Can’t be done. At least that is what conventional wisdom says. I’d agree that it can’t be done, if you follow the rules of traditional ranching – running cows the way everyone else does and owning everything. If you are willing to break some rules and challenge conventional wisdom maybe you can join the amazing group of people that have done it.
Let’s look at the economics of conventional wisdom for starting a ranch from scratch. You’ll need land. Of course, if you want to be a real rancher (so the thinking goes) you’ll need to own it. If you are going to ranch full time, you’ll need enough cows to support a family so let’s plan to buy a ranch that will run 400 cows. In much of ranching country, the rule of thumb is 35 acres per cow. Let’s push that to 40 and ask those cows to graze year-round.
The value of the land will be driven by things other than its forage producing value. Generally aesthetic value and proximity to a metropolitan center will drive the land values. Let’s say we found a ranch that will sell for $600/acre. We will need 16,000 acres so our purchase will be about 9.6 million. Of course, we need to own the cow herd as well. 400 cows, 16 bulls and 80 heifers will cost us about $700,000 in today’s market and we will need an arsenal of machines so let’s add another $300,000 to make it a round $1 million for livestock and machines.
If we find a bank willing to finance all of this, we will likely need to come up with 20% down at least. So we will need about 2 million for the land and $200,000 for the livestock and machines. It just so happens our great aunt just died leaving us 2.2 million! Now all we have to do is service the remaining debt! Should be easy right? If the bank finances the land at 5% for 20 years and the cows and machines for 5 years at 7% that will leave us with a payment of about $600,000 per year on the land and about $200,000 on the cow/machine note.
If we divide our total payments of $800,000 by our 400 cows then each cow will need to generate $2,000 annually for debt service not to mention covering her bills for feed, vet, trucking, and all the other overheads. We better wean some big calves! Are you ready to buy yet? Maybe we should just sit in the coffee shop and complain about all of this? Oh … I know … it’s the banker’s fault for charging interest!
Hopefully this demonstrates that ranching the conventional way is not a realistic path to ranching from scratch. So what is? Firstly, I think it is important that we make a separation in our minds from operating a ranching business and owning land. After all, you can run 1,000 cows and not own a single acre of land, and you can own a million acres of land and not own one cow! Being in the land investment business and being in the livestock business are two separate businesses. The land investment can be a great place to park money and enjoy appreciation and wealth building over time. It can be a terrible place to park money when you need cash flow.
At the Ranching for Profit School, we teach an economic planning process that requires any livestock you run to pay fair-market rent for the grass they consume. Not including this in your planning essentially subsidizes your livestock enterprises with free grass from your land business. Conversely, asking cows to make your land payment might subsidize your land investment by overcharging your livestock business. You must do the economics right to know where you are creating value. If you want to buy land, let’s establish a profit target that you will need to achieve to reach your goals and develop a business around that profit target.
Many of our alumni get into ranching from scratch by custom grazing cattle on leased land. This is often a model with a strong cash flow and can allow the operator to build reserves that can be used to invest in livestock or real estate. This certainly isn’t a utopia. There are the challenges of finding leases, managing landowners, developing good grazing infrastructure and many others. The skills necessary to be successful in this path include:
- People Skills – managing landowners, marketing yourself as a lessee and custom grazer, putting a team together to do the day-to-day.
- Grazing Skills – planning, implementing and monitoring land health and reporting back to landowners.
- Economics and Finance – planning for profit, budgeting, and cash flow management.
- Livestock Handling – leading your team or managing yourself to meet livestock performance objectives.
I’d love to hear from those of you who started from scratch. What advice would you have for someone else looking to do the same?