ranching takes art and science

Is Ranching An Art Or A Science? Or Both?

When I am engaged in managerial thought and decision-making, I often wonder if it is art or science? And is it good science or bad science or, perhaps good science poorly applied? Or, is it good art or bad art, or an attempt at good art that is poorly done?

I’ve been criticized for being anti-science, but I’m not anti-science. I’m very pro science. Whatever understanding of biological systems I have been able to achieve has come because of science. However, my approach is probably a little different that many agricultural managers.

I believe we should use science to understand nature and then work within the context of natural systems. Nature will always place limitations – some of which we have learned how to challenge, but nature will always fight back or take something from us in exchange for what we want.

Anticipating the tradeoffs

Good, broadly based science should help us anticipate some of these tradeoffs. I sometimes use the tendency to select for more weaning weight and higher milk production in our cattle as an example. I know we pay a price in reduced stocking rates and in feed supplementation, and I’m quite sure we also pay a price in reproduction and herd health. It will take some artistry to recognize when we have done enough or perhaps gone too far.

In some cases, it seems as if we are at war with nature. Good soil scientists know what makes a good soil, and many producers are learning and implementing farming and grazing techniques that can improve the soil by putting more carbon (organic matter) into the soil. This ultimately results in more life in the soil – setting up a symbiotic relationship between plants and soil micro-organisms whereby they feed each other.

But we are so anxious to kill everything that might endanger the current yield that we undo almost as fast as we do. It’s estimated that, for every insect pest, there are several hundred beneficial insects. Do our pesticides only kill the bad guys? No! So, what have we done to soil-building and natural defense mechanisms when our first tendency is to kill the bad guys?

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It’s a real art to know what the soil needs right now to build for the future, and to recognize when the short-term good of a pesticide can be offset by letting or helping nature achieve a protective balance. We worm cattle, and the cattle no longer need to develop their own resistance to worms; nor will they be culled for lack of resistance.

In the meantime, the worms develop resistance to the wormers. I won’t say, “Never use a wormer;” but I will say “Be careful to know when and if you should.” Remember, you aren’t just killing undesirable pests. You’re killing countless thousands of small organisms that could be doing good things for long-term soil, livestock and ecosystem health in every dimension. 

We should remember that scientific experimentation and well-run trials only show tendencies. Usually, only one output result is measured as the result of using or changing the level of one input. The researcher tries to hold everything else constant from one replication to another except the location and the weather. Even then, the conditions are not the same as on your ranch, and there are more effects than the one measured.

Have you ever watched a scientist present his findings to a group of cattlemen where the data shows a positive difference between the treatment and control groups? As he shows the comparison, he may say there is no difference. Well there was a difference; he just meant it isn’t statistically significant at the .05 or .01 level.

If the difference is statistically significant, it means that it is almost certain there will be a positive difference in other situations (like your ranch). However, it may be a smaller or larger difference than observed in the research trial.

Observation is important

Your observation (monitoring and measuring) will be your servant in long-term adjustments to practices suggested by research. You will not only observe the intended primary response, but any other results (good or bad) of adopting or modifying the practice.

Thus, I maintain that research only suggests tendencies and rarely measures effects beyond the primary or intended effect. It’s very gratifying to see more systems research now being done that takes a number of years and several replications to come to good conclusions.

For instance, some of the work on protein supplementation for cows grazing in the winter (which started at the University of Nebraska a number of years ago and continues) shows a number of desirable effects for the protein supplementation. The thing that many overlook is that it requires very little supplement to get many of the desired results, and all of the results are probably not known yet. In addition, the exact amount of supplementation is not known, either, and will vary by location and cow condition.

The science teaches us about nature – the soil, the animals, the other creatures above and below the soil surface, and the interconnectedness of the whole biological system. I believe it takes an artist to see how all our scientific learning can come together to provide quality of life, profitable businesses and a sustainable land base that is rich in soil, crops, pasture, domestic livestock, wildlife, and insects. I’ve seen too many ranchers and researchers try to manage by recipe to heal abused land or to make good land better. It doesn’t work, and then they blame the “method,” the “approach,” or the person who suggested it.

In actuality, it is they who don’t work. It’s an art to know what, how, when and how much when managing a biological system for long-term productivity and sustainability.

Those managers who nicely blend art and science are constantly adjusting to fit climatic conditions and their previous unintended, best-effort mistakes. Management of biological systems buffeted by climate is like low-stress livestock handling. We constantly make mistakes. The art comes in keeping the mistakes small, recognizing them quickly and taking immediate corrective action.

It’s an art to see how nature builds her own defense mechanisms to keep a natural system balanced, productive and viable. And it’s an art to enhance that, rather than diminish, and use it to our advantage.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

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