BeefSD helps beginning ranchers succeed

Mar 18, 2011

When you attend any gathering of ranchers, you may notice that bald and gray seem to be the trendy hairstyles. A new program in South Dakota, called beefSD, is hoping to add some younger hairstyles to these gatherings by helping less experienced ranchers get their feet in the gate of the ranching business.

South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension kicked off a program at the beginning of this year that encourages less experienced people to get involved in ranching and gives them the tools to be successful at it, says Ken Olsen, Extension beef specialist with SDSU. The program is targeted at people in the ranching industry who have 10 years or less of experience. In some cases, the participants are the new generation of a family operation. In others, they’re people who have had a career outside of ranching and want to get into the business.

The program is funded by a $748,892 grant from USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and provides funding for the program for three years. The money is used for defraying the expenses of the instructors and participants for the training sessions and travel opportunities.

Thirty of the nearly 60 applicants for the program were selected to participate. "All of
the applicants were extremely qualified," said Julie Walker, extension beef specialist with SDSU and beefSD team leader with Olsen. "Our acceptance of applicants was based on their goals and what we were thinking the program would provide and how that would match up."

The program consists of several different methods of educating the beginning producers, including classroom instruction, mentoring, case studies of successful ranching businesses, podcasts, webcasts and travel opportunities. Instructors will come from SDSU Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Service, the case study ranches, bankers and others who are involved in any aspect of the business of raising beef.

One of the most significant parts of the program is the creation of relationships and the hands-on learning that takes place on the case study ranches, Walker says. The team leaders chose ranches that have a proven record of success and have shown themselves to be progressive and dedicated to improving the cattle industry. "Because we were asking the established ranchers to go through the class with the beginners, we needed to find people who would make that commitment to those beginning ranchers and producers," Walker said. "We think it will benefit everyone because every time people get together and just have conversations, we all learn."

The organizers also wanted to involve a variety of types of ranches—backgrounding, seedstock, retained ownership until slaughter, and grassfed systems—so the participants could see several successful examples of those businesses. They chose two ranches that fit into each of those categories, and some that fit into more than one.

Lon Medbery, who farms and ranches in Brown County, SD, says he applied for the program because he wanted to learn more and meet people. "I’ve been out of college about seven years now and I thought it’d be a good follow-up for that," Medbery said. "I thought it would enable me to meet some people my age interested in the same things I am, raising livestock, and help me expand on what I know. This just seemed like a good opportunity."

Medbery grew up on the farm/ranch that he now runs with his dad. They have a commercial Angus herd. "We have the calves from the time they hit the ground until the packers buy them," he said. They also raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. "A lot of what we raise goes into feeding the cattle."

With such a diversified operation, Medbery hopes to gain experience and knowledge in all aspects of it. Though he grew up on the farm/ranch he’s working now and went to SDSU, where he graduated with a degree in animal science and a minor in ag business, he knows he still has a lot to learn. He spent several years working at the local elevator full-time, and ranching part-time. Now he’s a full-time farmer/rancher and wants to get better at it.

One of the aspects of the program that Walker believes will be of the most benefit to the beginning ranchers is the ranch visits by the project team. The team, which consists of Walker and Olson, several other extension educators, as well as bankers and members of the ag community, will assist each beginning rancher with an inventory of natural, physical and human resources. They will also help the participants set realistic goals for their businesses. This visit will be repeated each year and the project team will help the ranchers evaluate their progress toward their goals and make suggestions for making their businesses more successful.

One of the challenges the organizers face is finding a time when the ranchers can be off their own ranches and meet for training or trips. The internet makes it easier to reach the participants consistently, Walker says. "We’re setting up forums and webinars online so the participants can stay in touch and learn without leaving home. We realize everyone learns differently, so we’re using a variety of teaching methods to reach everyone." Walker is hoping a discussion forum, which will allow participants to ask questions, respond to discussion topics, and share ideas, is especially valuable for them.

While much of the program is structured to allow producers to stay close to home, some aspects are designed to get them away from it. In August, the group will participate in a production and marketing study trip to Chicago. Next year, they plan to tour Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado with the goal of understanding the greater beef production model. The third-year trip will be planned with input from the participants to address any aspects of the beef industry they’d like to see in person or learn more about.

Walker says they’d like to see this program repeat every three years, but that depends on the success of the pilot program and the funding availability. — Maria Tussing, WLJ Correspondent