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License to Drive Stock?

Column by John Mattingly

Agriculture – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

TO DRIVE A VEHICLE on public roads, a person has to be tested for knowledge of road rules, and demonstrate proficiency behind the wheel. To own a piece of the Earth in the United States, a person has only to show up with the money. Likewise, to own any kind of livestock. When we speak of property in the United States, the next word that comes automatically to mind is “right,” not “responsibility.”

Like most farmers, I’m no lover of regulations and even less affectionate toward self-righteousness. But there have been times when I’ve thought it would be sensible to require the purchasers of land and/or livestock to demonstrate minimal competence prior to ownership.

An example that comes to mind is Paul, who made a living trading stocks on the Internet and moved out West to get away from the industrial mess back East. He called himself a “lone eagle.” Near a small mountain town, he bought 41.77 acres — he always took the description of his ranch to two decimal points — on which he constructed a monstrous log cabin, complete with a fireplace the size of a garage and a bearskin rug on the floor. He then decided he needed to trade a different species of stock, and bought a buffalo bull, cow, and calf.

To his credit, Paul “asked around” and learned that buffalo need to be fenced, but he thought four strands of barbed wire were more than enough because, as he pointed out to me later, “A legal fence is only three strands.”

Paul’s three buffalo stayed on his 41.77 acres for eight days. Decent grass, and the fact that the beasts came from a quarter-section pasture rather than open range, contained the herd’s appetite until they encountered the four strands of wire, and went through them like spider webbing. When Paul tried to herd them with his 4-wheeler, the buffalo shifted into stampede mode, trampling through the yards and gardens of neighbors, tipping over carports, bending signs, and wiping out fences on their way to town, where all three met the business end of a .30-’06 in front of a gas station.

This example is extreme, but most of us have seen someone doing something with land or livestock that caused us to shake our heads, such as underfed stock and/or overgrazed pastures resulting in erosion, or a pen full of starving emus.

It’s curious that our society requires licenses for activities such as vehicle operation, practicing law and medicine, teaching in public schools, piloting a plane, selling insurance and securities, broadcasting news, collecting sales tax, dispensing liquor, and even hunting and fishing, yet when it comes to managing private livestock on the six inches of Earth that sustains life, significant limitations are left largely to the realm of the self-imposed.

While it’s true the SPCA catches many abuses, and grazing public lands is subject to BLM and Forest Service review, nothing prevents people like Paul from jumping unprepared into a disastrous brush with buffalo ranching. He paid dearly for the experience, both financially and otherwise, and caused me to briefly contemplate a Stockman’s Competence Course, along the lines of a the Hunter’s Safety Course.

Established stockmen might scoff at such a suggestion, pointing out that new regulations aren’t the best solution to old problems, and the free market handles the situation just fine. Even though greenhorns like Paul come along once in a while and make a mess, they pay for it.

While there are elements of truth in this, it is also true that a lot of folks are moving onto ranchettes in the West, and acquiring livestock with only a rough idea of what they’re doing. Often, like Paul, they have the financial wherewithal to purchase livestock without going to the bank, where experience in the business would be a requirement for the purchase loan.

If rough-and-tumble hunters are willing to attend a safety course, new stockmen should be able to make it through a course in basic livestock management. Curriculum elements might include:

Fencing 001: each class of stock has different fencing requirements

Cows with calves — a tight 5-strands of barbed wire with one stay between posts

Sheep — 4 feet of woven wire with a strand of barbed top and bottom; for goats add a foot or two.

Buffalo — open range is best, but may be contained for unpredictable periods by 5-foot V-mesh wire with a strand of barbed wire top and bottom.

Horses — are a different animal. Some are treated better than our homeless population.

Stock selection 110: Know the difference between a breeder’s market and a user’s market. Exotic critters like emus are often pricey during the breeder’s phase, when herds are being expanded and mating pairs sell for as much as a new tractor, but when the offspring of all these mating pairs are ready for sale in large numbers, it may turn out there are very few users for the product. “Pride of ownership” can slip quickly toward “an owner of pests.”

Feeds and Feeding 240: Buy a copy of Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding. Read it. All stockmen pride their stock on being grass rustlers, but if your stock is eating fence posts, poisonous weeds (lupine, arrowgrass), or sticking their heads through strands of barbed wire to graze the barrow pits, you’re doing something wrong.

Vet services 322: Know your local vet. It also helps if you know how to stuff in a prolapse, sort out the legs of triplets during birthing difficulties, recognize the signs of a ruminant carrying hardware, lance an abscess, administer boluses, pour warbex with a steady hand, and cut out cancer eyes because there aren’t as many large animal vets as there used to be, a good many having defected to the more lucrative ranks of a Small Animal Practice.

Tax considerations 444: To file a Schedule F, the livestock enterprise must have decent income from sales, and a reasonable income-to-expense ratio. For example, $325 income from sale of 3 goats and $89,456.00 in goat-related expenses will likely trigger an audit. Losses may be legitimate, but it’s best if they’re the result of depreciation, which is a variable deduction that does not require additional cash outlay.

If the livestock enterprise crosses the threshold of a legitimate business, breeding stock and milk animals can be depreciated, traded feeder stock and calves cannot. Feed purchases can be made, or not made, near the end of the year to generate, or defer, expenses depending on income-expense strategies. It’s said in Texas that cattle do especially well when they have an oil well to scratch their backs on.

Graduate course. Stockman’s Helpful Hints 579: Never borrow the neighbor’s brand, don’t drink downstream from the herd, and refuse to preg-check that steer, even if a trail-toughened wrangler claims it’s a bred heifer.

OK, I don’t really advocate such a course because I agree with the argument that regulations in this situation are only marginally effective. The root problem is a failure of common sense. As an old rancher once told me when speaking of a neighbor whose llamas were constantly escaping from their overgrazed, highly eroded pasture to rustle neighboring grass, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll get you there.”

John Mattingly has somewhat retired from farming in the greater Moffat area.