Hank's "Ranch Life" Series, Part 4

Thursday, June 14, 2012 | By John R. Erickson

Ranching As a Business

     Now we know the difference between a ranch and a farm, don't we?  We've learned that a ranch is mostly grassland, while a farm is mostly cropland.  And we've learned that cattle are eating machines that can turn grass into delicious beef, which is a pretty nifty trick.

     Now let's talk about ranching as a business, because that's what it is, after all.  People like Loper and Sally May don't go into ranching just for their health.  Ranching is how they make their living.  It's how they make enough money to buy food for their table and clothes for their kids and, last but not least, dog food for me and Drover.

     But first we'd better learn a few words that are important in the ranching business:

  • A cow is a female animal, over the age of three years, whose main job is to give birth to a baby, which is called a calf.  When that calf comes into the world, Momma Cow cleans it up by licking it dry.  While it's young and helpless, she protects it from predator animals such as coyotes and wild dogs, and gives the calf milk from her bag until it's old enough to survive on grass.
  • Male cattle are called bulls.  They are quite a bit bigger and stronger than cows.  Where an average cow might weigh 900 to 1200 pounds, a bull might weigh 1800 to 2400 pounds. They're big rascals, and sometimes they're mean and hard to handle.  Remember what happened to Slim in The Case of the Hooking Bull?  He was trying to drive the neighbor's bull out of the north pasture and got himself hurt in the process.  That's a bull for you.  They have to be handled with care. And it never hurts to have a heroic cowdog along.
  • A heifer is a young female.  We call 'em heifers until they've reached the age of three and have given birth to a calf.  At that point, she becomes a cow.  Heifers sometimes have trouble giving birth to their first calf and they have to be watched.  If you recall, in the fourth book, Murder In The Middle Pasture, Slim is looking after a bunch of heifers and finds one whose calf has been killed by... 

     Do you remember who the villain was in that story?  If not, you'd better go back and read it again.  [The answer is stray dogs from town].

     Okay, here's how the ranching business works.  The rancher (Loper) goes to the local bank and borrows enough money to buy, let's say, 300 mother cows.  In today's market, they'd cost about a thousand dollars apiece, so his initial investment in livestock is going to be somewhere around $300,000.

     That's a lot of money, but it’s only the beginning.  If he doesn't own any grassland, he has to rent land from someone else, and around here a grass lease might run anywhere from $3.00 to $6.00 per acre per year, and we figure it takes about 25 acres of grass to feed a cow year‑round.  We call that the stocking rate.

     Have you figured up how many total acres Loper needs to run those 300 cows?  (Hint:  multiply cows times acres‑per‑cow).  Did you get 7,500 acres?  Good.  So did I.

     7,500 acres is about eleven square miles, and in our country that would be a nice, average‑sized family ranch that will run 300 cows year‑round.  In East Texas, Eastern Oklahoma, and the southern states, you could run the same number of cows on fewer acres.

     Do you know why?  It has to do with rainfall.  They get more rain than we do.  They grow more grass per acre and can run more cattle.  Their stocking rate might be five acres per cow instead of the twenty-five we use. 

...to be continued...

(Are you interested in ranching, or are you a rancher yourself? Be sure to add your thoughts to the comments section below.)

Tags: Hank the Cowdog books, Ranching, Cattle, Panhandle
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