I’ve had the opportunity to interact with some of the great managers in the livestock industry, and I’ve become convinced of two things – the great managers aren’t defensive about their current methods while others get stuck in a rut. Whether managing large or small operations, they actively seek new ideas and better ways to do things.
Conversely, many managers get stuck in paradigm lockdown and think they are doing the right things exactly as they ought to be done. When that happens, they’re not likely to react to changes in the markets, world economy, climate, technological developments etc., and not much progress is made.
Many years ago as a University of Wyoming graduate student, I and my major professor visited 92 ranches to collect economic information on preconditioning. Much of my life until then had been spent on a family ranch in western Wyoming where we raised registered and commercial Hereford cattle. We raised bulls for use on our commercial cows and for sale.
Though I still think my father, uncle and grandfather were very good ranchers, I also recognize I had a very stereotypical idea of how ranches should be run. Looking back, I’d missed several opportunities to learn because I thought the “new idea” was a waste of my time.
As I was in the process of collecting my thesis data, a county Extension agent directed me to a rancher in northeast Wyoming. He said the rancher had a very good set of ranch records that I might find interesting.
Upon meeting the rancher, I asked for his herd’s average weaning weight. The number given was so much higher than any I’d previously heard of that my initial reaction was that I would have to discard the data set.
As I concluded the interview, I asked if he’d show me some of his blank forms. He said he had no secrets and motioned me to follow him into the ranch office, one wall of which was lined with file cabinets.
He began to show me individual “cow cards” with lifetime production information that had been kept by his wife. He then showed me a summary sheet of the previous year’s calf weaning weights. The bottom line average was exactly the number he had given me in our interview.
I don’t remember another thing about those records. I was so impressed with his weaning weights that I immediately asked what he was doing to get such results. He thoughtfully replied that he didn’t know which did the most good, but he was sure two things were helping.
I quickly asked if I could see his cows, and I was taken to a beautiful set of red cows and calves. Upon asking what breeds he was using and the method of crossing, he said they were using Hereford (their original breed), Red Angus and Shorthorn. This was just as the European breeds were starting to show up in the U.S. He said he’d started using both Red Angus and Shorthorn on his original Hereford cows and was now breeding back to the breed of least influence in the cow on a rotational cross.
My meeting with the rancher occurred on a Friday morning, and I had two more appointments before I would start the long drive to Laramie to spend the weekend with my wife and two young boys. During that drive I had a long talk with myself.
I remembered several missed opportunities in my past for exposure to new ideas and to people who could have become mentors. And I recalled how fixed I’d been in my ideas about straight bred Herefords and not using AI because cows should be bred naturally.
The final outcome of this lengthy bit of introspection was this – you need to be open-minded, willing, and even anxious, to evaluate new ideas. But you must do it without being gullible. There are a lot of people out there who will sell you way more than you should ever buy – both financially and intellectually.
While I wouldn’t be as impressed today as I was then with the big weaning weights, and I would be cautious about when and where I’d use AI, this one day so many years ago was a huge milestone in my life. It made me not only ready to listen, but to actively seek new ideas.
As you become acquainted with new ideas, you will need to do careful analysis. Sometimes, you will need to modify the idea to fit your circumstances. And, once in a while, you’ll hit yourself beside the head and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Certainly, you’ll decide to discard many of the ideas, but in the process, you’ll have learned. That will make future evaluations easier.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.