It’s difficult to debate whether ranching in the United States has a bright or bleak future without first considering the history of this vocation prior to the 21st century. 

Ranching in the United States was cultivated by individuals who sought to expand the development of the country westward from the urban centers in the East. They sought an opportunity to establish a lifestyle, a business, and a system of land stewardship with little obstruction from the rest of society. Often, these early ranchers were armed with very little capital and not much more than the desire to work hard to build a future. In many ways, ranching has not strayed far from those fundamental roots. To be sure, these first ranchers were faced with monumental challenges that would ultimately be overcome to carve the path for future generations. Even in the early days, ranchers faced the same question: Bright or bleak?

These early forerunners to modern ranching must have believed that the future was promising. For the most part, ranchers are optimistic people whose core beliefs are centered on hard work, innovation, and self-reliance. While many aspects of ranching have changed over time, one steadfast constant is that ranching is fraught with challenges and the optimistic survive.

Today’s ranching industry has evolved immensely, largely due to advanced technology, increases in population, and the competition for land as a resource. Along with these advancements comes a new set of challenges that raises the question once again: Bright or bleak? 

Improved technology is the single greatest force of change for all agricultural production in the past several decades. Through improved management techniques, better genetic selection, and a greater emphasis placed on natural resource management, today’s rancher is capable of producing exponentially more than their early predecessors. But with these increases, the ranching business has drawn greater scrutiny from society and, in turn, has been saddled with more regulation than ever before. 

The U.S. population has grown tremendously over the past century, meaning increased competition for land use. Ranchers are faced with decreasing grazing opportunities in addition to a rise in production costs. Land use in the United States is one of the greatest challenges today’s ranchers face. 

At the same time, U.S. ranching has entered a global marketplace, creating a much higher level of competition as emerging nations around the world expand their livestock production. 

As is the case with most businesses, ranchers are challenged to obtain the capital necessary to operate, expand, and meet the ever-increasing costs of production. The simple fact is that it costs much more today to produce the same commodities than it did even five to 10 years ago. 

Today’s rancher must be a proficient business manager and much more. A complete education enabling ranchers to carefully balance the intricacies of livestock, wildlife, and natural resources has never been as important as it is today. Ranchers can never divest themselves of the art of carefully balancing the interactions of land and animals.

The need to meet the food demands of an ever-growing world population while protecting and preserving our natural resources has never been greater. Major challenges exist as they always have, but as long as ranching continues to attract those individuals who are willing to accept the challenges with commitment, resolve, determination, and a love for the land, the future of ranching will be bright. 

Jeff Geider is the William Watt Matthews Director of the Institute of Ranch Management at Texas Christian University, as well as an associate professor therein. In addition to his 17-year teaching tenure, he manages a family-owned ranch in Texas.

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