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Innovation and sustainability: The devil is in the definitionInnovation and sustainability: The devil is in the definition

Troy Marshall

June 18, 2015

6 Min Read
Innovation and sustainability: The devil is in the definition

I just returned from a producer convention, and while we spent a whole lot of time talking about how green we are, there were two buzzwords that dominated the conversation in the meeting rooms – innovation and sustainability

Those two words have always given me discomfort. My uneasiness centers around the fact that while I full-heartedly agree with their importance, I don’t know how to define them and struggle with knowing if I have been effective in implementing them.  

When you are young, going to these meetings is almost like reading a good novel, where the words flow over you like some sort of intellectual waterfall. Now, one of the reasons I go to these meetings is to get updated on acronyms. I’ve come to believe that you cannot interact with the government without including at least one or two acronyms in every sentence, such as KPIs, MOUs, CSIPS, and the like. I’ve always heard that if you want to look for a career that pays well, you need to find one that creates its own vocabulary because it shuts out the majority of the competition and keeps the majority of the people in the dark. The doctor doesn’t tell you to take two aspirin and call in the morning, and the lawyer doesn’t tell you that he has no clue, at least not directly.

Bureaucrats have their own language; it sounds so important, so intelligent, and so complicated. It took me a while to interpret government speech, but once you crack the code, this is what they are saying: we had a lot of long meetings, produced something on paper that we will refer to when needed and disregard when applicable, and in the end, while we hope that the various constituencies feel better, we set out to do exactly what we had intended to do from the beginning. 

That’s my problem with innovation and sustainability. Everybody agrees they are great concepts, that we need them, that our success is tied to them. Yet, when we get down to the nitty-gritty of defining them and implementing them, everyone has a different idea. 

I know my operation has to be innovative. Like most entities, we spend the vast majority of our time trying to strengthen our current business model and we use innovation and new technology to incrementally improve the way we do things. I’ve never been so innovative as to totally destroy the business or the way we do business, but I like to think our small management team is not overly tied to tradition and we are always searching for innovative new ways to do things and look at the business.   

Admittedly, we understand that we are not going to invent new DNA technologies, build software or even invent a new platform on which to market our customer’s cattle. To us, innovation mainly is about taking other’s ideas, products, technology and discoveries and apply them to our business in some sort of unique way that creates value and allows us to remain competitive.   


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This, the value of innovation is leveraging technology and other’s ideas to create new and innovative programs for our business. It means constantly scanning the environment for what is happening and looking outside of the fairly narrow window of people and views that we deal with. We hope innovation means constantly asking questions and being open to and able to recognize new opportunities. 

Yet, since we know that we are not likely to develop these disruptive technologies that change the world, we are focused on figuring out how to apply the right ones quickly enough to give us an advantage. I suppose the reason I don’t feel comfortable with the word “innovation” is those who are supposedly experts aren’t able to provide me any hard answers to my questions. How much time should I spend on improving the performance of our current business models versus working on creating one that destroys it? And since innovation for us is going to come primarily from external sources, how do I get my customers, suppliers and partners involved in helping us innovate. 

Defining sustainability on my ranch

Sustainability is a similar word to me. I’ve never met anyone who would admit to being against sustainability or innovation. The number-one shared belief and tenant of agriculture is taking care of the land and the animals. Anyone who doesn’t leave the assets better for the next generation is deemed a failure in agriculture; a pariah. 

Truthfully, I’ve met very few who failed in this regard. It is the only business I know that being environmentally sustainable almost always takes precedence over being economically sustainable. The key, though, is the latter. The ranch doesn’t get passed to the next generation, and improvements to our environment and our world don’t happen without economic sustainability.

The great irony is that there seems to be this widespread belief among those who advocate for sustainability that it means returning to days of less technology and less sustainable practices. This is a very short-sighted philosophy. We will not feed the projected 9 billion people unless we embrace technology and innovative new production models. I certainly understand the lure; change is frightening. Success today indicates you were successful in implementing the “old” rules, so there is always a push to maintain the status quo or even revert back to the “good old days” because you have already proven you can succeed.

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The problem is that sustainability has become the mantra for those who embrace the reductionist approach to life. To me, however, sustainability is like the concept of evolution; it is fueled by change, improvement and the occasional failure along the way. 

Will the old rules and the old models work in the future? I am 100% in favor of both sustainability and innovation. If you want a better understanding of what that actually means, check back in with me, because it is a fluid situation. Here’s hoping you have an innovative and sustainable day, however you define it.


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