Where to start when you’re starting over after a disaster in ranching
A rancher stands in the pasture, surrounded by black, where green used to be. The cows he knew without looking at tag numbers have already begun bloating.
Beyond the emotion of the moment, the utter hopelessness and helplessness, he knows the question his family is counting on him to answer– “What next?”
The rancher could be either gender, the situation could be mud or snow, drought or disease. The question is always the same—where do you start when you have to start over?
That’s a question Dave Pratt and his Ranching for Profit Schools have been helping ranchers answer for more than 30 years. He’s often asked to do seminars—which he does pro bono—in areas that are recovering from natural disasters.
He says the most common thing he hears is, “I don’t need anybody to feel sorry for me. I just need to know what to do.”
“A disaster, while the news reports it as number of acres and animals, is so much more than that,” Pratt says. “It doesn’t matter if only one family was impacted, if it was your family.”
He says the first thing is to sort through the mess and find some order—put first things first.
If you’re not the one in the crisis, the first step in helping someone recover from a disaster is to listen. “Our tendency is to go in and fix things. We go into problem-solving and action planning mode.”
Rather than offer advice or suggestions—no matter how helpful—he says asking questions is far more important. “I just reflect what they’ve said in my words, just to let them know that I’m listening and to encourage them to keep talking. That will lead them to their questions. Whoever is asking the questions controls the conversation. They need to control the conversation. When they ask for help, then you can give them your ideas.”
While ranchers are typically not outwardly emotional, he suggests keeping in mind what they’ve been through and empathize—try to understand their situation and feelings. “With the best of intentions we’re sometimes a bull in a china shop emotionally,” he says.
Once you get to asking and answering questions, the most important questions to ask are often the most difficult.
Whether recovering from a natural disaster or facing economic hard times, he said it’s not just enough to work IN the business, somebody has to work ON the business. That starts with figuring out what isn’t working.
“You have to identify the dead wood in your business. It’s like you have a fruit tree and you’re setting out to prune that tree. Where do you start?”
Most of the time, he said, ranchers start on the twigs. “We set out to prune twigs, but sometimes they’re on branches that have been dead for years. Sometimes we don’t even see the dead wood. It doesn’t even occur to us that something doesn’t work or shouldn’t be done.”
He suggests getting hard numbers down on paper to find out where the dead wood is. Sometimes a disaster or difficult year helps highlight those things that aren’t working.
“A disaster presents something of an opportunity,” he says. “The last thing somebody wants to hear in a disaster is that there is a silver lining. But if you go back to the basic principles of business, you can often find opportunity in a crisis.”
He uses as an example a business in Saskatchewan that was facing economic ruin in 2003 when BSE hit the Canadian cattle industry and the cattle market crashed. They took a step back, explored their options and started a dog food company, which is now a multi-million-dollar business.
Pratt says the four foundation points of ranching are land, animals, people and money. Thinking through those points and considering how each of those components plays into a management plan will provide some structure for planning.
At his Ranching for Profit seminars he says he works on the principle that it’s easier to solve your neighbor’s problem, so he gives groups case studies of real people and real situations. In 20 minutes each group has come up a solution. After they’ve practiced and developed a team dynamic of problem-solving, the group members spend time on their own situations.
For 10 minutes, the person whose problem it is has to turn their back to the table. Their only job is to write down what everyone is saying. “They’re talking, literally, behind your back,” he says. “People will say things they wouldn’t otherwise say when you have your back turned and they talk about you. You can’t say anything. You can only listen and write.”
After the time is up, the writer turns around and reads what they wrote. The rest of the team corrects anything that is wrong. The final 10 minutes involves making a plan—who should do what, in what order, by when.
In the graduate support program for Ranching For Profit School alumni the participants meet in peer-review boards three times a year and update the “board” on progress. That’s most effective, Pratt said, knowing someone will be holding you accountable.
There isn’t usually that follow-up after a disaster workshop, but he said they at least walk out with a path forward. They know what needs to be done and who’s responsible.
If you’re not in the middle of a disaster, Pratt suggests working on a plan anyway.
“The best time to deal with drought is when it’s raining. But we tend to wait until we’re out of time, money and options. That’s the worst time to plan, but if it’s the only time we do it, then do it. Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.”
Simply changing the way you look at a plan can change how you plan, he says. “Some people feel like structure limits them—by structure I mean the way we approach risk management. The way we look at it, structure gives you freedom. It lets you relax because you know you’re not going to miss anything.”
Part of the problem with developing a plan is that if previous generations didn’t have drought/fire/flood/disaster plans, no one taught the current generation how to do it.
“How would it feel to not have the weight of the world on your shoulders, to just focus on the task at hand, knowing it’s taking you in the right direction? Sometimes the enormity of all that needs to be done paralyzes. One thing at a time, first things first,” Pratt says.