish and others started one years ago. From what i understand, they plan to schedule a 3-day beginning grazing school this year (2016), but i don’t see the dates on the website. If not, there are others, oftentimes in your own state. Don’t rely on piecemeal info; go to a formal schooling and get the whole picture. You will save a great deal of time and money by doing so. All the best!

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