Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt

RANCH MUSINGS: When the pressure is off, what is there to muse about on the ranch?

Columnist David Zirnhelt shares advice for the next generation

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

I kept telling myself during the wet July weather that it was still early for the hay crops. In the meantime, that rain meant a bumper crop of pasture at home and on the open range.

Provided the floods receded and we could get some late hay off or at least ask the cattle to rustle and feed themselves on the meadows that were too wet, all would be good.

We should be testing the hay and haylage (plastic-covered bales and tubes of fermenting forage) to see if supplements are necessary. Then, if grain is necessary, is there sufficient harvest elsewhere to afford to purchase it for cattle?

There are ration balancing computer programs out there if we just learn how to use them! Younger generations, please step up here and allow us to engage you in this higher-tech ranch/farm activity!

What scares us all is the precision with which we have to manage to ensure a profitable operation.

As the chair of the industry advisory committee to the Applied Sustainable Ranching program at Thompson Rivers University campus in Williams Lake (where the program has gone even more virtual than it was),the message I delivered to the record number of first-year students was this:

While there is much to be said for this farming lifestyle, if you can afford it with some outside income, do try to scale your operation by adding enterprises to the land base so that it adds up to a family supporting income.

Or you can add to the numbers of profitable products. Assume you can produce a calf or a finished beef animal with a positive margin, then you can scale up to have a decent after-cost income.

In beef, this is the challenge. If the margin (gross income from an animal, minus the cost of keeping the mother of the animal) for each unit is $100, then if you have 200 units, that is $20,000.

That is not much to raise a family on or retire on. If the margin is $200, then that 200 head (of sales, not retained mother herd) will bring you $40,000 of profit. This is sobering.

As an industry, we have to work at keeping our costs down in order to stay in business.

While we are working at this challenge, the lifestyle has to be rewarding. There is value other than money: health and life experiences, some of which I have written about here in this column.

If you are a marginal or submarginal ranch or farm business, you can at least tease out the lessons of the operation.

While the children are growing up and taking on roles in the farm work, they can learn a good work ethic and they can explore working with others for efficiencies, for the pleasure of working with others (family and neighbours), and the self-sufficiency of raising much of one’s own food and often having a surplus to gift, to sell or to barter.

There is a big “but” here, which was also the message to the students: run the numbers of your cost of production because you will be challenged to “invest” wisely. Do you electrify your winter waterers or do you use “flow through” gravity troughs, or even use ground heat and let the animal pump their own water with a nose pump?

Know what the best return is for every dollar you spend. It is easy if you have outside income to just buy a few more steel fence panels or buy a fancy new tractor. I see a lot of 10-acre lots (which might support one horse) with two new tractors parked in the barnyard. This is retirement money spent with no return.

These financial lessons must be presented to the up-coming generations.

READ MORE: RANCH MUSINGS: Special times on the ranch

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.


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