Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

RANCH MUSINGS: The aging ranchers bumble along

Not all consumers can touch the land, see the farms and converse with the folks that produce food

I know some of my readers aren’t that close to cattle and ranching to be interested in the more technical aspects of the livestock industry. However, as I think about it, some of our issues, problems and opportunities are not all that different from what non-farming folks experience.

We have an increasing technical connection with nature which needs to support, not undermine, natural processes. That, after all, is the basis of sustainability.

If you don’t want your food manufactured in a high-rise building in some urban area then I say all consumers need to take a deep interest in what it is like for food producers on the land.

Some consumers say they don’t like the way farmers take care (or don’t take care of) the land and the animals and therefore don’t want to eat from and support these farming businesses.

Not all consumers can touch the land, see the farms and converse with the folks that produce food.

The movement by consumers to consume locally grown food sourced directly from farmers they can trust is a good thing, but just because something is local doesn’t mean it is raised ethically and healthfully.

One of the purposes of my writing this column is to try to explain what raising food is like on the ground.

This is what it feels like for an aging rancher in the midst of a technological leap further into the digital unreality. We can no longer be “outstanding in our field” by standing in our fields close to the earth that supports us.

We are drawn into dependency on virtual systems that supply our sources of crop inputs, our repairs and parts for machinery, our service providers. The long and short of it is that we ranchers and farmers have to spend more and more time at our desks, on the computers, cell phones and tablets.

To me, online time is depersonalizing and dehumanizing. To retain my humanity and connectedness to the real world requires spending quality time outside and with the land and the animals. Yes, and with the people we work with and need to live a full life.

Online interactions with conference platforms (zoom meetings and Skype calls) helps conduct business and communication with friends and family. But it is no substitute for personal connections.

Our grandchildren are sweet and always say they would like to be able to give and get a hug.

READ MORE: What does our industry look like coming out the other side of the pandemic?

It is keeping technology in check, under control of humans, that is the challenge. We must control it through our social and political systems which are civilization’s way of sharing power and decision-making in the larger world.

Right now smaller ranches are spending around $ 100 for each mother cow in their herd, on machinery repairs and maintenance. Increasingly, the cost of repairing equipment is escalating. Insurance costs for public liability and fire is close to $60 per cow.

Now with the inability of some satellite based servers to keep up with band width needs of us socializing, being entertained and doing business, internet services are costing close to $30 for each cow.

Some of these overhead costs were not necessary some years ago. How much do we spend on convenience, on being risk averse (insured), and increasing our technical connectivity so we can keep our businesses going?

Then there is the cost of licensing groundwater; an attempt by previous governments to manage a common property resource and put the costs of regulation back on the initial beneficiary –the producer, rancher, farmer.

The same modernization of the water act which made users license ground water in order to secure access to it, brought a move to license the use of water by cattle on the open range.

How will we manage those creatures using that water? Will they need to have a radio collar and will there be internet service over that mountain and behind that hill? Maybe.

I personally do not want to live in a world where, because it is possible, I am compelled to use a device similar to shock collars some people use to keep their dogs inside a virtual fence.

How much time and money will we have to spend to keep our cows “where they should be” on pasture. That cost could easily be $30 per head.

So you see how it goes. There is a real increasing cost to all the technology that is possible to use. Much of it is pricing the cost of food higher and higher.

To new farmers and ranchers and to those succeeding us in our family businesses, I have to say, “sharpen your pencils and your business analysis tools.”

Good luck too, I am retiring to the “back forty” to hang over the fence and talk to my neighbour from two meters away.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at TRU.


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