Ranching For Profit – A Retrospective

Taking a week away from the farm is often complicated, and even more so in early June when the grass is growing faster than you can manage it. So my decision to attend the Ranching for Profit school in Billings, Montana during the first week of June took a lot of careful thought and discussion about how to keep everything running smoothly while I was away. But, holy cow, was it worth it!

If you’ve not heard of Ranching for Profit, it’s an intense week-long course aimed at grazers (mostly cattle, but equally applicable to other ruminants) who are ready to challenge their existing paradigms and learn skills that can take their business to a level may have felt impossible to achieve. This course has been taught for over 40 years, so clearly they are offering tremendous value to maintain such a long period of success. 

I kept hearing about RFP on various podcasts and it was always being talked about in such glowing terms that I assumed those folks were getting paid to promote it. I am here to tell you that all the glowing reviews are true, and I am not getting one cent to say that.

Most of the 35 or so attendees came from moderately-sized to huge (up to 350,000 acres!) cow/calf operations and I thought I would have a hard time fitting in as a relatively tiny direct-to-consumer business. But, even though I was probably the smallest operation there, and one of only a few direct marketers, every single attendee and every instructor was welcoming and genuinely interested in my perspective. 

Four pillars formed the foundation of the week’s instruction: land, livestock, economics, and people; there was so much information conveyed around these that there’s no way I could summarize everything here. But two areas stood above the others, so here are a couple of takeaways. 

Not surprisingly at a course called Ranching for Profit, economics was a common thread that wove through every topic. We all have many opportunities to learn how to become better practitioners of our farming and ranching crafts, but the part of learning how to run a business that also farms or ranches is often left out  of most conferences and trainings. But the skills I learned in Billings are already changing the way I think about the future of our farm and the impact it can have in our community. I now feel confident in my ability to analyze our business financial numbers, make projections, and to use that knowledge to make changes in our operation to ensure its long term success. 

The course organizers are very intentional with their seating assignments, and you are at the same table with 4-5 others for the entire week. There are many well-thought-out discussion times at the tables, so we all got to know each other quite well. At the end of the week, we went through an exercise where one could feel quite vulnerable, but the trust we developed in each other helped overcome that potential fear. The outcome of that exercise was an individualized action plan that will have profound and lasting impacts for each of our operations. We are already planning an online meetup this fall to hold each accountable and to plan the next steps to take our farms to the next level. 

Needless to say, I cannot recommend this course highly enough. But, there are some harsh realities to contend with, particularly when the discussion turned to the amount of gross product necessary to support just one full time employee. It was such a large number that I became discouraged about the future of the small farm movement. But after some contemplation and discussion with the instructor, it became clear that direct marketing operations have potential for much higher margins per unit of product, which can bring that number down significantly. However, this is still an industry that has high overheads, high start-up costs, and other considerations that may be unique to the agricultural sector, and a certain scale is required to not only just cover those expenses, but also to actually make a living. 

However, when I was having doubts about the scale of our farm and its ability to attain reliable, long-term profitability, I kept coming back to a question that was asked at the beginning of the week: “What is something that seems impossible, but if implemented would be a game changer for your business?” That was followed by: “What will it take to make that possible?”

The answers to these questions are going to be different for every farm, but with the tools I learned and the human connections I made during that amazing week in Montana, the impossible now feels not only possible, but inevitable. 

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