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Breaking some ranching paradigms: Conundrum, indecision or great opportunity?

To ranch better, strive to rise out of “paradigm lockdown.”

I think the biggest problem in our cattle industry today is “paradigm lockdown.” Habit is strong and change requires work (often mental work) and also can be frightening. Paradigm lockdown isn’t a problem of ranchers alone. There are others who contribute to and mold our paradigms.  To think of a few:

Who funds research? Some research is done at places like the USDA Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Neb., the Ft. Keogh Livestock and Range Research Station at Miles City, Mont., and a few other USDA stations where the funding appears to come from USDA and is hopefully completely unbiased. 

There are rumors that funding for some of these stations could be reduced or even eliminated. I hope not. These are the best sources of long-term research which provides best answers to animal systems-type questions.

However, more and more of the research at Land Grant institutions is funded by companies that have something to sell to livestock producers. It is a real stretch to get a skeptic like me to believe there is no bias in the published results, especially after having been involved in a couple of studies which were never published because the results were unfavorable for the products being studied.

So, I have two questions: How much “grant money” research is unpublished because of unfavorable results that might affect the sales of product or the next round of grant money? How can a researcher not be somewhat biased in the structure of the research when he/she is concerned about the continuing flow of grant money? Makes me wonder what happened to the original intent of the “Land Grant” institutions?

How much research money is spent on chemicals—fertilizers, pest control, growth enhancers, etc.?  Can I suggest that perhaps we should spend an equal amount or even more trying to learn how to farm and ranch while reducing or even eliminating the need for these inputs? 

I have seen people become more profitable while greatly reducing or eliminating the use of most of these inputs. This is a great area for exploration, but doesn’t fit the mold of short-term, quick studies in the “publish or perish” world of many research instutions. Agricultural production systems are extremely complex and multi-faceted, requiring years of study through a convergence of scientific disciplines to reach good understanding.

 

Why so much reliance on government money and regulation? Have you considered how regulations and various subsidies or government payments came into being? How much is politically motivated and doesn’t address the real needs or economy of most farmers and ranchers? 

How much incentivizes wrong practices that, in the long run, don’t help or improve ranch owner profitability or quality of life—just enable them to keep hanging on? How much of the subsidy encourages or at least enables practices that are detrimental to the environment? 

How many regulations lock us into a box (paradigm) that stifles future creativity and discovery of better practices? How many farmers are getting better at farming the government than farming their own land? 

Should we not think and learn about how to produce better and healthier livestock on better and healthier soils with less dependence on inputs and government help? Good long-term research not funded by special interests plus quality education would be an acceptable exception.  Again, I have seen that there is a way.

 

What is needed for a change in mindset? I could tell stories about a few people or some events in my life that made a huge difference in the way I look at problems and opportunities in our business.  I would encourage all to be open-minded and look for smart people who can challenge your mindset and way of doing things. 

By so doing, you will find better practices based on sound business and ecological principles. I am thankful to a loving God that has given me physical and mental health and the opportunity to meet many outstanding farmers and ranchers who have helped me see continually better and better ways of doing our farming and ranching work for the improvement of financial, environmental and community well-being.

What about feedlots and other animal confinement operations? While I am not against feedlots, I have great concern about our consumers’ thoughts and ideas. Most of them are from cities. They treat their pets as well as their children. They equate animal feeling and emotion to human comfort, pain and emotion (even though that’s probably not a correct assumption). Too many, too often don’t like what they see in our confined animal operations.

Not long ago I drove past a feedlot with one of the owners. It was a very wet spring and the pens were unavoidably muddy. They were well mounded with good bedding. I thought the animals looked comfortable. However, I suggested to the owner that the picture we were seeing was a “hard sell” to our city friends and consumers. He acknowledged that I was right. 

Much more of the feeding can be done by grazing pasture with a significantly enhanced environmental or ecological effect. Continually more grass finishing is being done on pasture in the U.S.

The people who have become expert in this are finishing animals at between 24-30 months of age with a very high percent grading Choice. They have found that good management of soil health greatly facilitates the grass finishing process.

I am not suggesting that all make the switch to grass finishing. However, I am suggesting that all who farm or ranch begin to manage using principles of regenerative agriculture to improve the quality and health of their soils. 

This will lead to higher quality plants and animal products while improving ecosystem functions and services. I also suggest that we increase the amount of time our cattle spend on pasture and reduce the amount of time they spend in a lot.

What about climate change? Are cows to blame? I have written about this before and will write again. Cattle are an environmental problem when our grazing practices are not based on sound principles of soil health. 

When they are, grazing and our animals can be a great tool for reduction in atmospheric carbon and erosion. Good practices can also enhance water infiltration, soil moisture retention, movement of carbon from atmosphere to soil, water quality, air quality, biodiversity, soil health, and land productivity. Again, I have seen these effects and am seeing them more often.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at burketei@comcast.net. The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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