How three cattle owners make a unique ranching arrangement work
A few years ago, Bill and Laurie Lickley (pictured) and their cow herd near Jerome, Idaho, faced a dilemma: Pastureland was being squeezed out by irrigated crops. To keep the cows, the Lickleys knew they needed to find them more space.
Through an acquaintance, they heard about a ranch in central Nevada that had ample rangeland and wanted to add cows, and might take in the Lickleys’. That ranch, Squaw Valley Ranch, is operated by Jesse and Ricarda Braatz and Ricarda’s parents, Dick and Mary Bradbury.
After a few phone calls and a couple of face-to-face visits, the Lickleys loaded their cows and shipped them 300 miles to Nevada to become a part of a combined herd with three owners – the Lickleys, Braatzes, and Bradburys.
I asked Bill Lickley about this unique ranching arrangement and how these three families make it work.
SF: How did complete strangers end up in the cattle business together?
BL: Maybe we didn’t do as much due diligence as we should have, but I knew from that first call that they were good people that I could get along with. We just clicked. The results have been amazingly positive. It has been 11 years of getting to know how we think about cattle, and building more and more trust. Jesse manages the cows day-to-day in Nevada on the leased rangeland, and I concentrate on my farm in Idaho, where I still run a few yearlings. I go to the Nevada ranch to help a few times a year, such as at branding or pregnancy checking. It helps me to see the cattle and know what weights, numbers, and conditions we will be marketing later in the year.
SF: Do you all have complementary skills and goals?
BL: In the beginning, it was simply a pasture rental arrangement. But over time it has grown into enough trust for us to market cattle together, purchase replacement cattle on each others’ behalf, and take advantage of any other opportunities. What I bring to the table is that I enjoy marketing and relationship building. I find opportunities to market the calves, or retain ownership to a feedlot, or find the best market for open heifers. I watch the markets closely, and one thing I’ve learned is that our feeder cattle market peaks in August. We now contract about 70% of our calf sales then. Jesse runs the ranch and is a leader in grazing as a tool to improve the landscape. Dick and Mary Bradbury are great advisers and out-of-the-box thinkers, bringing years of cattle experience and wisdom. I guess that makes us complementary.
SF: Is the advantage mostly about volume?
BL: Purchasing inputs on scale is definitely a benefit. Efficiency of operations (labor) is improved dramatically with scale. And there’s a marketing issue that you might not think about. When my herd was alone with about 200 cows, we could put together a couple loads of calves. But we always had a few calves that were bigger, or maybe a little smaller, that we would sort off. We couldn’t make a full load, and they didn’t attract as many buyers. That costs a lot of overall value. Now with over 2,000 cows together, even the lower end can make a full load that gets more buyer interest. Larger scale helps with marketing all classes of cattle, even open heifers. We turn cattle that used to be losers into winners.
SF: How do you keep track of ownership?
BL: The cows are owned individually, and calves are, too. At branding, the calves are branded on a percentage basis depending on how many cows each of us owns. A calf and the cow it’s nursing are not necessarily owned by the same person, but we still get our exact share of the calf crop at the end of the year. We have developed super trust among the owners.
SF: Are you fully compatible on genetics decisions?
BL: Yes, that’s a big part of the trust we have. It’s been one of the easiest areas to agree on, taking up less time than anything. We get a consensus on what we want to do, all being focused on building a consistent cow herd with heifers raised on the ranch.
SF: How do you resolve disagreements?
BL: I think we try to disagree more than we actually do, just to make sure we are making good decisions. Even if a decision is made that someone disagrees with, we know it will work out fine. We’re all fairly risk-tolerant and failures are just viewed as learning experiences.
SF: What’s your best advice for other ranchers who might consider joining herds like this?
BL: Communication is absolutely critical. That leads to trust and success. It has to be among families with very strong character, because you will have to trust those you work with. There are some simple ideas for joining forces with a neighbor or other ranchers, like pooling open heifers in the fall, or trading summer pastures for winter pastures. Look for complementary skills and resources in others, and ask yourself what value you can bring to the table.
For more information, you can contact Bill Lickley at firstname.lastname@example.org.