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Rethinking what we thought we knewRethinking what we thought we knew

Here is 40 years of post-vet-school learning compressed into seven bullet points.

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke

January 18, 2017

4 Min Read
Big barns and big spending isn't what makes agriculture profitable or animals healthy, as I learned the hard way.Maksymowicz/iStock/Thinkstock

Back in February 1977 the class of wanna-be veterinarians at Auburn University had a major problem.

We had mostly completed four years of exhaustive study and clinical and surgical rotations in which we battled severe mental and emotional stress and lack of family and social life. Most of us had become friends with each other and a few staff members and not much of anyone else. We breathed, ate, drank, and talked vet medicine 24/7. We were focused and 18-hour days were the norm. Anyone who attempted to block us from of our goal of graduation did so at the probability of life loss.

The problem was that we were only days away from leaving our university stay where we had been segregated with some of the sharpest minds of our generation for 48 months to begin our life’s career: We now had doubts and reservations. We had little clue how to actually practice, run a viable business, or offer needed services to farmers/ranchers who had been practicing their craft for decades. It was a scary time and many of us had families to support.

At the time I could not remember having met a farmer/rancher that planned to spend money on a regular basis with a veterinarian. I had heard there were such producers around and I wondered how to land where there were several in close proximity of my location.

I listened to the theories and we all eventually left in March of 1977 for a 10-week internship. Mine was in rural Arkansas some 60 miles north of Little Rock, in the town of Marshal. There were lots of cattle, fine people and three paved roads in the county of Searcy. I worked day and night, had a ball, and came back to Auburn in late May with sutures above my right eyebrow and a broken right thumb. I guess there was no gain without pain.

Back in Alabama before graduation, it could have been noted that the smarter group of young vets had accepted positions in established practices, while a few of us fools had decided to pioneer our own show. My show failed more than it succeeded. My boat sprang lots of leaks but never completely sank.

I seldom made a lot of money in my 35-plus years in private practice but did accumulate quite some worthwhile knowledge and certainly enjoyed the ride. The lessons I learned came from my practice and from the agriculture endeavors of my own along the pathway.

I have applied the principles to our grass cattle program and have likely been more successful than I was in vet practice. Here are some of the most valuable principles.

1. Grow huge amounts of inexpensive, diverse grass, eliminate partial plant rest, institute complete plant recovery, and bust the hell out of the sward with a high-density cattle herd. Follow the process in chaotic routine every day and all year.

2. Stay lean. Get out of the business of equipment and pretty. Better still never get in. Either or both will kill your ranch progress. I also noticed the parking lots of the pretty vet practices got bare when the big factory down the road left for Mexico.

3. Debt. The key here is to owe to no man anything but your love and respect. The holy scriptures say that the debtor is the slave to the lender. I never had to pay interest on money that I did not borrow. I am not much of an employee and am even worse as a slave. My friend Gordon Hazard says that you pocket 10% more money every year if you’re not partnering with the bank. Hazard is on the bank’s board of directors.

4. Labor. I am not in the job-creation business. That is part of what the Lord does and I’m not him. Nobody wants a job. Everyone has interest in a special position. At 499 Ranch we use professional private contractors to help us with fencing, spraying and cattle hauling. We don’t use them often but we try to pay them well.

5. Cattle that "fit" should make money every year. We strive to produce and provide highly nutritious beef. We work to buy in and produce cattle that will work for us. They do 98% of the work and make us the money.

6. Keep your money. Yes, we need to make our ranches profitable. We need to pay our tithes and taxes. If we are not full-time then why can’t we save the rest of our profits and keep the pile patted down?

7. Health. We need to be healthy and stay healthy. We need to focus on health. Health and longevity should be our ace in the hole. It’s hard to beat an 18-year-old cow that has raised 16 calves or an 80-year old rancher that makes money every year.

We need to be and we are in the health business. Our beef can be the health and healing food of America.

About the Author(s)

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke


R. P. "Doc" Cooke, DVM, is a mostly retired veterinarian from Sparta, Tennessee. Doc has been in the cattle business since the late 1970s and figures he's driven 800,000 miles, mostly at night, while practicing food animal medicine and surgery in five counties in the Upper Cumberland area of middle Tennessee. He says all those miles schooled him well in "man-made mistakes" and that his age and experiences have allowed him to be mentored by the area’s most fruitful and unfruitful "old timers." Doc believes these relationships provided him unfair advantages in thought and the opportunity to steal others’ ideas and tweak them to fit his operations. Today most of his veterinary work is telephone consultation with graziers in five or six states. He also writes and hosts ranching schools. He is a big believer in having fun while ranching but is serious about business and other producers’ questions. Doc’s operation, 499 Cattle Company, now has an annual stocking rate of about 500 pounds beef per acre of pasture and he grazes 12 months each year with no hay or farm equipment and less than two pounds of daily supplement. You can reach him by cell phone at (931) 256-0928 or at [email protected].

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