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Guest Opinions

Do you know if your ranch is sustainable?

Written by Kristie Maczko and John Tanaka

By Kristie Maczko and John Tanaka, UW Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable members

Despite the romanticized images popularized by Hollywood, ranching has never been an easy way to make to make a living; it seems the profession has grown more difficult in the last 100 years, with decreasing profits and increasing challenges.

There are opportunities to improve ranchers’ capabilities to address these challenges and maximize sustainability of family ranches. The Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable (SRR) works with the Wyoming State Grazing Board (WSGB), the Wyoming Business Council (WBC), the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI), agencies including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Forest Service (USFS) and the BLM and UW to develop planning tools to better inform ranchers’ decision making and documentation.

The SRR brings together producers, rangeland scientists, economists, sociologists, environmentalists and other interested stakeholders who are interested in economic, ecological and social sustainability of rangelands.

Professor John Tanaka, head of UW’s Department of Renewable Resources and director of the SRR, emphasizes SRR’s 10-year history in working with rangeland assessment. Blending comprehensive rangeland monitoring with coordinated business planning provides ranchers with many more tools to guide management decisions and activities and fosters a solid foundation for sustainable ranch management.

Ranch indicators merge with business planning

Integrating SRR’s sustainable ranch assessment indicators with the WBC’s business planning process to sustain Western rural landscapes, lifestyles and livelihoods emphasizes supporting family ranches and the communities that depend upon them. SRR ranch sustainability assessment indicators address plants, animals, soil, water, productive capacity, social and economic elements and legal and institutional frameworks.

Comprehensive business planning supported by such coordinated monitoring can make the challenges ranchers must face more manageable.

Generally, all ranchers monitor at least one element – everyone wants to know if their decisions are profitable. The ability to turn a profit is directly linked to the land. Effort spent monitoring enhances a rancher’s ability to address changes by optimizing a balance between rangeland condition and financial return. This balance is embodied in sustainability concepts that incorporate economic, ecological and social aspects of a ranching operation.

Monitor resources for business plan

Many ranchers already monitor rangeland conditions, aware that carefully collecting and analyzing such information improves their operations.

Resource monitoring data bolsters a rancher’s business plan. The WBC assists ranchers in developing their business plans. According to WBC agribusiness director Cindy Garretson-Weibel, a business plan can help ranchers improve profitability, evaluate opportunities for diversification and deal with issues of management succession. A rancher’s business plan represents the desired mix of economic, ecological and social benefits provided by the ranch.

Garretson-Weibel is an enthusiastic proponent of setting goals through business planning and cautions, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”  
Ranch business plan components

A ranch business plan includes the executive summary, overview of the industry and the business, market analysis, market plan, management team, business design and development, manufacturing plan/operations plan, financial plan, break-even analysis, proposed offering and supporting appendices.

Business plan content is improved with rangeland monitoring data that assists the rancher in achieving goals and objectives defined through the business planning process. With increasing frequency, banks require detailed information outlined in business plans to qualify ranchers for loans and credit.

Stan Hamilton, retired director of the Idaho Department of Lands and chairman of the SRR ranch sustainability assessment work group, asserts that incorporating a resource monitoring system into a business plan strengthens a rancher’s credibility by demonstrating intent to document progress toward specified management goals and objectives.

As ranchers confront legal disputes over resource use, availability of quantified, consistently collected data provides a solid platform for productive discussions. In the absence of data, such debates may devolve to emotional rhetoric in place of fact-based dialogue.

Acceptable data also documents ranchers’ use of state and private leased lands and federal grazing allotments. The monitoring framework developed by the SRR is consistent with provisions of joint cooperative monitoring systems supported by federal land management agencies and the Public Lands Council through formal memoranda of understanding between these groups.
Consistent monitoring sets baselines

According to Dick Loper, longtime rangeland consultant for the WSGB, consistent monitoring and assessment can help ranchers establish financial and ecological benchmarks (baseline conditions) and identify changes in baseline conditions that result from natural changes in the environment and management actions, including restoration activities.

UW rangeland extension specialist Mike Smith adds that resource assessments can also assist with predicting financial and ecological changes, measuring progress toward business plan goals and evaluating a management plan to identify and implement necessary changes.

Kristie Maczko is with the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable in Fort Collins, Colo. and can be reached at 970-295-5985, and John Tanaka can be contacted at 307-766-5130 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..