Ranchers, like other business people, typically can look back on decisions they’ve made and identify the ones that worked out and the ones that didn’t. During a Cattlemen’s College session at the Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville Tuesday, three experienced ranchers opened up about the smartest things their families did to maintain ranch profitability, sustainability and family values.

Rooter Bright, from the JA Ranch in Texas, described how his family has worked to maintain their forage base and preserve standing forage in good rainfall years. Their ranch, not for from Dallas, has experienced drought in most years since 1996.

Their focus on forage has helped them endure the dry years. Bright also says the family has invested considerable time in succession planning, to keep the third-generation operation in the family. He says his family has benefitted by starting early with planning and discussing options.

Jonny Harris and his family operate Greenview farms, the oldest purebred Hereford operation in Georgia, in business since 1860. Harris says the family embraced change over the years. His grandfather employed 100 people to operate the ranching and farming operation, which now runs with three people, due to their adoption of labor-saving technology. Harris also stressed the importance of relationships in the cattle business – relationships with family members, suppliers, university specialists and others – toward achieving long-term goals.

Estate planning, he says, is critical in a family business, and he recommends finding an expert who understands the business to advise the family on these issues. The family and their advisor, he adds, need to revisit the plan every three to five years to account for changes in family preferences and tax laws.

Jim Hagenbarth and his family operate a ranching operation in Montana and Idaho that began in the 1880s. He stresses the importance of family, and not letting the business threaten family relationships. He and his brother have taught their children to accept responsibility and learn from their mistakes in running the business. The family holds regular meetings to discuss succession planning with total transparency. It was tough to get started, he says. His brother studied the topic and they visited four attorneys before finding someone who understood their business and asked the right questions. The family’s operation creates some complications for succession planning with land in two states, federal and state land leases and water rights involved, but Hagenbarth says the investment in planning will help maintain the equity his father and grandfather passed to his generation. He also stresses the importance of the current owner to set enough money aside to cover their own retirement and not become a burden on the next generation.

During a Q&A session, the panelists discussed what young people entering the ranching business need to know. Hagenbarth advised young ranchers to get the best business education available. They probably already know cattle, but will benefit from training in problem solving, risk management, finance and other business subjects.

Bright said young people should identify a vision for the operation and set goals, while Harris recommended that young ranchers keep up with the science and latest thinking in ranch management, and remaining willing to change as the industry evolves.

“Retirement,” however, generally seemed a distasteful concept to the panel of ranchers, who expressed passion for the cattle business and plan to stay involved as long as they can, while also passing responsibility on to their heirs.

Cattlemen’s College is sponsored by Zoetis.