The beef business: surviving and thriving

It’s one thing to start, another to survive.

What makes the difference?

That may seem like a trick question with subjective answers, but ranchers will cite common denominators and tricks of the trade that apply.

The rest, they’ll say, comes down to faith; you’ve got to have a lot of that, too.

For the young people just out of college and looking to graze a herd, for the couple who quit their day jobs to do the cow thing full time, for the family who decided to transition from one breed to another.

What’s the recipe for success?

Three cattlemen and women give their best advice:

Have a plan: For both day-to-day and worst-case scenarios. “If you wait until you’re in the middle of the drought, it’s too late,” says Joe Leathers, manager of 6666 Ranch, near Guthrie, Texas. “If you wait until the fire has completely devastated your country, you’re going to be sitting there in the middle of smoking ashes.”

For the practical-minded, it’s about being on the same page with your family and partners, Lydia Yon says. The matriarch of Yon Family Farms, near Ridge Spring, South Carolina, says that was the case for her and husband, Kevin. “People around us were building a new house and we were building a commodity shed,” she says. “Someone was buying a new car and we were buying a new mixer wagon. Everything we made, we put right back into the operation and avoided purchases of non-tangible things we couldn’t pass on to our children.”

See the big picture, not just what’s outside your door, Yon says. It’s the little, everyday things that have been their key to survival. Her family applies that to their role as a seedstock producer, paying special attention to the genetics they stack in their Angus herd. “They need to be the right kind of genetics that will provide that end consumer with the delicious eating experience they crave.”

“The decisions you make, I don’t care how small your operation is, affect a lot more people than just you,” Leathers adds. Be conscious of that.

Learn from others: “Glean from those who have survived in the past; go talk to them,” Leathers advises.

The Yons listened to people who were older and wiser and who wanted to bestow advice to the young couple when they got started. They haven’t stopped. “The very smartest day of our lives was the day we graduated with our animal science degrees,” Yon jokes. “Ever since, we’ve learned how dumb we can become.”

Relationships: Jerry Bohn, owner and recently retired manager of Pratt Feeders, Pratt, Kansas, ties it all back to the men and women he’s worked for, alongside and hired. “It’s the people,” he says. “People, relationships, being a part of the community, that’s really what it’s all about and what made my career successful.”

For Yon, relationships and the awareness that people may be observing from afar drive her toward success. Both led to land offered for lease, owner’s willingness to finance cattle. “People are watching what you do,” she says. Because of those relationships, “we expanded without a lot of huge investments.”

Think outside your fences: With decades under his hat, Leathers encourages young people to “be an independent thinker. Too many people aren’t.”

Yon credits youth and passion for success in starting something from scratch. Looking back, “to us it didn’t feel unusual that two people, with children under the age of 5, would start a farm with 100 acres and basically nothing,” she says. People told them they couldn’t and “we got experience, got involved and got busy.”

Choose good partnerships: “What can you do to be different?” Bohn asks. He credits partnerships with Certified Angus Beef and U.S. Premium Beef as some of the best Pratt has made. With CAB, “our involvement caused us to do a paradigm shift,” he says. Prior to 2003, Pratt Feeders was selling more commodity cattle. “We began to look at high-quality cattle, producing for high-end markets.” Today, Bohn says, close to 70 percent of the cattle in their feedyards are destined to sell on a grid.

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Get experience, manage for risk, figure out your strengths and outsource your weaknesses. Those and more can take a person from merely surviving to thriving.

It’s about being realistic with every decision you make, Leathers says, and there will be plenty. As young people, “it’s easy to have rose-colored glasses. Survival has a definite connotation of bruises and a little blood. It’s not always going to be fun and you’re going to have to weather the storm.”

It’s all worth it in the end. On that, they agree.

The three presented at the recent Cattle Industry Convention & NCBA Trade Show in Phoenix, Arizona, in a Cattlemen’s College session titled, “True Stories of Beef Business Survival.”