Beyond the N-Bar: An Interview with Tom Elliott

By: Tami Arvik Blake (2015 updated by Saige Albert)

Tom Elliott was a small boy in New Mexico when he discovered a passion for agriculture... by way of the garden vegetables that earned him ribbons at the county fair. Summers spent working with the haying crew on his grandfather's Grass Range, Montana ranch only furthered his interest.

He went on to earn a master's degree in business administration, and before he was thirty years old, he was general manager of his family's ranch, the N-Bar. In his time at the N-Bar, Elliott developed not only some of the most influential genetics in the beef industry, but also over twenty years' worth of thoughtful philosophies on cattle and life that reflect his experience and independent way of thinking.

In the late 1990s, Elliott and his family made the decision to sell the historic N-Bar. Since he left the ranch, the man who believes that education is vitally important has been reminded of a simple lesson: When one door closes, many other open. He says he's hiked the desert, climbed small mountains, and kayaked the sea since his reign at the N-Bar ended. Today, he owns a ranch near Montana's Snowy Mountains and raises Angus and Australian Lowline cattle. Not only does he serve as the program advisor for Sinclair Cattle Co., he's on the board of directors for the famous Padlock Ranch in Montana and Wyoming. ("Believe me," he says of his position, "there's nothing that surprises a seedstock producer more than the realities of the commercial cattle business.").

And, as though his schedule wasn't already demanding, Elliott recently graduated from an energy healing school. (He says he helps people tap into their inherent ability to heal emotionally and physically while creating a healthier lifestyle.) He also continues his study of complexity science and quantum physics, and last year he published a short story. Now 53 years old, Elliott doesn't consider himself to be writing the end of his book; instead, he's starting a new chapter.

Below, Elliott answers questions about the N-Bar, the beef industry and his work with Sinclair Cattle Co.

Tami Blake: Discuss your time as owner/operator of the N-Bar.

Tom Elliott: After graduating from college and serving in the military, I spent a couple years on the ranch in junior management under Jim Carrig, who was a great mentor. When Jim left the ranch, my Dad offered me the general manager position.

I spent 22 years as general manager. The first years were focused on moving the ranch in the direction of intense industrial agriculture. Ours was the typical story of agriculture in the 1960s and 70s - one of replacing men with machines, accelerated pace, and focus on production at all costs.

During this time we were, by most measures, a successful conventional operation, doing things according to accepted university and industry practices, but something was wrong.

We were on the leading edge of "progress," but our quality of life was a nightmare. Production was forced by a constant influx of costly and environmentally disastrous fertilizers and herbicides. The cattle were viewed as factories to be managed for maximum production. And our crops were defined narrowly by the agribusiness markets.

In 1984, I had an epiphany moment. I came to three broad realizations. The first was that people, animals, and plants are deeply interconnected. When we look at the world this way, we find that our individual choices take on enormous significance.

The second realization was that agriculture is an art and an understanding that derives from time and experience with a particular piece of ground. Because the land reveals itself slowly, the most successful agriculture is multi-generational.

The third realization was that my old model of thinking and problem solving no longer suited my needs! I needed to step out of the box, to move toward a more open learning system, in which relationship was more important than power structure.

This awareness caused me to profoundly alter my relationships with the land, myself, and my community. During the later years, the N-Bar became an early exercise in what sustainable ranching might become.

TB: What advice do you have for producers who are just starting out and making decisions that will affect the future?

TE: I was fortunate to grow up on an existing operation surrounded by good mentors. I always encourage young producers to seek out the best ranchers or farmers and learn everything they can from them. Then take the time to develop your own unique vision for you operations and make decisions as if it were already true. The power of your resolve fully aligned with a clear vision will carry you a long way toward the reality.

Remember, cows were made to walk and grass was made to stand still. Focus on low-cost ways to harvest solar energy with your ruminants. There's no other source for new wealth.

Focus on your communication skills - with yourself, your family, and others involved in your ranch. Communication, including active listening, will keep tension to a minimum and foster creativity. Trust your instincts, and delegate trust to family members and employees. Remember that you can't do it all.

TB: How important is it for producers to have an education and keep up with industry trends?

TE: I think education is vital, not so much for what's learned, but for learning how to learn. I've always said about ranching, "I love the solitude, but I hate the isolation." Good education teaches you how to follow your curiosity and passion. This leads to balance I your life, successful relationships, and "out of the box" thinking. Continuous learning is a surefire antidote to the potential isolation of ranching.

While I don't recommend ignoring industry trends, you have to think for yourself. Trends can get people in trouble - sometimes you have to look beyond the trend. For instance, I've studied the stock market for years - it's not so different form the cattle market - but when the trend is to buy, you'd better be thinking about selling.

Most people in the seedstock business buy when everyone else is buying. Consequently, when increased weaning weight is the trend, everyone breeds for weaning weight, to the exclusion of most other traits. The same is true of any trait identified as the most important of the moment. Today, carcass traits are the trend. It's human nature that we overshoot the target, continuously swinging the pendulum beyond optimal to the extreme.

TB: Discuss your relationship with Sinclair Cattle Co. and why you made the decision to work again in the seedstock business.

TE: When Sinclair acquired my semen and embryo inventory, as well as some top-breeding cows, I was struck by their understanding of genetics. I realized we have a very consistent philosophy of cattle breeding, as well as a close alignment of values. Now Sinclair is deeply committed to the breeding philosophy that created the powerful N-Bar bloodlines. If anything, they've improved on my thinking and taken it to a new level.

After Sinclair ground-truthed the N-Bar genetics, I was invited to be more involved. As program advisor, I confer on breeding and marketing matters. I'm not employed by Sinclair nor do I have any financial investment in the cattle. I just have enormous respect for the effort put toward breeding the remarkable Angus cattle at Sinclair.

In the seedstock industry, most breeders are replicators - they take good genetics and reproduce those on a large scale for commercial users. They serve a very important role; however, they seldom move the industry to a new place. A very small number of breeders are innovators, proactive in creating new bloodlines of significance. Sinclair is one of those breeders.

Working with Sinclair Cattle is a labor of love for me - I really enjoy the involvement with people and cattle as we work to create something unique in the Angus breed. Furthermore, I feel like these folks are equally committed to building lasting relationships with ranchers using those cattle.

TB: How would you advise the average producer to balance reproduction, growth, and carcass traits in his herd?

TE: I'm a firm believer in the overriding importance of reproductive traits, which are the foundation of a good cow/calf herd. They are difficult to change genetically, so it's critical to begin with genetics that are proven to be reproductively sound. Growth and carcass traits tend to be easier to influence, so my advice is to focus first on reproductive and maternal traits.

Survivability and longevity are also emerging in this importance. As we struggle to suppress more disease among cattle using vaccines and antibiotics, we compromise the survivability of our cattle. This creates a drain on producer margins and ultimately compromises the immune systems of our cattle.

Growth is important to a point, but every rancher needs to determine and optimize weaning or yearling weight for his environment. Growth is obtained at a cost, and I suspect many ranchers would be surprised at what those bragging rights at weaning time are costing them.

Finally, optimal carcass traits are an important part of the package, but this has to be balanced with functional production and performance. Furthermore, the commercial producer needs to make choices regarding his target carcass market: Is he targeting the high-yield, low-grade market, or the white tablecloth direct market? These markets are going to become more differentiated over time, and our commercial industry has to be responsive to these distinctions. It's no longer "one size fits all." The individual producer needs to have a comprehensive and uniform picture of the genetics within his herd so he came make informed decisions regarding target markets.

While Sinclair Cattle bloodlines are among the highest in the nation for many carcass quality traits, they have focused first on the cow as a functional part of her environment. Ranchers visiting this herd are blown away by the quality and consistency they see in the feet and udders. I can't think of another herd that demonstrates the multi-generational depth of low birth weight and short gestation.

TB: How does one build a genetically superior herd while keeping costs down?

TE: The single most important expense on most operation in the Rocky Mountain West is feed, and a close second is labor. Both of these factors can be dramatically reduced through shifts in breeding/calving seasons, and by using moderate-sized Angus cows with genetic emphasis on female traits and fleshing ability.