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Family key to ranching success

Cattle prices are up, but for ranching families, the cost of not getting along with each other has stayed the same.

Of the three fundamental principles of holistic management, “caring for your people” comes first, followed by “improving the land” and “making a profit,” says Don Campbell, a Saskatchewan rancher who teaches holistic management, which is focused on sustainability and working with nature.

“It takes a very long-term view,” said Campbell, who runs 700 head of cattle on 4,200 acres near Meadow Lake, Sask.

“We’re not going to say, ‘Let’s get through my life, or this crop year.’ We’re going to say, ‘Can people farm and ranch in this area 50 to 100 years from now because of the management that we’re applying?’

“To be successful long term, it’s essential that you care for the people, the land, and the money. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time until you fail.”

Campbell, who spoke at a recent Beef and Forage Days workshop, said his grandson’s urgent need for heart surgery when he was just 15 days old reinforced that perspective.

“We need to have our sons and daughters become better people than we are if we’re ever going to have a better world,” he said.

Defining success

Adopting a holistic management approach begins with all family members coming together and developing a goal based on their desired quality of life, what they value and consider important, and how they want to treat each other and be treated. They also need to define their collective vision of what “success” will look like.

Once the goal is nailed down on paper with input from everyone, “buy-in” from all parties comes naturally and the discussion can begin on what to produce, and how to produce it in a profitable and sustainable fashion, said Campbell

“Then we realize that when we succeed, we all succeed together,” said Campbell. “Not as individuals, but as communities.”

Financial planning, land management, and “testing questions” along the way are just the tools to make it all happen, he added.

“What makes life worthwhile? It’s all about loving and being loved,” he said.

Since holistic management was introduced in Canada in the 1980s, people who have adopted its principles generally report they now have a “better quality of life” and “more time for what’s important,” he said, adding the next items on the list are improved land and higher profits.

In 1972, Campbell took over the ranch purchased by his father in 1948, and faced all of the same problems as ranchers do everywhere. He put up hay, calved in March with a flashlight in hand, and struggled to make a profit.

Less work, more cattle

But since the 1980s, when he began managing in a holistic manner, he has increased the number of animals on his land base while at the same time lightening his family’s workload through May calving, bale grazing, and intensive grazing.

Real change, he said, happens in your head. Haying with a team of horses and a five-foot sickle mower isn’t all that different from using a big tractor and modern equipment. It still takes all summer, he said.

By intensively grazing his whole ranch using heavier stocking densities, he was able to make more profit, which meant that he could buy hay from his neighbour instead.

“That’s a much bigger change than going from a horse mower to a discbine,” said Campbell. “It’s about changing how you see and think, not by buying a better tractor or a better cow.”

Thirty years ago, Campbell and his two brothers tried working together on the family ranch. Within a year, only Campbell was left, and hard feelings lingered for years.

In 2002, Campbell’s two married sons came back to the ranch. The inter-generational transfer this time was smoothed by holistic management principles that gave them the people skills to get along, and the financial ability to support them all.

In Campbell’s view, the purpose of farming or ranching should be to create a good life for the whole extended family.

“We have the privilege every day to get up and go to work with our children,” he said. “You can’t put a price tag on taking your grandchildren out on horseback, checking cattle, working together, and seeing them on a daily basis.”

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