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Learning the ropes

After 50 years, TCU’s innovative Ranch Management program remains true to its roots.

Learning the ropes

After 50 years, TCU’s innovative Ranch Management program remains true to its roots.

A small sign in the TCU Ranch Management building offers this advice: Eat beef. The West wasn’t won on a salad.

It’s a fitting sentiment for a renowned curriculum known for its cattle-centric point of view — a program now half a century old.

Over that span, technology and society have changed as rapidly as the Texas weather, but the Ranch Management Program, founded in 1956 as the Ranch Training Program, has earned international acclaim in the agricultural industry by staying true to its roots.

From the program’s early days, the professors outfitted students with a broad knowledge base that covers virtually every aspect of operating a ranch or other agricultural business. To earn a Ranch Management certificate, students spend nine intensive months studying everything from ranch records and finance and soil and water conservation to sheep and goat production and animal health and reproduction. Last year a bachelor of science degree was added to the offerings.

Just 36 students are admitted to the program each year, ensuring classes stay small and tight-knit, and making it possible to load them all into five Suburbans for the many days-long field trips they take all over the state.

Students still adhere to a traditional Western dress code — men are clean-shaven with close-cropped hair and both the guys and the gals (yes, there have been 62 women graduates since its inauguration) wear collared shirts, long pants and leather-soled boots or shoes.

As much as preparing students for some of the industry’s top jobs, Ranch Management has served to preserve the cowboy way of life.

“We think we need oil, but food and water are really important,” said interim director Brian Vasseur ’98 (RM) (MBA ’05). “This is not a flash-in-the-pan industry. We plan to be here another 50 years.”

A Program is Born
In the early 1950s, prominent ranchers Charles Pettit of Flat Top Ranch near Walnut Springs, Roy Parks of Midland and Milton E. Daniel of Breckenridge approached TCU Chancellor M.E. Sadler with the idea of starting a ranch-training program. The ranchers felt that too many students were graduating from agricultural colleges with narrow specialties that did not prepare them for the wider array of knowledge and expertise required of a ranch manager.

They chose TCU because they felt a smaller private university was better equipped than state universities to identify and adapt to the changing educational needs of the agricultural industry.

Sadler, who was at first skeptical, asked several ranchers and members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association what they thought. Not only did they support the proposed program, said Ranch Management Director Emeritus John Merrill, they told Sadler if TCU didn’t do it, no one else would. The pamphlet, at left, from the 1950s informed prospective students about the then-fledgling program.

Merrill, above, took the reins of the program in 1961, following the death of the program’s first director Arthur Courtade. Merrill, who was recently awarded the Golden Spur, the ranching industry’s highest honor, was the director for more than 30 years. When Merrill took over, the program focused on teaching basic ranching skills, like roping and fence mending. But he expanded the focus to one of training students to oversee an entire ranching operation.

The Graduates
There are 1,266 living alumni from 40 states and 26 countries. Many have gone on to manage or own prominent ranching operations.

An estimated 94 percent of graduates work in agricultural production; others are in banking, real estate and other related fields. Of the 135 directors of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, 23 are Ranch Management alumni.
“When they graduate from the program, they should be prepared to manage any type of ranching operation anywhere in the world,” Merrill said.

Cyberspace Cowboys
Ranchers today can increasingly do business without ever setting foot off the ranch, thanks to technological innovations.

Likewise, Ranch Management students are only a mouse click away from up-to-the minute commodity futures and stock prices online. It is now commonplace for livestock auctions to be conducted via Internet sites such as www.cattleusa.com. And video monitors in the Winthrop Rockefeller Building (next to the D.J. Kelly Alumni Center) broadcast livestock for sale all over the world.

Students are also exposed to new methods of tagging and identifying cattle, such as radio frequency tags. The tiny devices, which are inserted into the ears of cattle, are scanned as cattle enter the chute. The frequencies allow ranchers to track the ID number, medical history and other information for each animal.

The Cowboy Way 
While the classroom lessons are important, nearly half of students’ time has always been devoted to road trips to working ranches, feedlots and other agricultural operations where real-life lessons are taught. A fleet of five Suburbans has replaced the station wagons used in the early 1960s.

The Course Load 
Every summer, the Ranch Management faculty revises and updates the curriculum, taking into account the latest industry trends. No textbooks are used, just detailed notes compiled by the professors, each of whom continues to work in the industry.

Unchanged year after year are the basic knowledge areas students must master, such as ranch operations and development, records and finance, animal health management and reproduction, soil and water conservation and marketing.