The Succession Plan
My day job as an Agricultural Finance Specialist has given me the opportunity to work with a number of clients on succession planning over the past few months. It tends to be one of those ‘winter tasks’ that people procrastinate about until time gets short and farmers start thinking of heading back out to work the land. Usually done in conjunction with that mandated annual trip to the accountant (I have to pay HOW much tax?), and a seminar put on by your local financial institution, it always seems like an important farm issue that is difficult to deal with.
I think ‘succession’ planning itself often gets confused with ‘estate’ planning. ‘Succession’ is the passing of a business on to the next generation. ‘Estate” encompasses all your assets. Farmers probably have the most difficulty differentiating between the two, as often the farm operation consists of the bulk of the farmers’ assets. It is not like too many farmers are complaining about sitting on piles of cash/stock/investments these days!
Maybe a better description of a succession plan is – do you want your farm to continue without you? If the answer is yes, then you need a successor (and a plan for them to take over). If the answer is no, then you will be selling / winding down your farm at some point, with the assets becoming part of your estate.
One of the tips I heard this week: Look for a successor that has a ‘fire in their belly’. The thought is, that if they are unsure/unclear/uncertain about whether they want to be involved in the family operation; maybe the time/fit just isn’t right. A successor should have a strong vision for where they want to go; and a drive to get there.
Probably the most important part of the succession plan of any farm is communication. Whether it is between spouses, generations, in-laws or non-farming family members, ensure everyone is on the same page; awareness of what the plan is, is essential for family harmony. Everyone may not necessarily get to have a say in the process, but the situations that tend to work out the best, are those in which all stakeholders are aware of the plan. This way, hopefully the number of misunderstandings can be reduced, and the thought process behind the decisions that are made can be shared.
I think succession planning can also relate back to the purebred herd. Having a plan in place to replace that elite cornerstone cow or walking herd bull, well before their time is up, can allow for an orderly transition. For females, it may mean retaining a top daughter (and passing up the publicity and prestige of having a possible high-seller), to eventually replace her dam. The other option would be to continue to sell that same daughter, but re-channel those funds into the purchase of another elite breeding line. Having different options (and, potentially, embryos in the bank) can form a sort of insurance policy, and ensure that the walking cow base stays strong. The idea though, is having a plan in place to ensure there is no ‘hole’ in the herd when that matriarch does move on.
Due to their major genetic impact, the herd bull side of the equation is probably even more important. A herd that doesn’t have enough bulls to cover the cow groups can find themselves in real trouble in a hurry. Generally for purebred herds, it is tough to find a replacement at the drop of a hat. Having a succession (or back-up) plan in place before you need it can diffuse the situation, and provide the time and space to fix it exactly how you would like it. For the second consecutive year, we are on ‘Plan C’ when it comes to our walking bulls (knock on wood, but we haven’t had to utilize Plans D or E yet).
I guess though, what it really comes down to, is that planning is great. But after you have a plan, it is ‘the doing’ that counts. Having a rough succession plan, whether it is the farm or with cattle, is important, but it needs to move forward.
Hope for the best. Plan for the worst. But make a decision. Make sure everyone knows about it. And move on.
I was originally going to title this ‘Spring’ update but, while the snow has mostly gone, sub zero temperatures, random flurries and lots of wind hasn’t made this season feel too much like spring yet. Not that I am complaining. After the warm temperatures we enjoyed this winter I have nothing to complain about. It is truly special to walk out to the straw pack and see that a calf was born unassisted, and is up and drinking on their own, without having to worry about it freezing. While the mild winter can create its own set of challenges, we are truly thankful for the great calving season. The final tally has us with a 2 heifer to 1 bull ratio, which definitely means that the first Applecross females will be marketed this fall.
April brings ‘Spring Fever’ to our house (which is more than just me chasing Jeanne around the kitchen!). Perhaps cabin fever is a more apt description. Since the daylight hours are so long, and those pesky night checks are done for the season, there seems to be more time and energy to get those ‘after supper’ chores done in preparation for spring. Those ‘to-do’ lists that were made during the winter months get transferred into action. It is also great just to be outside more, without the heavy clothing, working away at those endless number of things that need done around the farm.
We have been able to get the cows out of the corrals behind the barn and onto our ‘shoulder season’ pasture that we use for December and April-May. It is a three acre paddock, complete with an old horse ‘round pen’ they can utilize for shelter. It is great to see them more relaxed; out of the mud and using their feet and legs more. I think the exercise is good for the calves too – they sure change in the few months since birth. It doesn’t take long for the bulls to start looking like bulls, and the heifers to start ‘princessing’ around the yard.
Speaking of ‘Princesses’; that is a great word to describe our Anchor D Viper calves. We only got heifers, but they sure are easy to pick out. They all seem to have the certain intangible ‘sass’ about them that is really neat to see. If there is going to be a calf to follow you around when you’re checking cows, looking for some attention, it will be a Viper heifer.
Dad has always said that the key to a successful breeding season is to make more ‘good decisions’ than ‘bad ones’. Sometimes a genetic combination works out; other times it does not. Hopefully each calf crop yields more of the ‘good’, and fewer ‘bads’. For the 2012 edition, I think I am firmly on the ‘good’ side of the ledger, though there are a few matings that didn’t work out quite the way I hoped. I always try to treat mistakes as something to learn from, instead of constantly second guessing myself. That is one of the great things about the cattle business: there is always next year to plan for.
To help me plan, I really try to keep detailed notes; some days those notes morph into a journal. It really helps the memory, and can be referred back to; little details can be remembered. Everything from calving tendencies and gestations, to a genetic cross that worked (and those that don’t). We live in such an information society, being able to go back and refer to notes – and have an accurate record of what you were thinking at the time, instead of relying on an increasingly bad memory (or just whatever you have heard recently) – is a great help when making decisions.
We are thick into AI season. I have a detailed chart of who should be bred, and to what; but that doesn’t always stop me from changing my mind when Donna McMurtry drives in the lane to breed them. Having Donna available is a great resource. As she has bred thousands of cows over the years, her level of expertise is tremendous. Having been around the breed for 35+ years, she also has an interesting perspective on what genetics work.
The biggest addition to our 2012 AI line-up is IPU Bronson. I really admire the Bronson females that Harry and Michelle Satchwell have working down at Virginia Ranch. They really are a sight – I think at one point they had something like 17 daughters working there – and they are all tremendous big volume cows. As we didn’t manage to get any daughters bought, we are excited to hopefully develop some for our own over the next few years.
We will also be AI’ing more to Dora Lee Eclipse this year; specifically on our heifers. His first daughters that I have working (now aged 4) are really impressive – and I have a really nice heifer calf this year too. There is a lot to like about Eclipse – he has both calving and maternal calving (a Fleckvieh rarity), he is coloured right, puts square udders on his females, and he can take the horns off. There is something to be said about keeping a semen bank around to re-visit 5 years down the road after you know a genetic combination works.
Spring is also when our bulls are introduced to their new homes. One of the great things about delivering bulls is the opportunity to tour the operation, and see what management techniques and genetic direction different herds are taking. I haven’t toured a herd yet where I haven’t learned something. This held true when we had the opportunity to tour the Langer and Wa-Na-La-Pa herds when delivering APLX Santana in a mid-March snow storm. One of the many things that stood out for us on this visit, was the work they had done with their new panel set-up that replaced old wooden corrals. The panels provide lots of flexibility and allowed multiple confined breeding and AI groups, all close together without the bulls seeming to bother each other; despite several cows being in heat that day. I see more panels in my future!
We also quite enjoyed our visit to Lone Stone Farms in February. One of our conditions in selling Envoy at the 2011 National Trust in November, was that we wanted to winter him prior to delivering him to Lonnie & Karen. So, on another snowy winter day, we travelled to Westlock to enjoy a wonderful lunch and most of an afternoon visiting. Even though it was only 4 days prior to their annual bull sale (and with plenty of jobs still yet to get done), they were more than happy to spend a lot of time with us showing us their program. One of the things that stood out for us on the visit, was the uniformity of the cattle. For the past 30 years they have developed a clear vision of what they want their cattle to look like, and that was clearly evident by how consistent their cow groups were. The success of their approach was clearly proven in the success of their Friday Bull Sale. Improving the uniformity of our cow herd is something that I look forward to, now that our herd numbers are almost to where we want them to be.
A last closing comment on bull season: while it has been a great year for bull sales overall, I would also suggest that it has been an amazing year for the ‘best of the best’. I don’t recall another spring where I have seen or heard of more bulls sell for $10,000+, $20,000+ or $40,000+. In some ways, it is not surprising; a rising industry should lead to reinvestment by both commercial cattlemen and by breeders. It is just great to see so much dedication / enthusiasm throughout the entire industry again in 2012. Here is hoping it continues on for the next few years.