Fourth generation cattle rancher: ‘It’s just become a survival game’


Jade Scipioni, CNBC 

May 15 2020


Growing up, Brett Kenzy didn’t like working on his family’s cattle ranch farm in Gregory, South Dakota, about 160 miles west of Sioux Falls.


“I hated it. I resented that I had to work all the time,” Kenzy, now 48, tells CNBC Make It.


But Kenzy’s father, Ralph, a third generation cattle rancher, always told Kenzy and his older brother, George, that they were “never going to get rich ranching,” and that the beauty of the profession has nothing to do with money.


If there was ever a time to keep that in mind, it’s now.


With major plants closing due to sick workers and low cattle prices on top of that, Kenzy and other cattle ranchers are bleeding money and having to make hard decisions. While Kenzy has not, some ranchers have had to euthanize cattle they cannot sell, and many others have had to cut back on expenses to stay afloat.


Kenzy, like most cattle ranchers, has certainly faced tough times before, but the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are just different.


″[It’s] just become such a survival game,” Kenzy tells CNBC Make It.


‘I’m six weeks late on loan payments’


Kenzy has worked on his family’s mid-sized ranch, which has about 2,500 cattle at various stages of production, nearly his whole life, except for the time he attended South Dakota State University (he has a bachelors degree in animal science) and during a stint in the military. He took over the farm with his brother when their father died in 2012.


The brothers have a small feedlot where they wean baby calves away from their mother at about nine months old to grow them into cattle. They then sell those cattle to meat-packers to be slaughtered for food.


Normally, Kenzy and his brother sell their cattle once a year. For 2020, Kenzy was expecting an annual payday of about $360,000 on April 1.


But by then, cattle prices had fallen so low (from somewhere around a normal price of $3 a pound to about $1.10 a pound, Kenzy says) that Kenzy decided to keep the approximately 300 cattle they had ready to sell, hoping prices would go back up.


That didn’t happen, and last week, Kenzy sold half his ready cattle. He says he lost about $200 a head.


But Kenzy considers himself lucky that he even has the option to hold on to his cattle for a few more months.


Kenzy typically sells his cows one step below what’s known as “finished.” Ranchers who sell “finishers” raise their cattle until they reach peak size of 1400 to 1500 pounds and therefore can’t keep their cattle longer — every day finished cattle wait to be sold, they gain unneeded fat, which makes them less valuable.


Most ranchers are currently losing about $300 a head on finished cattle, Kenzy says, and it’s why some ranchers have to kill their livestock.


Kenzy says his goal with the cattle was just to break-even this year, but now he knows that is not likely.


Even the partial loss forced Kenzy to get an extension on the loans the farm has taken out for for equipment and operational costs over the years.


“I’m about six weeks late on loan payments,” Kenzy says. “And the first thing your banker tells you is that you have to cut back on family living expenses.”


It was tough to tell his wife, Jessy, with whom Kenzy has five kids and two foster children. (Kenzy’s brother and mother also live on the ranch.)


“We live pretty modesty already,” he says. “We don’t go on family vacations and we don’t buy new equipment for the ranch.”


Plus, as a rancher, his family has seen lean times before. (Since 2015, when cattle prices were at historical highs because of the drought, cattle prices have been on the decline, according to the USDA.) So they know how to make ends meet, he says.


‘Meat rationing will occur’ ...


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