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Wyoming ranch family builds trust relationship with employee to get the most for everyone.

Robert Waggener

April 1, 2020

5 Min Read
Wyoming ranch workers
Brothers Kellen (left) and Cameron Smith (right) believe continuing education will make their family ranch in northeast Wyoming more profitable and sustainable. They include their valued ranch hand, Tom Ford, in such workshops.Robert Waggener

Tom Ford was repairing barbed-wire fence on the Wyoming range when Mother Nature announced through lightning and thunder that she was about to release a torrent of rain. Miles from an improved road, he knew this wasn’t a good place to get stuck.

Tom and his bosses, brothers Cameron and Kellen Smith, already had a "plan B" in place for the day: Repair a broken-down calf table in the shop. Soon, Tom was putting his mechanic and welding skills to work.

Tom is a jack-of-all-trades kind of ranch hand, and his diverse skillset combined with his strong work ethic, honesty and problem-solving capabilities are helping the two brothers run a more profitable ranch.

That’s a good thing because a lot of eyes are focused on Cameron and Kellen, who are now in charge of managing a large dryland ranch in northeastern Wyoming, owned by a multi-family corporation on their mother’s side of the family.

“We represent the fifth generation of the ranch, and we have some ownership in it,” says Kellen. “Our vision is to keep the ranch in the family and grow it for the next generation.”

That will take improving every aspect of ranch operations, from grazing management, weed control and soil health, to beef breeding and genetics, to marketing and cost control and succession planning.

The brothers have also quickly learned that hiring and maintaining good employees are critical components of the management mix, and they consider Tom a key to helping ensure the ranch remains sustainable.

“Tom for sure is helping to make this operation more profitable,” Cameron says. “He knows how to do almost everything, he works hard and he’s reliable.”

Kellen adds: “It’s critical to have the right employees. There’s a lot of room within any ranch where employees could take advantage of the owners because owners are not always around. It’s nice to have that trust in Tom. He’s there for us, and we’re there for him.”

Perhaps that latter statement is the most important thing that ranch managers like Smith brothers and ranch employees like Tom Ford bring to the table. They look at their relationship as a team, not a boss telling his or her employees what to do and how to do it.

“I appreciate the fact that Cameron and Kellen have involved me in many aspects of decision-making, and I’ve always had the privilege on this ranch of being able to speak and being a part of how we’re going to go about things,” Tom says. “We’re all on the same page, and we work as a team to get things done.”

The trio has been collaborating on major changes to grazing management. Instead of continuous grazing for 30 to 50 days, as was done in the past, they are moving cattle every one to two weeks, no easy task since this is a 73,000-acre operation. Decreasing pasture sizes, developing water resources, increasing stock densities and breeding for smaller cow sizes are among the tools helping them to improve rangeland health, produce more forage and run more cattle.

Cameron and Kellen know that education is critical, and they have paid Tom’s way to attend with them workshops focused on grazing management, genetics and cattle marketing. This included a four-day management-intensive grazing school in Wyoming last year led by grazing expert Jim Gerrish.

“Ranchers tend to spend a lot of money on things that aren’t necessary to make a profit, like tractors and haying equipment,” Tom says. “To me, decreasing overhead costs and improving your grass resources are the biggest things you can do to increase ranch profitability.”

They’re already seeing positive results.

“Since we started making big changes two years ago, profits are already going up, and in eight to 10 years from now a very obtainable goal is to double our carrying capacity,” Tom believes.

Cameron and Kellen respect what Tom brings to the table, and they work hard to ensure that he knows he’s an important part of the entire operation.

“It’s rare these days to find cowboys who are there for you and not just themselves,” Kellen says. “Tom is there for the business and for you, not just himself.”

Adds Cameron: “He has worked his way into our family, and our kids love him.”

The two brothers and their spouses have four children between them, and all four kids adore Tom, something that makes his ranch work even more special.

Tom says with a smile: “I want those four kids to look back in the years to come and say, ‘Old Tom, he taught me a lot. He’s a good guy.”

Wyoming ranchers studying forage

Improving the owner-employee relationship

The relationship between ranch managers Cameron and Kellen Smith and their employee Tom Ford show five concepts management experts say ranch operators should consider in their employee relationships.

1. Teamwork –Tom Ford says, “Employees always have to tread lightly in a ranch setting about what they say and how they say it, but I appreciate the fact that my bosses (brothers Cameron and Kellen Smith) always ask: ‘Tom, what are you thinking about when it comes to this or that?’”

2. Shared decision-making -- “Cameron and Kellen know where they want to go with their grazing management, and they have involved me heavily in the decision-making,” Tom says. “I definitely feel like I’m an asset to the ranch.”

3. Make every day count -- “Since ranch managers and owners work closely together, it’s important to try hard to make every day a good day,” Tom asserts. “When a curve ball does come your way, you gotta be able to count on people and work hard to make life good for everyone.”

4. There’s a time for play -- “Draw the line between where work ends and play begins. Keep work work and have fun while you’re doing it, but when it comes to alcohol save that for when the tasks at hand are done,” says Tom, adding that brandings and drinking often go hand-in-hand, but that practice can lead to lots of problems, including injuries.

5. Foster trust -- “When it comes to the ranch manager-employee relationship, honesty is key for everyone involved,” Tom says. “If you want to keep a good relationship with anyone, it starts with honesty. If something didn’t go as planned, come together as a team to talk about it and figure out ways to fix it. There’s nothing that can’t be resolved if you approach it openly and honestly.”

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