Writing on the Range

Chasing Grass

Grazing land is important to ranchers

Grazing land is precious and unfortunately difficult to retain. Despite the temporary conditions, ranchers tend to follow a long-term approach.

As a rancher, there is one non-negotiable pre-requisite to the business. A horse? A pickup? A four-wheeler? An education? Cows? Nope. The one thing every rancher needs before he can start or grow his business is grazing land. 

There are all kinds of ways to acquire grass. The easiest, maybe, is to inherit it. But that’s rare. Of course, land is always for sale, but buying it isn’t always an option. No, the most common way to acquire grass is by leasing it. 

rancher chasing grass
Good grazing land can be hard to find.
Photo by Ross Hecox

That’s the way my operation works. I happen to live in an area that grows houses as well as it does grass. As a result, cows could never pay the mortgage. The few places left in the United States where cows can pay a mortgage are tough. Weather extremes, isolation, stocking rates or supplementing the grass with additional protein can all make ranchland ownership less attractive or even possible. 

So instead, many ranchers chase grass. The most important—if not the most time-consuming—task I perform is looking for land to lease, making offers to lease that land and maintaining relationships with my lessors. Rarely do leases fall in your lap.  

And, even when I do have some ground finally tied up, leases expire and owners sell out or pass away. Where my cows run is constantly in flux—and those critters better be good at loading up because chances are they’re going somewhere new eventually.

The hardest part of leasing, though, is striking the balance in my mind about how to best care for the ultimate resource: the grass. If I treat the ranch like it’s mine, I pour myself into it. I fix and build fence where it’s needed, I develop water, I spray weeds. I might even reduce the number of cattle I turn out in a dry year just to preserve the range. It’s the right thing to do, but all that costs me money and time. 

But the biggest cost is my heart. When I care for the land, I grow attached to it. I sacrifice for it and I know it, yet I also know it’s not mine. So my heart breaks a little if the land does sell and some smooth talker convinces the new owner they’ll do a better job than I have. 

Of course, the other approach is to see every lease just as they are: temporary. That lends itself to pushing the land as hard as possible and trying to squeeze every penny out that you can at the expense of the resource. 

For me, that approach is not an option.

The healthy approach, I think, is to realize the land lease is temporary, but also realize even land ownership is temporary. No one lives on this earth forever. No matter what we’re managing—grass, horses, a business, a family—we’re placed in a certain place at a certain time with a specific purpose. This entire world is temporary, but our souls are eternal. To live each day (and sleep through each night) we must do our best in managing what we’ve been given. We can’t live like locusts in this world, taking all we can and leaving, but we also can’t live as if this world is all there is.  

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