A note from Kathy: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how inter-related we all are and how much the quality of my life depends on the actions and responses of others, and how much the simplest things I do are equally important to them. It turns out my friend John Marble has been thinking about similar things.
We Can’t Do This Alone
Well, at least I can’t. What I mean is, even after thirty-five years of holding on, scratching ahead, finding a way, it is abundantly clear that I cannot be successful in ranching without help from others.
I know, I know! This flies directly in the face of everything we were taught about the self-reliant, independent, never-say-die rancher, the hard-headed pioneers who tamed the west, fenced the countryside, broke the broncs and drove the herds down the trail.
“Keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’
Though the streams are swollen….
Sorry to break the news, but running a ranch in today’s climate is a very difficult proposition. It requires an incredibly wide range of skills and assets, knowledge and information. And frankly, it’s just more than I can muster.
But here’s the good news: I don’t need to know everything or know how to do everything, because I have friends. More than that, I have a solid group of people in the ranching world who will willingly give their time and energy to help me. These people are not partners in my business, although we occasionally use that moniker. They are more like allies, people who answer when I call for help. And they do that with the only expectation being that I will answer the call when they need help. Truthfully, I feel like I’m usually the one asking for help, and I feel blessed to have these people in my rolodex.
Bud Williams often talked about ranching being simple, as there were only three moving parts: grass, cattle and money. Maybe Bud was right, but in my experience keeping grass and cattle and money under control is anything but simple. This year (as nearly every year) I’ve struggled with inventory, inventory of all three of the basic pieces: grass, cattle and money. And that struggle has led me to call many of my allies. Those conversations usually go something like this:
“Hi there. Boy, I’m really struggling with a (insert grass, cattle, money) problem.”
“How can I help?”
The brainstorming session that follows is typically very short, but frequently followed by a call the next day and some possible solutions. Typically, if I make four or five calls like this a solution will arise, or perhaps even more than one option. What a pleasure to have to choose the solution that is the best fit for me!
Here are some of my allies helping me survive in the ranching industry.
Griff, an ally for 40 years.
Along with being a professional nutritionist, Griff provides management consulting. Early in my ranching career I was asking for his thoughts about my project, but I couldn’t answer even the most simple of his questions. “Get me the numbers or I can’t help you.” This stung, but really helped move me forward.
Duane, an ally for 40 years.
Duane is a master at buying and marketing cattle. “You buy your profit.” When you buy an animal (or embark on a particular enterprise) you should have a pretty darn good idea of what the eventual outcome is going to be. You should have already calculated the likely expenses and outcomes. The only significant unknowns are markets and weather, both of which are completely out of your control. Be smart, buy smart.
Terry, an ally for 25 years.
I seek Terry’s help on all kinds of projects: marketing, logistics, trucking, contacts…almost anything. I recently asked Terry if he understood why I so frequently called him for help. “Because no matter what I need, you always say YES!”
Fred, an ally for 20 Years.
Fred is a master of cattle inventory, both supply and marketing. When working with larger numbers of cattle Fred has occasionally reminded me that it is vitally important to actually get the deal done. “Don’t screw up the deal over $500.” With that in mind, we can quickly move on to the next deal.
Sweeney, an ally for 20 years.
My initial phone conversation with Sweeney was pretty short — just getting acquainted — and it ended with a promise to call again soon. The next morning he called with a simple question: “How many cows do you want and when do you want ‘em?” A few months later 100,000 pounds of custom cattle showed up at the ranch, and a check was in my mailbox at the first of every month. We never actually met until late in the grazing season. Sweeney understands markets and trucking and cattle and people about as well as anyone I’ve ever met.
Paul, an ally for 30 years.
Paul grew up on a family dairy farm, eventually becoming the herdsman and manager. Along the way, he built a small beef cow herd and eventually moving on to focus on sheep. I guess you’d say he is widely skilled. Paul is the most kind and thoughtful man I have ever met. Once when we were talking about making progress in life, Paul gave me the best advice I’ve ever received:
“Never make a joke at your wife’s expense.”
As I look around the business world I see that, with only rare exceptions, successful business people are kept afloat by atlas-like spouses. It’s good to be reminded that the support of our spouses is not truly unconditional. We implicitly need their support, and they deserve constant respect. I don’t understand why this is such a hard rule to keep in mind, but it is.
I think I’ll stop now, even though I could make this list much longer. And in case folks worry about the relatively ancient age of my allies, well, I am pleased to report that over the past few years I’ve found some younger ones, men and women who routinely ask me a simple question:
“How can we help?”
And my goodness, that is just so comforting. Maybe each of us should take a moment to think about the folks who help us make progress. Heck, maybe just call them from time to time just to chat. Or even to ask a simple question:
“How can I help?”
Stay tuned for John’s upcoming book!
I’ve been working with John for the past little while editing a fiction book. John writes excellent short stories about life and people in the rural West and I’m excited for you to see this set of two of his longer stories. We’ve had a lot of fun putting it together.
You, sir, are blessed with a wealth of support. An interesting related article idea might be. “What to do when you have (almost) no allies.” I’m almost the opposite of you: I graze a small number of sheep seasonally on a small field as a sideline and I’m in the northeast. Thankfully (?) my income comes from elsewhere, because I examined your “Another Set of Allies” and I have exactly… none of those. The banker is me or my in-laws. My vet is a friend, but is a small animal vet. The butcher will be me this fall, because I lost my previous one so I’m doing my best to learn fast. As for “regular” allies, I have On Pasture and the internet, my friend that I buy the lambs from that I can rarely contact, and … that’s it. Sometimes it feels lonely like winter in the middle of the grazing season. If I didn’t have more forage than I need and good herd health due to good stock and rotational grazing, Donne’s island would crush me!
With Stan Parsons’ permission we are getting a batch of his book
If you want to be a cowboy, get a job – printed, in case anybody is interested. They will be printed in Australia.
I can feel your pain and I’d like to help. First, let me be clear that my relationships with all of these wonderful allies are not accidental. Rather, I have traditionally sought out people who have lives and businesses that I wanted to emulate. Perhaps a good question is “Where do you find that kind of people?” My answer would be, “You have to actively seek them out”. Here’s some ideas:
Search for a professional grazing/ranching groups in your region.
Search for Ministry of Agricultural activities like conferences or workshops.
Read everything you can. I’m glad you read On Pasture, but there are lots of other publications, some from government sources and some from the industry.
Force yourself to reach out. American grazier Greg Judy suggests fanatically waving at every vehicle you meet while moving around your neighborhood. Tell anyone you meet about your passion for ranching. My ally Duane always replies “Wonderfull!” when someone asks how the cow biz is. This sort of mindset is critical to broadening your life and developing allies.
Most of all, recognize that your social and professional circle will primarily be determined by your own actions.
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