Cattle Update: Between a rock and a hard place

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I spent one summer during my college years working as a student trainee for a lending institution. One day I went with my supervisor to collect on a delinquent loan. On that day I gained some insight into what makes farmers, cattlemen and landowners “tick”.

We were sitting on the front porch of this elderly gentlemen’s quaint home surrounded by hills and trees. The seriousness of the loan status was discussed and it was suggested that maybe he could sell some timber to meet his financial obligations. I will never forget his response. He said “I have lived on bean soup many a day to keep from cutting those trees!”

I didn’t understand why he would risk the entire farm to protect a part of it. An economist or banker probably wouldn’t agree with that logic either, but I have come to understand it. There’s something about the land that sometimes keeps us from making purely logical business decisions. I remember when we had some timber cut on the home farm in the 1960’s. It was a fairly simple process with mules used to pull the logs – easy on the environment. I had the same land cut over in the 1990’s with skidders and loaders and the aftermath looked like a war zone. I knew then what the landowner had feared. Although, there might have been a compromise that would have allowed him to have done what was environmentally acceptable and still meet his economic needs.

Farmers and cattlemen frequently find themselves in situations which can be a struggle between what’s best for the environment and what’s best for their family. Most care deeply about both. That is why some decisions about farm management can be so tough. It’s what some folks call being between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”.

Critics of American agriculture don’t have a clue about how people who live off the land struggle to hold on to a way of life that is usually intertwined over generations and not always economically rewarding. Our problem is that we normally have to consider the bottom line because all bills must eventually be paid. Urbanites who cruise down the parkway in their luxury SUVs should be careful about judging us or making regulations about things they don’t understand.

Cattle producers are constantly making difficult decisions. Which cows do you keep? Which cows do you cull? Culling old barren cows seems like a “no-brainer” but we struggle with even that decision. Why? Because we are the people that really care about animals. Sometimes we care too much, but I don’t believe that we should be lectured to, or regulated by, people who can’t possibly understand our way of life.

Selling land or farms is even more difficult than selling cows. Whether you decide to keep your land, preserve it as a legacy or trust, or sell it outright is your business. Everyone should respect that. It can be a heart-wrenching decision but logic and the bottom line may factor into the decision. What happens when land that has an agricultural value of $2,500 per acre suddenly has a value of $25,000 per acre for development? An unbiased economist will tell you that is an easy decision. Sell it.

Yet we agonize over the decision. What would great-grandfather think? What will our neighbors think? What is the right thing to do? We’re between a “rock and a hard place” again.

The logical decision is to take the money and re-invest in less expensive farmland and/or secure your family’s financial future. If it is a matter of choosing between family and land, make the logical choice and move on. If you can afford to “tie up” the land for subsequent generations or preserve some “green space” from urban encroachment, that is a great and noble action.

In the end, only you and your family can decide what is best for your long-term well-being, and what reflects your own values. We are always concerned about being good stewards of the land and living our values. Just be true to those values but don’t let others influence you unduly. Remember “those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter”.

Source: Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky


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