Culling the Herd

When my dad decided to turn the outfit over to me, I thought at first his head was going to explode. You see for the last thirty years, and for forty years before him, the philosophy on this ranch was to keep as many cows as the range would support, with the idea that more cows meant more calves, and more calves meant more money in our pockets. However soon as I was old enough to check the range, I began to notice a few things. First of all in the quest for maximum numbers, we were cutting corners on the quality of the females we were keeping for replacement stock; conformity went by the wayside, and we were ending up with all shapes and sizes of cows, resulting in a very uneven and unpredictable set of calves for market. The result being instead of top dollar at the sales, cattle buyers were beginning to bid way less for the calves we offered– and our overall income began to shrink. This led to overstocking the range with even more inferior cows to make up the lost returns.
A vicious cycle; subtle at first but breaking out in full bloom about twenty years ago. We found ourselves in a huge, deadly bind. Poor cows led to poor calves, leading to even poorer cows being introduced; degrading our end product even further. All of a sudden, another problem arose: cows that weren’t even fertile, and went year after year not even breeding- we even had cows so sorry that they would not mother the calves they DID have, and the calves would be found dead on the prairie from starvation or downright abuse. Things still devolved from bad to worse; we did not have the money for decent bulls, and the quality of our calf crop dropped even further, as we went shopping for “anything that had horns and balls” as my wife would complain. Very soon, when I took over, things hit bottom.
Our banker of the last few decades retired, and they hired a new fellow fresh out of banker school. He had pouffy hair and shiny slippers for shoes; a real dandy- but some of the things he told us were very true, and he backed up his observations with action. “Boys “ he started, “I know I am new, and you will probably hate me for saying this, but your business is a wreck; your expenses keep rising and your income is spinning down the drain- in a few more years we will not finance you for operation, unless you begin to turn things around…. NOW.”
That is when my dad’s neck turned purple, and I knew that when it reached his eyes it would not be a pretty sight; but I was relieved because I was in charge now, and I was in complete agreement with the new bag of money sitting in front of us. I knew exactly what to do- it was going to hurt in the short run, but in the long run it was our only way to survive. It was time to cull the herd.
First to go were the cows who did not calve; next the ones that would abuse or starve their calves by being poor mothers. Next were the cows that did not conform to the way a cow should perform in terms of efficiency and in terms of overall appearance—uniformity is critical when it comes to producing a predictable growth set of calves that will outperform their counterparts: for a calf is no calf unless it does what it is supposed to do- grow fast and efficiently and produce red meat for the consumer.
The herd was tight and right; but it hurt -our calf crop was cut in half. However our net income was only cut by 40%- and that was in the first year. The weirdest thing was, my dad was most upset when he went to town, and had to listen to the coffee coolers talk about how the great Gut Hook outfit was now smaller than their neighbors…. It seems perception to some was more important than production and survivability. But not to me and the family; a smaller, bust superior set of cattle was going to slowly expand and fill back up to where it was decades ago; the best ranch in the valley, with reputation livestock and an outfit that we could be proud of, while others would try to emulate. We were on our way, and the pain of our past catching up to us, was in the end the best thing that could have ever happened.


About john spizziri

I am a retired rancher who sold his ranch after 30 years of cowboying, and now spend my days teaching high school in rural montana. I have a lovely wife of 35 years, and ffour grown children who have scattered to the four wings of the world. My family is all active members of the Catholic Church, and We are all Faithful, Evangelising followers of the Magesterium. My love for Our Lord and His Church has evolved into these feeble attempts at spreading the Good News. The rest of my life involves grandchildren, students, and when the time permits, mour horses. View all posts by john spizziri

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