Back at the ranch, getting the key to the executive corral these days is all about education.

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In 2003, the King Ranch in South Texas was prepping for a big celebration. For 150 years, since 1853, the 830,000-acre ranch had been owned and operated by the same family, certainly a remarkable feat for any enterprise. But that family didn’t want to just throw themselves a big self-congratulatory party; instead, they preferred to do something for their longtime industry, which they believed was at a crossroads. “We saw in the state of the industry that there had been a talent flight, and so it was harder and harder to find that experienced rancher to manage the blocks of land,” says Jamey Clement, whose family still owns King Ranch, which is among the largest spreads in the United States.

Hoping to play a role in finding and training people to successfully operate ranches, King Ranch partnered with Texas A&M–Kingsville to found the Institute for Ranch Management, which offers budding cowboys the opportunity to earn a master’s degree. Now, you may wonder why in the world anybody would need a master’s degree -- complete with such a rigorous course load in finance, marketing, and accounting, as well as in wildlife and range management, that it has been dubbed the Cowboy MBA -- in order to run a ranch. But that perception probably says more about a country that is increasingly divorced from the land and resources that sustain it than it does about the demands that come with, well, being a cowboy.

“It’s not just ‘round ’em up once a year and go on a cattle drive,’ like the old John Wayne movies portrayed,” says Barry Dunn, the school’s dean, who is a rancher and has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “It’s much more sophisticated than all that.”

Indeed, managing a ranch these days is a stunningly complex proposition. Of course, there’s livestock to care for, and as ranches are first and foremost businesses, figuring out ways to maximize the profit ranchers can earn from their herds is essential. These days, that’s far from guesswork. “One of the big things in the industry is genetics and how to select the best animals to breed to, whether it’s a bull or a heifer,” says Dave DeLaney, the manager of King Ranch. “One project students are doing right now is to develop a model to predict the best economic outcome for the ranch by assigning economic values for certain [animal] traits, and using that information in breeding decisions.”

That’s just the beginning. Ranchers also have to be expert enough in range science to figure out how many cattle should graze on their grasslands; letting too many chow down for too long in one area not only can do serious damage to the land’s future feeding potential but, in a more modern twist, can also damage the land’s possible financial attractiveness as a tool to fight global warming. As it turns out, grasslands are able to sequester a good deal of carbon underground, rather than let it get into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change. “There’s a trial carbon exchange going in Chicago,” says Dunn. “As that becomes more sophisticated, grasslands will be looked upon with renewed interest as a solution, and ranchers will be able to take advantage of that financially.”

The number of questions to answer and decisions to make just goes on and on -- and about everything from animal identification (so that a steak that enters the food system can be traced back to its source) to taking advantage of increasing opportunities in tourism and recreation to the always present vagaries presented by Mother Nature, like drought and flooding and deep freezes. It’s enough to make other businesses sound remarkably straightforward. “If you are a shoe manufacturer, you might have to worry about the cost of leather,” says DeLaney. “But you probably don’t have to worry about death loss or catastrophic disease or foot-and-mouth disease.”

SO THAT STUDENTS will know how to navigate the often nettlesome and frequently contradictory forces at work on a ranch, the institute teaches them to take a systems approach to problems, a process made famous by MIT professor Peter Senge through his influential book The Fifth Discipline. The philosophy of that method -- which emphasizes understanding and accounting for interrelationships in a complex system, like a ranch -- pervades all three semesters of coursework students take while at the Institute for Ranch Management, and then they’re expected to utilize the approach when they spend a fourth semester doing an internship on a ranch.

Matt Etheredge, a recent graduate of the institute who now works for a ranching family in Fort Worth, Texas, says adopting a systems approach has dramatically altered his entire perspective on problem solving. “It’s taking things like finance, accounting, and range, wildlife, and livestock management and evaluating them from a 30,000- foot level, watching the relationships they have between one another,” he says. “By manipulation of management in one area, you can totally change for the better, or to the detriment of, another area of the ranch.”

As an example, Etheredge points to the importance of balancing the needs of cattle and recreation, mostly hunting, which has become an important revenue source for many ranchers. “In South Texas, hunting is really popular and can be very profitable,” he says. “But if you’re managing just for your livestock and remove all the brush or a very high percentage of the brush, that takes away that wildlife cover for deer, so your deer population will decline and your wildlife population will hurt.”

It would be one thing if the so-called Cowboy MBA program were just teaching students how to more effectively manage and improve the profitability of large ranches. But the reality is that huge chunks of land in the United States are in private hands and how they’re managed has profound ramifications for the rest of society. One good example is with regard to water. Dunn points to how Wichita, Kansas, has partnered with ranchers to ensure that the city gets a reliable supply of clean water. “The city recognizes where its water comes from, which is ultimately the runoff from the land, so if we do a better job of land management, then we’ll enhance our yield of clean, fresh water,” he says. “[We hope] that is a model for a lot of good stewardship.”

Large, well-managed tracts of land also are vital when it comes to maintaining healthy ecosystems, particularly since many animals need ample habitat space, something that becomes far less likely if, as is happening more often today, large ranches get broken up -- which ranchers call fragmentation -- for things like housing development. The fact that the important role private landowners play in environmental protection is often overlooked can be a source of frustration for ranchers. “In this whole greening of the environment, these large blocks of land get zero credit. In fact, many would tell you we add to the problem because we have cattle,” says Clement, who sits on the board of the institute. “At King Ranch, we get no credit for our more than 800,000 acres of trees and grass.”

Still, Dunn hopes that training these future land managers to run profitable, sustainable operations will help prevent fragmentation and other problems. “If you can get good managers on big landscapes, you can make a big difference,” he says. “Our program is really thoughtfully developed as a key leverage point for change.”

But as much as the school is devoted to training twenty-first-century cowboys, it’s also very much committed to preserving the ranching lifestyle and culture that has been around since King Ranch began. Ranching is a career Les Nunn, who is finishing his thesis at the institute, had thought he might not ever be able to pursue, even though it is his passion and in his blood. In the 1960s, Nunn’s grandfather moved from Montana to British Columbia in a search for cheap land; he established a ranch, and Nunn worked on it in his youth. “He bought a bunch of Scotch Highland cattle and bred them with yak bulls,” recalls Nunn. “He was trying to find a beef cattle that would survive in a northern climate.”

Growing up in a ranching environment convinced Nunn that a life spent around wildlife, cattle, and on seemingly endless expanses of land was exactly what he wanted. Problem was, after he got his undergraduate degree, Nunn couldn’t land a job in ranching and instead spent three years managing recreation sites owned by a utility company on the Snake River. Now, with a master’s degree within his grasp, he’s excited to pursue the career he had begun to think wouldn’t materialize for him. Nunn says, “It was the opportunity that I was looking for to get back into ranching.”