cowboys on horseback, guide to ranch management

The market for experienced, well-rounded individuals prepared to provide services in ranching, farming, recreation, conservation, development, construction and regulatory compliance is an ever-growing need in today’s land business.

America’s need for the generational ranch family will not diminish and the very best examples of dedication, resilience and productivity will always come from the collective leadership of fiercely independent ranching families.

However, the profile of today’s ranch owner is slowly changing. The demands and constraints upon generational farmers and ranchers is leading to the consolidation and transfer of ownership to those with the capital necessary to operate under today’s economic realities. This does not exclude those independent ranchers who have successfully adapted to current challenges. Thankfully, with continued vigilance, these hardy types will be a permanent feature in the new landscape.

With this change comes a renewed demand for the professional ranch manager. The market for experienced, well-rounded individuals prepared to provide services in ranching, farming, recreation, conservation, development, construction and regulatory compliance is an ever-growing need in today’s land business.

Read more: How Much Money Does a Ranch Manager Make?

Furthermore, the modern ranch manager often finds himself a key man in the intricate business of owners with many and varied economic and lifestyle interests. Add “private professional assistant” to the list of roles many ranch managers will fill.

It is no stretch to refer to this owner/manager relationship as a partnership. This works best when both parties view it that way. With so much at stake, it serves neither to diminish the importance of the other.

To help pave the way to striking up that critical relationship, here we will take a detailed look at some of the most important aspects of ranch management, starting with a quick look at the various roles that might be found—and need servicing—on a ranch. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my thoughts on who to hire to manage your ranch, what to pay them and more.

ranch manager at work, guide to ranch management
The author, Dan Leahy, at work

Ranch hand

The hand is the least skilled in overall management. They typically have a collection of duties, such as checking herds, fence building, some equipment operation, hand irrigation, mucking out stalls and landscaping. This is a task-level worker.


This is a specific skill that is only acquired with years of learning and doing. Purebred stock operations benefit most from a dedicated herdsman. Some smaller or commercial cattle operations will not require a dedicated herdsman. Because of the specialized nature of the herdsman’s skillset, they might not be qualified or available for overall management duties.


Ranches require electricians, equipment maintenance and repair, plumbers, welder-fabricators, even “chemists” who are responsible for the use of herbicides (which are regulated). A busy and productive operation will require all of these trade skills. If subcontractors are not available (or are too costly), a ranch mechanic must be employed. It is possible, but not always likely, that one individual can be found who has basic or better skills in each of these specialties. The true jack-of-all-trades is much less common in the current generation. Mechanics are also task-level employees who may be able to work as a general ranch hand or with livestock, too. Remember that a good mechanic is best with his hands and tools; general management is probably not his strongest suit.


Let’s not confuse farming with ranching. They often go together, but they are distinctly different activities. Can a cow-hand drive a swather? Of course. But will he also know what crops to plant and when? When to harvest or market them? Again, the best combination of skills and abilities in one person is wherever you might find them. For planning purposes, farming and farmers need to be considered for their own specific requirements.

Landscapers, carpenters, foresters, etc.

There are endless possible needs for these tasks, great and small. This list is dictated by the way a property is put together, what it includes, and how it is organized to operate. Specialty trades are needed on this basis. Consider that wildlife and environmental stewardship require additional knowledge and experience in order to reach those goals set by the owner or by regulatory agencies with an expressed interest in your land and operation.

ranch manager at work, guide to ranch management


We now come to a key distinction—that between a “foreman” and a “manager”. One question (and this might be key): Are you the ranch manager? Two things define your need for a ranch manager over a foreman.

First, if you as the owner wish to direct the annual, monthly or daily activities on the property, then you might be the real manager. If you do not look to your key man to understand and formulate comprehensive planning ideas and proposals for the property, you might be relegating him to “foreman” status. This is okay, simply keep this in mind when you initiate your search.

A foreman excels at one thing: getting things done. He is an effective supervisor of all the worker types discussed above. Or to paraphrase the stereotypical foreman: “I don’t make the orders, but when I give ’em, that’s the end of it.” And that’s not just so much machismo. Provided the foreman also possesses common sense and respect for his workers, this clarity of purpose will suffice. Workers need leadership and direction. A good foreman can provide this. And, the effective foreman works right alongside his ranch team and will readily do whatever work that needs done.

Secondly, a smaller or less complex property simply might not warrant a manager. If it makes you feel better to refer to your foreman as your “ranch manager,” that’s fine. Just don’t let the use of the term cause a mistake in hiring the wrong individual for a job for which they are either under- or over-qualified.

The ranch manager

Consider this: if you were only present on the ranch four weeks each year and, in your absence, the operation was a success in every way. This being the case, then you can be assured that a manager was responsible.

A ranch manager has the unique ability to comprehend the needs of the land in their care and implement the vision of the owner. A manager assesses, plans and designs, then executes. He, along with the approval of the owner, establishes policies and carries out those plans and policies. This is possible because of the experience and reputation he brings with him. Success is not the absence of challenges a property presents, rather the manager’s approach to those challenges. Wishing that a certain individual would “rise to the challenge,” without the clear evidence that he has done it before, is not a good bet in any profession.

So, the goal is not to hire a foreman, when it is a manager that is needed. The other side of the same coin: don’t hire a manager when all that is required is a decent foreman.

Read more: How to Qualify the Right Ranch Manager


  • With a graduate education in Management & Communication, Dan Leahy has held top jobs in construction and resource management. This has taken him from Texas to Alaska and to the most remarkable lands in North America. A working ranch manager, his time is increasingly spent mentoring young managers, addressing property rights issues and consulting with land owners. He employs two principle tools of his own design, including the "Advanced Placement Method" for ranch staffing and the "Balanced Enterprise" land management model. His home range is the high desert of eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. He can be reached at

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