March 6, 2017
Why do you raise cattle?
It isn't a flippant question, but one I want you to deeply consider.
You have to make money to survive, but there are easier ways. It's likely not the impressive health insurance benefits or the bonus pools, sales incentive trips or the company vehicle.
Sometimes I forget to ask cattlemen and women that question.
When I'm riding shotgun, touring their ranch and learning about the herd, the answer seems obvious: the open air, the ability to make their own schedules and plan their own destiny. Hard, outdoor work never scares off the independent and ambitious.
Then I go home and find, even without my asking, they've answered.
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The revelation stares back from the words I've hurriedly scribbled in my stenographer's notebook. Sometimes the details are in a candid photo I took while a family was casually being themselves.
Some producers talk about the future, and others just have that look in their eye as they balance a toddler on their hip.
Why do you raise cattle?
For many, it's about the legacy they leave behind.
Talking about the possibility of his son coming to the business, one South Dakota rancher told me, "I want to give him something I'm proud of."
He thinks about decisions that will keep him profitable here and now, but the long-term goal isn't to retire rich. The reason he invests money, time and brainpower into better genetics and management is to leave a cowherd and ranch that the next generation will want to own.
"I marvel at what my grandfather was able to do coming through the Depression and keeping it together. I marvel at what my dad and uncle were able to do in the '80s, keeping this place together," he said. "I don't want to be the generation that screws it up."
That's a sentiment I've heard more than once. A Kansas cattle feeder sat on a stage in front of chefs and foodservice distributors and talked about the end game.
"The bottom line is this: we are environmentalists. We want to be great stewards. We want to manage the land in such a way that it is going to be in better shape for the next generation whether that's our family or somebody else when we're done with it," he said.
This cattleman and his partner-brother each have families with many young kids. Odds are good they'll have at least one interested in continuing what their fathers started, but if not? These producers still want to leave it better.
But for many, it's about more than preserving wide open spaces. That legacy means improving the critters that roam it, too. Such a focus adds purpose and a new level of satisfaction while helping to fund it sustainably.
"We put money back in the business, certainly we stack genetics with an endpoint in mind—
not only to produce a quality product — but we want to have something for the next generation, my kids, my grandkids," a North Dakota seedstock producer said a few years ago. "It makes you proud of what you've done and I think we all work a little bit harder with that goal in mind."
So why do you raise cattle?