Garfield County Cooperative Extension

What is in a Job Title?

Rick Nelson Extension Educator, Ag/4-H

I have talked with a lot of managers over the years about what makes the ideal ranch employee.  I know many of you reading this are self-employed, so you are both ranch employees and owners. I should ask, “Do you like your boss?” or “Do you like your employee?”

On smaller ranches, each person needs a larger set of skills because generally there is no one else to compensate for your lack of skills. I just want to mention a few items of strategy and then deal with the day-to-day aspects of running a ranch.

Placing good grazing management at the top of the strategic list of things to be good at.  One must know that the need is to graze as many days of the year as possible – hopefully all year long. To do this, you need cows that fit their environment. You also need cows that require very little or none of your time individually for doctoring, calving, etc.

Therefore, the question arises, “Should we be cowboys, stockmen or grass farmers?” If you have cows that can calve unassisted out in a pasture rather than in a calving lot, if your livestock seldom or never need to be doctored, and if you’ve learned good livestock handling skills so that cattle moves, gathers, corralling, sorting and working are easy, you don’t need to spend very much time being a cowboy.

If the cattle are right and your handling skills are good, your main job is to make sure cattle are where they belong and that they have a good drink of water whenever they want it. One needs a grazing plan that offers plenty of grazable forage and controls where a herd grazes and for how long.

To do this, fencing and stock water are required. I realize that cowboys typically do not like to fence, set water tanks or fix water lines. It’s much more fun to get on your horse, go to the pasture and hope that something is sick so you can rope and doctor or hope that some of the neighbor’s cows got in, or that some of yours are in the neighbor’s pasture. This, of course, justifies your riding and checking cattle rather than building or repairing fence or further developing stock water so you can manage grazing a little better.

A good stockman is able and willing to do both – take care of the cattle, make sure the fences are good enough to hold them, and that they are bred to fit their environment so sickness is only occasionally a problem. He also loves the challenge of good grazing and reducing the amount of feeding, so he will think of ways to improve grazing with fence and water and improved time control. You can see that this good employee is also a grass farmer.

There are times that I have been told one should quit hiring cowboys and just hire a good fence and water person. But in reality, we need the complete set of skills, plus a willingness to use them. We need to prioritize by need and by the best economic use of our time. Quite often, that means leaving the horse at the barn.

I have listened to those who interview people for ranch jobs. Many of job seekers have touted their ability to start a green colt and to rope and doctor sick cattle. These are rarely at the top of a hiring priority list.

There was also the flip side. I have worked with student interns. Many were quite good and showed the kind of attitude and ability required to be a good employee. And there were a few that showed true abilities – in their work ethic, previously learned skills, ability to learn, attitude, questions, and suggestions.

So, on larger expansive ranches, a good set of cowboy skills can be very helpful. But if the cowboy insists on being glued to his saddle, he does not have nearly as much value as one who will become a complete stockman by learning good handling techniques and an ability to see the range or pasture and the cattle condition. To become really valuable, the employee will also learn to manage grazing and increase carrying capacity.

It does not really matter what you call yourself or your employees – cowboy, stockman, grass farmer or rancher. Personally, I would prefer to deal with a good, complete rancher. If you do not have some of the necessary skills, work to find someone for your team who can compensate for any lack of skills.

Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is implied.


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