FORT WORTH – It's never been easy to farm or ranch in Texas.
The weather, a lack of water and poor market prices sometimes seem to conspire to destroy those with the best intentions to grow food for the rest of us.
Every day just outside Gainesville, Andy Popp keeps one eye on his herd, pastures and fields. The other eye is on the sky.
He well remembers the staggering impact of last year's drought –– fires fueled by little rain or water led to high feed costs and forged a need to sell off livestock too expensive to feed. Popp, like many farmers, survived because he had what some call a drought plan in place.
He watched the markets and his costs closely and took action to limit any problems he might have before it was too late.
“You get a little stricter with your culling program, consider selling your calves a little earlier than normal,” he said.
That’s kept him vigilant this year. It’s that kind of pre-planning that young farmers and ranchers going through Texas Christian University’s Ranch management program are learning.
All 28 of the students in the program will take five weeklong trips this year, traveling 9,000 miles to visit to 68 different agriculture operations. The goal is to learn from the best agriculture business techniques of farmers and ranchers who survived last year’s drought, the worst on record in Texas.
The students are exposed to repeated lessons that start with the very ground upon which they’ll work.
“You don't change soil overnight, “ TCU Ranch Management Professor Jeff Geider told them. “You don't change rangeland overnight.”
Again and again they are warned of the importance of working with nature to constantly improve the soil and making the operation “sustainable.” To do otherwise would doom even the most efficient of agricultural operations.
At the Bradley 3 Ranch near Childress, Minnie Lou Bradley, who has successful developed one of American’s top Black Angus herds, told the students they cannot manage a farm or ranch based just on what is happening now.
“You just don't know what tomorrow brings,” she reminded them.
Each decision they make about their animals or land will affect their operations for the better or worse for multiple years to come. At the T Bar Ranch in West Texas, they are warned that no abuse of the land should be considered acceptable.
Another Professor, Kerry Cornelius, told them they are also expected to keep careful account of all their costs.
“We've got to know with finite accuracy what our break even is,” she said.
Without that knowledge, a seemingly successful operation could go under in no time.
Faculty at the TCU Ranch management program is not made up of solely academics. They also have a minimum of 10 years experience working in an agriculture operation. They know the difficulties the students will face.
They also use no textbooks. Changes in farming and ranching come so quickly they have yet to find publishers who can keep up. The best instruction, they find, is direct contact between their students and the farmers and ranchers in the field who can explain the unique problems they face in various parts of Texas.
Out west, for example at Bezner Farms, owner Frankie Bezner details how, “The main issue that we have around here is water.”
That scarcity affects everything they do.
It all makes for a blistering pace for students like Jeff Davis of Azle.
“I've learned so much since August 20 it's scary” and Jessen Tucker of New Mexico, who already had a master’s degree before she entered the ranch Management program at TCU. “No amount of studying in the time I got that higher degree, compared with the last month.”
In the end, it's not experts the faculty hopes they’ll become, it’s generalists –– food producers who will have a working knowledge of everything that goes into ranching.
The kind of knowledge that pulled farmers and ranchers like Andy Popp through last year.