To begin I will give a brief history of our lives that lead up to our move.
Abby and I were married in 1996. We lived on a small farm owned by Abby’s mother in Coshocton county Ohio and operated a small cow herd until the passing of her mother in 2009. At that time we purchased the farm from Abby’s siblings and took over operation of the whole farm. We quickly out grew the 140 acres and began picking up lease ground. At one point we were running cattle or making hay on 5 farms that we leased.
Abby and I both worked off farm jobs. She was a nurse at a local hospital and I worked full time for a city fire department while also trying to keep up with our 3 children. Needless to say we were busy.
The goal of our operation was to increase our cow herd to a size that could support us. The challenge for us was a lack of available pasture leases in our area. We were operating several enterprises with a registered cow herd, a commercial cow herd, and grass finished retail beef sales and found ourselves becoming more and more frustrated that no matter how hard we worked or how many hours we put in we were not consistently profitable. Many of the practices we were following were what I had learned in my time at Ohio State and those of the neighbors around us but it just wasn’t working.
In January of 2017 Abby and I went to Rapid City, SD for a week long ranch management school, Ranching for Profit. At this school we were forced to take a look at our operation from an outside view and quickly realized if we wanted to be successful we needed to make it more profitable first.
For our situation, we needed to increase herd size and turn over. To do that we would need more land. Purchasing land in our area was not a good option with the high land prices so we set out to find more leased land.
During the Ranching for Profit school we were challenged to think outside our paradigm of having to stay where we were, that we couldn’t ranch somewhere else. We had jobs, family and friends here. We thought, “We can’t move”. The group discussions in the class challenged us by asking “Why not ?”. On the long drive home from Rapid City in 2017 we began to ask ourselves the same question. Why not?
We gave ourselves 90 days to find additional lease pasture and if we hadn’t secured a way to expand our herd we would begin exploring the option of moving our operation somewhere else. We worked hard for the 90 days to find lease ground with a variety of options on how the leases could work. Nothing was working.
Our 90 days were up. We sat down with our children then 18, 16, and 14 to discuss what we were looking for.
We knew we wanted to go west.
· We liked the western lifestyle
· Land was less expensive
· Larger tracts of land are more common
· We did not want to irrigate
· We were looking for an area with moderate rainfall that also had good access to cattle markets and supplies.
A big factor was looking at the average carrying capacity of an area as it compared to cost per acre. In other words, what was the cost per cow that a ranch could carry.
Example: 10 acres per cow at $2,000/ac = $20,000/cow that a place can run.
This allows you to compare apples to apples on ranches with different carrying capacities.
Those factors got us looking at ranches in southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma. We spent the next year and a half traveling to both states looking at many places trying to find the one that was right for us. Several times we thought we had found it but something just didn’t work out. We made around 15 trips looking at ranches each time looking at several places.
Finally in the spring of 2018 a place we had been interested in but had been under contract came available and we came to look at it. It was going to be a “fixer upper” but that made the price right. Turn key would have been nice but then we would be paying someone else to do the work we could do ourselves.
Now we were faced with the big decision. We had been planning for and working toward this day for a year and a half. Now that it was right in front of us it was more intimidating than I thought it would be. Were we ready to quit our jobs and move 1000 miles away from family and friends to start ranching full time?
We had been praying for the right doors to be opened to us. Now there was an open door right in front of us. I believed I had better have the faith and courage to walk through it.
We were blessed to work with a seller who was willing to sign a lease on the ranch until our place in Ohio was sold, which didn’t happen until November 2018. We first looked at the ranch at the end of May 2018 and moved in July 1, 2018 so things happened quickly.
We decided to sell down the cow herd to about 60 head of the best cows and heifers and did not want to move them to the hotter climate mid-summer so they stayed in Ohio until we felt the weather was more accommodating. I had a trustworthy friend who kept an eye on them while we began moving equipment and household items to Oklahoma, which is a challenge I’ll talk more about later.
Over the first summer we worked on a complete renovation to the house and an occasional trip back to Ohio for another load of equipment, tools, or horses.
Because we did not bring the cattle with us we had pasture available and were not planning on buying more cattle until the farm in Ohio sold. With this in mind, we took some cattle in for custom grazing. This brings us to one of the challenges we faced.
Being new to the area, no one knew us and we didn’t know anyone here. Finding someone to trust you with their cattle when you are new to an area is difficult. We were blessed that the seller was willing to leave some cattle here for a few months and member of our church put us in contact with someone who was a good resource for some cattle for the summer. We also had a couple bad experiences with individuals because we didn’t know about past reputations. We were able to work those problems out but needed to be ready to protect ourselves in those agreements.
Once we had our place sold in Ohio and cooler weather was here in Oklahoma we moved our cattle. The move went relatively smooth. There was an adjustment period for the cattle, as I expected. For the cattle, winter weather would actually be easier but the forages would be different. We were used to grass that would sustain a cow through winter without a feed supplement. Hay was only fed if forages ran out. On the new ranch the native warm season grass had a lower nutrient value once it went dormant. I had stockpiled enough forage for the winter and did not need any hay however the lower nutrient grass required a feed supplement to maintain body condition on the cows. One of the challenges we faced was trying to learn from neighboring ranchers. Figuring out what practices are necessary for the area we live are invaluable, but what practices are done just because that’s the way it’s always been done, was a mindset we were trying to avoid, so sifting through the advice takes time.
There is a learning curve with different species of grass. Some react differently to the grazing, rainfall, drought and heat. We had been rotationally grazing in Ohio and had a good grasp on what to expect. While the concept still works here the reaction of the species of grass are somewhat different.
It was a humbling experience the second summer when we filled the pasture to what we thought our carrying capacity should be. We had a hot and dry July and August and found ourselves overgrazed because our regrowth was slower than expected. Something we would have known if we were familiar with the area. Good advice was hard to find from local ranchers, because what we were doing was not common to them. We were moving our cows every 3-4 days instead of every 3-4 months, if at all by our neighbors.
We quickly found that we were the odd neighbor who moves their cows a lot and uses high tensile fence with electric for most of our cross fence. Cross fence was virtually non existent on the ranch when we got here. The ranch had two pastures and a 20 acre trap near the corral. We spent the first two years building fence, subdividing our pastures with high tensile electric fence, which I was told “doesn’t work around here”. We currently have 15 permanent pastures that can be subdivided further with temporary electric fence. Over the past two years we have seen improvement in our grass and our electric fence is working just fine.
Another challenge we faced was with the cattle. I was prepared for problems with the cattle we moved from Ohio as they transitioned but we had very little problems with them. We purchased around 300 additional cows through private treaty, as well as some through order buyers. Some of the cattle we found to be just as we had ordered or purchased, some we found to be older than claimed, and some were later calving than we wanted. We calve in spring so we bought spring calving cows. About 30 calves didn’t show up until after September. Needless to say there are a few buyers and a few places we bought private treaty that we won’t be using again. We did find a couple reputable buyers who delivered what we ordered and we still do business with them today.
Being new to an area it takes time and experience to develop those relationships with the people you can trust. Along the way you will meet some that you can’t.
Disease is another area that created some challenges for us. We were forced to learn about diseases that we did not have in Ohio or were very rare. We also had some health issues at different times of year than we were used to. For example, in Ohio respiratory issues would not be a surprise in late winter or early spring when it’s cold and wet with frequent changing temperatures. In Oklahoma it becomes more of an issue mid-summer when it is extremely hot.
Co-mingling the cattle we purchased the first year caused some problems. We did quarantine the new cattle as they came in but they eventually had to be mixed. The cows and calves all come with different immunity depending on where they came from and what type of vaccination program they had been in.
Un-trained cattle were a challenge. The herd we brought from Ohio had been developed over the past 20 years and they understood the program. The rotational grazing, electric fence and working quietly. The crazy ones had gone to town or into the freezer years ago. As the new cattle came in there was a learning curve for them. Some obviously had not been handled quietly before, were unfamiliar with electric, or with being moved to new pasture every few days. Some adapted very well, some took some time to get with the program and others never figured it out and became problem cows until they got a new address.
The differences in our soil and weather created some challenges for us that could be managed, they just required some changes to my skill set. We are in an area where the soil can be shallow and quite rocky in places. Building fence is more difficult and that required a change of plan in how we build corners and braces. The shallow soil also affects the water absorption. When we get rain at times we get a lot at once and the rapid runoff can cause some fence damage. A dry creek bed can become a small river in short time, so water gaps must be built into the fence to handle that. The other side of the problem with the shallow soil is when it gets dry we see the effects on the grass quickly. A relatively short dry spell of 4-5 weeks in summer when it is hot can have a negative effect on the grass growth. This makes having a drought plan in place very important. In Ohio a drought plan rarely is put into action.
With all the challenges we faced with our move we have learned some valuable lessons. Some of them were learned the hard way.
Tuition is not free, no matter how you get your education.
There are some things I would do differently and would recommend to anyone thinking about moving their operation to a new area.
Gather as much information as possible about the local environment. Talk to the county extension agents or NRCS offices and local ranchers about the challenges to expect due to local weather patterns, local growing season patterns, soil and forage quality. Talk to a local veterinarian about common diseases that they treat and when to be looking for them. What do they recommend for a vaccination program? It may be completely different than where you are coming from.
Talking to local ranchers can be an effective way to find out what they see as challenges for that area. Keep in mind that much of the advice you will get will point you toward more conventional ranching practices that may not always be profitable but it’s what they have always done. The information about the challenge itself will still be helpful.
The challenge of knowing who to do business with when you are new to an area is a tough one to overcome. There is no good shortcut. It takes time to develop those good working relationships that last. If you are purchasing livestock be very clear about what you want. If something else shows up on the truck send it back. However some things don’t always show up right away, such as late calves, so have a plan in place that protects you from livestock that doesn’t fit the bill.
Looking back on the move itself, I would bring less with me. Moving 1000 miles is not an easy task. I narrowed down my tools and equipment to what I thought I had to have or could not sell for what it would cost to replace. After spending the time and money to haul it I would recommend selling whatever can be replaced, without causing a divorce, and replace it when you actually need it. You will save hours on the road, fuel money, and you may find that you really don’t need some of it after all.
Just knowing what the challenges are, goes a long way to finding a solution. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box for your answers. We are doing several things in our operation successfully that I’ve been told “don’t work around here”.
If you are considering a move it is likely that you are trying to escape challenges that are out of your control like land prices, size of available tracts, rainfall, etc. Whatever they are, know there will be new challenges wherever you go. If you have an idea what those might be before you get there, it can make the move less stressful and let you move forward with the goals you had in the first place.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.
Could I have been more prepared in some of these areas? Absolutely.
We have made some great friends along the way and we are following our dream as we work toward our goals.
Yes, I would do it again.
Know as much as you can about the challenges you might face,
have a plan in place to mitigate them and
Enjoy the ride.
Best of luck in all your endeavors.
Lona Valley Ranch