Q&A with Member Dave Pratt: Ranching (and Farming) for Profit and A New Book Release!


Boots on the ground learning! Summer course 2013, Laramie, WY

This week we’re honored to spotlight one of our members, Dave Pratt of Ranch Management Consultants. Dave has taught the Ranching for Profit School in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and Africa, and is a respected authority on sustainable ranching. As a former Range & Livestock Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension for 14 years, and having grown up on a small ranch and worked for cattle and sheep ranchers, Dave has done a lot of research on management intensive grazing and strategic issues impacting the sustainability of ranches.

Over the years, he has earned a reputation for innovative teaching with a practical edge. Dave was instrumental in developing the Sustainable Ranching Research & Education Project, a large-scale, long-term effort to develop, research and demonstrate economic, environmental and socially sustainable ranching practices.

In 1991 Dave started working with Stan Parsons, who created the Ranching for Profit School and founded Ranch Management Consultants. In 1999 Dave became CEO of Ranch Management Consultants, Inc., and just released his first book “Healthy Land, Happy Families and Profitable Businesses: Essays to Improve Your Land, Your Life and Your Bottom Line“.

We know his book is long overdue, as he had several hundred preorders before it was even released! Read on as Dave shares more about his work and his book – fresh from his most recent Ranching for Profit School session in Boise, ID.

FarmsReach: You just came back from your 9th Ranching for Profit School session in Boise! Your site says these week-long sessions are “A one week investment that will change your business & change your life.” Can you give an overview of what the School is all about, and what happens in that one, valuable week?

Dave Pratt: Yes, Boise was great and it marks the 157th school session in the US! We’ve done about 35 in Canada and personally, between Africa, Australia and the US, I’ve probably taught about 100 of the classes!

DavePrattquoteRanching for Profit is a business school for ranchers. It’s based on the notion that simply knowing how to raise livestock or grow a crop is not the same thing as knowing how to build, grow, or run a sustainable agricultural business. The course covers management, economics, finance, ecology, production and relationships. We tackle important issues like getting family members, who are also business partners, to be in agreement on business strategy and to be held accountable towards one another, without having a food fight at the dinner table.

But all kidding aside (although there is a healthy dose of humor throughout the week), the course is fairly intense. We deal with big-ticket item issues: your land, your money, your life and your legacy. Participants end up having a lot of “Ah Ha!” moments as they discover things that never occurred to them before. 

Overall, the course offers the time and space to build an actionable plan in order to get started on the next level of your business. For some participants, the course helps them realize that their dream is not economically viable or financially feasible. And finding this out sooner than later is better than wasting years of their lives, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, pursuing an illusion.

We also use a lot of different teaching methods, and keep it very participatory and engaging. I think this type of learning is really effective. We don’t want participants to feel like they’re in a university class or an Extension program, sitting in one class room all day. Instead, we have a variety of lessons, group work, and some field time.

FR: How many ranchers have “graduated” from the Ranching for Profit School? We know they come from all over the country (and beyond). What do they all have in common? Acreage? Mindset? Background? Other?

DP: In the US we have roughly 3,000 alumni. Over 90% of them are from west of the Mississippi. I don’t have accurate counts from our Australian and African colleagues, but in total there are well over 7,000 alumni world-wide!

Dave Bio Picture

Dave Pratt, CEO of Ranch Management Consultants, simplifying your bottom line

And, although I’m not comfortable with really sales-y speak, many participants consider this course the best investment they’ve ever made in their business.

I’ve heard alumni tell people that if they can’t afford to go, they can’t afford not to go. But while these general statements increase our credibility, I encourage people (no matter what level of business you’re at) to look at the cost of maintaining the status quo on their farm or ranch, and the value of turning things around.

For example, a 1% improvement in profit on a 1 million dollar asset is $10,000 (more than 4x the tuition of the school) and the average impact that the school has is >5% increase in the annual return. When you look at the numbers, our success rate is very good.

FR: What happens after a rancher graduates? Can you share more about the Executive Link (EL) program and why it’s so effective?

DP: When ranchers finish the course, they leave with a head full of ideas and a heart full of good intentions. Some of them make dramatic changes transforming their ranches into sustainable businesses, but all too often they fall back into the rut they were in before they came to the school. That’s why we offer the Executive Link.

The EL is based on two critical truths. One, it’s always easier to recognize how someone else ought to do things to improve their business, rather than ourselves, and two, none of us can be fully trusted to do the things that need to be done to get our business to the next level. We are too busy doing what we want to do and unfortunately, there are times when those things aren’t the things that really need to be done. Many of us would rather do the $10-per-hour work of a cowboy or farmer, rather than the $100 or $1,000-per-hour work of a businessman or businesswoman.

In EL, we try to overcome these barriers by organizing alumni of the Ranching For Profit School into peer advisory boards. Following a structured process, board members provide objective input into one another’s operations. Here’s how it works: with the help of their board, each member makes a plan showing three important things they will do before the next meeting. Their board then holds them accountable at the next meeting to make sure they accomplished what they set out to do. If something has not been completed, boards try to identify the barriers that kept the member from getting things done.

Accountability is not about scolding someone for not getting something done.  Instead, it’s about helping them identify and remove the barriers that are holding them back. It’s about critiquing the business, rather than the person.

And it’s also about building relationships and a reliable network. It’s funny, but sometimes it’s easier to talk about deep things with strangers than it is with the people closest to you, and when you share the worries, dreams, crises and successes that people share on a board, the relationships become very strong, very fast.

Members tell me that they comfortably share things with their boards that they’ve never told anyone, including their families. The investment that members have in each other’s businesses allows for honest conversation, sharing in successes and failures, and a special bond that extends beyond the Ranching for Profit course.

FR: Your book “Healthy Land, Happy Families and Profitable Businesses: Essays to Improve Your Land, Your Life and Your Bottom Line” was just released last month. Congratulations! How did the the idea for the book come about? And, how did you decide on the format of essays? Should it be read front to back or is it more of a reference?

10.29.2013 front book cover

Dave Pratt’s new book, on sale now!

DP: Thank you. I’ve been thinking about writing this book for quite some time, but I try to follow a rule in my business that says before I become consumed by a new project, I’ve got to put something else to bed. This May, the book project finally rose to the top of the “to do” list.

I have been writing a column twice a month for the past eight years for my free blog ProfitTips. It has always struck me as a little sad, and wasteful, that the columns tend to be one-and-done. I don’t like to repeat myself, but I know there are ideas and stories in earlier columns that could benefit our newer subscribers.

My wife and I sorted through nearly 400 past columns, selected those we thought flowed together well and told the story I wanted to tell. The book is all of this information, but we reworked the columns, added to them, incorporated some of the questions and comments I’d received in response, and added several new pieces.

This is the kind of book you can open to just about any section and dive right in. I think it will resonate with many people because the stories are real. They’re not abstract, theoretical concepts cooked up in some think tank. They’re real life, practical lessons learned (sometimes the hard way), by real people.

Personally, I like starting with the “Happy Families” section. I’ve learned from my own experience, as someone with academic degrees in range ecology, that before you can understand the health of the land with the principles of ecology, economics or finance, you have to understand relationships. I’ve realized that most family farms and ranches don’t fail because of ecological issues or financial issues, they fail because of people issues.

The economics and finance are relatively easy to sort out, but the failure of people to talk to one another openly, listen to one another with empathy, agree on a course of action, and be willing to hold others and themselves accountable, are the biggest reasons that most farms and ranches fail. Some people think of these issues as too “touchy feely” and get uncomfortable, but I think the so-called “soft” stuff is actually the hardest to deal with. For these reasons, I think this is the best place to start reading.

FR:  Is there a particular type of rancher: size, region, experience level or other, who would most benefit from using your book? How much can a rancher improve from reading just one book?

DP: Most of the people discussed in the book are ranchers, and nearly all of the stories I reference are about livestock producers. That said, anyone in business – rancher, farmer, or anyone else – who wants to run a more successful business is likely to learn something. For example, a rancher called me yesterday to tell me that one paragraph in the book gave him an idea that’s going to solve a problem on his operation that’s currently costing him $250,000 every year. One paragraph! An idea is a powerful thing.  

FR: Your book has an awesome review from Joel Salatin. Have you known him a long time? How did you get him to take the time to read a whole book and comment on it?

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 2.11.18 PMDP: I have known and respected Joel for a long time. He came to a course we did years ago with his wife, his son, and daughter-in-law, and I’ve involved him in the EL program at various times over the years as well. I know how busy Joel is, so it was with a lot of reluctance that I asked him if he’d be willing to read and comment on the book. To my surprise, he seemed genuinely excited that I was working on a book that would share the Ranching For Profit concepts far and wide, and he eagerly agreed to read it. I think Joel is a fantastic writer, so his enthusiastic praise means a lot to me.

FR: What do you think the ranching community needs most to be sustainable, both financially and environmentally?

DP: Got a week for me to explain? Seriously though, most family farms and ranches are not businesses. They are a collection of assets and an assortment of jobs. We don’t own businesses, we own jobs…or maybe the jobs own us? In any case, we think that we have to make a choice between lifestyle and business. But farming and ranching is a much better lifestyle when it’s a business first. Unfortunately, our parents taught us how to raise animals and grow crops, not how to run a sustainable business. In college we learned about soils, agronomy, nutrition and biology, and if we’re lucky we may even have had a course or two in economics. But no one ever taught us how to make or implement a plan, or how to manage employees. In short, no one has ever taught us how to build or run a business! The transformation of a collection of assets and an assortment of jobs into a real business is the key to success and long-term sustainability.

FR: When is your next Ranching for Profit session? Where will it be?

DP: In January we have two sessions: one in Colorado Springs, CO from January 5-11th, and one in Billings, MT from January 19-25th. In May, we have a school in Fort Worth, TX and this July we will have one in Oklahoma City, OK. (Website below.)

FR: Anything else you’d like to share?

DP: I’d just like to reiterate that farming and ranching isn’t sustainable if it isn’t profitable, and that a sustainable business can’t rely on unsustainable effort.

If a farmer or rancher reading this realizes that their work requires them to work long, long hours, doing incredibly hard work, that they don’t pay themselves a competitive wage (what it would cost to hire someone else to do their work), and that they rely on off-farm income to pay the bills, it really doesn’t matter how healthy their soil is, how fat their cows are, or how good their crops looks. Their business isn’t sustainable. If they’d like to learn how to transform their operation into a sustainable business, I invite them to call or email me, or buy the book to learn more!

Thank you Dave for sharing this valuable information with our community!  

You can now order copies of his book online!  If you have questions about the Ranching for Profit course or Executive Link, check out the Ranching for Profit website or get in touch with Dave directly: pratt@ranchmanagement.com. 

To learn more about building a sustainable business in specialty crop markets, check out our many toolkits on Business & Financial Planning, Marketing & Sales, Beginning Farmers & Ranchers and more!

If you have questions or words of wisdom about farm and ranch business sustainability, visit our Conversations Page and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with Eva: evaa@farmsreach.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation