November 10, 2015

Don't Raise Cattle Just For the Money.

Raising cattle--either beef or dairy--has its challenges and rewards, and it's certainly not for the faint of heart. It's a whole lot of hard work, almost never based on a schedule, nor does work end at 5:00 pm. There's no such thing as days off on weekends nor statutory holidays, no vacation, no benefits, nor a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly salary. Payday is once a year, and money is spent throughout the rest of the year on taxes, insurance, rent, machinery repairs, veterinary bills, utility bills, and repayment of loans to name some. Can't forget money needed for food, clothing, and basic personal hygiene. And if the government is helping out with some subsidies or disaster payouts, that money isn't squirrelled away into a personal savings account. No, that money goes right into the farm to pay for necessary things like repairs and vet bills I mentioned above.

I could go all, "I was raised on a farm so I know this stuff and you should believe me," but the truth is that farming and ranching isn't easy. Growing up on a farm gave me a lot of opportunities to be outside a lot and learn a lot of values, morals and qualities I hold dear to today. But farming didn't give me or my folks much in terms of money, money, money. Budgeting and must I say hard-core book-keeping was a way to keep track of spending so we weren't going to go into serious debt. We weren't making a living, we were earning one, but earnings weren't much to be excited about.

Yes, raising cattle is a way of life, and the only way to earn a living that doesn't involve being forced into an urban setting with annoying or nosey neighbours to contend with, nor having to commute to a 9 to 5 office job. The latter though, is definitely not uncommon with most farm and ranch families as a means to keep the operation afloat. My folks were no different: Dad looked after the farm while Mom had to go to town every weekday morning to work. The only reason we could keep farming (and I as a child could continue to benefit from farm life), was because of my Mom's unselfish need to keep working so we could continue to have a way of life as a farm family.

Now it's incredibly difficult to show or speak to people from non-farming backgrounds on how farming and ranching is far more than just money. Too often economic reasoning is used to justify such a rural life. And even explaining things so that an understanding of how farm or ranch life is putting the animals first before the people responsible for their care can be difficult to communicate. But how else can people like me that have either come from the farm and continue to support farming and ranching, or are still in it, tell it to the urbanized consumer? If there are any other way of delivering such a message I'd love to know.

I understand the whole surmise behind this common misconception: Big tractors, lots of machinery, with sometimes nice trucks and a lot of land. Yes, farmers and ranchers use a lot of "capital" to raise crops and feed livestock, much which cost a pretty penny or two to get, which often meant loans needed to be taken out to even update some of the old stuff. But lots of capital should never be an indicator of a lot of greenbacks in the bank. For most it's the opposite: more loans to pay off than money they'd like to have saved up for a sunny day, so to speak. Really, farmers and ranchers are nothing like the rich minority that can afford a big house and lots of "toys" to play with, and a lot of spare time to play with them and host a lot of parties. What a producer has is what he or she needs to make a living. They don't have time to play with an expensive sports car or throw parties. The farm, and so the animals, are far more important than social events or showing off how wealthy they are, if they are even that.

Before I mentioned veterinary bills as one of the costs associated with cattle-raising. These include the cost of a bottle of antibiotic like Draxxin needed to treat a sick animal. So if cattle producers really were raising cattle just to make money, why would they even bother spending a lot of money on some antibiotics when they could sell any sick animal than deal with the risk associated? It's been said time and time again how producers put their animals first and do quite the diligence to ensure the best welfare, health and well-being of the animals in their care. Dairy cows that are deliberately mistreated won't produce milk. Beef cows that aren't carefully selected to be good moms won't raise good calves, if at all. And, if a steer was down with an illness easily curable with some expensive antibiotics, a "cattleman" just in it for the money (whom is not a true cattleman) would sell said steer for income than take the time and money to treat it. A cattleman not solely in it for the money would not sell the steer. Instead he'd spend the money on the needed medication (even if it's a $500 100 mL bottle of Draxxin), treat the steer, and keep an eye on it even if there is a risk that steer won't survive the night, and the money spent on antibiotics was all for nothing. And when an animal is lost (which is never a matter of "if"), it's tough. It's a helluva lot more than just potential money down the drain, that's for sure.

Raising cattle means a whole lot of risk is at stake. There's far, far more risk associated with raising livestock than what most can comprehend. An incurable or untreatable disease can wipe out an entire herd, be it anthrax or just one cow that came back positive with BSE, meaning the rest of the herd may need to be euthanised as well. Predators targeting half the calf herd resulting in a lot less calves to sell is just as tough. Risk for cattle producers isn't the same kind of job risk that most people can understand. Got laid off? Go find another job. Injured? Worker's compensation and employment insurance (for many jobs) can cover that easy. But for producers? Tough luck if half the calf crop is feeding the wolves. Tough luck if three quarters of the cows aborted their calves because they all were sick or at some poisonous plant that wouldn't let them carry to full term. Tough luck if a disease either killed or really reduced productivity in your animals.

And really, what's wrong with farmers and ranchers even trying to earn a living? What's wrong with making some money, even if none of it goes into personal savings? This utopian societal thinking doesn't exist nor will it ever. Nothing is for free, and farmers and ranchers certainly never get away with taking nor getting things for free, nor for cheap (unless they got lucky an an auction, but that's another story). No one I've talked to has given me a straight answer on ways farmers/ranchers can do what they do without earning or paying for anything. All I've seen, from my own perspective, that anti-farming or anti-beef people wish ranchers "would just die off," or that they should "just quit" what they're doing.

That leaves me asking, so who's going to look after the animals left behind? The anti-beef people who so badly want these hard-working individuals to just quit or die off? And how is a rancher supposed to "just quit" with years of dedication put into raising animals, a bit of debt to pay off, and no desire nor hope of finding a "better" job that will never hold a candle to the past career? Why do you think a lot of farmers and ranchers well into their 70s and 80s are still at it? It's not because it's all they know, it's because they love it, dammit, and won't trade it for anything else in the world. And I'm pretty sure those "old fogies" looked into living in town and retiring and all that, but what they seen was nothing more than a whole lot of boredom. So why trade a way to earn a living raising animals for something you can make a living at but be bored and unhappy for the rest of your life?

Raising livestock, like cattle, is all about earning a living, not necessarily making one. Earning a living is all about living the life you enjoy regardless how much money is being made. Money isn't a factor when a person enjoys doing what they've always wanted to, and shouldn't be. This is the same thing with raising cattle.

So if you want to raise cows, make sure you want to really love doing it. Otherwise, if you're just interested in making money, you're better off find yourself a different career. There really are far, far better careers where you can make a whole lot of money than living and working on a ranch or farm.

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