Farmers and ranchers are continually flooded with vast amounts of new information and data they must somehow decipher and use as a foundation for critical decision-making. At times, this excess becomes overwhelming and, rather than being helpful, has the opposite effect, paralyzing producers searching for keys to unlock the “right” information.
To counteract this pressure, many operations are employing independent or industry consultants. Here’s what a few experts on the consulting side of the industry have to say about the dynamic between producers and consultants.
University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Travis Mulliniks, associate professor, range cattle nutritionist and extension specialist with the University of Nebraska – Lincoln says historically, certain segments of the industry, such as the feedlot sector, have long been heavily consultant-repped, while the cow-calf component has typically tapped into more state university and extension services.
“Almost all feedlots have either their own Ph.D. nutritional consultant or that capacity farmed out,” he says. “Backgrounding yards may be working with a smaller independent expert or using a university’s system as their support.”
From the outside, it might appear academic, extension and industry consultants are at odds or in direct competition, but Mulliniks says this isn’t necessarily the case.
“For the most part, we work well within our structures,” he says. “We don’t automatically see it as ‘what they do, versus what we do.’ We’re all out to provide information and help producers. Specifically, we at extension do much of the science and research [that] independents and industry professionals use, so there’s synergy in those areas.”
JRC Ranch Management and Consulting
Cassidy Johnston, a co-founder of JRC Ranch Management and Consulting, views academia and extension services as symbiotic in relation to what her business offers. While these entities may deliver some expertise that JRC or other independent consultants can’t at times, they’re also seen as more theoretical than practical.
“Of course, it’s a relationship like any other,” she says. “Their knowledge is often very strong, and when someone needs the science, the cost-sharing breakdowns, or the rangeland management and assessment, they shine. Likewise, we as independents might excel in aspects from value-added programs to hiring personnel.”
Johnston suggests more consultants are opening their doors, at least in part due to an increase in absentee and wealthy owners who are unfamiliar with ranching, coming directly from the corporate world where using advisers is normal practice. Many of these types of owners see them as an acceptable middle ground between full-time employees and no one at all.
For JRC Consulting, the Johnstons are using their substantial experience with absentee owners to reduce the potential of negative circumstances. To help make this possible, their services include a wide range of offerings, including innovative financial planning, breeding strategies, land management, bull purchases, rotational grazing and even day-to-day decision-making for on-site staff.
“We also help hire qualified employees because when people have been entrenched in this sector of the business [as] we have, we’re not many degrees of separation removed from anyone,” she says. “We go deeper than just checking references to confirm a good fit for an operation.”
Johnston believes what sets JRC Consulting apart from other consultants or extension services is they live and work directly on ranches. Even though they’re hired by owners, they also strive to serve the needs of employees. They understand subpar efforts are a direct byproduct of unhappy and disgruntled employees.
“It’s more about making the relationship better between the owner, manager and employee because that’s the only way a ranch is going to survive,” Johnston says. “We willingly put ourselves in the hot seat between all parties, so if it’s obvious something like a better truck is needed or a worker should improve their attitude, we draw the focus to us, keeping the employer-employee relationship from becoming too strained.”
Great Plains Livestock Consulting Inc.
Jordan O’Neill, a ruminant nutritionist with Great Plains Livestock Consulting Inc., sees her group’s contribution to the beef industry as helping producers get the most bang for their buck since factors such as the environment, fuel costs, drought conditions and commodity prices constantly pressure livestock owners’ financial capabilities. Being largely nutrition-based, they focus on rations as well as sorting through the growing number of additives and products ranchers and feedlot owners are regularly approached about.
“As a beef producer, facing all these input decisions can be overwhelming,” O’Neill says. “We try to help them evaluate all the differences, benefits and deficiencies when it comes to return on investment.”
Much of what Great Plains does revolves around building relationships with feed mills that develop rations, including mineral and vitamin premixes to fit local needs. When no mills are available or don’t feature effective mixes, they arrange for more fitting products. At times, they act as middlemen, offering a range of services from one-offs to yearly retainers or fees based on pair numbers.
“How we help varies a great deal,” O’Neill says. “We’re very flexible. Yes, we have mill-formulated mixes we recommend because we put a lot of thought and research into them, but if we think one of them isn’t quite right for a client, we initiate custom efforts for a better fit.”
Additionally, they deliver animal health guidance driven by their strong relationships with local veterinarians, who at times even coordinate with Great Plains to meet client needs.
O’Neill explains that regular interaction occurs between academic resources, extensions and their group. Great Plains and other similar businesses also assist with research trials, plus provide on-farm and financial support.
“I believe in most cases, we all complement each other,” says O’Neill. “Sometimes they’re more local, and sometimes we’re able to assist with bringing the bigger picture into sharper focus.”
More information for better decision-making
Mulliniks stresses qualified consultants, whether in academia, extension, industry or independent firms, are worth their money as production costs continue to rise.
“When roughly 65 percent of annual cow costs come in the form of nutrition, we need to control what we can,” he says. “The more information we have, the better decisions we make. Having a consultant who’s highly knowledgeable, in whatever form, is key to helping control these costs.”