Farm succession is not just a problem in NI

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It turns out that the challenge of succession is just as big across most of the US as is the case in Northern Ireland. North Dakota is a case in point.

The region is home to 23,000 ranchers who manage one million cows, mostly spring calving.

“The average farmer age in this part of the world is 58,” confirmed Scott Ressler, environmental services director with the North Dakota Cattlemen’s Association.

“It’s far too old, and we obviously want to encourage a new generation to come into our industry as effectively and quickly as possible.

“Two years ago, we felt we were making progress. Record calf prices were helping considerably at that stage. However, weanling prices have fallen by almost 50% since then. And the prospect for cattle prices across the board over the coming months is not good. This factor, plus the long hours entailed in any cow:calf operation really is putting off young people from taking up a career in ranching.”

In light of all this the Stockmen’s Association has recently teamed up with the University of North Dakota to develop a succession planning programme.

“It is based on the development of a share farming concept, which allows younger people to gradually buy in to a business over a number of years,” said Ressler.

“The scheme also provides the means by which the younger person can pool his talent and enthusiasm with the experiences gained by the older rancher over many years. We do not coordinate the scheme per se, but we are fully funding the team involved in its development at North Dakota State.”

Ressler also confirmed that ranchers in North Dakota do not receive subsidies from the US government.

“The weanling prices available in the autumn determine the financial viability of almost all these businesses,” he added. “North Dakota is also a major crop growing area, and the recent downturn in global commodity prices has added further economic pressure on the vast bulk of the farming businesses in the state.

“Facing up to the challenge of global warming is another issue for the beef industry here. We recently commissioned a research project which will seek to quantify the carbon footprint of the various ranching operations in the North Dakota area.

“Cows are maintained at a stocking density of one livestock unit per 10 acres. Farmers do not put fertiliser on to pasture ground. As a consequence, we are expecting the study to confirm that ranching in North Dakota is a pretty environmentally friendly business.

“But what the challenge of global warming might well do is limit the growth of the beef sector. Plans were previously put in place to increase beef cow numbers by 50%. But this may have to be curtailed somewhat due to the need for compliance, where greenhouse gas production is concerned.”