One might be surprised by my answers when asked to write about the challenges facing today’s woman rancher. I am happy to be included in that group. Although it has long been my heart’s wish to raise cattle and horses, I feel I entered through the back door. I write of my own experiences here in Florida.
Bottom line, like all ranchers, my biggest challenge is to get a healthy and profitable calf to market, every year, from every cow and use that money to pay my bills, so I can afford to stay here on one of God’s most beautiful pieces of real estate that I call home. I married late in life and have no children, so within that goal I also count having to earn enough to make a good life for the people that work the ranch with me and love it as I do. I love my life; I love my work; and I know I have received a lot of help getting here.
I was working for a Colorado feed yard company, AgriTech, that was exploring the possibilities of operating a large calf barn here in Florida, growing out bull calves that were a product of the many dairies in the area, when I moved to the Fort Pierce/Okeechobee area almost 30 years ago. The Colorado company would supply Angus semen to the dairies and the 1/2 angus bull calves would qualify for the Angus marketing program. I found this area of Florida very open-minded about women raising or working cattle. By their own choice, divorce or inheritance, I saw strong women running ranches and doing a good job of it. I heard local cowmen and working cowboys speak highly of women I knew that rode horses well, ran feisty dogs, raised good cattle and would rope and tie-on to the most dangerous bulls. Some of these women, older than I was, worked like this in the Florida heat, in wild palmetto scrub and during the time of screw flies and dipping vats.
My husband came from generations of cattlemen who also raised good working horses. He built our ranch while still in his 30s. After we met, for the following 20 years, he was a diversified businessman and he ran the ranch while I worked in town at the livestock market. I took over the responsibility of running the ranch in 2011, when at the age of 67 he had a debilitating stroke, losing the use of his left side, and passed two years later. I inherited our ranch, the ranch he built.
The market had given me a good exposure to health protocols, good breeding and marketing of cattle. However, I found that even though I understood in theory the workings of running a ranch — i.e., when to vaccinate, when to feed and how to market my cattle — it did not necessarily mean I could look at a cow and know what she needed to make it happen. To this day, I am still fortunate in that I have extremely knowledgeable people who want to help, and want to see me succeed. I don’t pretend to know what I don’t, and I will listen to many, hear what they do and then apply what I think will work on this ranch. Florida’s land and soil are different throughout the state and very different from Texas, Colorado and California. I depend a lot on the expertise and knowledge of my ranching friends.
While working at the livestock market, I met more women who had made ranching their business, were working hard and were very well-respected in this community. I imagine these earlier local women may have had to deal with more bias in a male-dominated world of bankers, realtors and cattle buyers than I do now. My dealings are easier because they broke a lot of barriers and proved their worth. Even if some people might not be totally sold on the idea of a solo ranching woman, they are more apt to give me a shot because of the successful women who went earlier. Also, how fortunate it is that my livestock Extension agent is a woman, my feed rep is a woman, my banker for many years was a woman, my SFWMD contact has been a woman and my Florida Department of Ag and Consumer Services representative is a woman. Although I try to deal with the utmost respect and courtesy, most of the resistance I have run into and the most difficulty in communicating has been with equipment dealers and equipment repair shops, but in the end, they deal with me, maybe because I sign the checks. People may have questioned what I did or choices I made, behind my back, but I didn’t know it. I have made my share of mistakes while learning, and the learning never stops. Luckily, so far none of my mistakes has been catastrophic.
The challenges I face are the challenges I feel are faced today by most ranchers.
A big challenge and learning curve for me was, and still is, coordinating the continually evolving multiple skill sets it takes to ranch. I need to know law and I need to know accounting. I need to be a grass farmer, a commercial product salesman, a market analyst, an environmental steward, a budget director, a computer operator, a human resources pro and, most importantly, a veterinary/dietitian to know what my cows need to be happy, healthy and productive. Like the times, ranching has become more complex and, to do it well, I need a handle on a continually growing and continually changing bank of diverse knowledge.
Seemingly all costs associated with producing a better calf have gone up: vaccine programs, hay production techniques and storage, veterinary cost, bulls and Al cost, land tax, insurance cost, payroll, living costs and repair bills as well as upkeep on property and buildings. The cattle buyers may not reward the extras with higher prices per calf as we’d like, but do seem to penalize for any missing. It’s challenging managing a budget on an approximately 10-year income cycle as the beef market falls and rises.
Recently beef has also taken a hit because of widespread misconceptions airing on social media about quality and health issues, along with false ideas of how it is produced and what effects its production has on our environment. Divisive political factions appear to be pitting the coastal residents of Florida against the inland residents over water and air quality, both through misleading false information and, at times, misinterpreted true information. I feel a lot safer sitting in my “methane producing” cow pasture than I do breathing the air in a city garage.
Both our 2019 Florida Cattlemen’s president and our current president are addressing these issues and asking Florida ranches help in correcting the innuendos and misconceptions by speaking out and being a positive presence by telling our stories. They are asking ranches to use social media to share their real lives and invite those from other walks to see what makes our lifestyle so worthwhile.