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Published September 04, 2012, 10:05 AM

Risk and reward, firsthand

Years ago, when I was a young journalist, I bought a few bred heifers and added them to my father’s cow-calf operation in central North Dakota.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Years ago, when I was a young journalist, I bought a few bred heifers and added them to my father’s cow-calf operation in central North Dakota. I paid my share of expenses and occasionally went back on weekends to help with the work.

The first year, I was on hand when one of my heifers prepared to give birth. The delivery threatened to be difficult and dangerous. My dad, a very good cattleman who handled most calving problems on his own, decided we needed help with this one. So we took the animal to the vet, roughly 20 miles away.

The vet looked over the heifer and said we were right to bring her in. The delivery was long and hard. But with the vet’s help, both mother and her big, good-looking son came through fine.

I went to bed at 4:35 a.m., weary but satisfied. The cow and calf were OK, and I had a nice calf to sell the next fall.

A few days later, when I was back at work, my father phoned to say the calf was dead. The animal had seemed healthy, but died during the night.

So, no calf to sell and a vet bill to pay. It wasn’t a big thing financially; I had a paying job and my few cows were just a sideline. But losing that calf reinforced my understanding of something basic to production agriculture: It’s risky. Putting seed in the ground is risky. Raising animals is risky.

Good producers — and just about everyone left in production ag is good at it — find ways to reduce risk. Manage it. Moderate it. Mitigate it.

But there’s not much agriculturalists can do when the weather doesn’t cooperate. As a veteran farmer once told me, “We don’t run the show. Mother Nature does.”

Fickle and risky

An inch of rain at the right time can make the difference between a good crop and an average one. Too much heat at the wrong time can make the difference between an average crop and a poor one.

This growing season is a powerful reminder of how fickle nature can be. Some areas received sufficient rain; others didn’t. It’s just the way life is.

My sincere sympathies to area famers, ranchers and other agribusinesspeople hurt by drought. I lived through drought as a farm kid. I’ve covered it as a journalist. I know how much it hurts emotionally and financially.

But drought is part of the risk that production agriculture on the Northern Plains entails. It’s just the way life is. If you’re an agriculturalist in this part of the world, you know that.

One final observation on my cow that lost her first calf.

In the years that followed, the cow consistently produced fine, healthy calves that brought a good price. That first year was no fun, but in the long run, I was glad I had her.

The experience reinforced my understanding of something else basic to production ag:

Sometimes it kicks you in the teeth. More often it rewards and satisfies.

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