Any business worth millions of dollars deserves a manager educated in all aspects of business. That’s the thinking behind the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The master’s degree program, created in 2004, is designed to train students in all areas of ranch management.

Industry experts, including Paul Gehno, former vice president and general manager of King Ranch, provided the impetus. “They saw a group of young people going out to be ranch managers, trained as animal scientists or wildlife biologists or range scientists,” says Barry Dunn, the institute’s executive director. “While they might be good in their subject, they may not know about other topics that ranch managers need to understand. The discipline approach to education was fine for some things, but it wasn’t working for ranch management.”

The idea to fill that void had inspired a plan for an institute and a fundraising plan when Dunn came on board in 2004, having served as a range livestock production specialist with South Dakota State University Extension. Dunn translated that into the nuts and bolts of an actual program: designing a curriculum, establishing a degree program, figuring out organizational structure, creating a financial reporting system for the institute’s management council and recruiting students.

Developing the master’s degree was the first part of the mission, which took several years. When he considered what the curriculum would look like, Dunn knew that it couldn’t be a simple discipline approach or even a multidiscipline approach.  He needed, he says, a systems approach: A curriculum designed to train people in all the usual disciplines, but one that would also teach them to pull a skill set together to manage in systems, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. “There are things about complex systems that are applicable to ranching,” Dunn says. “With genetics, there is a huge lag between a decision and the results. Ecosystems don’t change overnight.  In many things, it takes awhile to reap the benefits, and there could be some consequences you didn’t think of.”

There are tools available to take those complexities into account, and Dunn brought some with him to his new role. There is a body of work called system dynamics, which originated at MIT, where Dunn learned about it at a short course years ago, and was introduced in books such as The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge. Though it hasn’t been applied to agriculture much, it’s found in many other areas, such as government entities and corporations like General Motors. Now, at the institute, system dynamics is both a guiding philosophy and a course subject.

The institute accepts three to four students a year who have bachelor’s degrees in business or agriculture (with a 3.0 GPA or higher) and real-world experience in ranching; they range in age from their late 20s to early 40s. All their graduates have left with jobs at much higher pay than they received before and better opportunities for advancement.

The second part of the institute’s mission was to create an outreach component. “We’re not trying to provide educational opportunities in competition with Extension; this is a different forum and different topics, meant to enhance management skills,” Dunn says. The topics are business oriented; in October, they will cover transferring wealth and management to the next generation. (Find their schedule at Outreach comes in a series of short courses and a yearly symposium, which can be combined into a certificate program for ranch managers and others who could find value in some of its topics  —  maybe NRCS employees or financial lenders. There isn’t a distance-learning option yet, but Dunn sees that being part of the future.

In all, the goal is to show that ranch management is a real profession. “We think it deserves to be,” Dunn says. “Almost any ranch has millions of dollars in assets. If it were a business somewhere else, with all those assets, it would take big-time skills to manage it. But a ranch requires even more because there are so many things going on.”

 Dunn hopes the institute’s efforts will translate to invigorated leadership and pride in the industry. “We in the industry have been guilty of running the best and brightest out of agriculture, saying there wasn’t any opportunity, thinking our kids could do better somewhere else. This is an effort to turn that around. We want to show you can enjoy the benefits of the lifestyle and make a good living, too.”