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The cows are gone

by Marie Johnson

To quickly catch you up, because I know you’re busy making your Christmas wish list, we’ve sold our cows. The bulls went with the cows. The smaller calves went to auction for more pasture time and the larger calves went to feed lots for finishing rations. Ironically, I have 17 animals left – about the same number my husband and I started with more than a decade ago. This small group makes me think I don’t have much time left to indulge in the romantic agricultural lifestyle, the reason for this story.

My herd takes very little of my time now. I almost finish doing my chores just about the same time I step outside to do them. This deceptive simpleness is part of what got me started in the cow business. Another reason was a tragic farm accident which prompted my husband to return to his family ranch to settle up things.

This settling up included selling about 350 of his late father’s cows. All but 19 of the cows and one bull sold. The leftovers were culled for various reasons even though the cows were pregnant – no teeth, lame or a broken bag (ranch talk for a bad udder). Figuring these animals, going to be sold as boner cattle, could be bought cheap, we started our own herd – 19 poor cows and one used bull.

Those 19 old cows, more from their experience than mine, raised their calves just fine that first year. We sold all the steer calves to pay the interest on the loans we had from buying the cattle and the year’s worth of feed and supplies. We kept all heifers because we were going to build our herd, believing in the economy of scale. If I have to take care of 20, I may as well have 100, but I’ve learned 100 is a lot more than five times 20.

There have been a few years we had major losses on the cattle because increased costs were so out of whack with the price received for beef, but Ken had an off-the-ranch job by then, which helped make some ends meet. We kept on, thinking one day prices will catch up; it’s a cyclic business and we are in a growth phase. Very few businesses show a profit in their first few years.

Well, after 13 years of doing this cow business, we have sold our animals for enough to pay off our operating loans and the capital gains tax on the sale of the animals.

We tried.

I’m sharing this not to sob or complain; it is what we decided to do.

But I bring it to your attention because of what I hear about keeping ag land as open space because it looks good. Well, life in agriculture is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Asking people to give up the only asset – land values – that keeps up with market inflation equates to serfdom, people being indentured servants tied to land that has been stripped of its full potential, leaving no other economic alternatives, so things will look good in the kingdom. Not a cheery prospect for a future rancher. If you could just be the cowboy and not think about taxes, estate laws, college, health care, interest rates and operating costs, ranching could be loads of fun.

But asking ranchers to consider being glorified gardeners for as long as they can afford to ranch is not romantic. I don’t wish that for my children or anyone else’s, even though I love ranching. I enjoy the physical work that reminds me I am alive. It’s a satisfaction I never felt behind a desk even though the pay was better. Emotions are a rich asset to a rancher, but they don’t have much market value.

What Douglas County is facing if a national issue; the average American farmer is over 55 years old. The family farm is dissolving. In the Christmas spirit, remember the phrase, “Careful what you wish for because you will get it.”

I wish romance had more value.

n Marie Johnson is a Fredericksburg, Calif., resident and is married to Kent Neddenriep. They have two sons, Kyle, 10, and Bradley, 7. Her column, “Fence lines,” appears once a month.