Shelli Mader: Road to Ranching 10-28-11 |

Shelli Mader: Road to Ranching 10-28-11

The Plains Fence Post would like to introduce our newest by-weekly columnist … Shelly Mader. Shelli is a stay at home mom and freelance writer whose work has been featured in Reader’s Digest, Western Livestock Roundup and Hays Daily News. She grew up on a wheat and cattle ranch near Strasburg, Colo. She currently lives in Kansas with her husband, two young children dog and cats. She hopes to have a cattle ranch someday. Visit her blog at

When I was in college I had my life all figured out. I was going to get married, work a few years and then own a cattle ranch.

My dream started off right when I met my husband in college at the University of Wyoming. We both wanted to have cattle someday. We got engaged during our last year of school. When my ag college friends asked me what we were going to do when we graduated I always told them, “I think we’ll work jobs in town for a year or two and then we’ll get a couple hundred head of Angus cows and ranch.”

I look back at my 20-year-old self and I am pretty embarrassed. I couldn’t have been more off track. The road to ranching hasn’t been the straight, easy one I anticipated. (To my level-headed husband’s defense he was never as naïve or foolish as I was about how difficult it would be to ranch).

I know that there are a lot of young (and older) people out there who are like me. They want to ranch, but they just need a start. There is something about the country life that becomes part of your DNA. The only problem is that, unless you have a big family farm to come home to (that can support one more family), the road to ranching isn’t always a simple one.

I have often wondered if struggling to get started farming and ranching is a generational problem. Sure, I know it was easier to farm several hundred years ago, or even in the pre-World War II years. For example, in the 1930s, the farmer who owned the ranch my parents live on, bought 80 acres of ground one year and paid it off with his wheat crop the next year.

But is it harder for young people to begin farming and ranching now than it was 40 or 50 years ago? In some ways, I think starting out a generation or two ago was just as hard as it is now. My grandpa didn’t have hardly any money when he was 17. It was the 1940s and he moved to Colorado from Missouri to look for work. He found a job on a farm, but he wasn’t able to start farming and ranching for himself until he was 41-years-old. My dad also struggled to get his start in the 1980s and 90s because of the lack of availability of land to rent and the high cost of land, equipment and interest.

Today’s young people face the same challenges as their parents and grandparents did, but I think those challenges are magnified. Agriculture is a bigger business than it has ever been before, so young people need to compete with big operations for land to lease or buy. Interest rates are lower than they were 20 or 30 years ago, but land, equipment and input prices are still high.

It may take some time, patience, wisdom and creativity, but I think young people today can ranch. Thanks to advanced technology, there are hundreds of new opportunities for people to be involved in agriculture, even if it isn’t ranching in the same way previous generations did. There are young entrepreneurs out there who own AI businesses, raise replacement dairy heifers or operate custom haying businesses. Lately I have been challenged to reevaluate my idea of what ranching is and what it could mean for my family.

In the coming weeks I will share more in-depth about the obstacles and unique opportunities that young people have on their journey to ranching, success stories from those who have achieved their dream and some government and private programs designed to help folks get a start in agriculture.

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