Cattle First: The Business of ranching on the Flying Diamond
The documentary Cattle First, featuring Colorado’s Johnson family of the Flying Diamond Ranch, and Dr. Lora Bledsoe, was produced by Boehringer Ingelheim with the intention of illustrating just that — cattle are first.
The film offers a glimpse into the Flying Diamond Ranch, headquartered in Kit Carson, Colo., with operations on the Front Range and at high altitude in Westcliffe. The ranch in Kit Carson was founded in 1907 and Charlie, along with his three siblings, are the fifth generation. Largely a cow calf operation with about 1,200 mother cows, they do run about the same number of stocker cattle and market bred heifers.
The Johnsons were recommended by Kara Smith, the local representative, when BI was seeking family operations for the project.
Though the expectation is largely an unspoken one, Charlie and each of his three siblings left the ranch to earn an education and gain work experience off the ranch before returning, giving them a broader view of the business and of the world beyond the ranch’s fences. Charlie attended the University of Denver where he studied finance and earned his MBA before working off the ranch for three or four years.
“The ranching industry is always facing criticism from the outside world and we just wanted to tell our story, be transparent, and show what we’re doing,” he said. “We just wanted to show what we — and the American rancher — are all about. We’re not unique — this is what ranching looks like.”
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Scott Johnson said the women involved in the operation add a tremendous amount of value through all of the skills they respectively bring to the table. Valuing women isn’t new and Johnson said without them, they would be only half as good as they are.
“That’s not just bullshit for us,” Scott Johnson said. “My grandmother was on the school board in the ‘50s and Mom (Polly Johnson), the one you saw in the film, won the Chicago Stock Show judging contest in the ‘50s. Our daughter, Jennifer, arguably is the hardest driving, sharp person we’ve been around, the CPA of the operation, Katie, was the number one accounting student at University of Denver and I don’t know anyone who works harder than Katie.”
Lauren, another daughter-in-law, earned her master’s degree from Colorado State University and was a social media expert for over a decade with a host of recognizable clients before returning to the ranch. Katelyn, also a daughter-in-law, was an El Pomar Fellow, earned her MBA from DU and now also contributes her community development experience to the local community of Cheyenne County in addition to national and worldwide consulting services.
“They might or might not bring lunch, the girls in our bunch, but as you can see in the video, a number of them rope and they’ve all flanked calves and as far as management goes, we have a meritocracy,” he said.
“We all know agricultural operations where the women are second class citizens and dropped the food out to the field or the branding and took care of the house and kids but didn’t have anything to do with the business but that’s just not how our ranch has been operated,” he said.
While it may be more readily recognized now, this attitude dates back to the 1920s when Scott’s grandmother earned her degree from the University of Colorado and moved to Kit Carson as the home economics teacher and eventually married into the clan.
“That’s been a huge benefit for our family,” he said. “Instead of excluding those minds, we’ve embraced that forever.”
One of the decisions that he said has been positive for the ranch and those involved on it has been the move to formal quarterly board meetings. Each person involved is placed according to their strengths to complete the day to day operations, but the board meetings ensure equal say for each person. Weekly phone calls between different areas of the operation build on monthly executive committee meetings upon quarterly board meetings. This move was made possible through the assistance and guidance of Scott’s cousin, Kirk Samuelson, a retired CEO of the nation’s largest construction company. Defining roles, drawing the line between business and family, and moving forward within the board meeting model was all made possible under Samuelson’s watchful eye.
“We don’t have any oil or wind towers, our deal is an ag operation and we have to make money in agriculture so there’s a lot of pressure on us to do well,” he said. “It’s not a hobby for us.”
Another expert who is featured in the film and Johnson said makes important contributions to the operation, is large animal practitioner and neighbor, Dr. Lora Bledsoe. Preventative medicine and herd planning are two of the areas Bledsoe is most involved in, aside from emergency medicine and the care of sick cattle. Vaccination protocol specific to the operation, she said, is vitally important and a role an operation’s veterinarian can advise.
Bledsoe joined Charlie and Scott live on RFD-TV last week to discuss the ways cattle care is made a priority. The group was in Nashville when the tornado hit and while they all said it was chaotic, they were unhurt.
The film may be viewed at cattlefirstmovie.com. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 768-0024.