Ranch Musings: Why we do what we do, part two

The second part of David Zirnhelt’s reflection on the ranching industry today

As I write this, the 82nd Annual Bull Show and Sale is on in Williams Lake. Lookers and buyers will be viewing and selecting herd sires that will hopefully improve the quality of the offspring of those bulls.

It is a great opportunity to focus on the whole “continuous improvement” notion underlying any business or lifestyle.

We (our ranch) tend to buy our bulls by private treaty where we can see the herd of the breeder, not just the individual animals, that are presented for show and sale.

However, breeders do present some data on what can be expected when we buy at auction.

Some people who ranch do so to make a business of selling improved genetic stock, as that is a way to add value to livestock in order to achieve a higher profit.

Read More: PHOTO GALLERY: 81st Annual Williams Lake Bull Sale

Nowadays, it is a serious question, why we ranch or continue to do so given the odds of making a viable business. Some of us of course are willing to work at something else and continue to “invest” in the ranching.

After all, that is one way to build ranches since the case for borrowing money and paying it off is a serious challenge as the return on investment is marginal at best.

Many older ranchers carry on because it is what they know to do. Culture has staying power: “it is always how we have done it” is the belief that keeps us going. What has worked for us in the past is what motivates us today.

I am sure many of us like the business challenge as long as it doesn’t sink us financially. We are operating a lifestyle too, a tradition in Western civilization, producing food on the hoof for sale and the sustenance of others.

Many ranchers are trying to protect the equity, or financial capital, they have accumulated over a lifetime. When cattle prices are low or when we “over buy” in equipment and technology and/or breeding stock (trying to improve quality or quantity of product) we can reduce that considerable capital we have accumulated.

Some ranchers want more than a profit from their efforts, however, that might be essential for staying in the business.

I said in the article two weeks ago that the vision we have is being the best stewards of the land and providers of food we can be for our people and others in the world.

This vision, I said needs to be queried. I am an optimist and I believe we have time to mitigate the carbon/climate situation facing the world. But I think we need to enter a warlike approach to changing farming practices the world over in the grasslands and on intensively farmed soils.

A singular focus on incentives (market, consumers, government, farmer) to store more carbon than we emit is necessary. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has said in a very few short years the carbon balance in the world can be reversed to being net conservers from being the present net emitters.

So ranching sustainably, reducing the environmental footprint, is a good reason to ranch responsibly. This can give meaning to the question, “why do we ranch?”

On a day-to-day basis, the work we get to do can be very satisfying. We control our work for the most part, although we do have to respond to changing needs of livestock and land.

We get to work in different places on our landscape-much as original people did as they hunted, gathered and managed the land for food.

Read More: Cowboy poetry a family affair as young Zirnhelt carries on grandfather’s legacy

Many of our activities are enjoyable such as horseback riding to move cattle. Or riding ATVs doing our work: fencing, cattle work, pasture seeding, moving water for livestock and crops.

Provided the right mental approach is taken, the physical work can be a health spa in action.

As I get older, I have to watch the heavy lifting and repetitive work—too much of a good thing! Pace ourselves we must, because we really pay for overdoing some things.

Variety in the things we get to do avoids the boredom of some workaday jobs.

Above all some of us ranch for our children and our grandchildren so some of them might have a place in the world to live a good life on good land and provide for themselves and the larger community.


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David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.

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