While attending the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association annual convention in New Orleans in February, I sat in on a Cattlemen’s College session led by Matthew Shapero and Mike Williams. Williams and Shapero hail from Los Angeles County, California – yes, that Los Angeles. They shared their experience with concocting and then conducting a three-year study on Williams’ ranch. They were trying to get measurable data for what would happen if Williams, an average cow-calf producer, made some key changes to how he managed his operation. The first year, Williams made no changes, but he meticulously recorded his hours and labor while continuing business as usual. The next two years, he changed some of his management practices while still recording hours and labor.
I found this presentation riveting – not only because of the study and the shock factor of a cow-calf ranch operating so close to a hive of urban living – I found it fascinating because of Williams’ frank admission of the difficulties he faced during this process, one of which was working through the discouragement when things didn’t progress as he thought they would. He said, “One of the things l learned and that I would suggest to anybody is to manage your expectations. Don’t expect it to be perfect right off the bat, it’s going to take some time, even if you’re pretty good, to get this thing down.”
So often, when changes are made, either in ranch management or even on a personal level, we, and more particularly our naysayers, expect immediate results when we fully know that’s not how things work. It’s so easy to expect new changes to work the first time around. Anyone who thinks that is true has never learned to drive a stick shift.
Change takes time, and in my opinion, farmers and ranchers are absolute pros when it comes to playing the long game. You reseed a field knowing it will take at least a year to fully establish. You buy a new bull knowing that it will be a good long while before his first calves hit the ground. You spend two-plus years raising replacement heifers before they start having calves.
Ranchers take a leap of faith with every decision they make because life is the most unpredictable beast there is. Your reseeded fields could whither in a drought. You could lose a third of your calf crop to scours. Your brand-new bull could go lame two weeks after you send him out with the cows. Yet day in and day out, you do the chores, pay the feed bill, keep an eagle eye on the markets and take that leap of faith.
As Williams said, even if you’re good at your job and feel like you know what you’re doing most of the time, when you start making changes, be prepared to screw up. The important step is to try, learn from your mistakes, then try again. Otherwise, you stay stuck in a rut and all that unrealized potential goes back on the shelf next to the New Year’s resolutions.