Human resources and the modern cowboy

May 3, 2013
by WLJ

Rangelands – The term “ranch hand” might conjure images of an old Western movie, but modern ranches are also employers. Management of human resources is as important as management of land and cattle.

However, common business practices of employee evaluation and motivation may not fit into the mold of employment on a ranch.

The current issue of the journal Rangelands presents the first study of employee management practices on ranches. Both ranch managers and ranch employees were surveyed to gain insight into human resources approaches. Manager and employee perceptions, incentive methods, and the relationship between management practices and performance metrics were examined.

The survey included 190 full-time ranch employees and 14 general managers from 14 ranch operations in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon. These ranches ranged in size from seven to 100 employees and from 4,000 to 44,000 beef cows. Ownership structures included corporate, absentee family, and trust. All managers were nonfamily employees.

Employee and manager perceptions differed the most in areas such as “new employee training,” “recognition from a manager for good work,” and “feeling that the manager takes a personal interest in them.” The managers ranked these items with higher levels of satisfaction than did the employees. For employee incentives, managers viewed “salary increase” as the top motivating factor while employees listed “bonuses based on personal achievement” first and “salary increase” second.

Turnover can be high on ranches; how employees are evaluated may affect this. While the business world may judge performance based on outcomes, other factors can be at work on a ranch. A year of drought could significantly affect a ranch’s production with no reflection on the employees. Rewarding good decisionmaking is an alternate mode of evaluation, but the evaluation metrics must be clearly communicated to employees to lead to success.

Overall, these ranch employees and managers rated the importance of various work factors similarly. Perhaps this is because most ranch managers likely moved up through the ranks, giving them a clearer perception of the job. This survey information could assist managers in enhancing employee performance by adjusting procedures and incentive structures to reflect what cowboys define as most important to their job.

The full text of “Employee Management on Large Ranches,” Rangelands, Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2013, can be found at — WLJ