How big is your ranch, how much acreage do you own, how many cows do you have? If you want to put a big stamp on your face saying, “I don’t know anything about ranching,” then ask a rancher any of these questions, but to save you the embarrassment of either getting an offensive response or getting on the bad side of a rancher, I’ll put it into perceptive.
Would it be rude to go up to someone and ask how much money they make? Of course, we were all taught by our parents that you never ask anyone how much money they make. How is that any different then asking a rancher how many cows they own? Well, typically ranchers sell the calf-crop from their heifer cows. When you hear that a ranch has 300 head of cow, that means that they have 300 heifer cows that produce calves every year which means they are typically selling about 300 calves or steers a year (obviously that number is not completely accurate but I’m just giving an example). Any person with a calculator can easily figure out that if calves are getting sold at about $500 then the rancher is making $150,000 a year!!!
Not quite. In fact almost all that money goes back into the business of the ranch, since ranches have tons of expenses that go along with the operation, so this simple equation does not give you a good perspective on how much ranchers make. The fact of the matter is, is that it is just as rude to ask a rancher how many head of cows they own as it is to go up to a businessman and ask him how much money he made this year. So don’t open a conversation with a rancher asking how many cows they own, because they will not look upon you fondly.
The second question you should never ask is how much land do they own because typically, it’ll sound a million times bigger than it really is. Lots of people live in cities and the suburbs these days so their perspective of “a lot of land” is much more different then a “whole lot of land” to a rancher. If I someone tells you that they live in a 1200 square foot house, most people would assume that is extremely tiny, almost impossible to live in, but put that same square-footage in New York city and we are talking about an extremely expensive piece of property that many people living in New York would consider a lot!
How does that apply to land in ranching? Well, out here in Eastern Oregon is high desert there isn’t as much grass and it takes anywhere to 10-20 times more land to feed the same number of cows. In Missouri, where rainfall is about 30-40 inchs a year they can raise a cow on an acre a year (if their management is really good). Out here in the desert we are lucky if we get 10 inchs of rain in a year, so it might take anywhere from 10 to 15 acres of land to feed one cow in a year. Land starts to look a lot smaller when you put that into perspective. If a rancher in Missouri has 300 cows, then he could possibly run his cows on 300-500 acres of land, but out here on the desert that same 300 cows might take 6,000 acres to support the same sized cow herd.
Another factor in the equation is government regulation. Most people back east have no idea that the government owns a very large portion of the west, starting from Colorado all the way to the coast. The land is controlled by a government agency called the Bureau of Land Management (or BLM for short). Most ranchers out west have allotments of this government-run land, which they pay a lease on every year to use, however, this land is also open to all who care to play on it with four-wheelers, dirt-bikes and can come out and hunt during the correct seasons. Ranchers are only allowed to put a certain number of cattle on this property depending on what the allotment entails, typically, it’s way less then what the land actually needs and can hold. If an allotment says that only 100 cows can go on a certain piece of land then it probably can hold more than that, but we have to do what the BLM tells us. Once again the western rancher then needs more allotment space because the allotment can only hold 100 cows (when really it can probably hold a lot more than that) so he has to acquire more allotment space to fulfill the demand of his cows. It’s not surprising to hear a rancher running cows on 20,000-100,000 acres of BLM land, but once again, we are talking about high desert land with government regulation all mixed together.
Hopefully, this put into perspective why ranchers don’t really appreciate it when people ask them how much land they own or how many cows they have, because it is seen differently through everyone’s eyes, what might look small to one person could be huge to the someone else. Next time you run into a rancher think about how you would feel if someone asked you how much money you made this year.