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When the self-employed rancher needs backup

Billy Whitehurst for Progressive Cattle Published on 06 November 2019
cattle wrangling

Many who are self-employed falsely think they own a business. The reality is that most of us simply own a job. There’s nothing wrong with that, but owning a job has no longevity and isn’t really anything that can be passed to future generations in a fashion that is sustainable.

Right now, you may be raising your eyebrows and getting ready to turn the page, but keep reading. Twenty years ago, I would have thought that being self-employed was synonymous with owning a business until I was posed with the question, “What happens if you aren’t there? Can you hire someone to do your job and still have the enterprise continue to prosper?”

That question changed my thinking, and it has for many others as well. Aggies don’t corner the market on hating business planning and office work. If you’re like me, it’s at the bottom of the list on my fun meter. I will look for any excuse to avoid it, but discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most, so we force ourselves to do it.

Business planning isn’t an exciting topic, but I personally have fallen prey in two instances where advance planning and communication fell short and resulted in some misadventures that needn’t have taken place. Several years ago, I made my appendix angry with too many toothpicks and too much Copenhagen, which resulted in emergency surgery (there’s a lesson in that). At the time, kids were little, life was busy, we were on the first year of a new lease, and I didn’t communicate what was going on with the property and where things were as well as I should have. I simply “just took care of it.”

That is, until I couldn’t. Don’t get me wrong – nothing died, a nuclear holocaust didn’t occur and the world didn’t stop turning. But my family was left with a lot of loose ends to tie off for a couple of weeks that could have easily been avoided had I been more organized. We made a policy of having a weekly “business meeting” after that to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Fast forward about 14 years; life is busy, kids aren’t little anymore and are very busy teenagers (which is a really fun time, seriously, not sarcastically), businesses, cows, jobs, etc., and what do we do? We stop taking time to plan, communicate, and guess what happens? I get violently ill, which leaves me down for almost two weeks, which of course never happens when life is slow. It wasn’t as bad the second time, but it was a good reminder to spend a little more time planning and communicating with everyone else.

The point of these stories is that businesses, regardless of the field, should have a business plan, procedures, protocols and contingencies in place for times of emergency. Job descriptions for everyone in the operation and locations of critical records need to be made known to the principal parties of the operation. In cases where a principal is absent for whatever reason, someone could be hired or another family member, or friend, could fill the role for the needed duration.

When these steps aren’t taken in at least an informal oral fashion (written is recommended), it creates a house of cards that can rapidly damage an operation while the pieces are being put back together. Pick a time to have regular communications with everyone involved so everyone knows what is happening.

Some things to keep in a place where everyone who may need to know can find might include:

  1. Checkbooks and credit cards (Who has them and where are they?)
  2. Lists of where you have charge accounts and who you use for various services, such as mechanics or feed suppliers
  3. Pasture rotation map, how many head are in each place, when the next rotation is scheduled
  4. Files where unpaid bills are kept and where to put them once paid (If your financial person goes down, this could save your credit!)
  5. Breeding records
  6. Hay and feed inventories

The list can go on. Look around and ask yourself what would happen if you or someone else, or two people, in the operation leaves suddenly, gets sick or must leave? If you see an area where it could be problematic, then take measures to rectify that situation. It won’t be perfect, but positive progress is better than stagnation.

By taking these steps in the here and now, it will provide some peace of mind, help with future succession planning, and make you feel comfortable going on that all-expense-paid trip to Tahiti that you won.  end mark

Bill Whitehurst
  • Bill Whitehurst

  • Makale Livestock
  • Whitehall, Montana
  • Email Bill Whitehurst

PHOTO: Planning and training can turn a could-be emergency into just another day on the job. Photo provided by Billy Whitehurst.