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Across the fence: What’s next?

Marci Whitehurst for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 May 2022

We ran out of beef this past fall. O-U-T.

Our beef was being processed, so we didn’t have to wait long, but it is always a shock when we buy beef from the grocery store. First, the taste. Second, the price. Third, the taste. Right?

Growing our own beef is a gift we don’t take for granted. I am pretty particular on how we finish our beef. I know a lot of people use corn, but we don’t. We pasture raise them until the last couple months, then for about six to eight weeks, we use a combination of other grains before harvest. They marble well and taste great. In addition, we try to make sure we are calm around them. Having stressed cattle is about as much fun as a bee in your bonnet, but it also impacts the meat. Trust me, you don’t want it, and we shouldn’t need to handle cattle that way.

One year, our youngest daughter was working hard with her steer for 4-H, and he was ornery! We worked with him to settle him down – for a very long time. He tolerated his halter but only if you didn’t try to lead him. He charged, blew through fences and acted like he was training for a bull-fighting ring, not the fair. And yes, he was all steer – no bull left.

After trying for hours to work with her steer one day, she came in the house and said, “That’s it! No more.” And she was right. Nothing was changing, nothing was working and it was time to move the buddy steer up in the ranks. The buddy steer was quite amicable. He liked long walks on the beach … just kidding. His hide wasn’t as flashy as the first steer, but his temperament was gentle. We ended up feeding out the original steer. He calmed down in the pen with the other guys eating grain and not being touched. Sometimes we need to listen to the animals so they can tell us what is best for them, and sometimes, we need to sell them, especially if they are crazy. It isn’t worth someone getting hurt, especially if you have kids around. Or a dog. Or a truck you like.

Certainly this year, with the drought, it is worth paring down anything you don’t love or that won’t make you money. But also, as we producers look at what is next, we have to evaluate what is really important to us.

We have decided that diversifying is possible. Yes, we can make money on cows – low-input cattle managed well will yield a return – but we can also consider other options:

  • Can you run goats to eat what the cattle don’t and get a profit on another commodity?

  • What about leasing or selling out some hunting and fishing rights on your property?

  • Perhaps you can open up a space on your place to allow RVs and/or tents as people look for outdoor trips to take.

  • We know one family that sells tickets for cattle drives. They put people on four-wheelers or horses and have them herd the group to the next pasture. It’s about a mile-long drive that they do every week or few days. The cows are used to it, and the ranchers make money.

(Note: Some of us are less fond of dude situations than others. Please know your threshold and act accordingly.)

  • Is there a dry patch on your land that you can’t use for grazing? Could you make it into a dirt-bike track and sell a monthly membership?

  • Is it possible to parcel off a patch of land and sell it? (Note: Selling land is only for unforeseen circumstances such as weather and illness. Please do not use this as a regular financial tool, or your ranch will end up the size of a postage stamp.)

  • Do you have a spot for a community garden? Sell memberships to the garden and have someone manage the plot.

  • Hemp production has been profitable for some producers.

  • Selling quarter or half beefs is a great way to utilize odd-colored steers or heifers.

If you decide to diversify, please know what your own strengths and talents are, as well as your weaknesses. Choose an option that will bring you joy and not grate on your nerves.

The point is to pick the highest and best use for our places. Highest and best use is a term real estate appraisers use when categorizing the best functionality of a piece of property. We might be challenged by storms, but hopefully we can look at ways to diversify income to help with whatever comes our way – be it filling our freezers, managing a beef animal that isn’t cut out for 4-H or looking to add income to our properties. Too bad we couldn’t sell at 4-H prices, but fortunately, we can still have a nice steak.  end mark

Marci Whitehurst is a freelance writer, ranch wife and the mother of three children. You can follow her on her blog (Cowboy Wife).