Here’s some sage advice from a Nebraska Sandhills rancher who knows a thing or two about ranch succession and transition
By Troy Smith
Lynn Myers is a ready conversationalist. His wife, Marlene, claims Lynn just likes to talk. Many… okay, just about all of his friends will agree with Marlene, but they’ll also admit that conversation with Lynn Myers can be informative – especially if the topic is connected with stewardship of land and livestock. It can be entertaining too, since Lynn has a knack for telling stories stemming from his more than 40 years of ranching at the end of a dirt road. Just listening to him is fun. And when Lynn hauls out his banjo, it gets even better.
For the last few years, though, Lynn has been looking for more than conversation. He’s been trying to become a better communicator. It’s not easy, even for someone that “likes to talk”.
Lynn has become an advocate for communication among farm and ranch families, particularly as it pertains to estate planning and generational transition of ranch businesses. Over the last couple of years, he’s been invited to speak at producer meetings, including the most recent National Conference on Grazing Lands. Lynn typically shares from his own family’s experience, emphasizing how communication – the open and honest exchange of information, ideas and emotions – has been essential to the Myers family’s plan for passing their western Nebraska ranch to the next generation.
“Most ranchers aren’t very good at this. They’re not comfortable talking about what will happen when they die, and planning for it. But there’s no way around it; everybody dies. And it’s better to choose, yourself, how things will be handled. If you don’t have a plan, ‘Uncle’ does,” says Lynn, referring to estate settlement according to *intestacy laws (*where a person dies without a will).
“About half of my own parents’ estate was lost, because there wasn’t enough planning done to prevent it,” he adds.
An estate plan, which directs how assets are to be divided among heirs, is only one piece of a comprehensive ranch transition plan. If the goal is for operation of a ranching business to continue after ownership of assets changes, there is need for a succession plan as well. In Lynn’s opinion, failure to implement a succession plan, including steps for transferring management responsibility, makes sustaining the business more difficult for the next generation.
But handing over control of their businesses is difficult for most ranchers. Many struggle to accept the fact that they can’t continue indefinitely and it stirs unwanted emotions. So, preparation for succession is put off until it’s too late.
Smartest Thing I Ever Did
Again, Lynn can speak from personal experience, beginning in 1973, when he and his bride joined her parents’ operation. Located north of Lewellen, Ralph (Bud) and Maxine Tippetts’ ranch included the 1909 homesteads claimed by Marlene’s great-grandfather and her great-great-grandmother. Lynn says his father-in-law was a conservative, traditional kind of rancher, and whether he knew it or not, Bud Tippetts was a valued mentor.
“I learned a lot about ranching from Bud. The smartest thing I ever did was pay attention to him and four or five other men of his generation – all Sandhillers that ranched in this area,” Lynn recalls.
Still, Lynn, Marlene and Maxine were not prepared when Bud Tippets died at a relatively young age – younger than Lynn is now.
“For those first several years after Marlene and I were here on the ranch, her dad had made all management decisions. Big or small, he made every decision, right up until he died,” says Lynn, explaining how the management responsibility fell suddenly to Tippetts’ survivors.
“We got through it, but it wasn’t a real smooth transition. I know now that it could have been made easier,” Lynn adds, explaining how the experience helped fuel a desire to provide his own kids with some kind of plan.
However, the desire really didn’t catch fire for another three decades. It was kindled in part by Lynn’s own bout with ill health, but largely by a question from daughter Carissa and her husband, Phillip Munn. After spending 10 years pursuing careers outside of agriculture, the younger couple asked if there was any way that they could join the ranching operation.
Answer to a prayer
“My answer was ‘What day can you be here?’” grins Lynn. “For Marlene and me, it was an answer to 30 years of prayer.”
Like a lot of ranch folk, Lynn and Marlene had long hoped that their children would be interested in the family ranching legacy, but they encouraged Carissa and her brother, Creston, to pursue their own dreams. While both young people were proud of their ranch roots, each chose a professional career. Creston became an optometrist and married a physician (Terri). Carissa earned a doctorate in physical therapy and became director of rehabilitation for a regional hospital, while husband Phil garnered top wages as a diesel mechanic.
Considering the income-earning potential of the two young couples, Lynn and Marlene had just about given up on the idea of either coming back to the ranch. But Carissa, in particular, hadn’t been able to shake the sand from her boots. Neither she nor her ranch-raised mate were content in their well-paid town jobs.
For Carissa and Phil, as well as Lynn and Marlene, making the decision to join forces was the easy part. They all admit that figuring how to make it work has been more challenging. For the younger couple, moving to the ranch meant earning barely a third of their former income. Convinced that the correlation between money and happiness was pretty low, they believed the ranching culture and lifestyle offered much value – particularly for raising their own family.
According to Carissa, the opportunity to work beside her husband and children is worth more than pulling in high salaries and having to hire someone to help raise their kids. She sees immeasurable value in sending their daughter to a small school, where the bus driver is also the county sheriff, and everyone really is your neighbor.
“You just have to prioritize what is most important,” states Carissa. “Is it going home to make sure the family ranch continues to be successful, or allowing it to be rented out when my parents are no longer able to care for it?”
Of course, living in close proximity and working with family isn’t always easy. Carissa admits that she and Phil suffer some frustration when their ideas for improving the operation are met with resistance. She also notes the very different personalities of her husband and her father. She explains how Phil is a perfectionist who takes a methodical, carefully planned approach to nearly every situation. Lynn sometimes goes at things differently.
“My dad is a ‘fix it with duct tape and baling wire’ kind of guy who looks for the most inexpensive way to create something new out of a bunch of things he found lying in a tree row,” grins Carissa. “So, working together requires patience, from both parties.”
However, Carissa and Phil are quick to credit her parents’ willingness to make compromises and concessions. It makes the younger couple want to try just as hard, so all are committed to making the smoothest transition possible. And it’s progressing. Over time, more management responsibility has been handed over to Phil and Carissa. Accordingly, Lynn and Marlene are moving more toward roles as advisors and support staff, which sometimes includes babysitting duty.
The transition plan has also included an arrangement where, as part of their compensation, Carissa and Phil gain ownership of cattle. In another few years, and without laying out any cash, they will own one third of the cows on the place.
“According to our estate plan, Carissa and her brother will each be heirs to half of the land and half of the ‘ranch company’ cattle, but Carissa and Phil will already own a third of the cows,” Lynn explains. “I guess you’d say that’s their sweat equity.”
Don’t leave anyone out
There are too many heart-breaking stories about families divided because ranch succession plans or estate settlements surprised some of the interested parties. Lynn has heard plenty. That’s why Creston has always been kept in the loop as plans developed for transitioning management of the ranch to his sister and brother-in-law.
“Too often, somebody is left out of the discussion. They’re left to feel their opinion doesn’t matter, and that can cause hurts that may never heal,” Lynn warns. “Family should come first. Family relationships are more important than the ranch.”
By working to assure that everyone has been heard and everyone else actually listened and understood, Lynn thinks the Myers-Munn family has arrived at what he calls “a really good situation”. Still, he knows that even the sweetest plans can turn sour because of pride and greed. A smooth transition could be derailed by debt, divorce or death. Stuff happens, and it’s impossible to draft a plan that protects a family against every eventuality.
“I think you’ve got to have a plan that allows some flexibility. As things move forward, you may find that you have to make changes to adapt to what life hands you,” says Lynn, noting that many divisive issues start out small.
“You’ve got to talk to each other, and remember to listen too. Address the little matters before they become big problems. And sometimes you may have to tweak your plan,” emphasizes Lynn. “It’s not something you sit down and do all at once. It’s a process and it takes time. It can take years. But it will be worth it, I think, as long as you keep communicating.”
Lynn Myers on Being Good Stewards
“I believe the Lord expects us to be good stewards of the land,” offers Lynn Myers. “I believe He expects us to try to leave it in better shape than we found it.”
Lynn and wife Marlene are well into the process of surrendering management of the family ranch, near Lewellen, Nebraska, to a sixth generation. Lynn, in particular, hasn’t stopped emphasizing stewardship as fundamental to the sustainability of a business built on land and livestock. Lynn considers stewardship to be a big part of this family’s ranching heritage.
“I really can’t think of a better legacy to leave behind,” states Lynn.
As daughter and son-in-law, Carissa and Phil Munn, gain a grip on the reins of management, Lynn’s role shifts to that of mentor. For sustained profitability in the cow business, Lynn’s recommended philosophy – the same one modeled by his own early mentors – is that of a low-cost producer. More correctly, Lynn recommends a goal of optimum production at the least cost.
Toward that end, Lynn favors a truly moderate-sized cow. A mature cow, in good flesh, that weighs 1,250 pounds is big enough, in Lynn’s opinion. She fits the semi-arid Sandhills environment and a production system relying heavily on grazed forage. Lynn calls it a “range and cake” outfit, which means cattle graze year-round, receiving supplemental protein (cake) when dry winter range won’t meet nutrient requirements. Hay is fed supplementally, when winter weather renders grazing inadequate.
Hereford influence is prominent in the breeding herd, which includes both straight-breds and baldies resulting from mating Hereford cows with Angus bulls – blacks initially but now only Red Angus bulls are used for crossbreeding.
For 23 of the last 32 years, the same private-treaty buyer has purchased the ranch’s weaned steer calves. Part of the heifers are sold in the fall too, but about two-thirds of the heifers are retained. These are wintered on range, plus supplemental hay and cake. In the spring, the heifers will be exposed to bulls for a 45-day breeding period. Following pregnancy examination, open heifers are marketed, ranch replacements are selected and the remainder of the bred heifers are sold in packages to suit the buyer.
“Over time, low-input heifer development and a short breeding season has helped us build a cow herd that is, we believe, highly fertile and productive in this environment,” says Lynn. “This year, we had a 93 percent pregnancy rate for our heifers and 94 percent for the cows. All were bull-bred, 45-day exposure for the heifers and 60 days for the cows, but we’re thinking about shortening the cow breeding season to 50 days.”
Lynn likes selling cattle at private treaty and he prefers to buy Hereford and Red Angus bulls the same way. Most are purchased as calves, soon after weaning, and brought to the ranch for development.
“We think we can buy better genetics, more economically, when we buy bull calves and grow them at home,” explains Lynn. “We grow them on range and hay and protein supplement, so they’re not overfed, and they keep right on growing during their first breeding season. We believe they stay sound and last longer.”
Lynn has long emphasized range management practices reflective of good stewardship. He has applied conservative stocking rates and varied the time periods that various pastures are grazed, year-to -year. Cross-fencing to create more and smaller pastures plus installation of pipeline for more and better-located stock water sites have complemented rotational grazing and improved both grazing distribution and forage utilization.
The ranch uses a three-year deferred rotational system, which means every pasture is deferred – left ungrazed during the growing season – once every three years. Relatively short grazing periods, when pastures are utilized, means all of the range benefits from long periods of rest. Lynn says the specific benefits include increased vigor among desirable forage plants and a decreased presence of undesirable species. The good grasses have deeper root systems, giving them increased drought tolerance.
According to Lynn, as a result of producing more and better forage, the ranch’s carrying capacity has increased. Couple improved cattle performance, due to genetics, with the ability to run more cattle, and the ranch now produces more beef per acre – about 50 percent more than it did before the grazing system was introduced.
“I’m sure the kids will change some things as they go forward. It’s inevitable,” says Lynn. “But I think we’ve got something here they can work with and continue to improve. If they’re good stewards, they’ll keep trying to make it better.”