Dad and I walk through the Oklahoma City stockyards, where our family has sold cattle for years.
At my kindergarten graduation, I told everyone that I wanted to grow up and work on Dad’s ranch. Now, as a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University with a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition, I look forward to being the fourth generation to own and operate Sparks Ranch in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma.
I know I’ll do things differently than my great-grandfather, and I’m sure he wouldn’t know what to think about today’s new-generation ranchers. We have ideas, and we want to try them. All of us returning to the ranch these days grew up in an age of information sharing. At any given moment we know what the price of corn is, what our friends are doing, or even what Kevin Durant is eating for supper. This connectivity allows us to develop and share ideas in a way that was never imagined 50 years ago, and it has changed the future of ranching.
Connected like never before. Technology has also changed the way ranch decisions can be made. If you are looking for a set of cows, you can get out your tablet instead of scouring the local classifieds. If you need to price a protein supplement, you can get on the computer and have every feed store’s phone number within 100 miles in five minutes.
Technology has had an even bigger impact on genetic decisions. In the past, ranchers relied on phenotype selections to predict production traits. Genetic decisions were greatly influenced by the philosophies of local seedstock producers. Now, there are more than 20 EPDs that can accurately predict how calves will perform.
A producer can sort through every bull in a breed for any combination of traits or look through bulls from across the country. Today, I can accurately predict which yearling bull will produce more fertile heifers and then purchase that bull from a ranch in Montana while sitting on my couch in Oklahoma!
The information that is now available to us doesn’t come without consequences. The ability to select for genetics gives us the power to ruin our cow herd as fast as we can improve it. Blind selection for single traits such as growth can produce devastating results. This is where the new generation needs to pay attention to the accomplishments and mistakes of the past—and blend new ideas with the old.
Ranching is now a profession with global impact. As the younger generation, myself included, return to farms and ranches across the country, we are bringing with us proven ideas from around the world like never before.
Dillon Sparks is:
- The 4th generation on the ranch, founded in 1921
- Ranches with his parents, John and MJ
- Originally a Hereford operation but now uses Hereford, Angus and Charolais genetics
- 10,000 acres in the Arbuckle Mountains
- September 2013