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Leading and managing a ranch business today

Bob Milligan Published on 24 January 2015

Our world continues to change at an increasing rate. The goal of this article is to identify challenges and opportunities facing agriculture and their impacts on your leadership and management of your beef production business.

My emphasis is on changes required to succeed and thrive in the exciting, turbulent, changing world of the 21st century.

Table

Table 1, contrasting characteristics of our traditional agrarian culture with those required to thrive in today’s turbulent world, serves as a basis for our discussion.

The outline for the required changes follows the equation

P3 = Opportunity

with the three P’s being precision, people and preparation. Below, we discuss each P.

Precision – technology and operational excellence

The last item in Table 1 might well be the most important. A characteristic of our agrarian culture – not of everyone of course – that has always frustrated me as an achiever is the attitude that “OK is OK.”

That attitude will not serve our industry well in our now super-competitive world and needs to be replaced by an acceptance that excellence is required for success.

The need for excellence will be further driven by the ever-increasing advances in technology. Precision agriculture, and even more on the frontier “big data,” will increasingly become the greatest operational challenge and opportunity for agricultural producers.

A myriad of additional technologies are or soon will be at the tipping point where they dramatically impact agriculture. These include but are not limited to virtual communication, robotics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and A.I.

Think about the range of crop yields and animal productivity that we see from ranch to ranch. Now think about how much difference there is in productivity between Walmart and Target or John Deere and Case IH or two successful restaurants in a nearby town.

I think you will agree that none of the three have productivity ranges even approaching what we have in agriculture. In fact, one of each pair would not survive if the difference even approached what we see in agriculture. Ranch and farm productivity will become more like those three pairs as operational excellence continues to be even more mandatory for success.

People – skills and continuous improvement

Our focus in both agricultural education and continuing professional development has been on technical skills: crops, animals, machinery. These skills must continue to increase; however, especially in continuing professional development, there must be a dramatic increase in learning leadership, hiring, supervisory and relationship skills.

The following three reasons contribute to the increasing importance of these people skills:

1. The excellence required for success discussed above cannot be achieved without increased people skills.

2. The generation X (birthdates 1965-1980) and especially the millennial generation (1981-2000) are characterized by not being willing to work in positions that do not have meaning to them.

3. It is difficult to impossible to provide meaningful positions without training in leadership, supervision and relationship building.

How then does a manager increase his or her proficiency in people skills?

1. Determine where the leaders in your community – superintendent of schools, bank president, mayor, etc. Then join to share leadership experiences and learning.

2. Select some resources from the Internet to follow and review frequently.

3. Participate in programs organized by business schools, especially those focusing on agribusiness and family business leadership and management.

4. Read books on supervision and leadership. Books range from stories to complex textbooks.

Preparation – strategic leadership and collaboration

How then does one prepare their ranch for the changes discussed above?

First, there must be a greater focus on the strategic leadership function. The owners, partners, must focus on:

  • Why: Vision – Every workforce member needs to know why what we are doing is important. The motivation.

  • What: Strategy – the direction we will take to fulfill our vision. Our direction to success.

  • How: Ranch culture – the way we behave as we implement our strategy to fulfill our vision. Requires alignment of strategic leadership, workforce passion and operational excellence. Drives what we do every day.

These must be proactively discussed, agreed upon and implemented by the business partners.

Historically, our focus has been on individual decision-making typically as a sole proprietor. Today, as our ranches and farms become larger, there must be a great focus among partners on team decision-making, collaboration and the resulting synergy. Simplistically, synergy means one plus one is greater than two.

A final word: The 21st century will provide challenges and an abundance of opportunities. The opportunities can be best met by focusing on precision, people and preparation.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

Bob Milligan
  • Bob Milligan
  • Senior Consultant
  • Dairy Strategies LLC

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