Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Ranching Full-Time on Three Hours a Day, by Cody Holmes.
In the early years of my ranching experience I began to watch one particular farm neighbor. He raised his family on a small cow/calf ranch with what income the ranch could provide. They appeared to have an average lifestyle from an economic standpoint, that is they lived like most the other families around except he did not have to go to work each day to support the ranch. The ranch supported the family. Bob had no farm machinery and spent no time during the busy hay time in May like everyone else working 16-hour days baling up hay to feed in winter. What little hay he fed in the winter was custom baled. I farmed next to Bob for only about seven years, and it was only the last few years that I began to see that he did not do what everyone else was doing. I moved on to a larger farm and began leasing larger and larger farms.
I began doing the things that I saw Bob doing on his farm in my operation. Learning came very slow to me and I have no problem admitting my reluctance to education. But I was certain that machinery was a great evil and had no place in a livestock operation. I began grazing further and further into the winter without feeding hay. I also found that if I could allow the grass to grow kind of wild it would produce more forage in the long haul. This was hard for most people to accept. With the belief that our farms should resemble golf courses, this became a problem for most of my landlords.
I remember one particular landlord who was in his 90s and was very set in his ways. I was leasing about 1,600 acres from him at the time for my cow herd. He had sold all of his equipment except his 15-foot brush hog and 150-horsepower tractor. About the time I would get a few paddocks of grass knee high, he would chop it down to lawn height. I could not convince him of my need for that tall forage this winter. His holistic goal of his ranch was not the same as mine. My goal for that ranch was for it to produce as much forage as possible. He wanted it to look freshly mowed most of the time. He had made a lot of money from buying and selling farms and little to none from livestock production. He was good at what he was doing, but it was not really ranching. He also did a good job of keeping the tractor suppliers, feedstores, vets, and other input salesmen in business.
All of these challenges helped educate me in the holistic system of farming. Through my experiences, continued reading, and talking to good farm managers I began to formulate this system that once and for all could make livestock ranching profitable. By using the holistic systems approach, and not simply looking at production as an isolated event, my ranch began to turn around. After looking more closely through the holistic point of view, I realized I could not make this work the way I wanted it to on rented farms. In order for me to function holistically I would have to have complete control over all aspects of the ranch. This can only be done through ownership of the land. Holistic land planning is a multi-year program and short-term leases lead only to frustration and disappointment. This does not mean that farm leasing is not practical and necessary for the cash-limited farmer in the early stages of growth. But the long-term plan must include land ownership for success. With holistic systems in place, profits from a productive livestock operation can pay for the principle and interest costs of purchasing that ranch.
I designed the Ten Steps to Holistic Systems with ranch profit in mind. It encompasses over 35 years of personal, practical experience meshed with the insights and contributions from many different authors and farmers I have come across in as many years. As I list these steps try and visualize how you can incorporate these steps into your holistic plan on your farm or ranch.
Determine who the decision makers are in the organization and utilize all their efforts to compile the group’s holistic goals. This is a written document of one to three paragraphs stating the purpose and desires of the decision makers. This short letter format should be posted where it can be observed daily, such as on the door of the refrigerator with the valuable pictures of the decision maker’s family. I believe Allan Savory best describes this by categorizing these goals into three distinct areas: quality of life, forms of production, and future resource base. You can break down your holistic goals into these three areas of how you see the future arriving. Remember to keep the lists short and precise. And only the decision makers make contributions in this area.
Under the heading of Quality of Life write out in just one or two sentences what you would like to get from the organization. That is list how you see the farm contributing to your quality of life. This is not a list of weaning weights or cow numbers, but a list closely related to personal benefits.
Under the heading Forms of Production write out in what form you see the organization or farm producing revenue, if revenue is part of the quality of life you seek. Again do not limit yourself to a certain breed of cow or chicken, but more generally species or types.
Under the heading Future Resource Base write out how you see your organization or farm taking shape in the future. More specifically, describe where you would like to see it go or look like and what the resources or farmland may look like once you get closer to where you want to be.
One of the main reasons I use this list of holistic goals is to verify that for each movement I make each day that that movement, decision or project is moving in the direction stated in these goals. If I have this list posted on the wall or the refrigerator I can easily question my task at hand to determine if what I am going to do today specifically gets me closer to where I want to be. The listed holistic goals are like a beacon in the night.
Develop a methodology to help make informed decisions in the operation by starting with time management.
Many of us have the misconception that if we are not busy all the time at a high rate of speed that our time is being wasted. I urge you to conserve your time and eliminate all “busy time.” We must have extended periods of the day to reflect on and observe the operation in order to make decisions which will lead us to our goals…If you start many days running around the ranch putting out fires and it’s noontime before you can really get started on real projects, you are at the top of the pyramid with too much of your time. Or maybe you are spending enormous amounts of time riding around the ranch on the tractor compared to the time spent moving cattle from pasture to pasture, which will always be more productive and less expensive. It helps to remember that livestock have the ability to be productive on their own, that is they can graze, drink and move from one place to the next without your labor. We have to learn to get out of the way and let them do what they do best.
Implement a system that can help you compare the economic viability of one enterprise on the farm to another enterprise, whether one already in existence or one that is being considered. This is to help provide information so we can discern which enterprise is most likely to earn the greatest profit. Use the Enterprise Worksheet Forms (See appendix) to evaluate and monitor success. This is not to imply that all success comes from business profits, but one primary objective of most farm operations should be net profit from operations.
These worksheets can be created using simple multi-column accountant’s lined paper or with a computer program or spreadsheet. The concept is to isolate the income from each enterprise and allocate the expenses that apply to that enterprise. Generally we are talking about separation of animal species to determine if, for example, the beef cows are really making any money or whether it is the laying hens that are the most profitable. Isolating income sources and providing a check register system that categorizes expenses into enterprises or animal species is the best approach I have found to accomplish enterprise analysis.
Once we set aside fixed costs, which are the costs we have no matter what animals we choose to earn income from, we compare the variable costs associated to that income enterprise. In this analysis the fixed costs are generally first covered by the primary enterprise before any direct costs are compared. We then are able to attach the direct costs that actually apply to the specific species of animals or enterprise. This can also be a time to reflect on whether or not the chosen primary enterprise should remain or be discontinued. We must learn to be very objective during this phase. Our favorite animal or enterprise may have to be altered significantly or even dropped from the farm altogether.
Develop an understanding of the absolute necessity of solar collection and how it relates to farm profitability. The only product a farm really has to market is solar power. The tangible part that is transformed and provided to the customer is only the result of our efficiency at solar collection. Unlock this very simple process.
For most livestock businesses it is forage, or grass in general terms, that we are actually producing. We may be marketing our grasses through the sale of T-bones or cheese slices, but it is the quantity and quality of forages produced on the farm that mainly determine our profitability. The production of forages on our farm is directly dependent upon our efficiency at solar collection. The better we are at solar collection the higher our success will be.
I like to use the example of having a small 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector on top of your house and expecting to collect enough sunlight for everyone in the household to take a shower. The results would be improved tremendously if we replaced that little 6-inch by 6-inch solar collector with a solar panel that took up the entire rooftop. When we allow our grasses to grow to tall heights, rather than keeping them eaten down to the ground, our solar collector – forages — are multiplied in effectiveness manyfold. Just the same, when we fill in the empty spaces between plants and increase the density of our stands of forage in each paddock by high-stock-density grazing and animal impact, our solar collectors are increased. Creating a litterbank on top of the soil and a massive root system of healthy plants and organic matter below the surface, we are better able to collect the rainfall that once ran down the cattle trails into the creek and off the farm. We can grow more forage when our neighbors are complaining about drought. We are actually harvesting sunlight, not forage or livestock.
Unlock the hidden tools every stockman possesses on every farm that will improve efficiencies and is absolutely critical for sustainability:
- Animal Impact
- Soil Biology
We know that the more time a cow spends grazing and the less time she eats at the hay bunk, the lower our costs will be. As she grazes she expels about 27,000 lbs. of grass-growing nutrients each year directly on the paddock where it can be best utilized. All of this fertility is added at the cost of zero inputs.
The stomping of the litter from tall grasses into the top layer of soil — what we call animal impact — is part of the nutrient buildup done by the hooves of the bovine. From this point forward we can leave behind the concept of a fertilizer buggy. We can be more concerned with having 90 or more paddocks across the ranch so that we can get long rotations and long periods of rest between the times cattle enter those paddocks. It is these long periods of rest that are critical in producing tall forages that the grazing animal can work with to produce the desired animal-impact results.
Now the soil biology, our workers beneath the surface, can multiply and break down the fibrous material we call carbon first into organic matter, then humus, and provide the means to help sequester the nutrients plants require for even better solar collection. In considering the sun, rainfall and the atmosphere, it appears we have an almost perpetual motion machine on the ranch.
Determine where the weakest link is in your operation and divert energy, money and effort to this problem first. Once this break in the chain is fixed, then and only then should we direct our efforts elsewhere. There is always just one weakest link at a time. This weakest link is the direct aspect of our operation that is keeping us from obtaining our listed holistic goals.
We may wrongly blame the small amount of rainfall as the reason we run out of grass each summer and have been forced to purchase expensive supplements for the livestock. In fact, the weak link lies in the fact we have not spent enough money on fencing so that we can do a better job of rotating cattle across the ranch allowing long periods of rest for each paddock. When the typical hot, dry summers arrive, our bare soils, short-rooted plants, and low organic matter in our soil thirst more than necessary. This reduces the soil’s ability to hold moisture. It is clear that our lack of fencing in this case is our weakest link in this example. In this case, it may be easy to assume that all we need to do to get more grass is to spend more money on forage seed for the bare areas between plants. In fact we do not even have enough moisture in our soils to support what roots exist now. A common mistake is to spend money, resources and labor on areas not the weakest link. It is more prudent to take the time and identify the single weakest link of today, make the corrections, and then when tomorrow arrives look for the weakest link for that specific time.
Create a Financial Planning Model specifically for the operation. Utilize worksheets for entering data into a system that allows for monthly monitoring to compare planned objectives to actual activity.
Just as when we were using individual enterprise worksheets for analysis, we will have a recording system in place that encompasses the entire operation. This is best done using now affordable computer software with a little bit of training or can be done manually on handwritten spreadsheets. This year’s results must be compared with last year’s results as well as projections made before the season begins.
Prepare a written plan to manage the land in a manner that does not contradict the holistic goals. This should be a one-page document that emphasizes the goals and practices referred to in the holistic goals.
By taking the time to describe, in light detail, our overall strategy, will help us better achieve our goals. Sometimes the actual words being written down and looked at closely will bring our shortfalls to the surface. This is no time for unbalanced egos.
Prepare a total land grazing program covering January through December. This is a system of handling each and every square foot of land mass for each and every day of the year. Implement a fence and water design that utilizes:
- Herd impact
- Forward speed grazing
The herd impact of moving cattle from one paddock to the next on a daily basis will create a rest period of 90 days on each paddock once we have at least 91 individual paddocks in place. During the fast-growing times of the season like April and May for those of us in North America, we move cattle very quickly through as many paddocks as we can to get the benefits of forward speed grazing. If we wait until the forage is 6-inches tall in the early part of the growing season, the growth will overtake us too soon. These are some of the grazing practices that will allow us to eventually add more livestock to our operation without increasing costs.
Implement a program designed to monitor both financial and land responses over time. Compare results frequently with the holistic goals and planning process and initiate a process for correction and re-planning.
A digital camera positioned within the same transects every year or every month for ecological planning can give us an idea of how our progress is working, for example, plant spacing.
Financial records comparing year-to-year results are critical for economics. Accurately kept records in binders representing each year of operation that are easily accessible will prove to be excellent resources for finding places in our operation that need correction.
These ten steps for initiating the holistic system on a livestock operation will require the continued use of advancement in education. You will recall this was on the large base and most important part of the time pyramid. As we increase our education in all that makes up this simple-to-manage but complex-by-design field called agriculture, our success will be enlightening. But studying and reading books such as this one, visiting other livestock operations, and attending progressive seminars and holistic system courses like I offer at my ranch each year are only part of this continued education which I am referring. These ideas can only come to fruition by spending the critical observation time down to the soil level, to implement changes where changes are demanded for better profits on the ranch. None of this can occur by remote control. And only those who properly respect ecology, animal behavior, and human interaction — particularly adaptation, soil biology, and the benefits of financial planning — will derive real satisfaction from the farm or ranch.
About the Author:
Cody Holmes left home at age 17 with his high school 4-H project of seven cows. That project grew into the Rockin’ H Ranch, a diversified ranch, on-farm market, and agri-tourism business. The ranch has supported as many as 900 head on 3,400 acres. Cody, his wife, Dawnell, and daughter, Taylor, opened up their ranch to the public and also run Real Farm Foods Farm Market, an on-farm store offering retail sales of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, milk, and seasonal produce.