Making Changes with John Marble

by Dallas Mount

napkin math

John Marble, Ranching for Profit alumnus from Oregon is a not only a rancher, but a thinker, (I consider him a ranching philosopher) and a writer. He wrote the following piece for On Pasture and they kindly allowed me to share it with you. In class we talk about the inventories of grass, money and livestock; but we give too little time to the inventory of time or the allocation of time. We often say we wish we had more. I hate to break it to you, but we each only have 24 hours a day. This issue around time is how we choose to allocate it. Perhaps John’s piece will challenge you to consider your own choices around how you allocate time.

Turning Toward Home – Making Changes to a Grazing Operation

John Marble
John Marble

Several decades back (well shoot, let’s be honest here: fifty years ago) I was stumbling ahead, trying to escape my Wonder Years and the radio was all filled up with a tune from some fellas who were singing about change:

To everything,
Turn, Turn, Turn,
There is a season
Turn, Turn, Turn,
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
And a time to every purpose, under heaven.

This singing group, The Byrds, had poor spelling skills and terrible haircuts, but they sure had one thing figured out: everything changes – the things we want, the things we think we need, the things we choose to spend time on, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our limitations. And an important part here is their repeated mention of the concept of time. Maybe that’s because as we drift along the trail of life, there comes a point where the sleepwalking ends because we figure out that we are getting near the end. I’ll use myself as an example.

Up until recently, our little ranching business was constantly changing, and I was driving that change. I was always looking for more: more cattle, more grass, more land, more of … everything. Every year I was adding new rental pastures and filling them up with cattle of one sort or another. If I saw a place that had some grass I’d just pull into the driveway, take a look around, do some gross margin calculations and make those nice folks an offer. Usually they said yes.

Eventually I had cattle on eleven places, only two of them under our ownership. The other nine were patches of grass that held ten or twenty or fifty cattle, and those might be stocker calves, replacement heifers, cow-calf pairs, pregnant cows, almost anything but horses. It didn’t much matter to me if I owned them or someone else did. In fact, along the way I reached the conclusion that what worked best was running rental cattle on rented land. This was risk free (financially) and didn’t require much mental anguish, which meant I had time and energy left over to go out and find more land to rent and more cattle to dump on it.

Recently I have reached the conclusion that it is time to pursue some change of a different sort. Change in our business and change in our life. The reasons are many and varied, but in the end, they all seem to revolve around the concept of time. How much time we have left as we near something like retirement, and how we want to spend it. The result of this is that we will soon be giving up all our rental grazing lands.

Wait! Did I just say that? Out loud?

Yes, I think I did.

We will give some of our rental pastures to other graziers. Others we’ll graze this coming spring and then transition them to someone else too. We’ll also be running 100% custom-grazed yearling cattle, beginning in March of this coming year.

Goodness, why is that so hard to say? And what will it mean?

Well, let’s do the math first: we will see a reduction in production and income, at least 33%, maybe more. Shifting away from purchasing cattle will certainly shift the demand for capital. And in terms of risk vs reward, we will be moving to a much lower risk and lower reward model. At the same time, certain expenses will be reduced, little things like gasoline and vehicle costs. But all these are minuscule when compared to where we’ll see the biggest impact: Time.

The time I spend, both physically and mentally, running the ranching business is going to be radically reduced. And that is the point of this entire conversation. Here are some places I will be clawing back time from the ranch, time that I can use in other parts of my life.

By no longer purchasing sale yard cattle, I will free up two months in the late winter. Traditionally, I would be going to the sale two days a week, processing cattle twice per week, then feeding those cattle seven days a week.

By no longer purchasing cattle, I will no longer need to purchase any hay. This had already been reduced to a modest task, but I am usually involved in “hay season” for a month or so each summer.

By shifting to 100% yearling cattle, I will completely eliminate the time traditionally spent calving and managing pregnant/calving cows or worrying about calves. My grazing moves will also go much more smoothly, never having to worry about fresh, left-behind calves. This will save time every day. I will also gain a few days by not having to process waves of new calves. Weaning and marketing times will fall to zero.

If things go as planned, my grazing season will be reduced to around 115 days. If I wildly underestimate the number of yearlings I need to stock our remaining pastures, I suppose I will need to find some cattle to graze during the summer. But in my experience, grass is pretty easy to market during the summer slump.

Readers who know me well may be surprised at what short shrift I gave to a discussion of economics. I’m known for figuring out exactly how much money we should be making, or trying to figure out which enterprise is the most profitable. And someone out there might be asking questions like, “Well, if time is so important, why did you rent all those places in the first place?”

Great question, and one I am only recently ready and able to answer. I’ll try here.

Up until recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the future. Specifically, wondering what was going to become of our land and livestock, our houses and timber. My wife and I have spent tremendous amounts of time studying and discussing topics related to estate planning, legacy, succession, and the like. And man, did I come up with some good reasons (rationalizations) for renting more pastures. 

Let’s try out my favorite: I proposed that if I kept adding to our land base through renting or leasing, I would reach the point where our business was large enough to attract someone to “take things over.” Maybe this would be an aggressive intern or a hired manager or someone who would actually buy the business. And in this way, we could just slip away to the back forty and everything would just go on as it always has. The only thing we need is enough land scale to attract the right person. This way, nothing would really change very much. But let’s be realistic. This scheme would require tremendous change to be viable, because what we have been doing (simply grazing cattle) results in a very modest return on assets.

If someone were to step in, to get a return on their investment, or to simply cover the cost of the land, massive change in the use of this property would be required. Like:

  • Construction of a feedlot.
  • Building a retail business.
  • Switching from grazing to a high-input farming operation.
  • Moving to some sort of trading and marketing operation, one where the driveway is constantly filled with customers seeking a cow for their backyard.

And these are precisely the kind of things we are not interested in at all.

So, we will now move toward a smaller operation and a simpler model, and we will capture the invaluable asset of time. By turning away from constant growth and from more intense business models, we can expect more time and more freedom, with very little need for additional labor or management. I hope we can find ways to use all that new-found time wisely. I feel confident that we are making a good choice at this point in life: getting smaller should be a good fit physiologically, and I believe the time we capture will be of great value. I find myself excited looking forward to a new model of ranching and a new way of thinking about time. Less time driving from place to place, more time enjoying our own properties.

I hope you are all looking forward to having a good time in the coming year. Happy grazing, happy living!

This article originally appeared in OnPasture.

5 Responses to “Making Changes with John Marble”

January 26, 2022 at 10:42 am, Leo Barthelmess said:

This is a very timely topic. We are evaluating a similar scenario, thank you for sharing your insights.

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January 27, 2022 at 10:17 am, Manitoba soil caretaker said:

Will this generate enough income to cover you current living expenses and allow for more money to enjoy your time? The reason I ask is everyone wants time but if there isnt any money to do the fun things with that time then that is not good (at least for me) Do you have other sources of income to reduce the need to generate income from the ranch? Thanks.. making me think here. 42 years old.. work full time. 100 cow calf and background them to spring plus crop 1,000 acres.. wife and 2 kids… not enough time..

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January 29, 2022 at 1:04 pm, Bill Milton said:

Kudos to John. Regardless of how any of us might respond to this story of adaptation to changing personal conditions, the core principle remains-asking what is important at any point in time, is always the most important question. Not easy, yet simply fundamental to a purposeful life.

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January 31, 2022 at 11:51 am, Dave+Pratt said:

Terrific column.
It’s always easy to be busy. But many of the things we do don’t increase our bottom line. In fact, sometimes some leases turn out to be little more than distractions, keeping us busy but adding little value to our operations.
At the end of the day, there’s more to running a business than making a profit. Our businesses are supposed to support our lives, not the other way around. It sounds like you’ve found a great balance where your business is doing exactly that. Congratulations!

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January 31, 2022 at 7:44 pm, Antonio Lara said:

Hi Mr. John, how do you? What do you consider to do your “gross margin calculations” when you using a land with pastures? I don’t want to rent, but I need to know what I have to know to make a quick good gross margin calculation. Regards from Panamá.

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