Opportunities for the Next Generation in Ranching
By Lee Burton
As a first-time contributor to this blog, allow me to introduce myself. I am a 34-year-old manager of a commercial cattle ranch in the rolling plains of Texas. I wasn’t born into a ranching family, but developed a passion for production agriculture early on which allowed me to go through life with a clear focus for the future. Over the past 13 years, my career has evolved from an entry-level ranch hand to the role of foreman/manager of three different large ranches from Central Texas to South Texas and now to the West-Central part of the state. My passion continues to grow with the beauty of each early morning sunrise, each new baby calf, the feel of trotting out on a crisp fall morning to gather cattle with a crew, the abundant wildlife that call the range home, and the tangible rewards of enhancing God’s creation through conservation practices to steward the land for generations to come. I love that I get to balance my time between working outdoors in harsh environments doing physical and rewarding labor, then settle into an office setting to chart out a strategic, economical plan to meet the operation’s short- and long-term goals. With so many duties, monotony is never a problem in this role. Given the challenging atmosphere of the high-risk/low-return nature of this industry I love, I am always sensitive to the opportunities that present themselves for others like me to carve out their own destiny in ranching. Here, I will attempt to address why I feel it is vitally important that we attract new blood into agriculture and list a few ideas for opportunities for those individuals.
According to the 2012 USDA Census data, average ages of farm operators continue to rise about 2% per year which has been a consistent increase over the last thirty years. At the time of the census data recording, the average age of the American farmer was 56 years old. According the American Farm Bureau, the following facts are noted:
- Farm and ranch families comprise just 2% of the U.S. population.
- 15% of the U.S. workforce produce, process and sell the nation’s food and fiber.
- Today’s farmers produce 262% more food with 2% fewer inputs compared to 1950.
- In 2010, $115 billion worth of American agriculture products were exported around the world. The U.S. sells more food and fiber to world markets than we import, creating a positive ag trade balance.
- One in three U.S. farm acres are planted for export.
- 31% of gross farm income comes directly from exports.
- Farmers and ranchers receive only 16 cents of every dollar spent on food at home and abroad. The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate. In 1980, that number was 31 cents.
These numbers indicate how agriculture is and continues to do more with fewer resources each year. As the United Nations reported in 2015, the world population is forecasted to increase from 7.3 billion people to 9.7 billion by the year 2050. That’s an increase of one-third in less than 34 years! All those people will need to eat. With our increasingly urban society, people in this country are becoming more removed from the farm and rural lifestyles. Agricultural opportunities will continue to rise. Unfortunately, we need to attract people back to the rural landscapes in order to thrive as the breadbasket of the world. I would like to offer five ideas for those young people that are interested in production agriculture to start establishing a future in the industry.
- Educational Opportunities
As industry groups and educational institutions have become aware of this growing problem, many have developed some very high-quality educational opportunities that are often-times very affordable. Many state extension services offer short (2-3 day) courses to introduce basic production practices to newcomers and seasoned hands alike. The Texas A&M Beef Cattle short course is one such program that comes to mind. Additionally, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers’ Association (TSCRA) offers a Beef 101 class at various times throughout the year. A little research on the internet is sure to turn up an opportunity near you.
Additionally, those looking for more in-depth training can apply to Texas Christian University’s Ranch Management Program or pursue a Masters’ degree from the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management (KRIRM). KRIRM also offers several week-long lectureship programs that are open to the public with highly qualified teachers that cover many aspects of management. With the vast array of options, anyone with any interest is sure to find the tools they need in order to venture into a ranching opportunity.
- Networking Opportunities
They say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I can attest to the value of networking among people with similar interests. Even for an introvert like me, a little time outside the comfort zone and meeting interesting people can energize and create multiple opportunities for career development. TSCRA has a Young Leadership Series that provided that opportunity for me. I am aware of other groups such as the Texas Farm Bureau that offer programs in our state. I’m sure other states offer the same type of opportunities. I know the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has a national level peer group for young producers to become involved in their association. Simply attending industry conventions and regional producer meetings can offer unlimited relationships for idea development and shared experiences.
- Mentoring and Internship Opportunities
Something to consider when meeting ranchers at various networking opportunities would be the possibility of working with a mentor or applying for an internship with a reputable ranch. Work experience will become the most valuable asset in one’s toolbox for future opportunities. It may not be very lucrative in the beginning, but consider it like a tuition payment. A demonstration of work ethic and drive will undoubtedly lead to future successes.
- Leasing Opportunities
Once a solid network is established and people are aware of the work ethic and integrity you possess, you can start pursuing a leasing opportunity. With high capital requirements, owning a land base may be very difficult without external financial support to fund the investment. Many landowners do not want the risk of cattle ownership, but appreciate and desire the value grazing animals bring to the landscape. To take it a step further, find a cattle owner looking to expand and offer to assume a lease of the cowherd where one could be paid for the care on the cattle and the grass lease as a portion of that. This is a classic, low-risk alternative to huge asset investments while still offering the self-employed rancher a rewarding lifestyle. It would certainly demand discipline and exceptional communication and people skills to sustain a successful model.
- Asset Transfer Opportunities
With the average producer approaching retirement age, one could possibly develop a strong relationship with that operator and gradually buy out the cow herd over time while assuming a lease on a per head basis with each cattle purchase. This will transfer the risk from one generation to the next, along with the profit potential. It also allows a mentoring period as the outgoing operator passes on valuable experience to the younger rancher. I am aware of several states that have programs set up to marry these individuals. There might be one in your area. At the end of the day, like the above-mentioned opportunities, it will require intentional relationship development rooted in humble respect and integrity.
Like most things worth doing in life, a career in ranching is certainly possible for anyone with a deep enough passion and drive to work hard for a goal. I cannot imagine a greater lifestyle to live and raise a family than in rural America as a steward of God’s creation through ranching!