Genuine Montana working cattle "RanchLife" as experienced by an absentee landlord.

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Name: Kenneth W. Duncan
Location: United States

I am a technology entrepreneur who was lucky enough to purchase a Montana working cattle ranch in 1995. I still work in technology in Utah but love to help our ranch manager manage the ranch and love to work at the ranch (www.ranchlife.com). I started this BLOG to give readers a glimpse of Montana ranching through the eyes of an absentee owner.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

"Economically Viable" Cattle Ranching

One of the tragedies of our time is the one-sided economic benefit that accrues to a wealthy person who purchases a viable working cattle ranch, which is contributing to a local agricultural-based economy, and then eliminates the Cows, obtains a conservation easement on the ranch (mostly good but can be bad), constructs a dream trophy home on the ranch, then gets bored or divorced or tired or his fortunes change or whatever, and he then puts the ranch up for sale. Now think about it, anyone who can afford $10MM+ to buy a ranch can probably afford to finance the construction of their own dream home on the ranch. The next buyer may not have the same taste as the one who constructed the trophy home as the only improvement, or at least main improvement, on the ranch. I have seen this phenomenon happen many times in Beaverhead County. I believe that the Horse Prairie Valley may be the "last best part of the last best place" where the ranchers (even absentee ranchers) have not ruined good cattle ranches by constructing trophy homes. Heaven help these poor ranches that have been raped if (when) the economy cools and there a not buyers who can pay for trophy homes on former working cattle ranches.

I don't have the answers to the solution of this problem, and certainly there are a few (very few) ranches where trophy homes have been constructed and the ranches continue to operate as working cattle ranches. And, I recognize that one unsaleable trophy home may be better than subdividing a ranch. One possible and partial solution is for existing working cattle ranches to be operated as profitable agricultural enterprises. For more than 10 years we have endeavored to operate the HPR as a viable working cattle ranch. In fact, the paramount reason that we opened up our ranch to summer guests is because our predecessor owners had constructed cabins, a guest barn, a recreation lake, garage, and other improvements which we saw could be developed into a guest area, rather than being under utilized and not generating income . We came to realize that rather than threatening our "RanchLife" way of life, if operated properly, a guest operation could enhance our RanchLife. We could still ride horses, move cattle, work cattle, ride fences, put out mineral, etc., but do it with people who shared our interest, enthusiasm and love for a working cattle ranch. Of course, it didn't hurt to have three wonderful meals a day at the lodge! Our guest operation has helped our ranch to be a viable business. Rather than threatening our ranch way of life, treating the ranch as a business has contributed to our ability to afford the ranch.

Our mission and vision statement for the Horse Prairie Ranch is "to operate a profitable, authentic working cattle ranch by 1) obtaining premiums on cattle sales; 2) being innovative in developing and preserving deeded rangelands, hayfields, and improvements; 3) implementing best practices in operations; 4) supplementing income with an integrated guest operation; and 5) being responsible stewards of private and public lands". Our annual business plans include such information as goals and objectives, projects and tasks (these never end....one of the things I love about a working cattle ranch!), policies and procedures, a safety plan and program; perpetual cattle inventory spreadsheets, pasture and range management worksheets, and financial budgets. It's easy to ride the range and forget about the business aspects of the ranch. But it is essential to our success, which is essential to our survival, to run the ranch as a business.

This weekend Marie and I also assembled our training binders and material for the summer guest operation. We are uncompromising on our focus on safety at the ranch. When we work with animals and equipment there is always a chance for an accident or mishap. I wish our horses would attend worker's comp safety courses but they just aren't interested. Of course, our experience is that a mishap is often the fault of the rider or an unavoidable spook to the horse. We strive as hard as we know how to ensure that our guests, staff and animals are safe and healthy.

So, the next time you visit the HPR and are riding on the ridge overlooking the LakeSide guest area with the expansive vistas of the Horse Prairie Valley, you can realize that you are seeing a lot of activity, all of which is really an agricultural business, trying to remain viable so that our life style and culture can weather economic and social developments, such as conservation easements by the wealthy, for another 100 years.