Though it may be rare in these pages to reflect upon the quotes of Irish playwrights, it is worth our time to recall the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
While Shaw might have offered this statement with a touch of sarcasm, as a society, we’ve transformed these words from a quip to a philosophy and even a mantra. We’ve endeavored to adapt the world to ourselves and, whether in reality or in our minds, we’ve tamed and conquered most every wild place that ever existed on this earth. No problem is beyond our ability to solve, whether by reason, intellect, science, engineering, technology or pharmaceuticals.
Then there is the American cattle producer. Sons of pioneers and mavericks, innovators and risk takers, we more than most confront the environment face to face. We know we can’t change weather and acknowledge there are things that lie completely outside our control.
Yet, in spite of the vivid memories of dust storms and droughts, snow storms and flash floods, we keep trying to force a square peg into a round hole. We keep trying to make the world adapt to us.
There’s little doubt that a nice, even set of fleshy, black steers grazing on uniform green wheat pasture will command a pretty penny more than a colorful string of high-headed Brahman-cross calves darting in and out of a mesquite thicket. And anyone outside the breed can only look with envy at the fantastic marketing accomplishments made by Certified Angus Beef.
We know that even as our national cowherd has experienced significant declines, we’ve produced more beef. We continue to become more efficient, producing more beef per animal to make up for the shortfall in head count. We have, as has been said before, made our herd bigger and blacker.
Therein, lies one of the major problems threatening the very future of the domestic beef industry. You see, not everyone has that uniform, green wheat pasture. Not every rancher can turn his cows out on rolling hills of green grass and the occasional shade tree. Many of us raise beef in the mesquite thickets and the cedar breaks, the piney woods and the desert rocks.
And yet, we find ourselves working very hard to continue in this path of ever-improving genetics in an attempt to finally, somehow, solve the riddle that will make sustainable profits in the cow-calf sector. Though it might take 20 or 40 or 100 acres to run one cow, we have convinced ourselves that, out of that cow, we should produce a nice, pretty, black, 6-weight weaned calf.
To do that we turn out a 1,100-lb. cow that will wear herself out and lose 200 lbs. travelling enough to keep herself up and get to drinking water, or spend her time standing in the vicinity of the most commonly used gate, waiting for the feed truck.
We read the research articles and convince ourselves we can get the same results if we manage our herds at the same level of intensity. We forget, of course, that it’s neither effectively possible nor viable to gather cattle scattered over vast areas of broken and brush-laden terrain every 6-8 weeks so we might weigh and measure, revaccinate, palpate, or perform a host of other items listed in the manual for successful ranching. We forget that types and breeds that perform very well in eastern Oklahoma or southwestern Missouri might not fare so well in Webb County, TX, or southern Arizona.
Cattle prices haven’t kept up with inflation, and the cost of ranching has greatly outpaced gross revenues. Our response to this unsolvable equation has been to create ever more valuable units of production, and it’s here that we fall victim to Shaw’s irony.
In striving to produce a more valuable calf, we purchase more valuable cows that don’t necessarily thrive on marginal land. So, we increase supplemental feeds and minerals. Correspondingly, with this increase in managerial activity, and increase in per-unit value, we also elevate our inputs of pharmaceuticals and preventive health measures.
In short, we try to adapt our little part of the world to our way of thinking. And then we wonder why it costs so much to run a ranch.
Rather than trying to produce some image of the ideal calf that lives in our mind’s eye, we should strive to run cows adapted to our particular environments and that thrive under real-life circumstances. Cows that require minimal supplemental feed, mineral and veterinary care, while maintaining body condition and raising a calf every year, will obviously result in a lower cost of production.
The calves may fail to top the market, but it’s quite possible more revenue could reach the bottom line. We are all, for the most part, simply refining grass into protein.
It’s not hard to imagine that those of us who find a way to produce the most units of protein at the least marginal cost will have the best chance to survive, and maybe even to flourish, as our industry becomes increasingly competitive. A reasonable man just might make progress after all.
CR Jones operates a ranch near Goldwaithe, TX, that includes cow-calf and stocker operations, as well as sheep and goats.