Staying on Track

by Nicole Lane Erceg

Why do we call substantial disasters “perfect” storms?

It feels like an oxymoron. The title perfect storm seems a more fitting descriptor for the rain that comes just in time to break a drought, or the swirling clouds that bring rain but never materialize into a devastating cyclone. The drama still unfolds, but disaster doesn’t follow.

I’ve seen many use the phrase to describe the recent bomb cyclone and subsequent heavy snows, but the impact these have had on those in cattle country is the exact opposite of perfect. 

When I sat down to write this month’s column, my earlier chosen topic of “expansion” seemed perfectly untimely. How could I discuss expanding herds and businesses when so many across the Midwest are simply trying to survive?

But in my line of work, I get to sit across the dining room table from many seasoned and successful ranchers. My favorite stories they tell are always rooted in the times they weathered the worst in their businesses.

It’s the family that was able to keep the farm despite the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the rancher who purchased rangeland others said was impossible to graze and those who quite literally bet the farm to make it to the next year.

When they speak about the challenging times, a voice might crack remembering the pain, a head will bow as they relive their worst nightmares, but all look back with pride at where they’ve come since those trying times. In fact, many describe them as pivotal moments.

It’s taught me never to underestimate the grit of a cattleman.

“I know tough times,” one rancher told me recently. “I remember when a Pepsi cost 35 cents and I didn’t have the money to buy a Pepsi.”

More than half a century later, he runs a successful business with the second generation at his side.

If there is a method for weathering the storms that inevitably will come, this cowboy shared, it’s a focus on consistent progress and serving the end customer despite setbacks.

That and breeding cattle that carry the same values in their genes.

He sets his business up for success by preparing his herd to perform in all conditions. He builds added value into progeny carcass merit to ensure each individual is as profitable as possible, so even in the years where numbers are few, the value and quality remain competitive.

It doesn’t make a setback painless. No matter what we do, no amount of hedging bets will guarantee success. Mother Nature will show her strength, the market will inevitably take a turn for the worse and life will continue to offer new challenges.

We will never be able to control the weather but we can prepare ourselves to weather the storms.

Around the cattleman’s farm sign in a perfect circle sit pieces of old steel track from a Caterpillar well past its prime. While some may think it’s as an old, heavy piece of mislaid machinery, he says it’s a visual reminder to stay on track through the ups and downs of this business.

It’s a subtle nudge to maintain focus on the perfect storm of ranch performance, carcass merit and enough grit to just keep going.