Black Ink: Invest or improvise?

By Nicole Lane Erceg
Certified Angus Beef LLC

The first Christmas my husband and I spent together, we didn’t have a tree. We had just moved into our (tiny) apartment and the last thing we needed to spend money on was decorations. In an effort to make the moving boxes and new atmosphere cheery, we took a whiteboard we had on hand and drew ourselves a tree in red and green Expo markers. Not the same as a dolled up spruce, but it did the job.

Our Christmas morning was no less merry and bright as any I’ve had before. There were still a few gifts under our “tree” and we had a wonderful Christmas dinner. It was a meager start to our holidays together, but one I’ll never forget.

We did the best we could with what we had, where we were.

Ranch life often requires this of us. Maybe it’s using a piece of baling twine to hold “just for now,” jotting down performance records on the back of a crumpled receipt, or pulling a cold, wet calf into the passenger seat of the pickup to warm them. Improvisation is necessary to make it work with what we have on hand, where we are.

Of course, we would all prefer not to have to improvise, to have everything we need on hand when we need it, and the resources to do all that we’d like to do. To have cattle that gain and grade and earn their keep and get better every year. That’s the dream, right?

Business growth and upgrades only happen as time and the cattle markets allow. But when we cast a vision of where we want our herds to go, it’s easy to decide when we need to improvise and when it’s time to make those big investments.

Fifteen years ago, a carcass data sheet with 75% grading Choice was great. Now, it’s the average. When premium branded programs were developed, it was notable to get 30% of a commercial cattle load to reach those marbling levels. Again, that number today is widely accepted as something half the cattle are doing.

No one starts out with loads that grade 50% Prime. For cattlemen who’ve made it their goal to produce beef at the highest level, it impacts all parts of their business. It’s the work that’s done year in and year out, through drought and blizzard and market highs and lows. When the vision is clear, it’s easy to see signals of where to invest (better genetics and health programs) and what sacrifices to make (separating wants from needs). And for those that have reached today’s notable levels, a target of continued improvement can still increase profitability.

What does Christmas on the ranch look like for you next year? Maybe you’ll have better calving sheds or a calf crop on the way with improved genetics. This could be the year your cattle double the national average for Prime or the first year you decide to track down carcass data or try genomic testing.

More importantly, what sacrifices need to be made in the new year to make your production goals a reality? What greater discipline? It might be stricter heifer retention criteria or a deeper culling of the cowherd. It could mean delaying a wanted investment to prioritize a purchase that will more immediately help meet your goals. Which things are necessary, and which just make life a little more pleasant – like Christmas decorations?

No one brags about being average. If we want 2018 to be a better year than the last, this next year will require finding the balance between investing and improvising. The decisions we make now determine what beef consumers will eat tomorrow.

While the whiteboard Christmas tree was a good substitute that first year, since then we’ve upgraded to a tree with lights and decorations. We had a vision of what our future holidays might be and we’re slowly making that come to life. Decorations are just one of those things that make life a little more cheery, not a business more profitable, but this time of year is the perfect time to reflect and think about what the future holds.

Because whether you’ve been in the cattle business 40 years or 4, sometimes we’ve all got to get a little scrappy to make our end goals of better beef a reality.

Next time in Black Ink Miranda Reiman will look at how excellence can cut costs. Questions? E-mail [email protected]