Casper sessions of High Plains Ranch Practicum kick off in late JuneWritten by Christy Martinez
The High Plains Ranch Practicum is a course that runs through seven months and focuses on both ecosystem and production system management.
“We have many varied ecosystems and production systems in Wyoming, so we wanted to draw together a systems decision-making process to address them,” said Southeast Wyoming UW Extension Educator Dallas Mount of the course, which was patterned off a similar course that focuses on Nebraska’s ecosystems.
To date, the Practicum has held five classes in southeast Wyoming and western Nebraska, and now Mount and his partner Aaron Berger, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, are beginning to branch out into other areas of Wyoming.
After involvement from ag economist Harlan Hughes early on, Mount said he tries to follow Hughes’s lead with a focus on the economic side of ranching during the Practicum, including the unit cost of production on a ranch’s beef cow/calf enterprise, its hay operation and its land business.
“All those things have to be drawn together to make decisions,” he said.
“I’m big on systems thinking – thinking about your whole operation, even your personal life,” added Berger. “They’re all tightly tied together, especially with the type of system you have with ranching.”
Plants are a major impact
“Everything we do as part of this class has a major impact on your operation,” Mount told the Casper students. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t devote the time to it.”
The first two-day session in June focused on plant identification, rangeland management, beef nutrition management and decision-making during drought.
“For those of you who own your ranch, the foundation is pasture, or grass, range and forage,” said Mount. “Through this class, we want you to be able to go out, look at a site, say what plants you’d like to have there, and why, and know how to affect that condition.”
Mount said that plant composition is “absolutely” an economic issue.
“If we start thinking about our ranch as a production unit, and if we can change the level and the potential of that production unit, then we can double the economic efficiency of our ranch,” he said, noting that production can be changed through grazing systems, whether management intensive, seasonal or deferred grazing.
Looking ahead in the class, Mount said the students would move through an enterprise analysis, including detailed unit costs of production for each of their operations.
“What does it cost you to raise a pound of calf?” he asked, “and how does that play into the land, hay and cow businesses? Understanding that concept will give you more tools in your toolbox from the decision-making standpoint. The cows need to pay for grazing the ranch.”
“Most of us, when we chose the profession of ranching, did not do it because we enjoy sitting at a desk crunching numbers,” said Mount. “However, taking some time to work on that side of your business can make a big difference.”
Mount referred to the Ranching for Profit School as a great resource, and he described a prioritization system in which four quadrants are labeled “important,” “not important,” “urgent” and “not urgent.”
“The tasks in quadrant one are both important and urgent, such as feeding, checking and repairing wells and turning bulls out on time,” he said. “We never struggle to find time for these tasks – they’re putting out fires.”
Mount said the “urgent but not important” tasks are the time-wasters, such as checking a cell phone every time it beeps.
“They’re the distractions we all take time for, but, at the end of the day if they didn’t get done, there wouldn’t be much for consequences,” he added.
The “not urgent, not important” quadrant is downtime spent relaxing.
He said it’s the “important but not urgent” quadrant that has the biggest impact on agriculture and many other small businesses.
“We don’t find time for those,” he said. “They’re tasks that, if they’re not done over time, there could be major implications for the ranch business, but we all have excuses as to why we can’t find time to deal with this quadrant. We’re too busy working hard in a business that’s not profitable to spend time figuring out that the business isn’t profitable.”
Berger gives wills and estate planning as an example of important, but not urgent, tasks.
“The $10-per-hour jobs are the things we like to do, but things that you can hire someone else to do for the same amount of money,” said Berger. “A $100-per-hour job is sitting down and looking at your protein supplement, finding the best deal this year, then buying from one company instead of another and saving $2,000.”
Berger also said that an hour spent with a tax man could save a ranch thousands of dollars.
Mount said it comes down to “working on the business” (WOTB) and “working in the business” (WITB) jobs.
“Too many of us really enjoy the WITB work, but we need to commit to WOTB,” he said.
As the Practicum moves forward, Mount and Berger said they look forward to helping their new class of students differentiate between the two.