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What to use, what to lose

Back in 1960, when Paul Genho, vice president and general manager of King Ranch, Inc., was a college undergraduate in animal science, a visiting expert lecturer spent three sessions talking about genetics, using a single breed as the example. At the end of the third session, Genho asked why the discussion was limited to that one breed.

“Son,” said the expert, “as long as Hereford cattle represent 70-80% of all of the cattle registered in this country, we won't waste our time talking about those other insignificant breeds.”

The point is that human nature being what it is, shortsightedness and impulse based on today's hot fad or tomorrow's projected next big thing can breed a myopic arrogance that increases the odds of making some downright horrendous decisions. In the case cited above, the guest lecturer was just as wrong about the future fortunes of a particular beef breed as folks today may be for questioning Hereford's place in the industry tomorrow.

“Somehow, ranchers have to have the ability to identify innovations they should use and those they should leave alone,” Genho emphasized at the recent King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management Symposium.

A litmus for change

Predicting how new innovations fit individual operations and the industry overall, relative to current and emerging macro-trends, is neither easy nor infallible. But, Genho's developed an approach that's served him well for more than four decades.

“As a young man, I concluded I needed to know as much about the industry as I possibly could,” he says. That means Genho never quit learning. He reads and networks constantly to stay abreast of industry thought and possibility.

And, early in his career, Genho created a litmus test he still uses to decide whether or not a new innovation — be it a practice, product or service — is worth considering.

For any new innovation being considered Genho wants to know:

  • Is it scientifically sound?
  • Is it financially viable?
  • Is it workable in my operation?
  • Does it fit into a system?

For instance, back when mineral buffets were supposed to be the next frontier of animal nutrition, Genho never bought into it because the notion cattle would select only the minerals they needed wasn't scientifically proven. He was right.

Choosing a grazing system

Similarly, while the high intensity, low frequency Savory Grazing System meets the needs of some producers Genho found it wouldn't work for the ranches he managed. The principles are sound, he says, but the system isn't financially viable in the sprawling country he's managed due to all the fencing that would be needed, the lay of the land and the availability of water.

And, since wildlife represents a financial enterprise at King Ranch, the program does not fit its overall system as wildlife move to other grazing cells rather than staying put. It didn't make for sustainable wildlife habitat.

Instead, Genho identified the Merrill Grazing System as one that would allow him to cost-effectively increase cattle and range performance. It's basically a rotation of three grazing groups between four large pastures, with each pasture being grazed for 12 months and rested four months.

This system of resting all pastures works at King Ranch because it can be accomplished with the existing infrastructure, making it financially viable. And, since it didn't negatively impact wildlife habitat, it fit their system overall.

Avoid big mistakes

Conversely, while scientifically sound, Genho has only used embryo transfer technology on a limited basis because it's not affordable or workable on the ranches he's managed. But, he has embraced both genomics as a tool for selecting carcass traits and Geographic Information Systems for benchmarking and managing the range. In each case, the principles are scientifically sound, he can apply them cost effectively, they work in his operation and fit his system overall.

“I don't need to make any big mistakes, but I can afford to make a few small ones,” Genho says. So, even when an innovation seems to meet all his criteria for application, he explains that he implements on a small scale to validate his decision.

The need for evaluating and selecting innovations of merit will likely grow even more important in the future. As Genho says, “We can anticipate that the rate of change we have seen will continue in the world and in the industry.”