What if the students and teachers of ranch management and agriculture weren’t just academics and aspiring undergrads but a more expansive network of leaders and learners?
This is the sort of question that inspired leaders in the University of Wyoming (UW) College of Agriculture & Natural Resources to launch the new Ranch Management & Agricultural Leadership (RMAL) program.
A different approach
RMAL is designed to be a “truly integrated program,” developed in response to workforce needs articulated by industry professionals throughout Wyoming, says Kelly Crane, director of the University of Wyoming Extension and interim director of the new program. Through listening sessions held across the state, an integrated, interdisciplinary educational model emerged.
The RMAL program is three-pronged, explains Crane, with for-credit courses and a bachelor’s degree targeted at UW undergraduates, professional development opportunities for current ranch managers and producers, and ultimately, an institute for a select cohort of students interested in pursuing graduate-level work. “It’s about integrating different disciplines as well as formal and nonformal learning and networking opportunities,” he says.
Farm Credit Services of America provided a $1.5 million gift, matched by the state of Wyoming, to kickstart the program. The winter 2022 seminar series combined professional development for industry professionals with a one-credit class for UW students. Each of the five events, held in Sheridan, Casper, Riverton, Laramie and Evanston, were livestreamed for participants unable to attend in person.
Panelists of local ranchers, producers, ag business leaders, agency partners and university researchers engaged in real-time discussions about topics ranging from rangeland management and new technologies to producer advocacy and marketing strategies. The seminar series also included a leadership symposium held in Casper. The program’s focus on leadership and so-called soft skills is unique, RMAL Interim Director Crane explains.
So is its location. “It’s about more than growing cows and making money. Most large ranches in this region balance endangered species, public and private lands intermixing, amenity values, hunting, tourism, and oil and gas development. Our program will teach students how to balance those,” says Crane.
Ella Bishop-Heil, conservation specialist for Pathfinder Ranches and graduate student in rangeland ecology and watershed management at UW, says “taking the RMAL seminar was a no-brainer—the course touched on extremely relevant topics while also showcasing new, emerging ideas in rangeland ecology.”
“The RMAL seminar course not only complemented my professional growth as an ecologist, but also empowered my education as a graduate student. Presentation topics were applicable to what I’m learning in school and what I encounter at work—from cheatgrass treatments to GIS mapping.”
Brent Winters, unit manager at Sheridan Ranch, attended multiple seminars this winter, both in person and virtually. For him, many of the topics that panelists discussed were not new, but “it’s always interesting to hear from people who are successful and have different ideas. Even if you don’t necessarily agree, it makes you look at your operation and see if there’s something you need to change.”
For Winters, the leadership symposium in Casper was a standout. The presentation on vision, and sharing vision, “was a real-life lesson that everybody ought to hear occasionally. It had application to work, family and lots of other things.”
Facilitating discussion in the ag community
Like Winters, rancher Tyler Greer of Hyattville was already familiar with many of the topics presented but welcomed the opportunity to hear other perspectives. He noted that many panelists stressed the importance of working together rather than focusing on differences in management and marketing strategies. The theme of building a more cohesive ag community in the state resonated, he says.
Both of Greer’s daughters work at the meat processing plant in Hyattville. They were particularly excited to attend the seminar in Riverton, which centered on beef production, processing and marketing. “It got them excited about new avenues of generating revenue and how to expand business,” says Greer. “Everybody brought home a different takeaway point.”
That’s exactly what the RMAL program aims to do: foster opportunities for discussion, collaboration and networking between industry professionals, agency partners, students and UW educators.
“I don’t think there’s any other place that has as many innovative and successful ranch managers as the state of Wyoming,” Interim Director Crane comments. “They have as much to teach as they have to learn. Creating venues like the RMAL seminar series, where we can facilitate interaction between practitioners, community members and students, is really important.”
Crane and other members of the RMAL leadership team are currently organizing an advisory committee of external stakeholders and UW representatives to help guide the program’s development. The bachelor’s degree in Ranch Management & Ag Leadership will roll out in the next year or so, integrating existing programs in animal science, rangeland ecology and watershed management, and ag business, he says.
The third component of the program, the RMAL institute, will open up possibilities for more intensive experiential learning, network building and a master’s degree. Informal trainings, like the inaugural seminar series, will continue to expand as well, offering industry professionals the opportunity to earn certifications and micro-credentials in topics relevant to their occupation.