My family is in the middle of a non-traditional ranch transition. Since our transition might be an example of a way forward for others, I’m sharing our story here with all the challenges, and reasons for hope that have happened along the way.
I’ll start with a brief history of my family and what we are doing so that you might better understand where I am coming from. Jamie, my wife, and I were both raised on ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills. Operating my own ranch has always been a dream and Jamie has never wanted to do anything but ranch. Both of us went off to college, Jamie to be a teacher and I went to tech school to be a mechanic. When we met, we both had the common goal of raising our children on a ranch just as we had been.
We were married in 2003 working on a few different ranches with no real hope of owning our own operation. The family ranch Jamie was raised on did not have a place for us and I did not have any family ranch to go to. In 2010, I lost my ranch management job and my family was at a crossroads. We had to decide whether we were going to completely uproot and move out of the country, looking for another job, or try to make something work in the area we wanted to live in. We had 2 small children and a baby on the way. Jamie and I sat down and evaluated our goals, talked about what we wanted for the future of our family and decided to make a go of it.
We didn’t have anything except a few horses and a pickup and trailer with a little bit of cash in the bank that wasn’t going to last long. We moved in with Jamie’s great Uncle Bill, who has been a bachelor his whole life, and I started day working and order buying. We went to the bank and told them we wanted to buy some cows and start to build a herd. We got the ok to buy a few and I started trying to pick up some odd bred cows while I was sitting at some sales.
In May of 2012, we bought 25 pair from a customer, bringing our herd to a total of 40 head. We were paying someone else to care for our cow herd 12 months out of the year in the highest feed prices anyone had ever seen. In the fall of 2014, we were faced with a decision. The cost of running our cows was getting pretty high and I was struggling to make ends meet on a day work basis.
We had been searching for the right ranch lease for some time but had not found anything. I dusted off my resume and started looking for a job. In September, I found one near Kearney, Nebraska. We interviewed and were offered the position. It was not what we wanted long term, but it was going to allow us to keep our cows and draw a livable salary as well.
On the way home from the interview I received a phone call asking if we were still interested in leasing a local ranch. The ranch is a small outfit not able to be self-sustaining and Jamie and I were not sure how we could make it work. We decided that we should go look at the outfit that had offered us the position, since we had only interviewed not actually been on the place.
After seeing the outfit, I really got an uneasy feeling about it. On the way home, we started brainstorming and trying to figure out how we could make a go on the ranch lease. I had been day working for a ranch, calving and taking care of pairs and yearlings on grass during the summer as well as feeding some cattle through the winter. When I told the owner about the job offer he had asked me to think about what it would take to keep my family there. I knew he was looking for someone to calve some heifers so I gave him a call and made a deal. That was the beginning of our transition.
The scary thing about transition is nothing is guaranteed. You can plan and write everything down but nothing goes exactly as planned, sometimes it is better and other times it is worse. Jamie and I had made a plan and called and accepted the ranch lease. Calf prices were good and we thought we could buy the cows to stock the ranch. The bank was on board and we were ready to go with it. This is where the rubber met the road so to speak. Now we had to make this plan work.
We were looking at trying to buy another 60 some head of cows and being able to make them pay for themselves. We also were going to calve an additional 400 hd and I still needed to continue to do the day work that I had been doing to pay the rest of the bills. On the way to look at some cows, I called Lynn Myers and told him about our new adventure. Lynn has been a lifelong friend and very supportive of my desire to have something of my own. After looking at the cows I looked at my phone to see I had missed a call from Lynn so I listened to his message. Lynn’s family operation had some heifers and cows that they were needing to sell due to the lack of pasture. He wanted to know if we were interested in working something out. I called Lynn that evening to see what he had in mind. We worked out a deal on 50 hd that was satisfactory for everyone.
What’s all of this have to do with transition? There are several transitions that have taken place in the events I shared with you. The first transition that took place was to get on the same page and share a common goal and work toward it no matter what; not an exchange of a physical asset, but a change of mindset. It is hard to exchange a steady paycheck and stability for not knowing how you are going to pay your bills from week to week and what you will do if you are not able to make ends meet. My wife, Jamie, would have been satisfied with working on other ranches and having the opportunity to raise our 3 children the way we wanted. That was not enough for me and I had a very strong desire to have something that belonged to us, other than a few horses and a handful of cows. I wanted something that we could pass on to the next generation.
Several other transitions that have taken place involving agreements between my family and other ranch owners. What facilitates those transitions? Was it friendship, investments, trust, or just not being able to pass up a good deal? I think it was probably all of those things. Keep in mind we are not related to any of these people nor do we have a stake in their ranch. I have spent a lifetime building relationships. I like people and I like to help people. I have always tried to be honest and fair in my dealings. And every person that has helped us along the way has had an interest in my family’s well being. Jamie and I discussed what it was going to take to make ends meet and tried to find a happy medium with market value. We feel like in order to keep a long-term viable relationship it has to work for everyone. That’s what you’ll see as I share more next week about our process of building a legacy for the future.
It has been a long and rewarding road. There were times that it was so frustrating and things had become so difficult that we were almost ready to give up on our goal.
Ryan Sexson will be speaking at the Kansas Grazing Lands Coaltion’s Winter Conference in Topeka, Kansas on February 4, 2017. He is also available to speak on his experience with transitions and on stockmanship how-tos and its importance to successful ranch management.