The Struggle to Keep the Family Ranch

Self-sufficiency, no-frills lifestyle enable Brad and Marla Rock to stay in the beef business

These midwinter days are about as close to tranquil as it gets for ranch owners Brad and Marla Rock.

In a week or so, calving season will begin here at Box Elder Ranch, heralding a flurry of activity that will continue through the autumn - 16-hour days filled with tending 600 head of cattle; planting, irrigating, and harvesting 2,000 acres of hay and cash crops; and attending to all the business that makes a family-run ranch profitable.

But to hear the Rocks talk about it, hard work is not a burden, it's a basic part of their family heritage. "We do this because we enjoy it," says Brad as he walks through the winter pasture. "There's nothing else we'd rather do, nothing else seems to fit."

A simple answer. But the business of ranching has never been more complex. Each year, weather, market prices, and worldwide economics combine to force thousands of family ranchers to innovate, diversify, or go out of business.

For the Rocks, it means staying debt-free and never buying on credit, never taking vacations (except for business), and accounting for every penny that the family spends. But it is a battle to maintain an American tradition that is as old as the West, and an integral part of the region's rugged, individualistic ethic - and the Rocks are determined not to let it die out.

The challenges of ranching

Although beef is the biggest segment of American agriculture - with about 1 million US ranchers and 100 million head of cattle - the industry is facing some of its toughest challenges ever.

Among them:

Beef prices that fluctuate between unstable and low.

High prices for cattle feed.

Booming population and development, which raise property taxes and land costs and increase competition for water in the arid West.

Increased mechanization, requiring greater capital investments.

"The costs of doing business are getting higher, but the costs are not picked up by the consumer," says Karen Stewart, spokeswoman of the Colorado Farm Bureau. "Farmers and ranchers can only absorb so much before they go into the red."

Nowhere is the problem more prominent than here in Colorado. In their heyday back in the early 1900s, ranchers made up about 98 percent of the population. Today that's down to 2 percent. More recently, the number of ranchers in Colorado has been almost halved during the past 30 years to roughly 10,000.

These trends are common throughout most of the West, says Ken Lebsack, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. As more people move to the West and land prices shoot up, taxes and ranchers' costs rise. "That increases the pressure on ranchers to sell." That's tough for cattlemen because they are "intergenerational folks. They want to pass it down. But it's getting harder to do that."

For those who succeed, however, there is a common formula: Embracing new technologies and advances to improve efficiency, while maintaining many of the time-honored traditions of the pioneers who settled the West.

"It's a changing time, and you just have to be willing to adjust if you want to stay in the industry," says Brad Rock, whose family not only exemplifies the sort of work ethic common to many who make their living from the land, but also is a model of how the modern rancher must survive.

How to make it

These days, the first line of defense is keeping volume high: With an average profit of only $25 a cow (once costs are calculated in), it's the only way to stay in the black. "That's why you don't see many of the smaller operations anymore," Brad says.

And to ensure that they're never at the mercy of market prices for feed, the Rocks, who have partnered with Marla's brother Brad Haake, try to be as self-sufficient as possible. They grow all the alfalfa hay and corn they feed their livestock; they grow wheat, barley, and sugar beets as a backup in case beef prices are low; and they maintain a side business selling hybrid seeds to neighboring farmers.

Indeed, most everything about the Rocks points to the new ways that ranchers cut costs to stay above water. They recently began using computer software to calculate the ideal ration for each of their cows. They follow the latest advances in genetic engineering. They test soil samples each year to determine the exact proportion and type of fertilizer required for each crop they plant. And to further maximize efficiency, the family has invested some $750,000 in farm machinery - which they always maintain themselves.

"Maybe because we're the younger generation, we look ahead instead of to the past," notes Marla. "We want to use our heads more than our backs."

Still, the Rocks are closer to their roots than they may realize. Everything about their lifestyle suggests the industrious, family-oriented nature of their pioneer ancestors. And like their forebears, the Rocks hope their young children - Alex and Amanda - will continue in the family tradition.

But only time will tell if that remains economically feasible, especially since they will need more land in order to support another family or two. That could be a problem. The pinch of persistent growth is already evident around rural Hudson - just 30 miles from Denver. An acre of land here now runs between $2,000 and $3,000, a 150 percent increase from a decade ago.

"They're building 350 homes two miles west of us, another 30 to the south, plus an 18-hole golf course and 40 more homes, and then 70 new homes to the east," exclaims Brad.

Moreover, many of the newcomers have little tolerance for agricultural practices, he adds. "They don't like the smells, they don't like the dust. It's getting to where it's hard for us to move our equipment down the road."

Indeed, Mr. Lebsack adds that newcomers are not accustomed to the rural way of life, which presents some difficulties. "The people who come from urban areas are not used to the 'Code of the West' - that neighbors help out their neighbors," he says. "It's a new culture for them."

Lately, the Rocks have been thinking of picking up and moving their entire operation east - to the farm community of Wray near the Nebraska border.

"We figure, we can get 2-1/2 times the amount of land we have here, and still remain debt-free," says Brad. Although it would be hard to leave the family ranch, ultimately, the bottom line will prevail. "In this business, you have to keep the volume up to survive."

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