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FARM & RANCH: Fetching Profits from Depressed Markets

No one needs to tell farmers and ranchers that the economic crisis in agriculture is real, or that it’s not going to go away any day soon.

Thousands of farmers across this broad country are leaving agriculture due to collapsed commodity prices. For generations producers have coped by concentrating on how to be more productive, how to coax another bushel of wheat from an acre of land, another ear of corn, another pound of beef …

Important as this strategy has been, today’s hard times demand that producers step outside the comfortable box of tradition and start making changes.

For four years now, WSU’s Donald Nelson, an extension livestock specialist, has been riding to their rescue with holistic management workshops. I call them survival workshops because that’s what Nelson is teaching. His workshops are designed to help producers look at their operations from a new perspective and eagerly embrace change.

Ken and Sheryl Cox are among the 158 people who have attended Nelson’s intensive workshops since 1995.

They operate Klicker Mountain Cattle Co., near Walla Walla. They run 300 head of red Angus-Simmental crossbred mother cows on 6,000 acres of summer range on the edge of the Blue Mountains and 1,500 acres of mostly scabland on the breaks of the Snake River.

Sheryl says she and Ken are beginners in applying concepts learned in Nelson’s workshops, but already the Coxes have made significant changes in their operations.

“I’ve been proud of some of the things that my family has accomplished, but we’ve had to change some of the way we do things,” Cox says.

Two of those changes were traumatic. Sheryl says her family’s livestock operation had a record of more than 30 years of continuous artificial insemination. But using management tools learned in the workshops, the Coxes abandoned AI. “That was hard to do,” Sheryl said, “because you’re looking at pride in things that your family has accomplished.”

Sheryl emphasizes that the Coxes haven’t lost faith in AI. They still believe in it, but in these economic conditions, abandoning AI was important.

The Coxes also abandoned January calving for March calving. This allows them to make better use of grasses on their calving grounds and provide better nutrition for cows.

“Its fair to say the jury is still out because as you initiate these changes there always are ripple effects that you have to address. But we feel we’re moving in the right direction,” Sheryl says.

The workshops also motivated the Coxes to seek a non-traditional revenue source. They have launched a ranch recreational business to produce income from mountain rangeland.

Their Top of the Mountain Retreat and Recreation business packages the scent of sun-warmed pine trees and the serenity of mountain tranquility in rental cabins, horses, trail rides and trail meals.

They promote this new business venture with a sophisticated Internet site at Sheryl says the most important thing she and Ken learned in the holistic management workshops was to think outside the box. “Keep your mind open. Just don’t close your mind to possibilities. Don’t be ready to say, ‘No, that’s not the way things are done around here. Nobody does it like that around here. We’ve never done things like that.'”

If there ever was a time when it was enough to produce an abundant, high quality crop, that day has passed. Farmers and ranchers who want to survive today’s agricultural crisis not only need the best varieties and technologies, they need the best business tools and knowledge to manage the financial end of farming and ranching.

As Sheryl puts it, they need to think outside the box, or at least get some new boxes to think in.

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