I am occasionally asked how long do I think these good times in the cow business will last. I am a good authority to ask because I once had a class in economics in college, although it was early in the morning and I slept through most of it. As I understand it, economics is the study of how to get a job at a university as an economist. An economist being a person who likes math but doesn’t have the necessary social skills to be a theoretical mathematician. To fool people into thinking they know something the rest of us don’t, economists use words like elasticity of demand, suboptimal spending and disposable income. As if there’s any other kind.
Economists tell us that the production of every commodity goes through a “cycle” and there are signs to determine which phase of the cycle you are in. You need to know these signs or you just might fall off your cycle and injure yourself. The stages and signs of each cycle are:
Stage 1, “Yahoo, we’re rich!” Also known as consolidation, this stage occurs when the number of cows is at its lowest because two of your four neighbors declared bankruptcy and sold all their cattle. This phase is easily identifiable because range bulls cost five thousand dollars, bred heifers cost more than your last pickup, and any old bitty down to her last tooth that is pregnant is worth three thousand bucks. Speaking of pickups… there are actually cowboy sightings at used car lots.
All the advertisements for bull sales are in full color, ring men are wearing brand new 100X Stetsons and are staying in Best Westerns instead of Motel 6. Cowmen buy fake Russell bronzes and actually take their wives with them when they go to the NFR or the NCBA convention. Before you know it ranch wives are under the care of a beautician and are buying dishwashers and new carpet for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. School age kids are sent away to military school in New Mexico.
Columnists write in cow periodicals that this time it’s different and we’re never going to see another poor day. This stage can last anywhere from six minutes to two calf crops.
Stage 2, “Hello, Mr. Banker. Remember me?” During this expansionary phase there’s more beef in the market and prices start dropping like cows on some bad weed. Wranglers get worn a little longer and instead of that new roof you promised your wife, you just help her patch the old one. She does, however get new carpet… in the truck. Horses are rediscovered as four wheelers are parked to save on fuel costs, fences are spliced with saddle strings, old rusty wire and baler twine and you rediscover the joys of begging for money down at the bank.
Stage 3, “Watch out below.” The sharp fall in prices triggers an even bigger cull rate which creates “The Big Wreck.” As prices fall way below the cost of production rural bars are the only businesses making any money and hay is tossed out begrudgingly only to cows that look like they might starve to death in the next week without it. Ranch families eat at home instead of dining out at the auction market cafe and Ramen noodles are served at brandings. Ranch parents have to start raising their own kids again and their sons are pulled out of military school in Roswell. Parents worry about losing the family ranch and having to go live in appliance cartons in big cities, like North Platte, Parma or San Angelo.
Stage 4, “Want to buy some Amway?” Ranchers unwillingly “retire” and those that stay in business do so only by adjusting their beans-to-beef ratio. Kids are allowed to wear shoes only in winter, the bull battery consists of your best calves that you left as bulls, furniture you bought in the rich days is burned for fuel, and a day of shopping consists of stealing fast food packets of sugar, catsup and coffee creamer at McDonalds. Wives get yet another job in town and sell Amway on the side. A pickup load of cowboys is caught trying to sneak into Mexico in search of employment. Credit cards come in the mail that are pre-declined.
Even an economist should be able to tell what part of the cattle cycle we are in currently.